Chandra Discoveries in 3D Available on New Platform (Astronomy)

A collection of the 3D objects from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is now available on a new platform from the Smithsonian Institution. This will allow greater access to these unique 3D models and prints for institutions like libraries and museums as well as the scientific community and individuals in the public.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is one of NASA’s Great Observatories (along with the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, and Compton Gamma-ray Observatory). Chandra, the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope, is operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts.

Video: A new model of the IC 443 supernova remnant is part of a collection of 3D objects from Chandra now available on a platform from the Smithsonian Institution called Voyager, which enables datasets to be used as tools for learning and discovery. There are several versions of the IC 443 model to explore. This first animation of IC 443 data in 3D was optimized for virtual reality. It shows the blast wave of the explosion (bright blue) as well as the outer layers of the star (reds and oranges). In the center, Chandra’s data reveal a nebula of particles and energy around the neutron star (cyan), the dense object left behind after the star collapsed.Credits: VR version: VR model: NASA/CXC/Brown Univ./A.Dupuis et al.; Simulation: INAF/S. Ustamujic et al.; X-ray data: NASA/CXC/MSFC/D.Swartz et al.)

Chandra’s 3D datasets are now included in Voyager, a platform developed by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, which enables datasets to be used as tools for learning and discovery. Viewers can explore these fascinating 3D representations of objects in space alongside a statue of George Washington or a skeleton of an extinct mammoth.

The only requirement to access these 3D models is a smartphone, tablet, or computer that has a current web browser. The Voyager platform enables 3D manipulation, augmented reality, or downloads of 3D printable files. There are also additional levels of information and interaction for the Chandra 3D models, including annotated tours pointing out key features on each cosmic object.

The current suite of Chandra 3D models in Voyager features stars in various phases of the stellar life cycle. Through a variety of techniques, astronomers have captured data from Chandra and other telescopes from these stars and constructed science-based simulations and 3D models of what previously had been represented as flat, two-dimensional projections on the sky.

The inclusion of the Chandra collection in Voyager coincides with the release of Chandra’s latest 3D model: a stunning supernova remnant (remains of an exploded star) called IC 443 located about 5,000 light years from Earth. Details of the model are included in a paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics led by Sabina Ustamujic from the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Palermo, Italy.

There are several versions of this 3D model of IC 443. In the first, Ustamujic and colleagues produced an interactive version of IC 443. The shock wave (gray) and the remains of the star (red, yellow, green, and blue) have collided with the gas cloud (purple) and are now passing through it. The different colors for the star’s remains show the range of velocities for their motion away from the center of the explosion. The model is combined with a visible light image of this field of view from the Focal Pointe Observatory, a private telescope run by amateur astronomer Bob Franke.

Video: The second animation of IC 443 is from Ustamujic and colleagues. The shock wave (gray) and the remains of the star (red, yellow, green, and blue) have collided with the gas cloud and are now passing through it. The different colors for the star’s remains show the range of velocities for their motion away from the center of the explosion. The model is combined with a visible light image of this field of view from the Focal Pointe Observatory, a private telescope run by amateur astronomer Bob Franke.Credits: Simulation: INAF/S. Ustamujic et. al.; Wide Field Optical: Focal Pointe Observatory/B.Franke, Inset X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSFC/D.Swartz et al, Inset Optical: DSS, SARA

A comparison of the 3D model with X-ray data from ESA’s XMM-Newton shows that the collision of the shock wave and debris with the gas cloud is the main factor responsible for the unusually complex appearance of the X-ray emission from IC 443.

The 3D model also gives important information about the supernova explosion that formed IC 443. It shows that the explosion was weaker than most supernovae and that it occurred about 8,000 years ago, in Earth’s time frame. In addition, this work provides new evidence that a source of X-rays discovered with Chandra (blue in the inset image) contains the neutron star that formed when a massive star collapsed and exploded to create IC 443.

A new adaptation of the 3D model, which has been optimized for virtual reality (VR), is featured in the main graphic. In this 3D version of IC 443, the outer blast wave of the explosion is bright blue, while the outer layers of the star are in reds and oranges. Chandra’s data of the nebula of particles and energy around the neutron star is found at the center of this VR version (cyan).

In a version for Voyager, the 3D model has been transformed so that it is more suitable for augmented reality as well as 3D printing, which requires connected structures. The Voyager IC 443 has the central region of the debris field in blue with the shockwave in purple. A full list of the Chandra 3D objects, along with information about how to view and print, is available at https://chandra.si.edu/3dprint/.

Video: The third animation is from the Smithsonian Voyager platform, in which the 3D model has been transformed so that it is more suitable for augmented reality as well as 3D printing, which requires connected structures. The Voyager IC 443 has the central region of the debris field in blue with the shockwave in purple.Credits: NASA/CXC/SAO; INAF/S. Ustamujic et. al.; Smithsonian Digitization Program Office

IC 443 joins other supernova remnants such as Cassiopeia A, Tycho, and the Crab Nebula in the Chandra contribution to the Voyager platform. Other stages of stellar evolution, as well as the Chandra spacecraft itself, are also available in the Chandra contribution.

To access the Chandra supernova remnants and the rest of the Voyager content, visit https://3d.si.edu/collections/Chandra

A copy of the Astronomy & Astrophysics paper describing this work is available at https://www.aanda.org/articles/aa/abs/2021/05/aa39940-20/aa39940-20.html (a preprint version can be found at https://arxiv.org/abs/2012.08017). In addition to Ustamujic, the authors are Salvatore Orlando (INAF Palermo), Emanuele Greco (INAF Palermo and University of Palermo, Italy), Marco Miceli (University of Palermo), Fabrizio Bocchino (INAF Palermo), Antonio Tutone (University of Palermo), and Giovanni Peres (University of Palermo).

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.


Provided by NASA

The Newborn Black Hole in GRB 191014C Proves That It Is Alive (Cosmology)

A new theory explains the high-energy (photon energies of gigaelectronvolts — GeV) observed in the energetic long-duration gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) as originated in the vicinity of the black hole horizon. The theory, published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics [1], led by an ICRA-ICRANet research team (INAF associates), is based on the “inner engine” previously introduced by the team [2, 3]. The theory, which is also shown to work in active galactic nuclei (AGN), proofs that the rotational energy of a black hole can indeed be extracted from the horizon of the black hole, and efficiently used to power the most energetic and powerful objects in the Universe.

Rotating black holes were initially conceptualized either as “dead” objects or as sinks of energy. Subsequently, it was realized that much as the thermodynamical systems, black holes may interact with their surroundings exchanging energy [4, 5]. This result led to one of the most important concepts in black hole physics and astrophysics: the Christodoulou-Ruffini-Hawking black hole mass-energy formula [4–6]. In its most general form, for a rotating charged black hole, it relates the black hole mass-energy to three independent pieces: its “irreducible mass, its charge, and its angular momentum. It led to a corollary of paramount importance in astrophysics: up to 50% of the mass-energy of a charged black hole, and up to 29% of the one of a rotating black hole, could be in principle extracted!. This extraordinary result led to the alternative view of “alive” black holes, and since then it has permeated, for fifty years as of this writing, relativistic astrophysics both theoretically and experimentally.

The most energetic astrophysical sources, GRBs and AGN, were soon identified as primary candidates to be powered by black holes. GRBs, the most powerful transient objects in the sky, release energies of up to a few 1054 erg in just a few seconds! Their luminosity in the gamma-rays, in the time interval of the event, is as large as the luminosity of all the stars of the observable Universe! GRBs have been thought to be powered, by an up-to-now unknown mechanism, by stellar-mass black holes. AGN, releasing 1046 erg s¯1 for billion years, must be powered by supermassive black holes of up to a few billion solar masses. However, every theoretical effort to find a mechanism to extract the black hole energy has been vanified by the implausibility of their realization in nature (see, e.g. [7]).

FIG. 1. Figure taken from [1] with the kind permission of the authors. Electric (blue lines) and magnetic (golden lines) field lines surrounding the rotating black hole. Electrons located in these northern and southern hemisphere cones of semi-aperture angle of ≈ 60° are outwardly accelerated leading to GeV photons (see Fig. 2).

There was the urgency of new physics!. The novel engine presented in the new publication makes the job through a purely general relativistic, gravito-electrodynamical process: a rotating black hole, interacting with a surrounding magnetic field, creates an electric field (see Fig. 1) that accelerates ambient electrons to ultrahigh-energies leading to high-energy radiation (see Fig. 2) and ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays (UHECRs). Aspects of this novel machine worth to be outlined are: (1) the nature of the emission results from the physical process leading to the electric and magnetic fields and the black hole formation. (2) The emission process is not continuous but discrete, it repeats over and over, releasing in every characteristic time a well-estbalished “blackholic quantum” of energy [2], extracted from the black hole horizon thanks to the presence of a surrounding magnetic field. (3) Such a timescale, for GRBs, is as short as femtoseconds, making it difficult to be probed directly by current observational facilities. Direct evidence of the process discreteness might come out, instead, from AGN. In the case of M87*, the authors have predicted a high-energy (GeV) luminosity of a few 10⁴³ erg s¯1, released in a timescale of up to tenths of seconds, while the timescale for UHECRs emission is of the order of half a day!

FIG. 2. Figure taken from [1] with the kind permission of the authors. Electrons are accelerated and emit GeV photons in the conical region with a semi-aperture angle θ± ≈ 60° (dark boundary). This “jetted” emission is essential to infer the BdHN I morphology from the GeV emission data of long GRBs [8].

All the above results are important. The proof that we can use the extractable rotational energy of a black hole to explain the high-energy jetted emissions of GRBs and AGN stands alone. The jetted emission does not originate from an ultra-relativistic acceleration of matter in bulk (massive jets), but from very special energy-saving general relativistic and electrodynamical processes leading to the emission of blackholic quanta of energy [2]. A long march of successive theoretical progress and new physics discovered using observations of GRBs has brought to this result which has been waited for about fifty years of relativistic astrophysics.


References: [1] “The newborn black hole in GRB 191014C proves that it is alive“, by R. Moradi et al. Published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, 2021, 649, A75 [2] J. A. Rueda and R. Ruffini, European Physical Journal C 80, 300 (2020), 1907.08066. [3] R. Ruffini, R. Moradi, J. A. Rueda, L. Becerra, C. L. Bianco, C. Cherubini, S. Filippi, Y. C. Chen, M. Karlica, N. Sahakyan, et al., Astroph. J. 886, 82 (2019), 1812.00354. [4] D. Christodoulou, Phys. Rev. Lett. 25, 1596 (1970). [5] D. Christodoulou and R. Ruffini, Phys. Rev. D 4, 3552 (1971). [6] S. W. Hawking, Physical Review Letters 26, 1344 (1971). [7] R. Penrose and R. M. Floyd, Nature Physical Science 229, 177 (1971). [8] R. Ruffini, R. Moradi, J. A. Rueda, L. Li, N. Sahakyan, Y. C. Chen, Y. Wang, Y. Aimuratov, L. Becerra, C. L. Bianco, et al., MNRAS (2021), 2103.09142


Provided by ICRANet

Complex Molecules Could Hold The Secret To Identifying Alien Life (Astronomy / Biology)

A new system capable of identifying complex molecular signatures could aid in the search for alien life in the universe and could even lead to the creation of new forms of life in the laboratory, scientists say.

University of Glasgow researchers have developed a new method called Assembly Theory which can be used to quantify how assembled or complex a molecule is in the laboratory using techniques like mass spectrometry. The more complex the object, the more unlikely that it could arise by chance, and the more likely it was made by the process of evolution.

The Glasgow team, led by Professor Lee Cronin, developed Assembly Theory in partnership with collaborators at NASA and Arizona State University. Together, they have shown that the system works with samples from all over the earth and extra-terrestrial samples. 

The system uses mass spectrometry to break the molecule into bits and counts the number of unique parts. The larger the number of unique parts, the larger the assembly number and the team have been able to show that life on earth can only make molecules with high assembly numbers.

One of the main challenges of the search for extraterrestrial life has been identifying which chemical signatures are unique to life, leading to several ultimately unproven claims of the discovery of alien life. The metabolic experiments of NASA’s Viking Martian lander, for example, only detected simple molecules whose existence could be explained by natural non-living processes in addition to living processes.

In a new paper published today in the journal Nature Communications, the team describes a universal approach to life detection.

Professor Cronin, Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, said: “Our system is the first falsifiable hypothesis for life detection. It’s based on the idea that only living systems can produce complex molecules that could not form randomly in any abundance. This allows us to sidestep the problem of defining life – instead we focus on the complexity of the chemistry.”

Lee Cronin RSC
L. Cronin © University of Glasgow

The theory of molecular assembly can also be used to explain that the larger the number of steps needed to deconstruct a given complex molecule, the more improbable it is that the molecule was created without life.

This decomposition provides a complexity measure, called the molecular assembly number. Unlike all other complexity approaches, however, it is the first to be  experimentally measurable. The team demonstrated was possible to experimentally observe the molecular assembly number of single molecules in the lab by deconstructing them using fragmentation tandem mass spectrometry. Thus, the complexity measure is distinct from all other complexity measures because it is both computable and directly observable.

A life detection instrument based on this method could be deployed on missions to extra-terrestrial locations to detect biosignatures, or even detect the emergence of new forms of artificial life in the lab. 

Professor Cronin added: “This is important because developing an approach that cannot produce false positives is vital to support the first discovery of life beyond Earth, an event that will only happen once in human history.”

The research was supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), The John Templeton Foundation, the European Research Council (ERC), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Featured image: An abstract scene of assorted molecules floating in space © University of Glasgow


Reference: Marshall, S.M., Mathis, C., Carrick, E. et al. Identifying molecules as biosignatures with assembly theory and mass spectrometry. Nat Commun 12, 3033 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23258-x


Provided by University of Glasgow

New Material Could Harvest Water All Day Long (Material Science)

Micro-engineered, bioinspired design allows the material to collect moisture from cool fog as well as generating and collecting steam under sunny conditions

Tiny structures inspired by the shape of cactus spines allow a newly created material to gather drinkable water from the air both day and night, combining two water-harvesting technologies into one.

The material, a micro-architected hydrogel membrane (more on that later), can produce water through both solar steam-water generation and fog collection—two independent processes that typically require two separate devices. A paper about the material was published in Nature Communications on May 14.

Hydrogel trees
Images of representative fabricated PVA/PPy gel micro-tree array. Scale bar: 1 cm. © Caltech

Fog collection is exactly what it sounds like. At night, low-lying clouds along sea coasts are heavy with water droplets. Devices that can coalesce and collect those droplets can turn fog into drinking water.

Solar-steam generation is another water-collection technique. It works especially well in coastal areas because it is also capable of water purification, though it works during the day instead of at night. In the method, heat from the sun causes water to evaporate into steam, which can be condensed into drinking water.

Because the two technologies operate under such different conditions, they typically require different materials and devices to make them work. Now, a material developed at Caltech could combine them into a single device, working to generate clean water 24 hours a day.

“Water scarcity is a huge issue that humanity will need to overcome as the world’s population continues to grow,” says Julia R. Greer, the Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering and Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute. “Water covers three-quarters of the globe, but only about one half of one percent is available freshwater.”

Hydrogel tree
Images of an individual representative tree micro-topology. Scale bar: 1 mm. © Caltech

Greer has spent her career developing micro- and nano-architected materials; that is, materials whose very shapes (controlled at each length scale, nanoscopic and microscopic) give them unusual and potentially useful properties. In this case, Greer collaborated with Ye Shi, formerly a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and now a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA, to create a membrane of arrayed tiny spines that resemble Christmas trees but are in fact inspired by the shape of cactus spines.

“Cacti are uniquely adapted to survive dry climates,” Shi says. “In our case, these spines, which we call ‘micro-trees,’ attract microscopic droplets of water that are suspended in the air, allowing them to slide down the base of the spine and coalesce with other droplets into relatively heavy drops that eventually converge into a reservoir of water that can be utilized.”

The spines are built out of a hydrogel; that is, a network of hydrophilic (water-loving) polymers that naturally attract water. Due to their tiny size, they can be printed onto a wafer-thin membrane. During the day, the hydrogel membrane absorbs sunlight to heat up water trapped beneath it, which becomes steam. The steam then recondenses onto a transparent cover, where it can be collected. During the night, the transparent cover folds up and the hydrogel membrane is exposed to humid air to capture fog. As such, the material can harvest water from both steam and fog.

In an operation test conducted during the night, samples of the materials ranging from 55–125 square centimeters in area were able to collect about 35 milliliters of water from fog. In tests during the day, the material was capable of collecting about 125 milliliters from solar steam.

The exact design of the membrane was created using the design program SolidWorks.

The hydrogel itself is a polyvinyl alcohol/polypyrrole (PVA/PPy) composite gel, a non-toxic and flexible material used in numerous applications including in capacitors, wearable strain and temperature sensors, and batteries.

To fine-tune the design of the micro-trees, Greer and Shi worked with Caltech’s Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science; and Ognjen Ilic, formerly a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and now Benjamin Mayhugh Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Using computer modeling, Ilic computed the heat distribution within the micro-trees to help define the size and shape that would be most effective at drawing water from the air. With this successful proof-of-concept, the team now hopes to find a private partner capable of commercializing the technology for water-scarce regions.

“It is really inspiring that a relatively simple hydrophilic polymer membrane can be shaped in a morphology that resembles cacti spines and be capable of tremendous enhancement in water collection. I guess evolution really works,” Greer says.

The Nature Communications paper is titled “All-day Fresh Water Harvesting by Microstructured Hydrogel Membranes.” This work was supported by the Resnick Sustainability Institute, the Caltech Space Solar Power Project, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (a U.S. Department of Energy Energy Innovation Hub), and served as a foundation for Greer’s subsequent Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant for the “Atmospheric Water Extraction” program, which is a collaboration with the University of Texas Austin and MIT.

Featured image: Porous structure of gel matrix © Caltech


Reference: Shi, Y., Ilic, O., Atwater, H.A. et al. All-day fresh water harvesting by microstructured hydrogel membranes. Nat Commun 12, 2797 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23174-0


Provided by Caltech

Giant Planets Found in the Stellar Suburbs (Planetary Science)

Planetary census illuminates where giant planets tend to reside relative to their stars

In the neighborhood that makes up our solar system, the giant planets—Jupiter and Saturn—reside in the chilly outer regions, while smaller planets tend to orbit closer to the sun. Our planet Earth lives in an intermediate tropical zone well-suited to life. Planet hunters have long wondered: Is this same type of planetary configuration common around other stars throughout our galaxy or are we unique?

The best way to find out is to do a census of the planetary denizens of the galaxy. Astronomers began such a census, called the California Legacy Survey, over three decades ago, and are now releasing a new batch of results. One pattern to emerge from the data is that giant planets tend to reside about 1 to 10 astronomical units (AU) from their host stars, a mostly icy region located beyond the temperate zone of a star. An AU is defined as the distance from Earth to our sun, or about 93 million miles.

This is similar to what we see in our own solar system: Earth orbits at 1 AU, Jupiter is situated at about 5 AU, and Saturn at 9 AU.

“We’re starting to see patterns in other planetary systems that make our solar system look a bit more familiar,” says Caltech professor of astronomy Andrew Howard.

In our solar system, we also have planets that are a bit smaller than Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which are located out beyond Saturn. The California Legacy Survey is not sensitive to planets in that size range and at that distance.

“While we can’t detect smaller planets similar to Neptune and Uranus that are very distant from their stars, we can infer that the large gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn are extremely rare in the outermost regions of most exoplanetary systems,” explains BJ Fulton, a staff scientist at Caltech’s IPAC astronomy center.

The new research is reported in two journal articles accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement. Lee Rosenthal (MS ’18), a graduate student who works with Howard, is lead author of one study, and Fulton is lead author of the second paper.

This Illustration shows where giant planets reside with respect to their host stars. Recent findings from the California Legacy Survey, in which hundreds of stars and planets were surveyed, reveal that giant planets around other stars tend to orbit between 1 and 10 astronomical units (AU) from their stars. An AU is the distance between Earth and the sun. The results are depicted in this chart, such that the taller buildings show where most of the giant planets tend to “live” relative to their stars, i.e., in the zone between 1 and 10 AU from their stars. Giant planets residing very close to their stars, colloquially known as “hot Jupiters,” receive an abundance of light and heat from their nearby host stars, and are thus adorned in sunglasses. More distant giants receive much less light from their host stars and therefore are colder and depicted with hats and earmuffs. Credit: California Legacy Survey/T. Pyle (Caltech/IPAC)

In the early days of planet hunting, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was not clear whether planets that orbit other stars, called exoplanets, were lined up in a similar fashion to our solar system, with small rocky planets in the interior and giant planets in the outer regions, or if the opposite were true. In fact, evidence began to accumulate that exoplanets did not share our same architecture as more and more giant, blistering planets, known as “hot Jupiters,” were discovered orbiting very close to their stars.

“The hot Jupiters were easy pickings back then,” says Rosenthal, “but those early surveys were biased and didn’t get the full picture.” Because hot Jupiters whip tightly around their stars, and because they are massive, they can be easily detected using the radial velocity planet-hunting method, in which the “wobble” of a star is detected as a planet circles around and tugs on the star, pulling it back and forth.

To obtain a more complete picture of other star systems, astronomers needed more time. The outer planets take much longer journeys around their stars; just one tug on a star can last decades. For reference, Jupiter laps our sun every 12 years, while Saturn ambles along at an even slower pace and completes one orbit every 29 years.

That is where the California Legacy Survey comes in. It has been observing 719 sun-like stars for more than three decades, and is the longest-duration exoplanet survey to date. The project, which also involves researchers at other institutions, including University of California and University of Hawaiʻi, primarily uses three telescopes: The W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaiʻi, and the Shane and Automated Planet Finder telescopes, both at Lick Observatory, near San Jose, California. Among the stars searched in the project, 177 planets were found, including 14 that were newly discovered. The planets have masses between one-hundredth and 20 times the mass of Jupiter (or between about 3 and 6,000 Earth masses). As of now, ground-based telescopes are not sensitive enough to detect planets the mass of Earth or smaller.

This graph of data collected by the California Legacy Survey indicates that most giant planets in the galaxy tend to reside about 1 to 10 astronomical units (AU) from their host stars. An AU is defined as the distance from Earth to our sun, or about 93 million miles. This is similar to what we see in our own solar system: Earth orbits at 1 AU; Jupiter is situated at about 5 AU and Saturn at 9 AU.Credit: California Legacy Survey/T. Pyle (Caltech/IPAC)

Rosenthal explains that the survey was designed to be unbiased by carefully selecting random stars, “as if you could put your hand in a grab bag of stars and pull a random planet out.” Working on this project as part of his PhD thesis, Rosenthal says it was “humbling to work on a 30-year project where some of the data are older than I am.”

Fulton says that the survey works a bit like a demographic census, in which pollsters study a wide range of people. “The idea is to survey planets of all sizes and temperatures and then to look for patterns in the data,” he says. Both Fulton and Rosenthal spent months developing software, which they call a data pipeline, to search for planets in the telescope data.

One pattern to emerge is the tendency for giant planets to reside between 1 and 10 AU from their star. While the team’s data does not fully cover regions beyond 10 AU, because those planets require even more than three decades to complete an orbit, they say that they can make inferences based on the partial orbits observed thus far.

The team plans to continue to search their census data for new patterns and clues to help understand the characteristics and formation of other star systems, as well as our own solar system. They are also looking forward to next-generation surveys.

“This survey is a great jumping-off point for future instruments that are sensitive to planets the size of Earth,” says Howard, who is leading one such instrument, the Keck Planet Finder, expected to be shipped to Keck in 2022.

The first paper in the series, led by Rosenthal, is titled, “The California Legacy Survey I. A Catalog of 177 Planets from Precision Radial Velocity Monitoring of 719 Nearby Stars Over Three Decades.” The second paper in the series, led by Fulton, is titled, “California Legacy Survey II. Occurrence of Giant Planets Beyond the Ice Line.” The California Legacy Survey is funded and supported by Caltech, the University of California, the University of Hawaii, Tennessee State University, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, Google, and Ken and Gloria Levy.

Featured image: The three telescopes used in the California Legacy Survey, from left to right, are: the Shane telescope, the Automated Planet Finder, both at Lick Observatory, and the W.M. Keck Observatory.Credit: Laurie Hatch (Lick Observatory)/Rick Peterson (W.M. Keck Observatory


Provided by Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Captures Shining Clouds on Mars (Planetary Science)

The science team is studying the clouds, which arrived earlier and formed higher than expected, to learn more about the Red Planet.

Cloudy days are rare in the thin, dry atmosphere of Mars. Clouds are typically found at the planet’s equator in the coldest time of year, when Mars is the farthest from the Sun in its oval-shaped orbit. But one full Martian year ago – two Earth years – scientists noticed clouds forming over NASA’s Curiosity rover earlier than expected.

This year, they were ready to start documenting these “early” clouds from the moment they first appeared in late January. What resulted are images of wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting Sun, some of them shimmering with color. More than just spectacular displays, such images help scientists understand how clouds form on Mars and why these recent ones are different.

In fact, Curiosity’s team has already made one new discovery: The early-arrival clouds are actually at higher altitudes than is typical. Most Martian clouds hover no more than about 37 miles (60 kilometers) in the sky and are composed of water ice. But the clouds Curiosity has imaged are at a higher altitude, where it’s very cold, indicating that they are likely made of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. Scientists look for subtle clues to establish a cloud’s altitude, and it will take more analysis to say for sure which of Curiosity’s recent images show water-ice clouds and which show dry-ice ones.

(article continues below images)

Curiosity Navigation Cameras Spot Twilight Clouds on Sol 3075
This GIF shows clouds drifting over Mount Sharp on Mars, as viewed by NASA’s Curiosity rover on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Each frame of the scene was stitched together from six individual images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity Navigation Cameras Spot Twilight Clouds on Sol 3072
Using the navigation cameras on its mast, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover took these images of clouds just after sunset on March 31, 2021, the 3,075th so, or Martian day, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Curiosity Shows Drifting Clouds Over Mount Sharp
Using the navigation cameras on its mast, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover took these images of clouds just after sunset on March 28, 2021, the 3,072nd sol, or Martian day, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fine, rippling structures of these clouds are easier to see with images from Curiosity’s black-and-white navigation cameras. But it’s the color images from the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, that really shine – literally. Viewed just after sunset, their ice crystals catch the fading light, causing them to appear to glow against the darkening sky. These twilight clouds, also known as “noctilucent” (Latin for “night shining”) clouds, grow brighter as they fill with crystals, then darken after the Sun’s position in the sky drops below their altitude. This is just one useful clue scientists use to determine how high they are.

Even more stunning are iridescent, or “mother of pearl” clouds. “If you see a cloud with a shimmery pastel set of colors in it, that’s because the cloud particles are all nearly identical in size,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate.”

Curiosity Spots Iridescent (Mother of Pearl) Clouds
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted these iridescent, or “mother of pearl,” clouds on March 5, 2021, the 3,048th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Seen here are five frames stitched together from a much wider panorama taken by the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

These clouds are among the more colorful things on the Red Planet, he added. If you were skygazing next to Curiosity, you could see the colors with the naked eye, although they’d be faint.

“I always marvel at the colors that show up: reds and greens and blues and purples,” Lemmon said. “It’s really cool to see something shining with lots of color on Mars.”

For more about Curiosity, visit:

https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/

For more about NASA’s Mars program, visit:

https://mars.nasa.gov

Featured image: NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. © NASA JPL


Provided by NASA JPL

Hubble Captures a Captivating Spiral (Cosmology)

This image shows the spiral galaxy NGC 5037, in the constellation of Virgo. First documented by William Herschel in 1785, the galaxy lies about 150 million light-years away from Earth. Despite this distance, we can see the delicate structures of gas and dust within the galaxy in extraordinary detail. This detail is possible using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), whose combined exposures created this image. 

WFC3 is a very versatile camera, as it can collect ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, thereby providing a wealth of information about the objects it observes. WFC3 was installed on Hubble by astronauts in 2009, during Servicing Mission 4 (SM4). SM4 was Hubble’s final Space Shuttle servicing mission, expected to prolong Hubble’s life for at least another five years. Twelve years later, both Hubble and WFC3 remain very active and scientifically productive.

Text credit: European Space Agency (ESA)
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Rosario; Acknowledgment: L. Shatz


Provided by NASA

Researchers Prepare To Send Fungi For A Ride Around the Moon (Astronomy / Biology)

Microbiologists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are preparing experimental samples of fungi to send for a ride around the moon tentatively scheduled for later in 2021 or early 2022.

The experiment aims to provide insight into fungi’s natural defenses against radiation, a phenomenon that could prove useful for future space exploration and sustained life in space.

“During this past year, we successfully completed the Scientific Verification Test to ensure the experiment is working in our lab, which is the first step of this project,” said Zheng Wang, NRL microbiologist and the principal investigator on this project. “Additionally, since October 2020 we have accomplished Experimental Verification Test at Kennedy Space Center, which mimics the flight environment for about two months.”

Fungi have natural mechanisms to protect from and repair DNA damage caused by radiation. Those mechanisms enable the fungi to withstand several hundred times more radiation than humans. This experiment will study the melanin in fungi (which may assist in protecting them from damage), as well as DNA repair pathways (which repair damage once it occurs). The fungus used for this experiment will be Aspergillus niger, a black mold commonly used in laboratories and industry and also one of the predominant fungi detected on the International Space Station (ISS). 

“We are looking at fungi that are extremely resistant to radiation and trying to figure out why,” said Jillian Romsdahl, a microbiologist and NRC postdoctoral fellow on the project. “But we are also looking at a bigger question of how biological systems adapt to deep space, which has implications for people trying to travel to Mars or further.”

The researchers are preparing four different samples of Aspergillus niger — one wild type strain and three mutated strains that were genetically engineered in the laboratory. One mutated strain is defective in making melanin, so it can be compared to the wild type strain that does produce melanin. 

The other two mutated strains will be deficient in DNA repair pathways. Wang’s group wants to know how important those DNA pathways are in protecting the fungal cells against damage caused by radiation. They also want to know if the radiation stimulates new DNA pathways not yet discovered.

During the actual experiment, the fungal samples will be stored in NASA’s Orion capsule and launched into space, where it will travel around the moon for three weeks. Once complete, NASA will return the specimens to NRL for analysis.

Researchers plan to compare the samples to look for changes to the DNA and other biomolecules. The fungal cells will undergo a thorough analysis of morphological, physiological, and chemical changes.

Long-term, researchers hope to use the knowledge gained to investigate new ways to prevent radiation damage to humans and equipment in space. 

The NRL team is investigating these research questions from other angles as well. Wang’s research group was recently selected by NASA to study how melanized fungal cells adapt to Mars-like conditions using NASA’s Antarctic balloon platform. The team is also collaborating with DoD’s Space Testing Program and ISS National Laboratory to send fungal samples to the International Space Station to study how microgravity and radiation alter production of beneficial biomaterials and biomolecules. 

“Fungi are great at adapting”, Wang said. If we can harness their natural defense mechanisms, we could leverage biological systems to develop protective mechanisms for equipment or astronauts. As a DoD lab, NRL is in a great position for this. We have the facilities and the capabilities.”

Zachary Schultzhaus, a former Jerome and Isabella Karle Distinguished Scholar Fellow and another researcher on the project, said he believes it is also feasible to grow fungus in space to produce different molecules for therapeutic applications, like medicine or vitamins. Instead of carrying all of the food and medicine needed for a mission, astronauts could produce it on demand. He hopes to delve deeper into the idea once this current research project concludes. 

NRL’s work on investigating the roles of melanin and DNA repair on adaptation and survivability of fungi in deep space is funded by NASA, and is scheduled to continue through 2022. 

Featured image: Drs. Zachary Schultzhaus (left), Zheng Wang (center), and Jillian Romsdahl (right) from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s fungal biology research team observe a fungal agar plate in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2019. The fungus Aspergillus niger, along with its three mutant strains, are slated to rotate the moon on NASA’s Orion Space Capsule in 2021 so researchers can improve their understanding of the fungi’s natural and adapted defenses against radiation. (U.S. Navy photo by Sarah Peterson)


Provided by US Naval Research Laboratory

What Do You Know About Lou Gehrig’s Disease? (Medicine)

May is ALS Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to learn more about Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. More than 5,000 people are diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis each year, and the average life expectancy is two to five years, according to The ALS Association.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis often starts in the hands, feet or limbs, and then spreads to other parts of the body. As the disease advances and nerve cells are destroyed, muscles weaken. This eventually affects chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing.

Signs and symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis vary greatly from person to person, depending on which neurons are affected. Signs and symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty walking or performing normal daily activities.
  • Tripping and falling.
  • Weakness in the legs, feet or ankles.
  • Hand weakness or clumsiness.
  • Slurred speech or trouble swallowing.
  • Muscle cramps and twitching in the arms, shoulders and tongue.
  • Inappropriate crying, laughing or yawning.
  • Cognitive and behavioral changes.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is inherited in 5% to 10% of people diagnosed with the disease. In most people with familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, their children have a 50-50 chance of developing it, as well. For the rest, the cause isn’t known.

Besides heredity, other established risk factors for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis include:

  • Age
    The risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis increases with age. It’s most common between the ages of 40 and the mid-60s.
  • Sex
    Before 65, slightly more men than women develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This sex difference disappears after 70.
  • Genetics
    Some studies examining the entire human genome found many similarities in the genetic variations of people with familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and some people with noninherited amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. These genetic variations might make people more susceptible to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

No cure or treatment can reverse the damage of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. However, treatments can slow the progression of symptoms, prevent complications, and make life more comfortable and independent, though. These treatment can include medications; breathing care; physical, occupational and speech therapy; and nutritional support.


Provided by Mayo Clinic