Archive for April, 2010

World's Biggest Telescope Will Perch on a Mountain in the World's Driest Desert

By Smriti Rao | April 28, 2010 10:57 am


Plans for the world’s largest telescope just took a major step forward. Researchers have selected a site for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT): It will sit on the Cerro Armazones mountain in central Chile’s Atacama Desert. This site beat out other contenders, including other sites in Chile and La Palma in Spain, due to its excellent conditions for astronomy.

On this desert mountain, researchers will enjoy near-perfect observing conditions – at least 320 nights a year when the sky is cloudless. The Atacama’s famous aridity means the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is very limited, reducing further the perturbation starlight experiences as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere [BBC]. With such clear skies, astronomer Diego Mardones from the University of Chile remarked, “If you want to find another [observation area] like Chile, your options are Antarctica or space” [Merco Press].

The telescope’s primary mirror will measure 138 feet in diameter. The mirror will be made up of 984 segments and will gather 15 times more light than the largest optical telescope while returning images 15 times sharper than those beamed back from the Hubble Space Telescope [Wired]. Astronomers say the telescope will provide new information on the nature of black holes, galaxy formation, dark matter, and dark energy.

The E-ELT, which is estimated to cost almost a billion euros, is expected to be operational by 2018. The final go-ahead for the telescope’s construction is expected later this year.

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Image: ESO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Coast Guard's New Plan to Contain the Gulf Oil Spill: Light It on Fire

By Andrew Moseman | April 28, 2010 9:46 am

NASAGulfOilWith the Gulf of Mexico oil spill spreading and the operations to contain it taking too much time, Rear Adm. Mary Landry says the Coast Guard is considering another option to keep the spill from reaching nearby American shorelines: setting the oil on fire.

Yes, you read that right. The idea of a controlled burn surfaced as a possible way to remove thick pockets of crude rife with baseball-sized tar balls from within the massive slick. That tarry crude poses the biggest threat to sensitive coastal areas. Landry said burning could begin as early as today [Houston Chronicle]. BP, the company that leased the now-sunken oil rig, is trying to slow the leak via the work of submersible robots, but so far they’ve had no success. And so 42,000 gallons of oil continue to leak into the gulf every day. To keep the spill from becoming one of the worst in American history, the Coast Guard is considering all its options.

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Elephants Emit Special "Bee Rumble" to Warn Others About Marauding Bugs

By Smriti Rao | April 27, 2010 1:24 pm

When it comes to the relationship between bees and African elephants, size does not matter. The massive pachyderms are terrified of bees, which can painfully sting elephants around their eyes and inside their trunks. Baby elephants are the most vulnerable to bee stings, as their skin isn’t thick enough to ward off the insects. And researchers have now found that the elephants have developed a special strategy to help them avoid these bees that scare the bejesus out of them.

When an elephant takes note of a swarm of bees, it emits a distinct rumbling call. This bee alarm, which the scientists termed a “bee rumble,” helps draw the herd’s attention to the bees and allows them to run off unharmed, the researchers write in the journal PloS ONE. What’s more, they respond to an audio recording of the bee rumble as if it were the real thing, giving farmers a tool they could potentially use to fend off unwanted elephants.

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DARPA Loses Contact with Mach 20 "Hypersonic Glider" During Test Flight

By Andrew Moseman | April 27, 2010 1:03 pm

HTV2It was a big week for experimental military aircraft, with the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane and the Navy’s biofuel-powered “Green Hornet” both achieving successful test flights. But the most ambitious—the HTV-2 hypersonic glider under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—lost contact with its operators during its run.

Launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. on April 22, the unmanned HTV-2 was planned to cross the Pacific and impact the ocean north of Kwajalein Atoll in the first of two flights to demonstrate technology for a prompt global strike weapon [Aviation Week]. It successfully achieved separation from its booster rocket high in the atmosphere; however, nine minutes into the test the glider lost communication. Now the military is studying the test flight telemetry to figure out where the HTV-2 would have crashed down.

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Do You Eat Chocolate to Relieve Depression–or Does Chocolate Make You Depressed?

By Smriti Rao | April 27, 2010 11:27 am

iStock_000008675082XSmallScientists have long suspected that a link exists between mood and chocolate, as studies (done primarily with women) have suggested that eating a chocolate bar temporarily banished the blues. Now a study has brought new complexity to the issue with its finding that depressed people consume larger amounts of chocolate. But researchers are no closer to figuring out which factor is the cause and which is the effect: Do glum people reach for a Hershey bar to lift their spirits, or is the chocolate actually bringing them down?

For this study, researchers at the University of California studied 931 men and women who weren’t on antidepressants and quizzed them on their chocolate-chomping habits. Then, using a standard screening survey, they assessed the volunteers for symptoms of depression. The scientists found that those who were the most blue consumed the most chocolate.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

Found on the Moon: A Soviet Laser Reflector That Was Lost for 40 Years

By Andrew Moseman | April 27, 2010 10:03 am

SovietRoverFour decades ago, the Soviet Union put a reflector on the moon able to bounce laser signals back to the Earth. There was just one problem: They lost it.

But now the marooned reflector has been found, thanks to the determined hunting of University of California, San Diego researchers. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, in orbit around the moon, photographed the landing area where the USSR’s Luna 17 mission dropped off the missing reflector, Lunokhod 1, in 1970. The photos turned up a faint reflective dot, and the team thought that was it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: lasers, LRO, moon, Russia

Off the California Coast, Giant Volcanoes Made of Asphalt

By Andrew Moseman | April 27, 2010 9:38 am

If you thought the toxic bubbling lakes of asphalt DISCOVER covered on Friday were impressive, you ought to see what’s under the sea just off the California coast: giant volcanoes made from the same stuff we use to pave our roads.

Lead author David Valentine and his colleagues first found these asphalt volcanoes in 2007 when they sent submersible robots to explore peculiar formations 700 feet below the surface. Now, in a study in Nature Geoscience, the team has published its findings and its images of the extinct volcanoes. Valentine says the formations are six stories high, and spread out farther than a football field. “If I could convert all the asphalt in the largest volcano to gasoline, it would be enough to fuel my Honda Civic for about half a billion miles” [National Geographic], he says.

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How Chimps Mourn Their Dead: Reactions to Death Caught on Film

By Smriti Rao | April 26, 2010 4:43 pm

Do chimpanzees truly understand the concept of death–and do they grieve for their dead? Two separate studies due to be published in journal Current Biology suggest that chimps may have emotional responses to death that aren’t so different from humans’ reactions.

In the first study, researchers observed an ailing female chimp in a Scottish zoo. The elderly chimp, called Pansy, was believed to be more than 50 years old. As Pansy’s health began to falter, other chimps, including Pansy’s daughter, began to exhibit signs of concern that seemed remarkably human. They groomed Pansy more often than usual as she became lethargic, and after her death, her daughter stayed near the body for an entire night, even though she had never slept on that platform before. All of the group were subdued for several days afterwards, and avoided the place where she had died, spending long hours grooming each other [BBC].

In the second study, scientists working in the forests of Guinea observed two chimp mothers carrying around the bodies of their dead infants for weeks after their deaths. One chimp carried her dead baby around for more than 60 days, an unusually long period, according to the scientists. During the period, the babies’ bodies slowly mummified as they dried out. The bereaved mothers used tools to fend off flies [BBC].

For an in-depth examination of what these two studies reveal about our closest ancestor’s understanding of death and mortality, read Ed Yong’s post in the DISCOVER blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science.”

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Sunken Oil Rig Now Leaking Crude; Robots Head to the Rescue

By Andrew Moseman | April 26, 2010 2:16 pm

100422-G-8093-004-Deepwater HorizonWhen we last reported on the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig had sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, but at least the Coast Guard saw no new oil leakage happening. Over the weekend, though, things went from bad to worse as response teams began to see crude oil leaking into the Gulf. Now, the Coast Guard says, 42,000 gallons per day are leaking into the sea, and it may be 45 to 90 days before the leak can be stopped.

Deepwater Horizon, under lease by BP, had been drilling into an oil reserve 5,000 feet below the surface of the water. When the burning rig sank, its 5,000-foot pipeline crumbled like a giant broken straw. The biggest leak has been found at the first crook. The well valve is holding for now but there’s at least one more leak [ABC News]. The Coast Guard couldn’t see the oil so deep under sea right away, which is why the initial assessment wasn’t this bad.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Japan's Damaged Asteroid Probe Could Limp Back to Earth in June

By Andrew Moseman | April 26, 2010 10:37 am

hayabusaBattered, drained of fuel, and travel-weary, Japan’s asteroid-sampler is almost home. The Hayabusa, which the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched in 2003, is scheduled to drop its sample canister in the Australian outback in June. But, the project leaders warn, there’s still a chance than the beleaguered sojourner won’t make it. And even if it does successfully return to Earth, it’s possible that the sample capsule may not contain extraterrestrial rock.

Hayabusa spent three months exploring the Itokawa asteroid in late 2005, even making an unplanned landing on the asteroid’s surface. The probe spent up to a half-hour on Itokawa, making it the first spacecraft to lift off from an asteroid []. The craft also took 1,600 pictures and more than 100,000 infrared images.

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