An artist’s conception shows what the surface of the reported planet known as Barnard’s Star b might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser) The astronomical team that found the nearest exoplanet at Proxima Centauri has done it again with the reported detection of a super-Earth orbiting Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to our own. The discoverers acknowledge, however, that they’re not completely sure yet. “After a very careful analysis, we are 99 percent confident that the planet is there,” Spanish astronomer Ignasi Ribas, lead author of a published today by the , said in a. “However, we’ll continue to observe this fast-moving star to exclude possible, but improbable, natural variations of the stellar brightness which could masquerade as a planet.” Assuming it exists, Barnard’s Star b would be at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth, tracing a 233-Earth-day orbit. It would be as close to its parent star as Mercury is to our own sun — but because Barnard’s Star is a dim red dwarf, surface conditions would be far too chilly for life as we know it. The surface temperature would be about 275 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-170 degrees Celsius). The dimness of Barnard’s Star also explains the difficulty and the slight uncertainty surrounding the detection. Astronomers had to combine nearly 800 observations from seven different instruments, spanning 18 years’ worth of archives, to trace faint variations in the spectral characteristics of starlight from Barnard’s star. Patterns in those spectral variations can point to the gravitational wobbles induced by a planet orbiting an alien star. , known as the radial velocity method, led to the very first detections of extrasolar planets in the mid-1990s. More recently, most exoplanets have been detected using a different technique known as the transit method. Ribas, who is the director of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and a research at Spain’s Institute of Space Sciences, noted that there have been many previous searches for planets around Barnard’s Star, and even announcements of discoveries. “Not one has ever been confirmed,” he said in a . “The thing is that the candidate planet we found is so small and so far from its host star that its effect on the star is really, really tiny.” The key observations came from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher on the ESO’s 3.6-meter La Silla telescope in Chile, also known as , plus the instrument at the Calar Alto Observatory in southern Spain. Despite this particular planet’s seeming inhabitability, the reported detection raises hopes that astronomers could get a closeup look at the type of exoplanet considered most likely to have conditions conducive to life. In a , University of Buenos Aires astronomer Rodrigo Diaz said the next generation of telescopes should be able to capture direct images of the planet and measure its light spectrum. “Using this spectrum, the characteristics of the planet’s atmosphere — such as its winds and rotation rate — could be inferred,” Diaz wrote. “This remarkable planet therefore gives us a key piece in the puzzle of planetary formation and evolution, and might be among the first low-mass exoplanets whose atmospheres are probed in detail.” Ribas and his colleagues are part of the , which is surveying a wide swath of red dwarfs for evidence of planets. The collaboration announced its first big find, , in 2016. Proxima b is 4.2 light-years from Earth is at least 30 percent more massive than Earth. It might be potentially habitable, although there are . Rocky super-Earths are thought to be. Thus, closer studies of Proxima b, Barnard’s Star b and other super-Earths should help scientists come closer to figuring out whether the conditions for life are rare or common in the universe. “Much of the universe is still a complete mystery,” Ribas said. “At the moment we are exploring it long-distance, from Earth, but perhaps someday in the distant future we will really be able to visit these planets, so we need to find out more about them first.” Ribas is among more than 60 authors of the study published in Nature, Teams of semi-professional astronomers coordinated by the American Association of Variable Star Observers also contributed to the detection.
November 14, 2018
(Pensoft Publishers) Representing a group of successful biocontrol agents for various pest fruit flies, a parasitic wasp genus remains overlooked, with its most recent identification key dating back to 1969, even though many new species have been added since then. Through a recent study, published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal, which also describes one new to science species, Swiss scientists demonstrate the advantages of new-age interactive identification keys, produced with specialised, free-to-use software.
November 14, 2018
(NIH/National Eye Institute) By combining two imaging modalities -- adaptive optics and angiography -- investigators at the National Eye Institute (NEI) can see live neurons, epithelial cells, and blood vessels deep in the eye's light-sensing retina. Resolving these tissues and cells in the outermost region of the retina in such unprecedented detail promises to transform the detection and treatment of diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness among the elderly.
November 14, 2018
Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrier airplane taxis down a runway at Victorville Airport in California with a LauncherOne rocket slung under one of its wings. (Virgin Orbit via Twitter) British billionaire Richard Branson’s notched another milestone over the Veterans Day weekend: the first high-speed taxi test of its modified Boeing 747 mothership with a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath its wing. In a tweet posted today, Virgin Orbit said the Nov. 11 ground test revved up the plane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, to a speed beyond 110 knots (125 mph) on a runway in Victorville, Calif. That’s fast enough to simulate an aborted takeoff. “We also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto LauncherOne for the first time,” the company said. Branson signaled his approval in a . “Congratulations to all the team on more exciting progress,” he wrote. Zoom, zoom, zoom, was on the move again — this time for our very first high-speed taxi test. Not only did we ramp all the way up to more than 110 knots, we also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto for the first time. — Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) Virgin Orbit is taking a step-by-step approach to testing the LauncherOne air-launch system, which relies on the 747 serving as a flying launch pad. Cosmic Girl is designed to carry a two-stage rocket up to an altitude of about 35,000 feet, then drop the rocket from its carrier pylon. Seconds after release, LauncherOne would fire up its engines to send payloads weighing up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) into low Earth orbit. The test run serves as another hint that captive-carry tests are near, to be followed by drop tests. If everything goes right, the first launch could take place before the end of the year. Virgin Orbit is using the air-launch approach because it allows for payloads to be sent into a wide variety of orbital inclinations, potentially with less than a day of pre-launch preparation. Virtually any airport big enough to host a 747 can host Cosmic Girl, which adds to the system’s rapid-response capability. Future customers include , which is working on a constellation of satellites for global internet access; and , which handles the logistics for small-satellite launches. For what it’s worth, last weekend’s tests tickled Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit — and a few of his Twitter followers: I mean, conceivably *some day* it might become uninteresting to see a 70 foot long rocket strapped under the wing of a 747 hurtling down the runway. But today is not that day. Great work, team! — William Pomerantz (@Pomerantz) Actual footage of during the maneuver: — Karen Rucker (@karen_darlin)
November 14, 2018
Jeff Bezos announces that Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket will be built at a $200 million Florida factory during a news conference in 2015. (Blue Origin Photo) The process that Amazon went through to choose New York, Northern Virginia and Nashville as key sites for expansion isn’t the first HQ2 exercise for CEO Jeff Bezos: You could argue that the pattern was set when Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture decided where it’d manufacture and launch its New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin’s selection process produced far less hype than the yearlong contest that Amazon conducted, and far fewer jobs were at stake. But like the HQ2/3/4 arrangement announced today, the exercise ended up producing multiple winners — as well as disappointed suitors. The saga of Blue Origin’s expansion , six years after Blue Origin’s founding, when the company set up a test facility and launch pad on 18,600 acres of ranchland in West Texas. Obviously, it wouldn’t do to try launching rockets from the headquarters and production facility that Blue Origin had just opened up in Kent, Wash., not far from Interstate 5. Blue Origin’s next major move came in 2015, when it was considering where to build a huge manufacturing facility for the orbital-class New Glenn. The suborbital New Shepard spacecraft were and continue to be built in Kent, but New Glenn required something bigger. The competition came down to Florida vs. North Carolina, and although North Carolina (“First in Flight”) reportedly offered more financial incentives, Cape Canaveral won out. The fact that the Air Force was willing to offer Launch Complex 36 at the Cape as a pad for Blue Origin turned out to be a . To be sure, Florida wasn’t stingy with other sweeteners that carried dollar signs: State and local incentives . The result? Blue Origin invested more than $200 million to build a 750,000-square-foot rocket factory near the Cape, and followed up this year with (backed by millions of dollars in state reimbursements for infrastructure costs). It might have seemed as if Florida had the inside track for Blue Origin’s equivalent to HQ4: a separate factory for the company’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine, destined for use with New Glenn as well as with United Launch Alliance’s semi-reusable Vulcan rocket. But that choice was the subject of a low-key, years-long process that once again took financial incentives as well as location into account. Even Washington state, where the BE-4 engine is currently made, was in the running. At one point, a Blue Origin executive said state legislation aimed at extending tax incentives to spacecraft manufacturers would . (The legislation ended up languishing in limbo.) Last year, Blue Origin announced that, which has played a key role in rocket production since the days of Wernher von Braun in the 1950s. State and local incentives . That sum of $50 million pales in comparison with the that Amazon will get as a result of its expansion plans for New York, Northern Virginia and Nashville. But both cases point to a similar strategy: Incentives are part of the routine, but in the end, site selections reflect the regional specialties those sites can offer for Bezos’ ventures. Just as Blue Origin turned to Florida for launches and to Alabama for rocket engines, Amazon is likely to turn to its new HQ’s for their regional strengths: Software development in New York (which already for software jobs, just behind California and ahead of Washington state) Cloud computing in Northern Virginia (which is already the and ). Operational logistics in Nashville (which is close to and as well as Amazon’s ). In the long run, Amazon’s image as a Seattle company might well morph into multiple identities. Boeing, for example, can be associated with the Seattle area, or with Houston or Florida, or with Chicago, depending on whether you’re talking about planes, rockets or executives. Something similar might be said about Amazon … once the company has all its HQ’s in a row.
November 13, 2018
(University of Arizona College of Engineering) By developing stronger and more stable phase change material -- the stuff that holds the data stored on microchips and rewritable CDs -- researcher Pierre Lucas brings us closer to a reality where data storage systems operate like artificial neural networks.
November 13, 2018
(Pensoft Publishers) Chinese scientists report the first cave-dwelling centipede so far known from southern China. Collected last year during a survey in Gaofeng village, Guizhou Province, the species turned out to not only had been successfully hiding away from biologists in the subterranean darkness, but that it also represented the first in its whole order to be discovered underground in the country. It is described in the open-access journal ZooKeys.
November 13, 2018
SpaceX founder Elon Musk watches February’s ascent of the Falcon Heavy rocket in a scene from National Geographic’s “Mars: Inside SpaceX.” (National Geographic / RadicalMedia via YouTube) Science fiction blends with fact in tonight’s double dose of Mars from National Geographic’s TV channel. Truth to tell, there’s more fact than fiction: The first show in the double feature is “Mars: Inside SpaceX,” which wraps a tale of past and future space exploration around an inside look at SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy launch in February. Then there’s the season premiere of “Mars,” the semi-scripted, semi-documentary series that’s serving up a second set of six episodes. Both shows are eye-openers. For “Inside SpaceX,” National Geographic had exclusive access to the rocket company’s facilities for February’s headline-grabbing launch. We see Musk showing his kids around the access tower at Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A and weighing go/no-go decisions inside the mission control room. The back-and-forth in the control room clears up the mystery behind the countdown holds that popped up in advance of the Falcon Heavy’s liftoff. “You guys, I’m gonna give us a little more time to decide,” launch director Ricky Lim says at one point. “Yeah, hold the clock for now,” Musk replies. The key moment comes when Musk runs outside to watch the Falcon Heavy’s ascent. “That’s unreal!” he exults, with a smile of pure joy breaking out on his face. “Mars: Inside SpaceX” also tells the story of SpaceX’s sometimes-shaky beginnings, and provides historical context for Musk’s overarching aim of turning humanity into a multiplanetary species. “It’s one of those things that’s a reason to live,” Musk explains. The first episode in the second season of “Mars” turns the focus to the year 2042, five years after the conclusion of the first season. Life on Mars gets complicated for the Red Planet’s first residents and their not-for-profit research organization when a for-profit mining operation arrives and starts drilling. In addition to dealing with the basic challenges of life on a new world — such as pregnancy and birth, illness and death — the researchers and the miners have to figure out how to resolve the tension between exploration and exploitation. Scenes in the fictional narrative are intercut with on-camera interviews with present-day “Big Thinkers” (including Musk) and documentary footage that delves into contemporary parallels to the problems of 2042. For example, the tug of war over Martian territory sets the tone for reflecting on a . “There’s a constant push-pull between science and industry, and as a result, emotions run high,” Dee Johnson, showrunner for the second season, . “Although conflicting, their agendas are not mutually exclusive; with the advancement of science and exploration also comes industry and money-making.” Will terrestrial squabbles over resources provide lessons for future Martians? Or in a weird way, could the fictional frictions of 2042 teach us a thing or two about solving 2018’s troubles? As they say in Hollywood, and might well say someday in , stay tuned. “Mars: Inside SpaceX” and the second-season premiere of the “Mars” hybrid series both make their debut on the National Geographic Channel tonight. Check local listings for times. The first season of “Mars” is .
November 12, 2018
(Karolinska Institutet) Pneumococci are the most common cause of respiratory tract infections, such as otitis and sinusitis, as well as of severe infections like pneumonia and meningitis. A new study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden published in Nature Microbiology shows how the bacteria can inhibit immune cell reaction and survive inside cells to give rise to pneumonia.
November 12, 2018