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Earth

Alien Life Could Thrive In the Clouds of Failed Stars (sciencemag.org) 50

sciencehabit writes: There's an abundant new swath of cosmic real estate that life could call home -- and the views would be spectacular. Floating out by themselves in the Milky Way galaxy are perhaps a billion cold brown dwarfs, objects many times as massive as Jupiter but not big enough to ignite as a star. According to a new study, layers of their upper atmospheres sit at temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host microbes that surf on thermal updrafts. The idea expands the concept of a habitable zone to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. "You don't necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface," says Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study. Atmospheric life isn't just for the birds. For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth's surface. And in 1976, Carl Sagan envisioned the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. You could have sky plankton: small organisms he called "sinkers." Other organisms could be balloonlike "floaters," which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. In the years since, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus's inhospitable surface. Yates and his colleagues set out to update Sagan's calculations and to identify the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. On such a world, small sinkers like the microbes in Earth's atmosphere or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan's floaters, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. But a lot depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on free-floating brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though perhaps not phosphorous.
Earth

Climate Change Will Stir 'Unimaginable' Refugee Crisis, Says Military (theguardian.com) 285

Citing military experts, The Guardian is reporting that if the rise in global warming is held under 2 degrees Celsius, there still could be a major humanitarian crisis to sort out. From the report: Climate change is set to cause a refugee crisis of "unimaginable scale," according to senior military figures, who warn that global warming is the greatest security threat of the 21st century and that mass migration will become the "new normal." The generals said the impacts of climate change were already factors in the conflicts driving a current crisis of migration into Europe, having been linked to the Arab Spring, the war in Syria and the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency. Military leaders have long warned that global warming could multiply and accelerate security threats around the world by provoking conflicts and migration. They are now warning that immediate action is required. "Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century," said Maj Gen Munir Muniruzzaman, chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on climate change and a former military adviser to the president of Bangladesh. He said one metre of sea level rise will flood 20% of his nation. "Weâ(TM)re going to see refugee problems on an unimaginable scale, potentially above 30 million people."
ISS

Russian Supply Rocket Malfunctions, Breaks Up Over Siberia En Route To ISS (npr.org) 134

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: An unmanned cargo rocket bound for the International Space Station was destroyed after takeoff on Thursday. The Russian rocket took off as planned from Baikonur, Kazahkstan, on Thursday morning but stopped transmitting data about six minutes into its flight, as NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reported: "'Russian officials say the spacecraft failed [...] when it was about 100 miles above a remote part of Siberia. The ship was carrying more than 2 1/2 tons of supplies -- including food, fuel and clothes. Most of that very likely burned up as the unmanned spacecraft fell back toward Earth. NASA says the six crew members on board the International Space station, including two Americans, are well stocked for now.'" This is the fourth botched launch of an unmanned Russian rocket in the past two years. Roscomos officials wrote in an update today: "According to preliminary information, the contingency took place at an altitude of about 190 km over remote and unpopulated mountainous area of the Republic of Tyva. The most of cargo spacecraft fragments burned in the dense atmosphere. The State Commission is conducting analysis of the current contingency. The loss of the cargo ship will not affect the normal operations of the ISS and the life of the station crew."
Earth

Google Earth's Timelapses Offer a 32-Year Look At Earth's Changing Surface (pcmag.com) 85

Google has partnered with TIME to release an improved version of Google Earth Timelapse that provides animated satellite imagery covering the past 32 years, from 1984 to 2016. In 2013, Google and TIME launched Timelapse with a time-lapse from 1984 to 2012. However, this time around the project uses the higher-resolution maps introduced back in June to provide a look that's more detailed and more seamless than in the past. ZDNet reports: The 10-second snapshots of Earth from space over 32 years captures urban sprawl, deforestation and reforestation, receding glaciers, and major engineering feats, such as the Oresund Bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden, or the spread of the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada. Google Earth engine program manager, Chris Herwig says it created the new "annual mosaics" by stitching together 33 images of the Earth, each representing one year. Each image contains 3.95 trillion pixels, cherry-picked from an original set of three quadrillion pixels. "Using Google Earth Engine, we sifted through about three quadrillion pixels, that's three followed by 15 zeroes, from more than 5,000,000 satellite images," Herwig said. "We took the best of all those pixels to create 33 images of the entire planet, one for each year. We then encoded these new 3.95-terapixel global images into just over 25,000,000 overlapping multi-resolution video tiles, made interactively explorable by Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab's Time Machine library, a technology for creating and viewing zoomable and pannable time-lapses over space and time." The satellite images come from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and US Geological Survey. Since 2015, they also contain some data from the European Space Agency's Copernicus Program and its Sentinel-2A satellite.
Space

Theory Challenging Einstein's View On Speed of Light Could Soon Be Tested (theguardian.com) 238

mspohr writes: The Guardian has a news article about a recently published journal entry proposing a way to test the theory that the speed of light was infinite at the birth of the universe: "The newborn universe may have glowed with light beams moving much faster than they do today, according to a theory that overturns Einstein's century-old claim that the speed of light is a constant. Joao Magueijo, of Imperial College London, and Niayesh Afshordi, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, propose that light tore along at infinite speed at the birth of the universe when the temperature of the cosmos was a staggering ten thousand trillion trillion celsius. Magueijo and Afshordi came up with their theory to explain why the cosmos looks much the same over vast distances. To be so uniform, light rays must have reached every corner of the cosmos, otherwise some regions would be cooler and more dense than others. But even moving at 1bn km/h, light was not traveling fast enough to spread so far and even out the universe's temperature differences." Cosmologists including Stephen Hawking have proposed a theory called inflation to overcome this conundrum. Inflation theorizes that the temperature of the cosmos evened out before it exploded to an enormous size. The report adds: "Magueijo and Afshordi's theory does away with inflation and replaces it with a variable speed of light. According to their calculations, the heat of universe in its first moments was so intense that light and other particles moved at infinite speed. Under these conditions, light reached the most distant pockets of the universe and made it look as uniform as we see it today. Scientists could soon find out whether light really did outpace gravity in the early universe. The theory predicts a clear pattern in the density variations of the early universe, a feature measured by what is called the 'spectral index.' Writing in the journal Physical Review, the scientists predict a very precise spectral index of 0.96478, which is close to the latest, though somewhat rough, measurement of 0.968."
Space

San Francisco's 58-Story Millennium Tower Seen Sinking From Space (sfgate.com) 240

An anonymous reader quotes a report from SFGate: Engineers in San Francisco have tunneled underground to try and understand the sinking of the 58-story Millennium Tower. Now comes an analysis from space. The European Space Agency has released detailed data from satellite imagery that shows the skyscraper in San Francisco's financial district is continuing to sink at a steady rate -- and perhaps faster than previously known. The luxury high-rise that opened its doors in 2009 has been dubbed the Leaning Tower of San Francisco. It has sunk about 16 inches into landfill and is tilting several inches to the northwest. Engineers have estimated the building is sinking at a rate of about 1-inch per year. The Sentinel-1 twin satellites show almost double that rate based on data collected from April 2015 to September 2016. The satellite data shows the Millennium Tower sunk 40 to 45 millimeters -- or 1.6 to 1.8 inches -- over a recent one-year period and almost double that amount -- 70 to 75 mm (2.6 to 2.9 inches) -- over its 17-month observation period, said Petar Marinkovic, founder and chief scientist of PPO Labs which analyzed the satellite's radar imagery for the ESA along with Norway-based research institute Norut. The Sentinel-1 study is not focused on the Millennium Tower but is part of a larger mission by the European Space Agency tracking urban ground movement around the world, and particularly subsidence "hotspots" in Europe, said Pierre Potin, Sentinel-1 mission manager for the ESA. The ESA decided to conduct regular observations of the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Hayward Fault, since it is prone to tectonic movement and earthquakes, said Potin, who is based in Italy. Data from the satellite, which is orbiting about 400 miles (700 kilometers) from the earth's surface, was recorded every 24 days. The building's developer, Millennium Partners, insists the building is safe for occupancy and could withstand an earthquake.
Earth

India Unveils the World's Largest Solar Power Plant (aljazeera.com) 175

Kamuthi in Tamil Nadu, India is now home to the world's largest solar plant that adds 648 MW to the country's generating capacity. Previously, the Topaz Solar Farm in California, which was completed two years ago and has a capacity of 550 MW, held the title. Aljazeera reports: The solar plant, built in an impressive eight months, is cleaned every day by a robotic system, charged by its own solar panels. At full capacity, it is estimated to produce enough electricity to power about 150,000 homes. The project is comprised of 2.5 million individual solar modules, and cost $679 million to build. The new plant has helped nudge India's total installed solar capacity across the 10 GW mark, according to a statement by research firm Bridge to India, joining only a handful of countries that can make this claim. As solar power increases, India is expected to become the world's third-biggest solar market from next year onwards, after China and the U.S.
ISS

Spinal Fluid Changes In Space May Impair Astronauts' Vision, Study Finds (sciencealert.com) 77

A condition called visual impairment inter cranial pressure syndrome (VIIP) that has been impairing astronauts' vision on the International Space Station is believed to be caused by a build up of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in their brains. The long-duration astronauts had significantly more CSF in their brains than the short-trip astronauts. Previously, NASA suspected that the condition was caused by the lack of gravity in space. Science Alert reports: The researchers compared before and after brain scans from seven astronauts who had spent many months in the ISS, and compared them to nine astronauts who had just made short trips to and from the U.S. space shuttle, which was decommissioned in 2011. The one big difference between the two was that the long-duration astronauts had significantly more cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in their brains than the short-trip astronauts, and the researchers say this - not vascular fluid - is the cause of the vision loss. Under normal circumstances, CSF is important for cushioning the brain and spinal cord, while also distributing nutrients around the body and helping to remove waste. It can easily adjust to changes in pressure that our bodies experience when transitioning from lying down to sitting or standing, but in the constant microgravity of space, it starts to falter. "On earth, the CSF system is built to accommodate these pressure changes, but in space the system is confused by the lack of the posture-related pressure changes," says one of the team, Noam Alperin. Based on the high-resolution orbit and brain MRI scans taken of their 16 astronauts, the team found that the long-duration astronauts had far higher orbital CSF volume - CSF pooling around the optic nerves in the part of the skull that holds the eye. They also had significantly higher ventricular CSF volume, which means they had more CSF accumulating in the cavities of the brain where the fluid is produced.
Books

For the First Time, Living Cells Have Formed Carbon-Silicon Bonds (sciencealert.com) 87

From a ScienceDaily alert: Scientists have managed to coax living cells into making carbon-silicon bonds, demonstrating for the first time that nature can incorporate silicon -- one of the most abundant elements on Earth -- into the building blocks of life. While chemists have achieved carbon-silicon bonds before -- they're found in everything from paints and semiconductors to computer and TV screens -- they've so far never been found in nature, and these new cells could help us understand more about the possibility of silicon-based life elsewhere in the Universe. After oxygen, silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth's crust, and yet it has nothing to do with biological life. Why silicon has never be incorporated into any kind of biochemistry on Earth has been a long-standing puzzle for scientists, because, in theory, it would have been just as easy for silicon-based lifeforms to have evolved on our planet as the carbon-based ones we know and love. Not only are carbon and silicon both extremely abundant in Earth's crust - they're also very similar in their chemical make-up.
NASA

Trump To Scrap NASA Climate Research In Crackdown On 'Politicized Science' (theguardian.com) 667

dryriver quotes a report from The Guardian: Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by NASA as part of a crackdown on "politicized science," his senior adviser on issues relating to the space agency has said. Nasa's Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space, with the president-elect having set a goal during the campaign to explore the entire solar system by the end of the century. This would mean the elimination of NASA's world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds and other climate phenomena. [NASA's network of satellites provide a wealth of information on climate change, with the Earth science division's budget set to grow to $2 billion (PDF) next year. By comparison, space exploration has been scaled back somewhat, with a proposed budget of $2.8 billion in 2017.] Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said as Nasa provides the scientific community with new instruments and techniques, the elimination of Earth sciences would be "a major setback if not devastating." "It could put us back into the 'dark ages' of almost the pre-satellite era," he said. "It would be extremely short sighted."
Medicine

Walmart Tests Blockchain For Use In Food Recalls (bloomberg.com) 109

An anonymous reader quotes a Bloomberg article about Walmart: Like most merchants, the world's largest retailer struggles to identify and remove food that's been recalled. When a customer becomes ill, it can take days to identify the product, shipment and vendor. With the blockchain, Wal-Mart will be able to obtain crucial data from a single receipt, including suppliers, details on how and where food was grown and who inspected it... "If there's an issue with an outbreak of E. coli, this gives them an ability to immediately find where it came from. That's the difference between days and minutes," says Marshal Cohen, an analyst at researcher NPD Group Inc...."

In October, Wal-Mart started tracking two products using blockchain: a packaged produce item in the U.S., and pork in China. While only two items were included, the test involved thousands of packages shipped to multiple stores... If Wal-Mart adopts the blockchain to track food worldwide, it could become of the largest deployments of the technology to date.

America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates roughly their recalls affect roughly 48 million people annually, according to the article, "with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 dying."
Australia

Commercial-Mining Drones Keep Getting Attacked By Eagles (abc.net.au) 136

An anonymous reader summarizes an article from ABC News: The world's seventh-biggest gold producer has lost more than nine drones because of eagle attacks. "People couldn't believe I was able to get such a good photo of an eagle airborne," complained surveyor Rick Steven at a conference sponsored by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. "But I didn't... Another eagle took that photo... I was getting attacked by two eagles simultaneously." The specially-constructed drones carry a $10,000 camera for high-resolution photos and equipment that produces high-detail contour maps of potential mining areas, and so far the company estimates they've lost more than $100,000 worth of technology to eagle attacks. They've tried camouflage -- including disguising the drones as another eagle -- but unfortunately, according to Stevens, the eagle is the "natural enemy" of the drone.
One drone's video is interrupted by the sudden appearance of an eagle, followed almost immediately by footage from the ground by a sideways drone camera. That video -- included in the article -- ends with a reminder that "Eagle attacks on drones have been documented across the world, to the point where some European police forces are now training them to take down unauthorized aircraft."
Earth

France To Shut Down All Coal-Fired Power Plants By 2023 (independent.co.uk) 328

French president Francois Hollande announced at an annual UN climate change conference on Wednesday that France will shut down all its coal-fired power plants by 2023. He also "vowed to beat by two years the UK's commitment to stop using fossil fuels to generate power by 2025," reports The Independent: Mr Hollande, a keynote speaker at the event in Marrakech, Morocco, also praised his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama for his work on climate change, and then appeared to snub president-elect Donald Trump. "The role played by Barack Obama was crucial in achieving the Paris agreement," Mr Hollande said, before adding, in what has been perceived as a dig at Mr Trump, that becoming a signatory to the treaty is "irreversible." "We need carbon neutrality by 2050," the French President continued, promising that coal will no longer form part of France's energy mix in six to seven years' time. France is already a world leader in low-carbon energy. The country has invested heavily in nuclear power over the past few decades and now derives more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear fission. It produces so much nuclear energy, in fact, that it exports much of it to nearby nations, making around $2.66 billion each year.
Earth

Stephen Hawking: We Might Have 1,000 Years Left on Earth (usatoday.com) 522

Stephen Hawking says the only way humankind can escape mass extinction is to find another planet. And the clock is ticking. From a report on USA Today:During a speech at Britain's Oxford University Union, Hawking detailed the history of man's understanding of the universe and reiterated that the future of humankind lies in space. "We must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity," he said. "I don't think we will survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet."
Network

SpaceX Files FCC Application For Internet Access Network With 4,425 Satellites (geekwire.com) 121

An anonymous reader quotes a report from GeekWire: SpaceX has laid out further details about a 4,425-satellite communications network that's expected to provide global broadband internet access, with its Seattle-area office playing a key role in its development. The plan is explained in an application and supporting documents filed on Tuesday with the Federal Communications Commission. In the technical information that accompanied its application, SpaceX said it would start commercial broadband service with 800 satellites. That service would cover areas of the globe from 15 degrees north to 60 degrees north, and from 15 degrees south to 60 degrees south. That leaves out some portions of Alaska, which would require a temporary waiver from the FCC. Eventually, the network would grow to 4,425 satellites, transmitting in the Ku and Ka frequency bands. "Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth's surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service," SpaceX said. The satellites would orbit the planet at altitudes ranging from 714 to 823 miles (1,150 to 1,325 kilometers) -- well above the International Space Station, but well below geostationary satellites. SpaceX said it would follow federal guidelines to mitigate orbital debris. Each satellite would weigh 850 pounds (386 kilograms) and measure 13 by 6 by 4 feet (4 by 1.8 by 1.2 meters), plus solar arrays, SpaceX said. Operating lifetime was estimated at five to seven years per satellite.
Space

Pluto's 'Icy Heart' May Have Tilted the Dwarf Planet Over (theverge.com) 52

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Pluto's most iconic feature -- its "icy heart" -- may have been responsible for tipping the dwarf planet over. Scientists believe the 600-mile-wide region of frozen plains known as Sputnik Planitia gained enough mass over the years, causing Pluto to tilt to its current orientation. And that could mean there's a subsurface ocean lurking underneath the dwarf planet. The cracks and faults on Pluto's surface tell the story of its rollover, according to two new studies published today in Nature. Researchers used computer models to simulate Pluto's reorientation, which would have put a lot of stress on the crust and created these cracks. Those models match up pretty well with the patterns of canyons and mountains that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft saw when it flew by Pluto last year. As for how the flip occurred, the two Nature studies offer complementary arguments. Isamu Matsuyama's study says that the low-lying Sputnik Planitia filled up with a bunch of nitrogen ice, gaining mass that pushed Pluto over. But the second study says the nitrogen ice wasn't enough to completely change Pluto's orientation. Even more weight was needed, and a dense ocean lurking just underneath Sputnik Planitia would have been enough to do the trick. Nimmo's study is just further evidence that liquid may be teaming underneath Pluto, making this dwarf planet one of a growing group of objects in our Solar System that harbor oceans. Sputnik Planitia is located in a very special place on Pluto, right next to something called a tidal axis -- the imaginary line that connects Pluto and its largest moon Charon. This axis dictates how Pluto moves if its mass changes. If you were to add extra weight to a certain point on Pluto, the entire dwarf planet would reorient itself so that the weighted point would end up next to this axis.
Earth

Google Launches Earth VR For Free On HTC Vive (roadtovr.com) 32

An anonymous reader writes: Google today revealed Earth VR, a virtual-reality version of the company's famous Google Earth program that's built for the HTC Vive. The application packs the rich Google Earth dataset -- which includes high resolution satellite imagery, elevation data, and detailed 3D modeled cities and landscapes -- into a single model of the planet which users can view all the way from space down to the ground, walking among cities like a giant. The company tells Road to VR that "Earth VR is a product, not a demo," and that it's designed to benefit from improvements in the Earth dataset over time automatically, and it will see regular updates post launch. You can download Google Earth VR for the HTC Vive via Steam.
Sci-Fi

'Stranger In a Strange Land' Coming To TV (ew.com) 227

HughPickens.com writes: EW reports that Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions are teaming up to develop Robert A. Heinlein's classic 'Stranger in a Strange Land' into a TV series on Syfy. The 1961 sci-fi book, set in the aftermath of a third world war, centers on Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians, who, as a young adult, has returned to Earth. The true driving forces of the novel are religion and sex, which Heinlein's publisher at the time wanted him to cut out. But as the author noted to his literary agent, if religion and sex were removed from the text, what remained would be the equivalent of a "nonalcoholic martini." "From my point of view, Stranger in a Strange Land isn't just a science fiction masterpiece [...] it also happens to be one of my favorite books ever!" says NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Chairman Bonnie Hammer. "The story is timeless and resonates more than ever in today's world. As a fan, I can't wait to see it come to life as a world-class television event." A previous attempt at adapting Heinlein's novel came in 1995, when Batman Returns' Dan Waters penned a script designed for Tom Hanks and Sean Connery.
Earth

2016 Will Be the Hottest Year On Record, UN Says (theguardian.com) 284

2016 will very likely be the hottest year on record and a new high for the third year in a row, according to the UN. It means 16 of the 17 hottest years on record will have been this century. From an article on The Guardian:The scorching temperatures around the world, and the extreme weather they drive, mean the impacts of climate change on people are coming sooner and with more ferocity than expected, according to scientists. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, published on Monday at the global climate summit in Morocco, found the global temperature in 2016 is running 1.2C above pre-industrial levels. This is perilously close to to the 1.5C target included as an aim of the Paris climate agreement last December. The El Nino weather phenomenon helped push temperatures even higher in early 2016 but the global warming caused by the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities remains the strongest factor.
China

Another Study Finds Earth's CO2 Emissions Have Flattened Over The Last Three Years (go.com) 201

An anonymous reader quotes the Associated Press: Worldwide emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide have flattened out in the past three years, a new study showed Monday, raising hopes that the world is nearing a turning point in the fight against climate change. However, the authors of the study cautioned it's unclear whether the slowdown in CO2 emissions, mainly caused by declining coal use in China, is a permanent trend or a temporary blip...

The study, published in the journal Earth System Science Data, says global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry is projected to grow by just 0.2 percent this year. That would mean emissions have leveled off at about 36 billion metric tons in the past three years even though the world economy has expanded, suggesting the historical bonds between economic gains and emissions growth may have been severed. "This could be the turning point we have hoped for," said David Ray, a professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved with the study. "To tackle climate change those bonds must be broken and here we have the first signs that they are at least starting to loosen."

Last week a study suggested earth's plant life is absorbing a greater percentage of global CO2 emissions -- although reductions in China could also be significant. According to the article, almost 30% of the world's carbon emissions come from China.

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