Decade-Long Geology Project Rewrites Origins of Earth’s Methane

By Roni Dengler | April 22, 2019 6:30 pm
Methane bubbles up from below a lake. (Credit: Strelyuk/Shutterstock)

Methane bubbles up from below a lake. (Credit: Strelyuk/Shutterstock)

Turkey’s Mount Chimaera is on fire, and has been for millennia. Dozens of campfire-sized flames burst straight of the mountain’s rocky, sea-facing slope. These eternal flames are fueled by methane, the odorless, colorless substance that provides much of our natural gas for fuel, as well as a potent greenhouse gas.

Most methane (a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogens) forms from the decay of ancient plants, animals and other life. But the Earth itself can create methane, too. When water reacts with a mineral called olivine in certain types of rocks, it releases hydrogen gas. This hydrogen reacts with a carbon source like carbon dioxide to form methane. Scientists call this kind of methane “abiotic” because it can happen without any lifeforms present. And scientists are finding more and more of it, researchers announced Monday. What’s more, they’ve also discovered that even much of this abiotic methane is actually created with help from life.

The find rewrites the textbook description of methane formation, and it also reiterates that not all deep hydrocarbons come from what people typically think of as fossil fuels. But it could be good news for the fossil fuel industry, too, researchers say.

“Abiotic methane would of course be of great potential value economically given that natural gas is very likely to be a key source of energy for another 50 years or so at least,” said Edward Young, a geochemist at the University of California Los Angeles and member of the Deep Carbon Observatory. This network of scientists have been on a decade-long mission to discover how carbon that’s stored deep in the earth affects life on the surface.

Methane-fueled fires blaze from Turkey's Mount Chimera. (Credit: VideoBlocks)

Methane-fueled fires blaze from Turkey’s Mount Chimaera. (Credit: VideoBlocks)

Methane Microbes

As part of this latest study, the researchers collected methane samples from around the world, including a sandbar in eastern Colorado, Mount Chimaera in Turkey and deep gold mines in South Africa, among other places. Then they analyzed the gas’ chemical components. Different isotopes, versions of the same element with different numbers of neutrons, revealed how the methane formed. “Using the pairings of heavy isotopes in methane gas (different atomic weights of carbon and hydrogen comprising the methane molecule), we can now tell how a methane molecule was built, including its temperature of formation and/or its reaction pathway,” Young explained.

To the scientists’ surprise, the investigation revealed that microbes actually help make abiotic methane. Microorganisms deep in the earth consume hydrogen and produce methane. “We can tell that there are instances where we thought abiotic reactions were making methane, but instead it was in part due to the activity of microbes,” Young said. The discovery uncovers a chicken and egg conundrum: which came first, abiotic methane or the microbes?

“We went into this project thinking we knew how abiotic methane formed,” Young said in a statement. “What we’re learning is that it is much more complicated, and the biggest key is hydrogen.”

Once they get a better grasp on how rocks make the hydrogen that gets incorporated into methane, Young said, scientists will be a lot closer to knowing how much abiotic methane there is on Earth and how much the microbes deep in the earth produce.

GraphicDeepCarbonObservatoryfinal

Mars’ Methane

The techniques Young and colleagues used to determine the source of methane on Earth could also shed light on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Researchers discovered methane in the atmosphere of Mars, and there’s been a debate recently as to whether it was produced by living organisms or not. Now Young and colleagues with the Deep Carbon Observatory can begin to help answer the question of whether the methane came from reactions between water and rocks deep in the planet’s crust or a more exciting source, like microbes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: sustainability

Crew Dragon Test Mishap Could Delay First SpaceX Human Flight

By Korey Haynes | April 22, 2019 2:29 pm
capsule suspended from crane with firing thrusters

The SuperDraco thrusters that can propel the Crew Dragon capsule were being tested on Saturday, April 20, when SpaceX says the craft suffered an “anomaly.” The thrusters are shown here firing during a previous test. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule experienced an “anomaly” during a rocket test on Saturday that sent smoke drifting high over its launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Elon Musk and SpaceX have been short on details so far, but unconfirmed video footage shows the spacecraft being destroyed. The same Crew Dragon capsule completed a flawless flight to the International Space Station in March.

The event raises concerns that SpaceX may not be able to fly humans to space for the first time this year, let alone hit their target launch date in July. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

NASA Announces Upcoming ISS Crews, Which Won’t Fly Commercial

By Korey Haynes | April 19, 2019 3:00 pm
astronaut Christina Koch in space

NASA astronaut Christina Koch will break the record for the longest-duration spaceflight for a woman. (Credit: NASA)

Ever since the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA has been paying Russia for rides to the International Space Station. They’d hoped that dependency would finally end in 2019. But with its new lineup of flights and launch dates released this week, the space agency acknowledged they’re not quite done needing Russia’s Soyuz rockets yet.

NASA will remain dependent on Russia for the next round of space station rotations. Thanks to delays in commercial launches by SpaceX and Boeing, which NASA has paid billions to ferry crews to ISS, the space agency is now settling on longer missions for their astronauts, who will continue to hitch rides on Soyuz rockets.

In fact, the new long-term crew roster and launch dates for the next year does not list any flights on commercial launches.

Commercial Crew Delays

NASA had planned to stop buying rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz flights by the end of 2019 and switch to buying seats from SpaceX and Boeing instead. But both companies have suffered delays and are still in the process of testing and being certified to fly humans.

NASA’s solution, to avoid abandoning the ISS in the meantime, was to purchase two additional Soyuz seats to get them through the rest of 2019 and into early 2020, and stretch out the assignments of their crew.

As a result, NASA astronaut Christina Koch, currently on her first spaceflight, will now stay on the ISS for a total of 335 days – a record for any woman in space, and just shy of Scott Kelly’s 340-day record for a NASA astronaut. NASA is hoping to take advantage of the new schedule to learn more about long-term human duration in space, on the heels of their recent findings based on the Kelly astronaut twins. Fellow astronaut Andrew Morgan will also be on the ISS for an extended stay of at least seven months, though his return date isn’t yet pinned down. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Two Neutron Stars Collide, Forming a Magnetar

By Alison Klesman | April 19, 2019 1:30 pm
Caption. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Uni. of Science and Technology of China/Y. Xue et al; Optical: NASA/STScI)

Chandra observations show the flare-up and subsequent dimming of XT2, which matches predictions for the signal from a pair of merging neutron stars and the birth of a magnetar. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Uni. of Science and Technology of China/Y. Xue et al; Optical: NASA/STScI)

In October 2017, astronomers announced the first detection of gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars earlier that year. The event also rung in the era of multi-messenger astronomy, as more than 70 telescopes observed the event’s afterglow in optical light, X-rays, gamma rays, and more. Now, an X-ray signal dubbed XT2 from a galaxy 6.6 billion light-years away has revealed another neutron star merger, which left behind a single, heavier neutron star with an incredibly powerful magnetic field: a magnetar.

“We’ve found a completely new way to spot a neutron star merger,” said Yongquan Xue of the University of Science and Technology of China in a press release. Xue is lead author of a paper on the finding, published April 11 in Nature. Furthermore, he says, “The behavior of this X-ray source matches what one of our team members predicted for these events.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: stars

How Passing Asteroids Reveal the Secrets of Distant Stars

By Alison Klesman | April 19, 2019 1:15 pm
This artist's concept shows the (greatly exaggerated) diffraction pattern of starlight that occurs when an asteroid passes in front of the star. The pattern of light allows astronomers to measure the star's size. (Credit: DESY, Lucid Berlin)

This artist’s concept shows the (greatly exaggerated) diffraction pattern of starlight that occurs when an asteroid passes in front of the star. The pattern of light allows astronomers to measure the star’s size. (Credit: DESY, Lucid Berlin)

Stars in the night sky appear as tiny points of light because they are too far away for your eyes to resolve. But even through powerful telescopes, stars still appear as mere points because they are too small to see their true physical size at vast distances. Now, a group of astronomers from over 20 different institutions has found a way to combine a unique telescope array with passing asteroids to measure the diameter of two distant stars, including the smallest star directly measured to date at just over twice the size of our sun.

Their work appeared April 15 in Nature Astronomy. And using this new information, astronomers can better refine their picture of the properties and life cycles of stars, which are the building blocks that make up our galaxy and every other galaxy in the universe. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

How A ‘Snowball Chamber’ Might Help Scientists Finally Find Dark Matter

By Jake Parks | April 18, 2019 4:07 pm
supercooled water

Researchers have developed a device called a snowball chamber, which keeps water in a supercooled state until an incoming particle triggers the water to freeze almost spontaneously. They hope the new tool will help them make the first direct detection of dark matter. (Credit: Pxhere.com)

If you enjoy watching videos on the internet, you’ve likely already witnessed the phenomenon known as supercooling. Basically, the process involves taking ultra-pure water and putting it into a clean, smooth container that lacks any structural defects. If the conditions are right, when you attempt to freeze the water by dropping its temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), it will surprisingly remain in a liquid state.

This is because in order for ice crystals to form, they need a foundation upon which to grow, called a nucleation site. Typically, ice first forms around dust particles or rough spots on a container’s surface. But if there is no nucleation site from which the ice can spread out, the water will continue to drop in temperature while remaining in liquid form. Then, when you add a nucleation site to the supercooled water — by either introducing an imperfection or vigorously shaking the container — the chilled liquid will solidify into ice almost spontaneously.

It’s this odd behavior of supercooled water that researchers are now hoping to exploit in order to help them search for the elusive substance known as dark matter, which accounts for roughly 85 percent of the universe’s overall mass, yet only weakly interacts with normal matter.

According to new research presented on April 14 at a meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Denver, Colorado, scientists have shown — for the first time — that supercooled water does not need a macroscopic nucleation site to suddenly turn to ice. Instead, the researchers found that introducing subatomic particles, namely neutrons, can also cause supercooled water to rapidly freeze.

“We managed to discover a new property of supercooled water,” said lead author Matthew Szydagis, a physicist at the University at Albany in New York, in a press release. “To our great surprise, we found that some particles (neutrons) but not others (gamma rays) trigger freezing.”

With these new results comes a tantalizing possibility: Astrophysicists may soon be able to use this new-found property of supercooled water to aid in their never-ending hunt for one of nature’s biggest enigmas. “Not only do we have a new detector of fundamental particles,” Szydagis said, “but potentially of dark matter because neutrons are thought to emulate it.”

Snowballs from dark matter

The researchers have dubbed the new detector the “snowball chamber,” a name proposed by Szydagis’ wife, linguist Kel Szydagis. The snowball chamber mirrors the names of other devices commonly used in particle physics. These include the cloud chamber and the bubble chamber, which use supersaturated vapor and superheated liquid, respectively, to track the movements of charged particles within a vessel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJWNh_nCVmk

But because water within a snowball chamber does not spontaneously freeze when charged particles like electrons disturb it, the study says the detector is “potentially ideal for dark matter searches seeking nuclear recoil alone.”

Most experiments that attempt to directly detect dark matter rely on observing how the nuclei of atoms recoil after they interact with dark matter particles — which are thought to continuously stream through the Earth in huge numbers. But one of the greatest challenges related to detecting dark matter is eliminating interference from other types of background particles, which tend to be charged and therefore scatter electrons. However, such charged particles don’t seem to diminish the effectiveness of the snowball chamber.

nucleation

New research shows bombarding a snowball chamber with neutrons can form one or more nucleation sites. This time-lapse shows a triple-nucleation event. The red circles mark where the three nucleation sites first appeared. The first two “snowballs” quickly merge, but the third site appears significantly later, indicating a different neutron triggered its formation. (Credit: Szydagis, Matthew et al.; arXiv:1807.09253)

The advantage of the snowball chamber over many other experimental setups is that if a passing dark matter particle gives even the tiniest nudge to the nucleus of an atom in supercooled water, it can trigger the water to spontaneously freeze. If all other possible causes of nucleation are eliminated, this would indicate that an interaction with a dark matter particle occurred.

Unlike other methods that attempt to detect dark matter, which are suited for hunting particles hundreds to thousands of times heavier than the mass of a proton, the researchers point out the snowball chamber might allow them to expand their search to lower mass alternatives — including dark matter particles less than about a dozen times the mass of a proton.”All of my work is motivated by the search for dark matter, a form of matter we’re sure is out there because we can observe its indirect gravitational effects,” said Szydagis. “It makes up a significant fraction of the universe, but we have yet to uncover direct, conclusive and unambiguous evidence of it within the lab.”

Although the researchers point out the sensitivity of the snowball chamber is currently below the threshold needed to detect low-mass dark matter particles, they have identified where improvements can be made. According to the study, they will continue to work on increasing both the purity of the water and the cleanliness of the container, as well as supercooling the water to even lower temperature than the -4 F (-20 C) they achieved. Additionally, since particle physics is often a numbers game, they would like to increase the size of the snowball chamber so it can hold tens — or even hundreds — of kilograms of supercooled water.

But that’s much farther down the road. “Since this is basic research that has never been done before, there was no guarantee it would work,” Szydagis said. “It was a ‘let’s try it and see’ approach — the scientific method in its most basic form.”

From dark matter to squirrels

Though the newly developed snowball chamber may one day aid in the hunt for dark matter, the paper points out that it could be used for studying other worthwhile topics. For example, according to the paper, “Planets like those in the Trappist-1 system close to a red dwarf star [produce] more radiation than our Sun.” If these planets have supercooled water in their atmospheres, they “may experience different cloud formation rates and climate than currently modelable.”

But astrophysics is not the only discipline that may benefit from research carried out with the snowball chamber. Atmospheric scientists could also use it to study how cosmic rays may trigger the nucleation of supercooled water in Earth’s atmosphere. Or, according to the paper, “in biochemistry, our new result may affect the study of animals which capitalize on supercooling of their blood,” like the arctic ground squirrel.

“All in all, this is a promising start to a completely new technology,” the APS presentation concluded.

preprint of the research is available for review on arXiv.org.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: dark matter, physics

Scientists Discover 1.8 Million Hidden Southern California Earthquakes

By Roni Dengler | April 18, 2019 3:00 pm
Scientists looked for tiny earthquakes that have hit Southern California in recent years and discovered a whopping 1.8 million that hadn't previously been recorded. The findings indicate an earthquake hits the region every 174 seconds on average, even though the tiny tremors can't be felt on Earth's surface. It could offer fresh insights into plate tectonics. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Scientists looked for tiny earthquakes that have hit Southern California in recent years and discovered a whopping 1.8 million that hadn’t previously been recorded. (Credit: Varunyuuu & TonelloPhotography/Shutterstock)

Southern California is famous for its sandy beaches, wine country, theme parks and Hollywood glitz. And also its earthquakes. Now, researchers have identified more than 1.8 million previously unknown earthquakes that hit Southern California between 2008 and 2017. The findings suggest these truly tiny earthquakes — as small as just 0.3 magnitude on the Richter scale — happen every 174 seconds, yet they’re hardly felt on Earth’s surface.

“The goal was to produce a state of the art earthquake catalog for southern California,” said Zachary Ross, a geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who led the new research. “This catalog would then … provide enough resolution to test important physical theories about earthquake triggering, nucleation and the geometry of fault zones.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: geology

We Might All Have Synesthesia, New Study Suggests

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 18, 2019 2:00 pm
vincent van gogh

A self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh. The artist is thought to have experienced synesthesia. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Oh, to be a synesthete, those rare people with access to an extra layer of perception. Sounds have colors. Words have taste. Colors play music. The list goes on. The phenomenon isn’t totally understood by scientists, but the general idea is that those with synesthesia experience sensory inputs differently than the rest of us.

It’s no wonder that synesthesia is common among artists. But for those of us that just see letters as letters and can’t taste a song, synesthesia is more apt to inspire jealousy than creativity. We simply don’t have the neural link-ups that lead to the ability.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts

Tiny Star Flares 10 Times Brighter Than the Sun

By Korey Haynes | April 18, 2019 1:00 pm
red star with outbursts

This illustration shows an extremely active, tiny star. (Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick)

On August 13, 2017, the Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) telescope spotted an intense solar flare from a tiny star barely bigger than Jupiter. But despite this sun’s diminutive size, the flare gave off as much energy as 80 billion megatons of TNT. That’s 10 times as powerful as the strongest flare ever observed on our own sun. It’s also the coolest star ever observed to give off such a hot flare, and the spectacular outburst is teaching astronomers the power of small stars. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: stars

Aphid Suicide Squads Save Colonies With Body Ooze

By Anna Groves | April 18, 2019 9:30 am
Soldier nymphs of the aphid Nipponaphis monzeni repair a breach in their nest by discharging bodily fluids and patching the whole.

Soldier nymphs of the aphid Nipponaphis monzeni repair a breach in their nest by discharging bodily fluids and patching the hole. (Credit: Mayako Kutsukake)

Don’t you just hate it when a moth larva busts in through the wall of your house like some squirmy lepidopteran Kool-Aid man? If you’re a colony of aphids living in a gall, this is a real threat. But luckily there’s a team of heroes ready to spring to action, even sacrifice themselves, to repair that wall and save the rest of the clan.

A team of Japanese researchers has been studying this phenomenon for over 15 years. Their latest work, out this week in PNAS, breaks down the interesting chemical properties of the sticky spackle the aphids use to patch the hole. But the coolest part might be how well the phenomenon mirrors a body’s immune system. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution
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