Thin Insulation Layer May Prevent Pluto’s Underground Ocean From Freezing

By Korey Haynes | May 20, 2019 1:30 pm
top edge of Pluto
Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia may be insulating its underground ocean. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

Pluto has left astronomers puzzled ever since the world was discovered in 1930. And its mysteries only grew in the aftermath of NASA’s New Horizons probe, which cruised by the dwarf planet in 2015. One point of confusion is Sputnik Planitia, part of the now-familiar heart-shaped region on Pluto’s northern hemisphere.

New Horizons’ instruments hinted that there might be an underground ocean in the region. Otherwise, the tiny, far-off world would be so cold it would have frozen through entirely. Yet Pluto’s crust in the same region is thinner in some areas than others, and that only makes sense if it’s frozen hard – warmer slush would spread out more evenly. Astronomers have been trying to explain those apparent contradictions ever since.

But now one group of researchers thinks they have an answer. The scientists say that a thin layer of insulation – gases like methane trapped inside an ice layer – might be the key to keeping Pluto both very cold and not quite frozen. The team of Japanese researchers led by Shunichi Kamata published their findings Monday in Nature Geoscience.

A Delicate Balance

The scientists suspect this insulating layer is made of a material called clathrate hydrates, which are gases trapped in a solid layer like ice. On Earth, we think of freezing oceans producing more or less normal water ice. But on Pluto, the oceans may have large amounts of dissolved gases and other substances. If the oceans produce a frozen top layer, it would include these gases, trapped inside the ice – and that substance wouldn’t act the same as normal ice.

This layer instead would have some unique properties that fit into the strange puzzle of Pluto’s ocean and ice layers. The layer is a good insulator – it doesn’t exchange much heat with the materials around it. And it’s viscous, supporting the slow movement of ice that leads to the strange differences in thickness scientists observed at Sputnik Planitia.

There are a few options for what kind of gas could be hidden inside this insulating layer. But one of the more likely suspects is methane, since Pluto and many bodies like it have plenty to spare.

Kamata and her colleagues came to their conclusions by using detailed modeling, and matching what their computer simulations predicted to what New Horizons has already revealed about Pluto. And Pluto isn’t the only cold world suspected to have underground oceans. So while New Horizons is long past Pluto now, scientists could still look for chances to observe this insulating layer in more detail.  

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

Hubble Spies a Galaxy Deformed and Rejuvenated by a Near Collision

By Jake Parks | May 17, 2019 11:20 am

NGC 4485

Millions of years ago, the once-spiral galaxy NGC 4485 (seen here) had a close encounter with a much larger galaxy named NGC 4490 (out of frame to bottom right). The near-miss transformed half of NGC 4485 into a brightly burning nursery of newly formed stars and created a 25,000-light-year long stream of knotted gas and dust (right) between the two galaxies. (Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble)

A cosmic hit-and-run some 30 million light-years away has left one galaxy with an identity crisis.

For billions of years, the now-irregular NGC 4485 lived a nice and normal life as a standard spiral galaxy located in the constellation Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs). Then, a few million years back, NGC 4485 experienced a near-miss when the equivalent of a galactic semi-truck (NGC 4490) careened past it, creating a gravitational wake that wreaked havoc for both parties.

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

O’Neill Colonies: A Decades-Long Dream for Settling Space

By Korey Haynes | May 16, 2019 5:00 pm

river and settlements under a transparent ring in space

O’Neill colonies are an idea nearly as old as the space program, but they still hold value for the future. (Credit: NASA)

Last week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed his spaceship company’s new lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, and he spelled out a bold and broad vision for humanity’s future in space. Faced with the limits of resources here on Earth, most fundamentally energy, he pointed to life in space as a solution.

“If we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources,” Bezos said. “We could have a trillion people out in the solar system.” And while colonies on other planets would be plagued by low gravity, long distances to Earth (leading to communication delays), and further limits down the road, those weaknesses are avoided if the colonies remain truly in space.

To that end, Bezos instead suggested people consider taking up residence in O’Neill colonies, a futuristic concept for space settlements first dreamed up decades ago. “These are very large structures, miles on end, and they hold a million people or more each.”

Gerard O’Neill was a physicist from Princeton University who teamed up with NASA in the 1970s on a series of workshops that explored efficient ways for humans to live off-world. Beyond influencing Bezos, his ideas have also deeply affected how many space experts and enthusiasts think about realistic ways of living in space.

“What will space colonies be like?” O’Neill once asked the Space Science Institute he founded. “First of all, there’s no point in going out into space if the future that we see there is a sterile future of living in tin cans. We have to be able to recreate, in space, habitats which are as beautiful, as Earth-like, as the loveliest parts of planet Earth — and we can do that.” Of course, neither O’Neill nor anyone since has actually made such a habitat, but in many ways, the concepts he helped developed half a century ago remain some of the most practical options for large-scale and long-term space habitation. Read More

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

Beyond Harmful Gas: The Future of Refrigeration May Rely on ‘Plastic Crystals’

By Brian Owens | May 16, 2019 4:58 pm

old refrigerators

Used refrigerators and freezers stored in a waste station. The gases from standard fridges can harm the environment when they escape. (Credit:

(Inside Science) — Refrigeration has been around for about 100 years, but hasn’t changed much in that time. A time traveller from the early 1900s would still recognize the big box full of chilled food in your kitchen. But soon, researchers say, new materials could replace refrigeration as we know it, making it more adaptable, efficient and environmentally friendly. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, top posts

Frenchie Breathing Problems Run Deeper Than Smushed Faces

By Megan Schmidt | May 16, 2019 4:47 pm

French bulldogs were identified as one of a few breeds that carry a genetic mutation that make them more susceptible to obstructive airway syndrome. (Credit: Maciej Kopaniecki/

French bulldogs are one of several breeds with a genetic mutation that can increase their risk of a disease called obstructive airway syndrome. (Credit: Maciej Kopaniecki/

Who can resist a smooshed nose, wrinkly wide grin, and buggy eyes? Flat-faced dog breeds like bulldogs and pugs have become the popular “it” pets of the moment. But the iconic looks that make Frenchies and the like so photogenic can also be harmful to their health and wellbeing.

Veterinarians have long known that brachycephalic breeds – or dogs bred to have condensed snouts – are prone to breathing issues. One of the most worrisome conditions is what’s called Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). It’s sometimes described as trying to breathe through a straw. And in severe cases, a dog can be so oxygen deprived that they pass out.

But mysteriously, similar breathing problems are also common among Norwich terriers, which have normal snouts. And that fact has long stumped vets, breeders and researchers. Now, a new discovery could explain why many Norwich terriers and a few flat-faced breeds suffer from similar airway syndromes, despite their very different muzzles.

A team of researchers has discovered a genetic mutation not tied to skull shape that seems to play a role in the breathing problems of Norwich terriers. Interestingly, they also found this same mutation in bulldogs and French bulldogs, and it may play a role in causing airway syndromes in these breeds, according to their study published in PLOS Genetics this week. The work included researchers from the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and Switzerland’s University of Bern. Read More

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

New Horizons Reveals Ultima Thule’s Quiet, Lonesome Past

By Korey Haynes | May 16, 2019 4:00 pm

two-lobed asteroid

New Horizons visited Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day, and the results are finally ready for publication. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI//Roman Tkachenko)

After New Horizons streaked past Pluto in 2015, its main task was over, but it still had work to do. On New Year’s Day of 2019, it made a flyby of another, even more distant object named 2014 MU69, more commonly called Ultima Thule. Since then, the spacecraft has been slowly but steadily sending streams of information back across the increasingly vast gulf of space between it and Earth.

From that information, scientists now know that the snowman-shaped space rock formed from a gentle collision of two bodies, that astronomers now refer to as Ultima and Thule. In general, Ultima Thule seems to have had a calm history, with little variation across its surface, leading astronomers to rule out more violent collisions that would lead to a more patchwork appearance. These and other details were revealed Thursday in a study led by Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute and published in the journal Science.

Far Out

Ultima Thule’s calm history falls neatly into place with other recent observations. There are a whole herd of spacecraft taking data on oddball space rocks, and where those rocks orbit seems to tell astronomers a great deal about what to expect from their histories.

For objects in the asteroid belt and elsewhere in the middle of the solar system, it’s common to see a history of violence. Due to their closer tracks to the sun, these objects move faster, and collide more violently. Objects often break apart into smaller pieces on collision, instead of merging together, and many of the objects currently under investigation show signs of once being part of larger bodies. They’re also more active right now, when more direct exposure to sunlight can cause surprising activity on their surfaces.

But for objects in the Kuiper Belt around Pluto and beyond, astronomers see evidence of a more peaceful existence. Because these objects orbit so far from the sun, their orbital speeds are slower (this is a basic tenant of Kepler’s laws). Also, the solar system is generally less crowded as you look farther out from the sun. So objects collide less often, and at slower speeds, resulting in less small debris. Pluto showed this phenomenon in its relative lack of impact scars. And now Ultima Thule backs up the same ideas.

While the first images New Horizons sent back showed apparently distinct regions on Ultima Thule, more detailed investigations show little variance in color or composition, again pointing to a history lacking sharp or recent changes. And New Horizons found no signs of dust, moons, or rings around Ultima Thule, another sign that it has spent much of its history alone and undisturbed.

Ultima Thule did offer one big surprise. Rather than a fully round snowman, the two pieces of the asteroid appear to be flattened, more like two pancakes that were poured too closely in the pan and grew together. Since most space rocks are at least vaguely spherical, the flattened nature of Ultima Thule perplexes astronomers. So far, it’s not clear what caused the flattening.

Astronomers often look to asteroids as the building blocks of the solar system, since they’ve undergone far fewer changes than the material that was long ago incorporated into large, complex bodies like planets and their often active moons. The rest of the New Horizons data won’t finish downloading to Earth until next year, when astronomers can finish mining Ultima Thule’s secrets. But for those researchers looking for a pristine space rock, Ultima Thule may be exactly the right target.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

On Islands, Tons of Plastic Trash Is Likely Buried Beneath the Sands

By Lacy Schley | May 16, 2019 12:04 pm

beach debris

Plastic trash like bottles and shoes cover the surface of a remote island’s beach. But the bulk of the debris lies where we can’t see it. (Credit: Silke Stuckenbrock)

We all know our plastic problem is out of control. So far, humans have produced more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, and that number is only growing. Now, a new study in Scientific Reports claims that the problem goes deeper than we thought — literally.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: ecology, ocean, pollution

MRI Scans During Birth Show How a Baby’s Head Changes Shape

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 15, 2019 5:08 pm


(Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Don’t get a big head, your mother may have told you. That’s good advice, but it comes too late for most of us. Humans have had big heads, relatively speaking, for hundreds of thousands of years, much to our mothers’ dismay.

Our oversize noggins are a literal pain during childbirth. Babies have to twist and turn as they exit the birth canal, sometimes leading to complications that necessitate surgery. And while big heads can be painful for the mother, they can downright transformative for babies: A fetus’ pliable skull deforms during birth like putty squeezed through a tube to allow it to pass into the world. Read More

MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

Tonight’s SpaceX Starlink Launch Could be the Start of a New Internet

By Korey Haynes | May 15, 2019 3:30 pm

SpaceX rocket standing

The first batch of Starlink satellites will launch tonight on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Credit: SpaceX)

Tonight, SpaceX will launch the first flock of their Starlink satellites to space. These are the vanguard of what CEO Elon Musk hopes will eventually become a network of 12,000 orbiting devices providing cheap, global internet coverage.

The launch window opens at 10:30 p.m. E.T. The satellites, which are densely packed inside the cargo hold already, will be delivered to space on a Falcon 9 rocket. The weather forecast for Cape Canaveral, SpaceX’s standard launch site, looks promising for tonight, though a backup launch window waits on Thursday night if there are any delays. SpaceX will livestream the launch (see below). Read More

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

NASA Names 2024 Moon Mission ‘Artemis,’ Asks Congress for Funding

By Korey Haynes | May 15, 2019 3:30 pm

A lander touches down on the Moon's surface in this screengrab from a new NASA promotional video about its plans for 2024. (Credit: NASA)

A lander touches down on the Moon’s surface in this screengrab from a new NASA promotional video about its plans for 2024. (Credit: NASA)

On Monday night, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the space agency has named its planned mission to put humans back on the lunar surface: Artemis. As the Greek deity most associated with the Moon, and the god Apollo’s twin sister, the namesake choice was an obvious fit.

On the logistical side, Bridenstine also announced that NASA will ask Congress for an additional $1.6 billion in funding to jumpstart the program. NASA has not put forward a full budget for the ambitious Artemis program, which the Trump administration says will put humans on the Moon again by 2024.

Bridenstine said previous reporting, which rumored Artemis would cost $8 billion annually on top of NASA’s normal budget, was incorrect. He declined to offer a number of his own, however. President Donald Trump also mentioned the lunar plans for the first time last night, tweeting about the $1.6 billion budget increase.

This funding would have to be approved by Congress, and it is unclear whether there is broad support there for such increases. While the exact funding sources weren’t mentioned during the telecon, the overall budget requested by the White House has not increased. Bridenstine did specify that the money is not coming at the expense of other NASA projects.

After nearly 50 years away, NASA hopes to land humans on the Moon in the next five years. (Credit: MASA)

After nearly 50 years away, NASA hopes to land humans on the Moon in the next five years. (Credit: MASA)

Money isn’t the only challenge to the lunar program. SpaceX and especially Boeing, who contract to build craft and fly missions for NASA, are both facing technological difficulties with their crew-carrying spacecraft just to get humans to the International Space Station. And the space agency itself has seen delays to its Orion capsule, which NASA designed with the intention of sending astronauts into deep space. Adding to the challenge, NASA does not currently have a craft on hand that can land cargo, let alone humans, on the Moon, and the timelines for developing such missions have continued to slip. Last week, Amazon found Jeff Bezos announced that this spaceflight company, Blue Origin, is building a lunar lander that could help NASA out.

Furthermore, NASA doesn’t currently have spacesuits suitable for lunar exploration, and none of the $1.6 billion is earmarked for suit research and development. The challenges are steep given the tight time constraints to land humans – and particularly a woman, as Bridenstine has claimed as an additional goal – on the Moon’s surface by 2024, the end of Trump’s potential second term.

Whether they can be accomplished depends in large part on whether the funding requested is adequate to meet those goals, and whether it gets approved at all. But if it does happen, Artemis will take her place alongside Apollo in the grand history of human space exploration. And unlike Apollo, perhaps Artemis will let humans make a more permanent stand on the Moon.

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

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