This week, an international group of astronauts and legal experts met to consider a dire but hypothetical threat to life on earth: another massive asteroid impact, like the one that researchers believe ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The group, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), concluded their meeting by asking the United Nations to prepare an international response for when a dangerous object is detected heading towards our planet. Says astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who flew into orbit with the Apollo 9 mission: “Until we have a response in place, we’re as vulnerable as the dinosaurs” [The Register].
In the report, titled Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response, the team reminds the public of the asteroid Apophis, which gave humanity a brief scare in 2004 when researchers calculated that it had a 1 in 37 chance of hitting the earth in the year 2029. That calamitous prediction was soon refuted by further data on Apophis’ trajectory, but the new report notes that the asteroid, also known as a “near earth object” or NEO, has a 1-in-45,000 chance of striking Earth in 2036. Currently, NASA is watching 209 NEOs, none of which is considered to be dangerous. But a threat is likely to be detected within the next 15 years, according to the ASE. “New telescopes coming online will increase these discoveries by a factor of 100,” said Ed Lu, astronaut on space shuttle Atlantis [New Scientist].
Ever wondered what causes the spate of wild bidding in the last few minutes of an Ebay auction? Scientists say they now have answer: The irrational behavior is caused by people’s fear of losing, not their desire to win. While economists have recognized the concept of “loss aversion” for some time, a new set of experiments used brain scans and lab experiments to show how strongly the phenomenon plays out in auctions, and how it’s tied to overbidding.
In the first experiment, test subjects participated in either a lottery or an auction. During the games, scientists watched the responses of the subjects’ striata—the brain’s reward center—using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The elation of winning was the same in both games, but the agony of defeat was crushing for losers of the auction. After auction, brain activity in the loser’s reward centers decreased substantially. But it hardly blipped when the person lost a lottery [Ars Technica]. What’s more, auction losers who had the steepest declines in striata activity were more likely to have overbid during the auction.
Researchers have found a way to create stem cells from adult liver cells without triggering DNA changes that have caused mutations and tumors in previous studies. Though demonstrated only in mice so far, the result marks another key achievement in the fledgling science of cellular reprogramming. The hope is to create human, embryonic-like stem cells — which can be turned into all the other tissue types of the body — without using eggs or destroying embryos. That freshly derived tissue could then be transplanted into patients to treat various diseases [The Wall Street Journal].
A method of using adult cells to create stem cells was debuted by Japanese researchers in 2006. By using viruses to insert key developmental genes, researchers coaxed human skin cells into an embryonic state, capable of growing into almost any other type of tissue…. But there was a catch: Viruses used to reset the cells tended to fuse with their DNA, leading to unpredictable mutations and cancer. The cells were promising in principle, but couldn’t be used medically [Wired News]. In the new breakthrough, researchers used a different kind of virus to introduce the genes, and found that it didn’t leave behind any damaging genetic code.
A Swiss man with a jet-powered wing strapped across his back jumped from a plane at an altitude of 9,000 feet today, and blasted across the 22 miles that separate Calais, France from Dover, England. The adventurer, Yves Rossy, became the first person to complete a solo flight across the English Channel using a jet-powered wing, which he could steer only with the movements of his head and back. Rossy, whose day job is an airline pilot, traced the route of French aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot who became the first person to fly across the Channel in a plane 99 years ago [The Mirror].
Like many other aviation enthusiasts before him, Rossy wanted to find a way for people to get as close as possible to flying like birds. He started working on the project about 15 years ago, building prototypes in his garage [National Geographic News]. He took his debut flight over the Alps in May, and has been gearing up for the Channel crossing for months. The successful feat, which was postponed twice due to bad weather, was broadcast live, and observed by crowds on both the French and English coasts.
A slab of bedrock on the shore of Canada’s Hudson Bay may be the oldest piece of the planet ever discovered: Researchers believe the rock is 4.28 billion years old, which would mean that it formed less than 300 million years after the earth itself came together. However, geologists say that considerable controversy remains over the research team’s method of dating the rocks.
Study author Richard Carlson says that if his team is right about the rock’s extraordinary old age, it will change conceptions of how the planet developed its current form, with solid tectonic plates and a stable crust. Says Carlson: “These rocks paint this picture of an early earth that looked pretty much like the modern earth.” … [T]he existence of solid rock 4.28 billion years ago would run counter to the traditional image of the young earth as a roiling cauldron of magma oceans, a view that is falling by the wayside among researchers as more geological data is unearthed [The New York Times].
In a bizarre finding that has disrupted the current understanding of the universe, astronomers have detected evidence of a massive gravitational force beyond the horizon of the observable universe. What’s being called a dark flow appears to be pulling vast clusters of galaxies toward a 20-degree-wide patch of sky between the constellations of Centaurus and Vela. “It does fly in the face of everything we know,” said astronomer Dale Kocevski…. “I’m sure it’s going to be controversial” [Discovery News].
When scientists talk about the observable universe, they don’t just mean as far out as the eye, or even the most powerful telescope, can see. In fact there’s a fundamental limit to how much of the universe we could ever observe, no matter how advanced our visual instruments. The universe is thought to have formed about 13.7 billion years ago. So even if light started travelling toward us immediately after the Big Bang, the farthest it could ever get is 13.7 billion light-years in distance. There may be parts of the universe that are farther away (we can’t know how big the whole universe is), but we can’t see farther than light could travel over the entire age of the universe [SPACE.com].
A physicist in Virginia has been arrested and charged with violating arms control laws by selling rocket technology information to China, which helped the country’s burgeoning space program. He has also been charged with bribing a Chinese official to win a contract for a company he represented. Quan-Sheng Shu, 68, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Shanghai, was arrested Wednesday morning and made an initial appearance that afternoon in U.S. District Court in Norfolk…. Shu appeared to be shaking and bewildered at his court appearance [Virginian-Pilot]. If convicted, Shu faces up to 25 years of jail time.
The arrest came at an awkward moment for the Chinese government, which spent today celebrating the successful launch of the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft carrying a full crew of three astronauts, one of whom will perform China’s first space walk in the coming days. While the technological data that Shu allegedly sold wasn’t used in the rocket that launched the Shenzhou 7, the juxtaposition of events undercuts the message the Chinese government hoped to broadcast today: that the country has come into its own as a mature, space-faring nation, and that it needs no outside assistance to achieve its goals.
Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, surprised the industry this week by revealing three new electric vehicles, the first of which it plans to begin shipping to dealers in late 2010. In unveiling a minivan, a Jeep Wrangler and a sports car, Chrysler’s executives spelled out plans for a future in which most, if not all, automobiles would use electric motors for propulsion — essentially sounding the death knell for the internal-combustion engine [Los Angeles Times].
The car company has struggled financially over the past decade, so the ambitious plan surprised analysts, many of whom thought Chrysler lacked the size and financial resources to develop an electric car on its own [The New York Times]. By announcing that its first electric models will hit showrooms in 2010, Chrysler puts itself in direct competition with General Motors, which has a similar timeline for its electric car, the Chevy Volt, which was unveiled last week. Nissan is also working on several electric cars of its own.
In the middle of the Australian outback along a mountain chain called the Flinders Ranges, researchers have discovered a 650 million year old reef that was once underwater. Researchers say the tiny fossils they’ve already found in the ancient reef may be the earliest examples of multicellular organisms ever found, and may answer questions about how animal life evolved.
Researcher Malcolm Wallace explains that the oldest-known animal fossils are 570 million years old. The reef in the Flinders Ranges is 80 million years older than that and was, he said, “the right age to capture the precursors to animals” [The Times]. The first fossils discovered in the reef appear to be sponge-like multicellular organisms that resemble tiny cauliflowers, measuring less than an inch in diameter, but Wallace cautions that the creatures haven’t been thoroughly studied yet. The reef’s discovery was announced at a meeting of the Geological Society of Australia this week.
Astronomers believe they’ve found evidence of a massive collision between two planets in a mature solar system, shaking theories that such pileups only occur in young systems where planetary orbits aren’t yet stabilized. Says lead researcher Benjamin Zuckerman: “It’s as if Earth and Venus collided with each other…. Astronomers have never seen anything like this before; apparently major, catastrophic, collisions can take place in a fully mature planetary system” [Reuters].
Researchers base their theory on observations of vast clouds of dust and debris in a binary star system 300 light years away in the Aries constellation. Initially, they had a different idea about why the system contains 1 million times more dust that our own solar system: They had assumed it was a young star, just a few hundred million years old, and the debris was leftovers from planet formation. But earlier this year, another study showed the star was actually a binary pair, and that the stars were billions of years old [SPACE.com]. That finding forced astronomers to rethink what could have caused the dust; in older systems, most debris has either been consolidated into planets or pushed away by solar winds.