Updated: Phobos-Grunt reentering upper atmosphere

Update 12:10 AM CDT: nothing official but it seems to have reentered and crashed into Pacific Ocean a few mins ago. Click image above for latest info.

Follow the latest events on Twitter using the hashtag #PhobosGrunt and follow @PHG_Reentry.

The ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission, which would have returned samples from the tiny Martian satellite Phobos, will plunge into the stratosphere later today and become a spectacular meteor. Debris from the 15 ton spacecraft, which is carying more than 10 tons of toxic rocket fuel, is expected to strike the earth, although where exactly that happens is still literally up in the air: [Read more…]

Guess I’ll go eat worms

This image from a scanning electron microscope shows the upper leaf surface several nematodes (arrows), stalked glands, and adherent sand grains (arrows). Image Rafael Oliveira PNAS

Title partially inspired by the post below about careers and non careers, but mostly by this newly discovered plant that chows down on annelids — correction from comments, Phylum Nematoda, aka roundworms:

(MSNBC) — The rare plant Philcoxia minensis is found in the tropical savannahs of Brazil, areas rich in biodiversity and highly in need of conservation. Although some of the plant’s millimeter-wide leaves grow above ground as expected, strangely, most of its tiny, sticky leaves lie beneath the surface of the shallow white sands on which it grows.

The “Lost World” of Antarctica

The thing about Antarctica is it’s cold. Really cold. As in an average temperature of about 15 F on the warmer coastline and even more frigid in the interior. So maybe it’s no surprise that warm seeps and hydrothermal vent communities in that neck of the woods would march to their own beat. That’s exactly what a team of researchers has announced:

(Houston Chronicle) — Interestingly the life found at these hydrothermal vents varies significantly that made in the first discovery of hydrothermal vent life, back in the 1970s, on the Galapagos Rift, as well as elsewhere since then. “What we didn’t find is almost as surprising as what we did,” said Oxford University zoologist Alex Rogers, who led the research. “Many animals such as tubeworms, vent mussels, vent crabs, and vent shrimps, found in hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, simply weren’t there.”

One of the things that’s exciting about this isn’t simply the evolutionary divergence, the warm seeps under the frigid Southern Ocean and ice shelves are about as close as anything on earth to what could lay under the thick ice of Jupiter’s second moon Europa.

Some more pics:

Cambrian predator was a real horror show

The already rather fearsome anomalocaris just got even more ferocious. Paleontologists found a well preserved specimen with detail on the eye arrangement, and this top predator of the Cambrian Explosion had eye stalks:

(MSNBC) — When you look at the animal it has these really gnarly looking grasping claws at the top of its head, for grasping onto its prey,” Paterson said. “It used these grasping claws at the front to shove its prey into its circular mouth, which is also fairly fearsome looking.”

New paleo-climate research threatens treasured wingnut trope

Who are you gonna believe, thousands of thermometer readings compiled by NASA experts over decades, or Tricky Rick's Perrytales?

Alas, a favorite climate change denial trope is on its deathbed. Specifically, the zombie lie that modern polar ice sheets formed during a period of rising carbon dioxide. New analysis of CO2 levels from the time, about 33 million years ago, show the greenhouse gas dropping sharply and the ice caps forming right along side: [Read more…]

Grandma got run over by a gamma ray burst

The Hypernova model of a gamma ray burster, click image for more GRB info

On July 2, 1967 two top secret US survelliance satellites, Velas 3 and 4, spied an alarming phenomenon. The Vela sats were designed to detect the telltale radiation of nuclear tests by the USSR. But on that day these two picked up a flash of gamma rays from the other direction, not here on earth, but rather out in space. Soon more flashes were seen, astrophysicists were called in, sworn to secrecy, and allowed to examine the data. They determined these gamma flashes weren’t commie nuke tests in space, the flashes lasted too long and faded too slowly, this was something else, something new. And as the data accumulated scientists realized they were witnessing the brightest, most energetic events since the Big Bang. Gamma Ray Bursts, referred to as GRBsburst onto the cosmic scene like an atomic bomb, pardon the pun, and a new field of astronomy was born. Last year that field found itself looking at one of the most mysterious GRB’s ever seen [Read more…]

The most magical time of the year

Solar noon marked over the course of a year. The figure-eight pattern is called an Analemma

Believe me, if you grew up in Texas, where summer heat tops the century mark for weeks on end and even the morning lows offer little relief, you’d feel December was pretty damn magical. This month dawn and dusk stretch out, as the sun marches steadily to the Winter Solstice. The solstice was  a magical time for our ancient ancestors, too, the sun looked like it was going away and they were afraid it might keep going! So after the shortest day of the year, anywhere from Dec 20 to 23 on our calendar, a returning sun was cause for celebration indeed. You might think the shortest day of the year would have the latest sunrise and earliest sunset. But here in Texas and throughout the temperate section of the northern hemisphere, it actually doesn’t work out that way. [Read more…]

Amateur astronomer wows professionals with photo of exosolar disk

An amateur astronomer using a homemade 25 cm (10 inch) telescope has recorded an exquisite image of a nearby star and surrounding planetary disk. Beta Pictoris is 63 light-years away and resembles a slightly more massive, hotter version of our sun and primeval solar system in the early stages of planetary formation. The New Zealand star-gazer, named Rolf Olsen, posted the image along with a brief explanation of his technique which has rocketed around the science cyber-sphere:

(Link) — For the last couple of years I have been wondering if it was possible for amateurs to capture this special target but have never come across any such images. The main difficulty is the overwhelming glare from Beta Pictoris itself which completely drowns out the dust disc that is circling very close to the star. Images of the disc taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and from big observatories, are usually made by physically blocking out the glare of Beta Pictoris itself within the optical path.

Beta Pictoris looks like a relatively normal, hot young star through most telescopes.

An optical image courtesy of the ESO of Beta Pictoris reveals a relativey normal, young, blue-white star.

Closer examination in the 1980s indicated the star was in the middle of a wide ring of debris. In 2003 Hubble snapped the fascinating images below clearly showing the disk[s] edge on.

Beta Pictoris and debris disk as seen by Hubble. Image credit NASA/JPL, click to embiggen

Other images show what appears to be at least one large planet or brown dwarf forming closer in and possibly clearing debris out of that wide ring in the process.

Beta Pictoris A and the much smaller Beta Pic B. B is thought to be an early stage large planet or a brown dwarf. Image credit ESO

What might the busy system look like to Star Trekkers sailing into it for the first time from the vantage point of say, where Neptune or Pluto might be in our own solar system? Above the vast plain of debris, lit by BetaP’s brilliant light, it would be gorgeous.

A collision between asteroids as they orbit Beta Pictoris. Observations have pinpointed three dusty belts orbiting this star, along with a possible planet. Image credit: ISAS/JAXA

In 2006 NASA found prodigeous amounts of carbon gas in the ring. CO2 gas and ices could perhaps lend the system a golden sheen that would put Saturn to shame.

NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, or FUSE, detected vast quantities of carbon gas. Image credit NASA/FUSE

Lots of carbon means at least one of the building blocks of life — or perhaps scaffold of life would be more accurate — is present in large quantities in the BetaP system. Some planetary astronomers speculate that diamond planets could form in such a place. A hypothetical diamond world is illustrated below, where the looser carbon dust and soot have been eroded away by small impacts, exposing a layer of diamond bedrock polished by micrometeors swept up from the debris ring, all shining softly under dancing aurora energized by BetaP.

Bed "rock" exposed on a hypothetical diamond world circling a distant, ringed gas giant. Image credit Karen Wehrtsein