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  • richardmitnick 3:24 pm on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Uncovering Genome Mysteries at WCG: “Seven quadrillion comparisons later, Uncovering Genome Mysteries is just getting started” 

    New WCG Logo

    Uncovering Genome Mysteries Screensaver

    By: Wim Degrave, Ph.D.
    Laboratório de Genômica Funcional e Bioinformática Instituto Oswaldo Cruz – Fiocruz
    26 Feb 2015

    Summary
    The Uncovering Genome Mysteries research team has started analyzing results from their massive ongoing project, which is comparing proteins between diverse organisms from around the world. Better understanding of similarities between proteomes should help scientists develop sustainable technologies, renewable materials, productive crops, and new treatments for stubborn diseases.

    1
    Uncovering Genome Mysteries researchers, left-to-right: Wim Degrave – Senior Researcher, Marcos Catanho – Adjunct Researcher and Ana Carolina Guimarães – Adjunct Researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation

    The Uncovering Genome Mysteries (UGM) project started running on World Community Grid on October 16, 2014, with the daunting task of comparing all currently predicted protein sequences encoded in the genomes of a wide variety of living organisms, with special emphasis on microorganisms. The project expects to examine more than 200 million proteins, the majority of which were generated in environmental and ecological studies ranging from bacteria in marine ecosystems in Australia, to Amazon River samples from Brazil. Similarity data from these comparisons will lead to a better understanding of metabolic and structural functions of the predicted proteins in databases, and uncover many new features and cellular processes in microorganisms. Of the expected 20 quadrillion (20,000,000,000,000,000) comparisons in the project, about 36% have been completed thus far, equivalent to almost 8,000 CPU-years of computation.

    This project involves cooperation between World Community Grid; the laboratory of Dr. Torsten Thomas and his team in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences & Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; and the laboratory for Functional Genomics and Bioinformatics of Dr. Wim Degrave and his team at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation – Fiocruz, in Brazil.

    Volunteers participating in the UGM project process work units that contain sets of protein sequences predicted from a variety of organisms, and compare those against each other. Every time a significant similarity between two sequences is detected, a line of output is written that contains the coordinates and information on the statistical significance of the similarity. All of the output data together allow us to trace functional predictions of unknown sequences when they are similar to sequences with known functions, and indicate how organisms and their biochemistry, metabolic functions, and other cellular processes relate to one another.

    The data resulting from those calculations are starting to be processed at Fiocruz and the University of New South Wales, and will later be presented in a database that will allow researchers to study the relationships between the proteins of all living things, to help develop a much better understanding of organisms in their (biodiverse) environment. Many applications in health, environment, and agriculture can be attributed to making use of such data. For example, they enabled the development of new strategies to fight pathogens that threaten human and animal health, and development of diagnostics, treatments, and preventions through appropriate design of vaccines. But there are many other applications to be discovered, in agriculture, industry or the environment, through the study of the wide variety of proteins and enzymes. For example, these might function as insecticides, antibiotics or enzymes that can degrade and eliminate waste or industrial pollutants such as oil or organic chemicals. Enzymes can aid in the synthesis and production of “green chemicals” and biotransformation systems, but also in the production of renewable energy such as bio-alcohols, or in more sophisticated systems through synthetic biology, where the engineering of microorganisms can optimize the production of biopharmaceuticals, green plastics and biofuels. A thorough knowledge of biochemical pathways and their regulation is necessary and is being addressed in part through projects like UGM, where the wide variety of enzymatic and biological functions in nature will become more available to the scientific community.

    We deeply thank the World Community Grid volunteers who are contributing to this massive effort.

    See the full article here.

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    World Community Grid (WCG) brings people together from across the globe to create the largest non-profit computing grid benefiting humanity. It does this by pooling surplus computer processing power. We believe that innovation combined with visionary scientific research and large-scale volunteerism can help make the planet smarter. Our success depends on like-minded individuals – like you.”

    WCG projects run on BOINC software from UC Berkeley.

    BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing.

    CAN ONE PERSON MAKE A DIFFERENCE? YOU BETCHA!!

    “Download and install secure, free software that captures your computer’s spare power when it is on, but idle. You will then be a World Community Grid volunteer. It’s that simple!” You can download the software at either WCG or BOINC.

    Please visit the project pages-
    Outsmart Ebola together

    Outsmart Ebola Together

    Mapping Cancer Markers
    mappingcancermarkers2

    Uncovering Genome Mysteries
    Uncovering Genome Mysteries

    Say No to Schistosoma

    GO Fight Against Malaria

    Drug Search for Leishmaniasis

    Computing for Clean Water

    The Clean Energy Project

    Discovering Dengue Drugs – Together

    Help Cure Muscular Dystrophy

    Help Fight Childhood Cancer

    Help Conquer Cancer

    Human Proteome Folding

    FightAIDS@Home

    World Community Grid is a social initiative of IBM Corporation
    IBM Corporation
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    IBM – Smarter Planet
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  • richardmitnick 3:03 pm on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From UCLA: “UCLA physicists offer a solution to the puzzle of the origin of matter in the universe” 

    UCLA bloc

    UCLA

    February 24, 2015
    Stuart Wolpert

    1
    Alexander Kusenko

    Most of the laws of nature treat particles and antiparticles equally, but stars and planets are made of particles, or matter, and not antiparticles, or antimatter. That asymmetry, which favors matter to a very small degree, has puzzled scientists for many years.

    New research by UCLA physicists, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, offers a possible solution to the mystery of the origin of matter in the universe.

    Alexander Kusenko, a professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College, and colleagues propose that the matter-antimatter asymmetry could be related to the Higgs boson particle, which was the subject of prominent news coverage when it was discovered at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider in 2012.

    CERN LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    LHC at CERN

    Specifically, the UCLA researchers write, the asymmetry may have been produced as a result of the motion of the Higgs field, which is associated with the Higgs boson, and which could have made the masses of particles and antiparticles in the universe temporarily unequal, allowing for a small excess of matter particles over antiparticles.

    If a particle and an antiparticle meet, they disappear by emitting two photons or a pair of some other particles. In the “primordial soup” that existed after the Big Bang, there were almost equal amounts of particles of antiparticles, except for a tiny asymmetry: one particle per 10 billion. As the universe cooled, the particles and antiparticles annihilated each other in equal numbers, and only a tiny number of particles remained; this tiny amount is all the stars and planets, and gas in today’s universe, said Kusenko, who is also a senior scientist with the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe.

    The research also is highlighted by Physical Review Letters in a commentary in the current issue.

    The 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle was hailed as one of the great scientific accomplishments of recent decades. The Higgs boson was first postulated some 50 years ago as a crucial element of the modern theory of the forces of nature, and is, physicists say, what gives everything in the universe mass. Physicists at the LHC measured the particle’s mass and found its value to be peculiar; it is consistent with the possibility that the Higgs field in the first moments of the Big Bang was much larger than its “equilibrium value” observed today.

    The Higgs field “had to descend to the equilibrium, in a process of ‘Higgs relaxation,’” said Kusenko, the lead author of the UCLA research.

    Two of Kusenko’s graduate students, Louis Yang of UCLA and Lauren Pearce of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, were co-authors of the study. The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DE-SC0009937), the World Premier International Research Center Initiative in Japan and the National Science Foundation (PHYS-1066293).

    See the full article here.

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    UC LA Campus

    For nearly 100 years, UCLA has been a pioneer, persevering through impossibility, turning the futile into the attainable.

    We doubt the critics, reject the status quo and see opportunity in dissatisfaction. Our campus, faculty and students are driven by optimism. It is not naïve; it is essential. And it has fueled every accomplishment, allowing us to redefine what’s possible, time after time.

    This can-do perspective has brought us 12 Nobel Prizes, 12 Rhodes Scholarships, more NCAA titles than any university and more Olympic medals than most nations. Our faculty and alumni helped create the Internet and pioneered reverse osmosis. And more than 100 companies have been created based on technology developed at UCLA.

     
  • richardmitnick 2:41 pm on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From livescience: “Big Bang, Deflated? Universe May Have Had No Beginning” 

    Livescience

    February 26, 2015
    Tia Ghose

    temp0

    If a new theory turns out to be true, the universe may not have started with a bang. In the new formulation, the universe was never a singularity, or an infinitely small and infinitely dense point of matter. In fact, the universe may have no beginning at all. “Our theory suggests that the age of the universe could be infinite,” said study co-author Saurya Das, a theoretical physicist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. The new concept could also explain what dark matter — the mysterious, invisible substance that makes up most of the universe — is actually made of, Das added.

    Big Bang under fire

    According to the Big Bang theory, the universe was born about 13.8 billion years ago. All the matter that exists today was once squished into an infinitely dense, infinitely tiny, ultra-hot point called a singularity. This tiny fireball then exploded and gave rise to the early universe. The singularity comes out of the math of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which describes how mass warps space-time, and another equation (called Raychaudhuri’s equation) that predicts whether the trajectory of something will converge or diverge over time. Going backward in time, according to these equations, all matter in the universe was once in a single point — the Big Bang singularity.

    But that’s not quite true. In Einstein’s formulation, the laws of physics actually break before the singularity is reached. But scientists extrapolate backward as if the physics equations still hold, said Robert Brandenberger, a theoretical cosmologist at McGill University in Montreal, who was not involved in the study. “So when we say that the universe begins with a big bang, we really have no right to say that,” Brandenberger told Live Science. There are other problems brewing in physics — namely, that the two most dominant theories, quantum mechanics and general relativity, can’t be reconciled. Quantum mechanics says that the behavior of tiny subatomic particles is fundamentally uncertain. This is at odds with Einstein’s general relativity, which is deterministic, meaning that once all the natural laws are known, the future is completely predetermined by the past, Das said.

    And neither theory explains what dark matter, an invisible form of matter that exerts a gravitational pull on ordinary matter but cannot be detected by most telescopes, is made of.

    Quantum correction

    Das and his colleagues wanted a way to resolve at least some of these problems. To do so, they looked at an older way of visualizing quantum mechanics, called Bohmian mechanics. In it, a hidden variable governs the bizarre behavior of subatomic particles. Unlike other formulations of quantum mechanics, it provides a way to calculate the trajectory of a particle. Using this old-fashioned form of quantum theory, the researchers calculated a small correction term that could be included in Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Then, they figured out what would happen in deep time.

    The upshot? In the new formulation, there is no singularity, and the universe is infinitely old.

    A way to test the theory

    One way of interpreting the quantum correction term in their equation is that it is related to the density of dark matter, Das said. If so, the universe could be filled with a superfluid made of hypothetical particles, such as the gravity-carrying particles known as gravitons, or ultra-cold, ghostlike particles known as axions, Das said. One way to test the theory is to look at how dark matter is distributed in the universe and see if it matches the properties of the proposed superfluid, Das said. “If our results match with those, even approximately, that’s great,” Das told Live Science.

    However, the new equations are just one way to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. For instance, a part of string theory known as string gas cosmology predicts that the universe once had a long-lasting static phase, while other theories predict there was once a cosmic “bounce,” where the universe first contracted until it reached a very small size, then began expanding, Brandenberg said.

    Either way, the universe was once very, very small and hot.

    “The fact that there’s a hot fireball at very early times: that is confirmed,” Brandenberg told Live Science. “When you try to go back all the way to the singularity, that’s when the problems arise.”

    The new theory was explained in a paper published Feb. 4 in the journal Physical Letters B, and another paper that is currently under peer review, which was published in the preprint journal arXiv.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:00 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NYT: “Bill Gates and Other Business Leaders Urge U.S. to Increase Energy Research” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    FEB. 23, 2015
    JUSTIN GILLIS

    1
    This Duke Energy battery project in Texas, supported by federal research dollars, stores power from wind turbines for later use. A new report calls on the government to increase its spending on energy research.

    The government is spending far too little money on energy research, putting at risk the long-term goals of reducing carbon emissions and alleviating energy poverty, some of the country’s top business leaders found in a new report.

    The American Energy Innovation Council, a group of six executives that includes the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the General Electric chief Jeffrey R. Immelt, urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a strategic national priority.

    The leaders pointed out that the United States had fallen behind a slew of other countries in the percentage of economic output being spent on energy research, among them China, Japan, France and South Korea. Their report urged leaders of both political parties to start increasing funds to ultimately triple today’s level of research spending, about $5 billion a year.

    “Growing and consistent appropriations for energy innovation should be a top U.S. priority over the next decade,” the business leaders recommended in their report. “The budget numbers over the last five years are a major failure in U.S. energy policy.”

    At stake, Mr. Gates said in an interview, are not just long-term goals like reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but also American leadership in industries of the future, including advanced nuclear reactors and coal-burning power plants that could capture and bury their emissions.

    “Our universities, our national labs are the best in the world,” Mr. Gates said, but he added that a chronic funding shortfall was holding back the pace of their work.

    The report did credit the Obama administration and Congress with some gains, including a one-time injection of funds in the economic stimulus bill of 2009. But subsequent budgets have essentially dropped back to prior levels, and spending on American energy research remains far below the high point it reached just after the energy crises of the 1970s.

    In the past, the report found, investments in energy innovation have paid major dividends. Mr. Gates cited the example of hydraulic fracturing to unlock gas and oil in shale deposits, a technique developed in part with federal research money that has led to a newfound abundance of oil and gas, lowering prices for consumers.

    Similar innovation is needed in low-emission sources of energy, the report found, if the goal of limiting global warming is to be met while making energy more available to poor people around the world. Experts involved in writing the report said the needed breakthroughs included safer types of nuclear reactors, cheaper methods of capturing carbon dioxide emissions at power plants and improved batteries that can store large amounts of energy.

    The new report is an update on similar recommendations the same business leaders made five years ago. While the report found that the picture remained generally bleak, it did cite some progress.

    For instance, Congress established the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, modeled on the Pentagon research agency that helped create the Internet. And the Energy Department has funded a string of energy innovation hubs across the country.

    “There’s some very promising things that are in these centers, but the pace is absolutely limited by the modest funding level,” Mr. Gates said. “Those should be funded at a much higher level.”

    The report pointed out that funding for ARPA-E was less than $300 million per year, and urged that it be raised closer to $1 billion. The entire federal appropriation for energy research is less than Americans spend every year buying potato and tortilla chips, the report noted.

    The recommendations in the report are similar to those made by other groups in recent years. But with the federal budget under pressure, the idea of a major push on energy research has gained little traction in Washington.

    The business leaders hope to change that as the 2016 presidential race gets under way, urging both parties to embrace ambitious research plans.

    Aside from Mr. Gates and Mr. Immelt, the American Energy Innovation Council comprises Norman R. Augustine, a former chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin; John Doerr, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist; Chad Holliday, a former chairman and chief executive of DuPont who soon will become chairman of Shell; and Tom Linebarger, chairman and chief executive of Cummins.

    In pushing their case in Washington, the leaders are likely to encounter reluctance on the right to increase government spending, as well as some philosophical objections to expanding the government’s role in the energy market. On the left, they may encounter wariness from environmentalists who, while not opposing new research, do not want that push to detract from rapid deployment of current clean-energy technologies, like wind and solar power.

    “I am 100 percent for more research, since who could possibly oppose that?” said Joseph J. Romm, who helped manage federal energy research in the Bill Clinton administration and later founded a widely read blog on climate change. “But it is only a small part of the answer, and certainly not the most important.”

    He added that aggressive deployment of existing technologies and a price on emissions of carbon dioxide would go a long way to reduce emissions, and that the latter would help unlock more private innovation.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:31 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From ALMA: “ALMA Revealed Calm Pockets Protecting Organic Molecules” 

    ESO ALMA Array
    ALMA

    Thursday, 26 February 2015
    Nicolás Lira
    Education and Public Outreach Assistant
    Joint ALMA Observatory
    Santiago, Chile
    Tel: +56 2 467 6519
    Cell: +56 9 9445 7726
    Email: nlira@alma.cl

    Masaaki Hiramatsu
    Education and Public Outreach Officer, NAOJ Chile
    Observatory Tokyo, Japan
    Tel: +81 422 34 3630
    E-mail: hiramatsu.masaaki@nao.ac.jp

    Charles E. Blue
    Public Information Officer
    National Radio Astronomy Observatory
    Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
    Tel: +1 434 296 0314
    Cell: +1 434.242.9559
    E-mail: cblue@nrao.edu

    Richard Hook
    Public Information Officer, ESO
    Garching bei München, Germany
    Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
    Cell: +49 151 1537 3591
    Email: rhook@eso.org

    1
    The central part of the galaxy M77, also known as NGC 1068, observed by ALMA and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Yellow: cyanoacetylene (HC3N), Red: carbon monosulfide (CS), Blue: carbon monoxide (CO), which are observed with ALMA. While HC3N is abundant in the central part of the galaxy (CND), CO is mainly distributed in the starburst ring. CS is distributed both in the CND and the starburst ring. Credit: ALMA(ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Takano et al., NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    Researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered regions where certain organic molecules somehow endure the intense radiation near the supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy NGC 1068, also known to amateur stargazers as M77.

    2
    Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 1068

    Such complex carbon-based molecules are thought to be easily obliterated by the strong X-rays and ultraviolet (UV) photons that permeate the environment surrounding supermassive black holes. The new ALMA data indicate, however, that pockets of calm exist even in this tumultuous region, most likely due to dense areas of dust and gas that shield molecules from otherwise lethal radiation.

    Molecules Reveal Clues to Galactic Environments

    Interstellar gas contains a wide variety of molecules and its chemical composition differs widely depending on the environment. For example, an active star forming region with a temperature higher than the surrounding environment stimulates the production of certain types of molecules by chemical reactions which are difficult to take place in a cold temperature region. This enables researchers to probe the environment (temperature and density) of a target region by studying the molecular chemical compositions in it. Since each molecule has its own frequency spectrum, we can identify the chemical composition and the environment of a remote target object through observations with a radio telescope.

    From this perspective, astronomers have been actively working on the starburst regions of galaxies [1] and the surrounding region of the active galactic nuclei (AGN) at the center of galaxies, called circumnuclear disk (CND) [2]. These regions are very important in understanding the evolution of galaxies, and radio observations of molecular emissions are essential to explore its mechanism and environment [3]. However, the weak radio emission from molecules often made the observations difficult and took many days for signal detection using conventional radio telescopes.

    ALMA Observations Trace Molecules

    A research team led by Shuro Takano at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and Taku Nakajima at Nagoya University observed the spiral galaxy M77 in the direction of the constellation of Cetus (the Whale) about 47 million light years away with ALMA. M77 is known to have an active galactic nucleus at its center which is surrounded by a starburst ring with a radius of 3500 light years.

    Since the research team had already conducted radio observations of various molecular emissions in this galaxy with the 45 meters telescope at the Nobeyama Radio Observatory of NAOJ, they aimed to develop their research further with ALMA’s extreme sensitivity, high-fidelity and ability to observe wideband in multiple wavelenght along with a high spatial resolution; and identify the difference in chemical composition between AGNs and starburst regions.

    NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory
    Nobeyama Radio Observatory of NAOJ

    ALMA observations clearly revealed the distributions of nine types of molecules in the circumnuclear disk and in the starburst ring. “In this observation, we used only 16 antennas, which are about one-fourth of the complete number of ALMA antennas, but it was really surprising that we could get so many molecular distribution maps in less than two hours. We have never obtained such a quantity of maps in one observation,” says Takano, the leader of the research team.

    The results show that the molecular distribution varies according to the type of molecule. While carbon monoxide (CO) is distributed mainly in the starburst ring, five types of molecules, including complex organic molecules such as cyanoacetylene (HC3N) and acetonitrile (CH3CN) are concentrated in the circumnuclear disk. In addition, carbon monosulfide (CS) and methanol (CH3OH) are distributed both in the starburst ring and the circumnuclear disk. ALMA provided the first high resolution observation of the five types of molecules in M77 and revealed that they are concentrated in the circumnuclear disk.

    Shielding Complex Organics around a Black Hole

    The supermassive black hole devours surrounding materials by its strong gravity and generates such a hot disk around him that it emits intense X-rays or UV photons. When complex organic molecules are exposed to strong X-rays or UV photons, their multiple atomic bonds are broken and the molecules destroyed. This is why the circumnuclear disk was thought to be a very difficult environment for organic molecules to survive. ALMA observations, however, proved the contrary: Complex organic molecules are abundant in the circumnuclear disk.

    “It was quite unexpected that acetonitrile (CH3CN) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N), which have a large number of atoms, are concentrated in the circumnuclear disk,” said Nakajima.

    The research team assumes that organic molecules remain intact in the circumnuclear disk due to a large amount of gas, which act as a shield from X-rays and UV photons, while organic molecules cannot survive the exposure to the strong UV photons in the starburst region where the gas density is lower.

    The researchers point out that these results are a significant first step in understanding the structure, temperature, and density of gas surrounding the active black hole in M77. “We expect that future observations with wider bandwidth and higher resolution will show us the whole picture of our target object in further detail and achieve even more remarkable results,” says Takano.

    “ALMA has launched an entirely new era in astrochemistry,” said Eric Herbst of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a member of the research team. “Detecting and tracing molecules throughout the cosmos enables us to learn so much more about otherwise hidden areas, like the regions surrounding the black hole in M77.”

    These observation results were published as Takano et al. Distributions of molecules in the circumnuclear disk and surrounding starburst ring in the Seyfert galaxy NGC 1068 observed with ALMA (in the astronomical journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan (PASJ), issued in July 2014) and as Nakajima et al. A Multi-Transition Study of Molecules toward NGC 1068 based on High-Resolution Imaging Observations with ALMA (in PASJ issued in February 2015).

    Notes

    [1] In the Milky Way Galaxy which we live in, one sun-like star is generated per year on average, while several hundred sun-like stars are churned out each year in a starburst region.

    [2] It is believed that most of the galaxies have in their center a supermassive black hole of millions to hundreds of millions of solar mass. Among them, Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) represents a type of supermassive black hole which are gulping down surrounding gas very actively and emitting some amount of gas as high-speed gas flows (jets).

    [3] For example, a research team led by Takuma Izumi and Kotaro Kohno at the University of Tokyo, both of whom are engaged in this research, suggests that there is enhanced emission of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) from the supermassive black hole in the barred spiral galaxy NGC1097 by the past ALMA observations.

    Reference: October 24, 2013, Press release “Unique Chemical Composition Surrounding Supermassive Black Hole—A Step toward Development of New Black Hole Exploration Method”

    This research was conducted by: Shuro TAKANO (NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory/SOKENDAI); Taku NAKAJIMA (Solar-Terrestrial Environment Laboratory, Nagoya University); Kotaro KOHNO (Institute of Astronomy, The University of Tokyo/Research Center for the Early Universe); Nanase HARADA (Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics [At the time of writing: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy]); Eric HERBST (University of Virginia); Yoichi TAMURA (Institute of Astronomy, The University of Tokyo); Takuma IZUMI (Institute of Astronomy, The University of Tokyo); Akio TANIGUCHI (Institute of Astronomy, The University of Tokyo); Tomoka TOSAKI (Joetsu University of Educaction).

    See the full article here.

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    The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan.

    ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

    NRAO Small

    ESO 50

    NAOJ

     
  • richardmitnick 7:21 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From ESO: “Looking Deeply into the Universe in 3D 


    European Southern Observatory

    26 February 2015
    Roland Bacon
    CRAL – Centre de recherche astrophysique de Lyon
    Saint-Genis-Laval, France
    Tel: +33 478 86 85 59
    Cell: +33 608 09 14 27
    Email: roland.bacon@univ-lyon1.fr

    Richard Hook
    ESO education and Public Outreach Department
    Garching bei München, Germany
    Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
    Cell: +49 151 1537 3591
    Email: rhook@eso.org

    temp0

    The MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has given astronomers the best ever three-dimensional view of the deep Universe. After staring at the Hubble Deep Field South region for only 27 hours, the new observations reveal the distances, motions and other properties of far more galaxies than ever before in this tiny piece of the sky. They also go beyond Hubble and reveal previously invisible objects.
    MUSE

    ESO MUSE

    ESO VLT Interferometer
    VLT

    By taking very long exposure pictures of regions of the sky, astronomers have created many deep fields that have revealed much about the early Universe. The most famous of these was the original Hubble Deep Field, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope over several days in late 1995. This spectacular and iconic picture rapidly transformed our understanding of the content of the Universe when it was young. It was followed two years later by a similar view in the southern sky — the Hubble Deep Field South.

    NASA Hubble Deep Field
    Hubble Deep Field

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    But these images did not hold all the answers — to find out more about the galaxies in the deep field images, astronomers had to carefully look at each one with other instruments, a difficult and time-consuming job. But now, for the first time, the new MUSE instrument can do both jobs at once — and far more quickly.

    One of the first observations using MUSE after it was commissioned on the VLT in 2014 was a long hard look at the Hubble Deep Field South (HDF-S). The results exceeded expectations.

    temp0

    “After just a few hours of observations at the telescope, we had a quick look at the data and found many galaxies — it was very encouraging. And when we got back to Europe we started exploring the data in more detail. It was like fishing in deep water and each new catch generated a lot of excitement and discussion of the species we were finding,” explained Roland Bacon (Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, France, CNRS) principal investigator of the MUSE instrument and leader of the commissioning team.

    For every part of the MUSE view of HDF-S there is not just a pixel in an image, but also a spectrum revealing the intensity of the light’s different component colours at that point — about 90 000 spectra in total [1]. These can reveal the distance, composition and internal motions of hundreds of distant galaxies — as well as catching a small number of very faint stars in the Milky Way.

    Even though the total exposure time was much shorter than for the Hubble images, the HDF-S MUSE data revealed more than twenty very faint objects in this small patch of the sky that Hubble did not record at all [2].

    “The greatest excitement came when we found very distant galaxies that were not even visible in the deepest Hubble image. After so many years of hard work on the instrument, it was a powerful experience for me to see our dreams becoming reality,” adds Roland Bacon.

    By looking carefully at all the spectra in the MUSE observations of the HDF-S, the team measured the distances to 189 galaxies. They ranged from some that were relatively close, right out to some that were seen when the Universe was less than one billion years old. This is more than ten times the number of measurements of distance than had existed before for this area of sky.

    For the closer galaxies, MUSE can do far more and look at the different properties of different parts of the same galaxy. This reveals how the galaxy is rotating and how other properties vary from place to place. This is a powerful way of understanding how galaxies evolve through cosmic time.

    “Now that we have demonstrated MUSE’s unique capabilities for exploring the deep Universe, we are going to look at other deep fields, such as the Hubble Ultra Deep field. We will be able to study thousands of galaxies and to discover new extremely faint and distant galaxies. These small infant galaxies, seen as they were more than 10 billion years in the past, gradually grew up to become galaxies like the Milky Way that we see today,” concludes Roland Bacon.
    Notes

    [1] Each spectrum covers a range of wavelengths from the blue part of the spectrum into the near-infrared (475‒930 nanometres).

    [2] MUSE is particularly sensitive to objects that emit most of their energy at a few particular wavelengths as these show up as bright spots in the data. Galaxies in the early Universe typically have such spectra, as they contain hydrogen gas glowing under the ultraviolet radiation from hot young stars.
    More information

    This research was presented in a paper entitled The MUSE 3D view of the Hubble Deep Field South by R. Bacon et al., to appear in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics on 26 February 2015.

    The team is composed of R. Bacon (Observatoire de Lyon, CNRS, Université Lyon, Saint Genis Laval, France [Lyon]), J. Brinchmann (Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands [Leiden]), J. Richard (Lyon), T. Contini (Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, CNRS, Toulouse, France; Université de Toulouse, France [IRAP]), A. Drake (Lyon), M. Franx (Leiden), S. Tacchella (ETH Zurich, Institute of Astronomy, Zurich, Switzerland [ETH]), J. Vernet (ESO, Garching, Germany), L. Wisotzki (Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany [AIP]), J. Blaizot (Lyon), N. Bouché (IRAP), R. Bouwens (Leiden), S. Cantalupo (ETH), C.M. Carollo (ETH), D. Carton (Leiden), J. Caruana (AIP), B. Clément (Lyon), S. Dreizler (Institut für Astrophysik, Universität Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany [AIG]), B. Epinat (IRAP; Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), B. Guiderdoni (Lyon), C. Herenz (AIP), T.-O. Husser (AIG), S. Kamann (AIG), J. Kerutt (AIP), W. Kollatschny (AIG), D. Krajnovic (AIP), S. Lilly (ETH), T. Martinsson (Leiden), L. Michel-Dansac (Lyon), V. Patricio (Lyon), J. Schaye (Leiden), M. Shirazi (ETH), K. Soto (ETH), G. Soucail (IRAP), M. Steinmetz (AIP), T. Urrutia (AIP), P. Weilbacher (AIP) and T. de Zeeuw (ESO, Garching, Germany; Leiden).

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:07 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA Deep Space Network,   

    From CSIRO: “A new antenna for old friends: celebrating 55 years of AUS-US space communication” 

    CSIRO bloc

    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

    February 26, 2015
    Nicholas Kachel

    1
    NEW VISTAS: Deep Space Station 35 will operate for many decades. We can only begin to imagine what future discoveries it might make. Credit: Adam McGrath

    It’s been a momentous couple of days in the history of Australian space exploration. Just yesterday, the newest antenna in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, five years to the day from its original ground breaking ceremony.

    2
    DAY OR NIGHT: Deep Space Station 35 will be operating 24/7 to help make discoveries in deep space.

    The new dish, Deep Space Station 35, incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology: increasing its sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System.

    The Canberra Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations capable of providing two-way radio contact with robotic deep space missions. The Complex’s sister stations are located in California and Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with over 35 spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. You may remember this technology being utilised recently for the Rosetta and Philae comet landing; and for communicating with the ever so far-flung New Horizons spacecraft on its journey past Pluto.

    ESA Rosetta spacecraft
    ESA/Rosetta

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    3
    “Does it get Channel Two?”

    As a vital communication station for these types of missions, the new antenna will make deep space communication for spacecraft and their Earth-bound support staff even easier.

    But don’t put away the space candles just yet. For today marks the 55 anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States, way back on the 26th February 1960.

    It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on (and amazing views from) the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.

    4
    The first ever Moon landing: a momentous occasion, broadcast around the world thanks to the Australian-US partnership.

    o, we say welcome to the newest addition to the Deep Space Network and happy birthday to our space-relationship with the US. Here’s to another fifty five years of success!

    See the full article here.

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    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

     
  • richardmitnick 4:45 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Chandra- “NGC 2276: NASA’s Chandra Finds Intriguing Member of Black Hole Family Tree “ 

    NASA Chandra

    1
    Credit X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Mezcua et al & NASA/CXC/INAF/A.Wolter et al; Optical: NASA/STScI and DSS; Inset: Radio: EVN/VLBI
    Release Date February 25, 2015

    An intriguing object has been found in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy NGC 2276. This source, called NGC 2276-3c, appears to be an intermediate-mass black hole. According to X-ray and radio data, NGC 2276-3c contains about 50,000 times the mass of the Sun.

    A newly discovered object in the galaxy NGC 2276 may prove to be an important black hole that helps fill in the evolutionary story of these exotic objects, as described in our latest press release. The main image in this graphic contains a composite image of NGC 2766 that includes X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (pink) combined with optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Digitized Sky Survey (red, green and blue). The inset is a zoom into the interesting source that lies in one of the galaxy’s spiral arms. This object, called NGC 2276-3c, is seen in radio waves (red) in observations from the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network, or EVN.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    European VLBI
    European VLBI

    Astronomers have combined the X-ray and radio data to determine that NGC 2766-3c is likely an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH). As the name suggests, IMBHs are black holes that are larger than stellar mass black holes that contain about five to thirty times the mass of the Sun, but smaller than supermassive black holes that are millions or even billions of solar masses. The researchers estimated the mass of NGC 2766-3c using a well-known relationship between how bright the source is in radio and X-rays, and the mass of the black hole. The X-ray and radio brightness were based on observations with Chandra and the EVN. They found that NGC 2276-3c contains about 50,000 times the mass of the Sun.

    IMBHs are interesting to astronomers because they may be the seeds that eventually evolve into supermassive black holes. They also may be strongly influencing their environment. This latest result on NGC 2276-3c suggests that it may be suppressing the formation of new stars around it. The EVN radio data reveal an inner jet that extends about 6 light years from NGC 2276-3c. Additional observations by the NSF’s Karl Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) show large-scale radio emission extending out to over 2,000 light years away from the source.

    NRAO VLA
    NRAO/VLA

    A region along the jet extending to about 1,000 light years away from NGC 2766-3c is devoid of young stars. This might provide evidence that the jet has cleared out a cavity in the gas, preventing new stars from forming there. The VLA data also reveal a large population of stars at the edge of the radio emission from the jet. This enhanced star formation could take place either when the material swept out by the jet collides with dust and gas in between the stars in NGC 2276, or when triggered by the merger of NGC 2276 with a dwarf galaxy.

    In a separate study, Chandra observations of this galaxy have also been used to examine its rich population of ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs). Sixteen X-ray sources are found in the deep Chandra dataset seen in this composite image, and eight of these are ULXs including NGC 2276-3c. Chandra observations show that one apparent ULX observed by ESA’s XMM-Newton is actually five separate ULXs, including NGC 2276-3c.

    ESA XMM Newton
    ESA/XMM-Newton

    This ULX study shows that about five to fifteen solar masses worth of stars are forming each year in NGC 2276. This high rate of star formation may have been triggered by a collision with a dwarf galaxy, supporting the merger idea for the IMBH’s origin.

    The study on NGC 2276-3c was conducted by Mar Mezcua (previously in the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias and now at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Tim Roberts (University of Durham, UK), Andrei Lobanov ( Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Germany), and Andrew Sutton (University of Durham) and will appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). A separate paper on the ULX population in NGC 2276 will also appear in MNRAS and the authors on that study are Anna Wolter (National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Milan, Italy), Paolo Esposito (INAF), Michela Mapelli (INAF, Padova), Fabio Pizzolato (University of Milan, Italy), and Emanuele Ripamonti (University of Padova, Italy).

    See the full article here.

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    NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra’s science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

     
  • richardmitnick 4:11 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From livescience: ” Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction Preserved Ancient Footprints” 

    Livescience

    February 25, 2015
    Shannon Hall

    1
    Graduate student Tracy Thomson stands next to a site called Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park. It shows the track of a swimming animal drifting diagonally in a current.
    Credit: Tracy Thomson

    Earth’s worst mass extinction may have created ideal conditions for preserving the ancient footprints of giant reptiles on the muddy ocean floor, according to a new study.

    Researchers found a spike in fossilized tracks of tetrapods (these early four-limbed vertebrates include amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) during the early Triassic period, roughly 250 million years ago. This increase may be the result of a mass extinction at the end of the Permian period that wiped out worms and other tiny creatures that typically churn up ocean sediments, leaving behind sticky seafloor conditions that preserved the wading and swimming habits of ancient giant reptiles, the scientists said.

    The researchers captured a “Goldilocks” window when they could see this behavior simply because they had “this magical time after this mass extinction,” said study co-author Mary Droser, a professor of geology at the University of California, Riverside.

    The start of the Triassic period was a desolate time in Earth’s history. Something — a bout of volcanic eruptions, climate change or even an asteroid impact — triggered the extinction of more than 90 percent of Earth’s marine species. However, it allowed giant reptiles, such as the dolphin-shaped ichthyosaurs and the long-necked plesiosaurs, to flourish well before the evolution of dinosaurs.

    Most of these reptiles preyed on fish and ancient squid. When they walked through the water, their claws pushed against the seafloor, and their bodies trailed through the muddy bottom, leaving noticeable swim tracks. But preserving such tracks for hundreds of millions of years isn’t easy, since footprints in sand typically dissolve quickly.

    Scientists were surprised to find a large number of fossilized swim tracks from the early Triassic. They found only a few well-preserved swim tracks from other epochs, like the Permian (before the Triassic) and the Jurassic (after the Triassic), but the team counted roughly 40 from the early Triassic. Although it’s easy to assume that this is because there were more reptiles living in the early Triassic than during the other periods, the researchers speculated that the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period actually created conditions ripe for preserving fossil tracks.

    After the extinction, most animals living in the soil had died, so they couldn’t mix the soil up quite as much. Typically, “there are all sorts of things that keep that sediment mixed,” Droser said. “But if you take them away, then the mud becomes sticky and hard.” This means that a footprint, or the slithering track of a belly against the ocean floor, for example, won’t disappear as quickly.

    Tracy Thomson, a University of California, Riverside graduate student working with Droser, spent two summers in Utah uncovering the rare swim tracks. Now a barren desert, the coastline used to run through Glen Canyon and Capitol Reef National Park. It was there that the reptiles would stray by the bays and lagoons before wading a foot or two (0.3 to 0.6 meters) in the water to hunt.

    Before now, no one had noticed this spike, for a number of reasons, Droser said. For one, swim tracks are relatively new, scientifically speaking: It was only recently that researchers discovered that these fossils are made by reptiles underwater, and the key is that these tracks tend to meander, and even disappear, for short distances before reappearing, Droser explained.

    The reptiles “are meaning to stay on the substrate, to stay on the ground,” Droser said. But the water’s current lifts them up, and “they get carried a little bit until they find their footing again,” she said. As such, the tracks rarely move in a straight line, Droser added.

    By providing a window into this unique time, Droser and Thomson hope to shed light on Earth’s largest mass extinction, which is sometimes called the Great Dying.

    The study was published online Feb. 5 in the journal Geology.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 3:47 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From The Conversation : “NASA missions may re-elevate Pluto and Ceres from dwarf planets to full-on planet status” 

    Conversation
    The Conversation

    February 25 2015
    David A Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University

    1
    Two views of Ceres acquired by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft ten hours apart on Feb. 12, 2015, from a distance of about 52,000 miles as the dwarf planet rotated. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive at this dwarf planet on March 6, 2015.

    2

    NASA Dawn Spacescraft
    Dawn


    Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at this dwarf planet on July 15, 2015.

    2
    Kuiper Belt

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.

    The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.

    Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.

    Unlike the larger planets, however, Ceres, like Pluto, according to the IAU definition, “has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” The asteroid belt is, apparently, Ceres’ neighborhood while the Kuiper Belt is Pluto’s neighborhood – though no definition of a planet’s neighborhood exists, and no agreed upon understanding of what “clearing the neighborhood” yet exists. Furthermore, no broad-based agreement exists as to why “clearing the neighborhood” need be a requirement in order for an object to be considered a planet.

    Some planetary astronomers would argue that were the Earth placed in the Kuiper Belt, it would not be able to clear its neighborhood and thus would not be considered, by the IAU definition, a planet; apparently location matters. Here a planet, there not a planet. I’d argue that location shouldn’t matter; instead, the intrinsic properties of the objects themselves should matter more. And so we are led back to Ceres and Pluto.

    Never before visited by human spacecraft, Ceres and Pluto, as we will soon bear witness, are both evolving, changing worlds. Yesterday, Ceres and Pluto were strangers, distant, barely known runt members of our solar system. By the end of this calendar year, however, we will have showered both objects with our passion and our attention, we will have welcomed them both into our embrace. And we almost certainly will once again call both of them planets.

    Ceres, temporarily a planet

    Ceres was discovered on New Year’s Day in 1801, by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a member of an international team of astronomers dubbed the Celestial Police, who were searching for a supposedly missing planet in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When discovered, Ceres was immediately recognized as a planet, the eighth one known at the time (neither Neptune nor Pluto had been discovered yet).

    But within a few years, other objects in the asteroid belt were discovered and Ceres no longer seemed to stand out as far from the crowd. In 1802, the great astronomer [Sir Frederick] William Herschel suggested that Ceres and Pallas and any other smaller solar system objects should be called asteroids – meaning star-like. In telescope images, they were so tiny that they looked point-like, like stars, rather than disk-like, like planets. And so, more than a century before Pluto was discovered, Ceres was plutoed.

    3
    Animation of rotating Ceres, made from a series of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on February 4, 2015, at a distance of about 90,000 miles from the planet.

    With increasing knowledge and familiarity, we’ll no longer be able to identify meaningful criteria to keep these good planets down.

    These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.

    The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.

    Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.

    Unlike the larger planets, however, Ceres, like Pluto, according to the IAU definition, “has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” The asteroid belt is, apparently, Ceres’ neighborhood while the Kuiper Belt is Pluto’s neighborhood – though no definition of a planet’s neighborhood exists, and no agreed upon understanding of what “clearing the neighborhood” yet exists. Furthermore, no broad-based agreement exists as to why “clearing the neighborhood” need be a requirement in order for an object to be considered a planet.

    Some planetary astronomers would argue that were the Earth placed in the Kuiper Belt, it would not be able to clear its neighborhood and thus would not be considered, by the IAU definition, a planet; apparently location matters. Here a planet, there not a planet. I’d argue that location shouldn’t matter; instead, the intrinsic properties of the objects themselves should matter more. And so we are led back to Ceres and Pluto.

    Never before visited by human spacecraft, Ceres and Pluto, as we will soon bear witness, are both evolving, changing worlds. Yesterday, Ceres and Pluto were strangers, distant, barely known runt members of our solar system. By the end of this calendar year, however, we will have showered both objects with our passion and our attention, we will have welcomed them both into our embrace. And we almost certainly will once again call both of them planets.

    Ceres, temporarily a planet

    Ceres was discovered on New Year’s Day in 1801, by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a member of an international team of astronomers dubbed the Celestial Police, who were searching for a supposedly missing planet in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When discovered, Ceres was immediately recognized as a planet, the eighth one known at the time (neither Neptune nor Pluto had been discovered yet).

    But within a few years, other objects in the asteroid belt were discovered and Ceres no longer seemed to stand out as far from the crowd. In 1802, the great astronomer [Sir Frederick] William Herschel suggested that Ceres and Pallas and any other smaller solar system objects should be called asteroids – meaning star-like. In telescope images, they were so tiny that they looked point-like, like stars, rather than disk-like, like planets. And so, more than a century before Pluto was discovered, Ceres was plutoed.

    6
    Animation of rotating Ceres, made from a series of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on February 4, 2015, at a distance of about 90,000 miles from the planet. NASA

    But Ceres does still stand out. It’s the largest asteroid, by far, nearly 1,000 kilometers across (twice as large in diameter as Vesta, the second largest asteroid), though not perfectly spherical in shape.

    As happened inside Earth and other planets, planetary scientists think that long ago, the denser material in Ceres separated from the lighter material and sank to form a core.

    Astronomers think Ceres is rich in water – as much as one-third of Ceres might be water – and may have a thin atmosphere. Bright, white spots on its surface might even be large frozen lakes. Ceres may, in fact, have as much fresh water as Earth, have Earth-like polar caps, and might even have a sub-surface liquid ocean layer, like Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

    Beginning this month, we’ll start to learn more about these tantalizing possibilities. With our increasing knowledge of and familiarity with Ceres, we will no longer be able to identify meaningful criteria that will allow us to continue to classify Ceres as not-a-planet. Ceres will continue to be a small planet, but in 2015 we will come to understand that dwarf planets are planets, too.

    Pluto’s short planetary reign

    Pluto also has an unusual orbit, as it crosses Neptune’s orbit, though it does so in such a way that it can never collide with Neptune.

    Pluto’s modern-day troubles began in 1992, when astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu discovered the first objects in the region of the solar system now known as the Kuiper Belt. Whereas the asteroid belt where Ceres resides is made mostly of house- and mountain-sized rocks that orbit the Sun in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the Kuiper Belt is made mostly of house- and mountain-sized chunks of ice that orbit the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto, as it turns out, is one of the biggest objects in the Kuiper Belt.

    So what is Pluto?

    7
    Image of Pluto and its moon Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on January 25, 2015, from a distance of 125 million miles. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

    Pluto is the last unexplored planet in our solar system. And the Kuiper Belt may contain hundreds of other planetary worlds like Pluto. These may be the most numerous worlds in the solar system; they may contain, together, the most total surface area of all the solid-surfaced planets.

    8
    Pluto and its five moons – as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope in July, 2012. NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    Pluto has one large moon, Charon, and at least four small moons: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. It has an atmosphere that expands and contracts as Pluto warms and cools during its 248 year orbit around the Sun. The surface is likely rich in water ice, enriched with methane and nitrogen and carbon monoxide frosts; these ices might contain complex organic molecules.

    The New Horizons mission is poised to answer some of our myriad questions about Pluto. How did it form? What is the atmosphere made of? What is the surface like? Does Pluto have a magnetic field? What are the moons like? Does Pluto have a subsurface ocean? Is the surface of Pluto’s moon Charon pure water ice?

    Pluto has guarded its secrets for four and half billion years. But in a few months, a few intrepid humans will pull back the curtain on Pluto and say “Hello, Pluto, we’re here.” And Pluto will begin to share her secrets with us. When she does, as with Ceres, our familiarity with Pluto will help us recognize that Pluto is, was, and has always been a planet, albeit a small one.

    We only get to visit Ceres and Pluto for the very first time, once. This year. March 6 and July 15. In your lifetime. In this incredible year of the dwarf planet. Get ready to party. Ceres and Pluto are coming home.

    See the full article here.

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    The Conversation US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.
    Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.
    Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.

     
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