The Alien Megastructure gets weirder and weirder

Last fall, a little-known star called KIC 8462852 became our planetary obsession when astronomers said that its erratic flickering could be the result of an alien megastructure. Further observation of Tabby’s Star yielded no signs of aliens, but the sudden dips in luminosity continue to defy explanation. Now, things just got a bit weirder.

In an unpublished paper posted today to arXiv, Caltech astronomer Ben Montet and Joshua Simon of the Carnegie Institute describe the results of a new photometric analysis of Tabby’s Star, which was first flagged in the Kepler Space Telescope’s database by citizen science astronomers.

By carefully examining all the full-frame images collected during Kepler’s observational campaign, Montet and Simon discovered something astonishing: Not only did the star’s light output occasionally dip by up to 20 percent, its total stellar flux diminished continuously over the course of four years…

“The part that really surprised me was just how rapid and non-linear it was,” Montet told Gizmodo. “We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn’t real. We just weren’t able to.”…

RTFA for possible explanations – none of which are currently provable. Some are really interesting.

Scary for folks who can’t deal with the insignificance of our species.🙂

Star Trails Over the Tower Oinoe


Astrophotography by Anthony Ayiomamitis

If you climbed to the top of this 13th century stone tower, it looks like you could reach out and touch the North Celestial Pole, the point at the center of all the star trail arcs.

The well-composed image with scattered meteor streaks was recorded over a period of five and half hours as a series of 45 second long exposures spanning the dark of the night on July 7/8. The exposures were made with a digital camera fixed to a tripod near Marathon, Greece, planet Earth.

Of course, the graceful star trails reflect the Earth’s daily rotation around its axis. By extension, the axis of rotation leads to the center of the concentric arcs in the night sky. Convenient for northern hemisphere night sky photographers and celestial navigators alike, the bright star Polaris is very close to the North Celestial Pole and so makes the short bright trail in the tower’s central gap.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Composite map of thawed areas under Greenland Ice Sheet


Click to enlarge

NASA researchers have helped produce the first map showing what parts of the bottom of the massive Greenland Ice Sheet are thawed – key information in better predicting how the ice sheet will react to a warming climate.

Greenland’s thick ice sheet insulates the bedrock below from the cold temperatures at the surface, so the bottom of the ice is often tens of degrees warmer than at the top, because the ice bottom is slowly warmed by heat coming from the Earth’s depths. Knowing whether Greenland’s ice lies on wet, slippery ground or is anchored to dry, frozen bedrock is essential for predicting how this ice will flow in the future, But scientists have very few direct observations of the thermal conditions beneath the ice sheet, obtained through fewer than two dozen boreholes that have reached the bottom. Now, a new study synthesizes several methods to infer the Greenland Ice Sheet’s basal thermal state – whether the bottom of the ice is melted or not – leading to the first map that identifies frozen and thawed areas across the whole ice sheet.

Each of these methods has strengths and weaknesses. Considering just one isn’t enough. By combining them, we produced the first large-scale assessment of Greenland’s basal thermal state,” Joe MacGregor said…

MacGregor said the team’s map is just one step in fully assessing the thermal state of the bottom of Greenland’s ice sheet.

“I call this the piñata, because it’s a first assessment that is bound to get beat up by other groups as techniques improve or new data are introduced. But that still makes our effort essential, because prior to our study, we had little to pick on,” MacGregor said.

Also proving that not only are most good scientists concerned with gradual, conservative research – proven and revalued at every step – you needn’t lose your sense of humor over the process.

Tiny rocket company targets 100 launches a year

Preparing for launch
Preparing for launch

Alone in the Mojave desert, the tiny rocket stood barely as tall as a basketball goal backboard. Launch control was a laptop inside a nearby bunker, and the small gathering of aerospace engineers and investors seemed almost like a rocket hobby club as it watched the vehicle soar to about 5,000 feet before parachuting back to Earth. But this scene may have represented something much more than that. With its small-scale test Saturday, the company Vector Space Systems took another step toward upending the rapidly expanding small satellite launch market.

…Within about five years Vector intends to launch as many as 100 of its 13-meter-tall Wolverine vehicles annually, with a capability to put a 50kg satellite into low-Earth orbit. The company aims to fill a niche below the current generation of launchers being developed by companies such as RocketLab and Virgin Galactic, with rockets capable of delivering 200 to 250kg satellites to low-Earth orbit.

So far, it seems like a good bet. On Tuesday morning, Vector announced that it has acquired its first customer, Finnish-based Iceye, to conduct 21 launches of the company’s commercial synthetic aperture radar satellite constellation. “Getting your satellite into orbit is one of the biggest challenges for new-space companies, but there just isn’t the launch capacity right now,” Iceye Chief Executive Rafal Modrzewski said in a news release.

The two companies are already working together. According to Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector Space Systems, Saturday’s test flight in Mojave, California, carried a prototype of an Iceye microsatellite core computing and communications systems to see if it would survive launch conditions (it did). Vector’s sub-scale launcher, named the P-20, also tested some prototype upper stage engines…

Vector remains on track for its first orbital launch in 2018, Cantrell said, and the company aims to increase the launch cadence to about 100 vehicles per year by 2020 or 2021. Perhaps the biggest issue is range constraints — making sure the company has clearance from launch site officials. While Vector may do some launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, it will primarily operate from Alaska, which has a much less crowded range. That works out well, Cantrell said, because many of the polar orbits desired by customers are easier to reach from northern latitude launch sites.

Good luck, gang. No need to rely on being the biggest to be profitable.

Funding ban on human-animal hybrids ended

pigotaur
Pigotaur

Should the U.S. government use tax dollars to fund scientists fusing human stem cells into early animal embryos in order to create “chimeras” that are part human and part pig? Or part mouse?

The U.S. National Institutes of Health says the answer is yes. The agency announced Thursday that it plans to lift a moratorium that since last year has blocked taxpayers’ money from flowing to this type of hot-button research.

Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH’s associate director for policy, said experiments to inject human stem cells into early-stage animal embryos “are really important and exciting to understand how disease works” and to explore new medical treatments.

At the same time, the agency is proposing stricter controls on certain experiments most likely to lead to monkey-men or other bad science fiction…

And bad science fiction it would be. Unless requisite technology becomes as cheap as, say, drones from a big-box electronics chain, no for-real scientist is going to waste a chunk of their budget on “thrilling” experiments capable of attracting Sharknado movie producers or the religion police.

Human-animal mixtures aren’t new. Wolinetz noted in a statement that biomedical researchers “have created and used animal models containing human cells for decades” to gain insights into biology and disease. Scientists often grow human tumors inside of mice, for example.

But the new research is different, because potent human stem cells are being injected directly into a very early-stage animal embryo, consisting of just a couple of dozen cells. Theoretically, the human cells could then end up contributing to any part of the animal, and in any amount…

What’s the point of such experiments? One is that it might be possible to create an otherwise normal pig whose entire heart—or whole liver—is made from human cells. That would create a new way to farm human organs for transplant.

The issue was clearly a delicate one for the NIH, which was caught between advancing science and a possible political bombshell that could lead to public backlash. The agency said it would form a special committee to oversee funding of these human-animal mixtures—a move that could raise questions over political interference in science.

Pretty much every other nation capable of such research has already marched forward past the artificial political boundaries constructed by religion in the United States. Even if we avoid the short-term political limits appropriate to clown show politicians like George W or Donald Trump, our world-class scientific institutions and universities have to confront both federal and state limits put in place by legislators in mortal fear of know-nothing voters. Every day, every month, every year.

Coloring the Universe

BeyondEarth_Unknown_3000
Click to enlarge

Wouldn’t it be fun to color in the universe? If you think so, please accept this famous astronomical illustration as a preliminary substitute. You, your friends, your parents or children, can print it out or even color it digitally.

While coloring, you might be interested to know that even though this illustration has appeared in numerous places over the past 100 years, the actual artist remains unknown. Furthermore, the work has no accepted name — can you think of a good one? The illustration, first appearing in a book by Camille Flammarion in 1888, is used frequently to show that humanity’s present concepts are susceptible to being supplanted by greater truths.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Is the existence of human beings on Earth premature from a cosmic perspective?


Christine Pulliam/CfA

The universe is 13.8 billion years old, while our planet formed just 4.5 billion years ago. Some scientists think this time gap means that life on other planets could be billions of years older than ours. However, new theoretical work suggests that present-day life is actually premature from a cosmic perspective…

Life as we know it first became possible about 30 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars seeded the cosmos with the necessary elements like carbon and oxygen. Life will end 10 trillion years from now when the last stars fade away and die. Loeb and his colleagues considered the relative likelihood of life between those two boundaries.

The dominant factor proved to be the lifetimes of stars. The higher a star’s mass, the shorter its lifetime. Stars larger than about three times the sun’s mass will expire before life has a chance to evolve.

Conversely, the smallest stars weigh less than 10 percent as much as the Sun. They will glow for 10 trillion years, giving life ample time to emerge on any planets they host. As a result, the probability of life grows over time. In fact, chances of life are 1000 times higher in the distant future than now.

❝ “So then you may ask, why aren’t we living in the future next to a low-mass star?” says Loeb.

“One possibility is we’re premature. Another possibility is that the environment around a low-mass star is hazardous to life.”

Although low-mass, red dwarf stars live for a long time, they also pose unique threats. In their youth they emit strong flares and ultraviolet radiation that could strip the atmosphere from any rocky world in the habitable zone.

To determine which possibility is correct — our premature existence or the hazard of low-mass stars — Loeb recommends studying nearby red dwarf stars and their planets for signs of habitability. Future space missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and James Webb Space Telescope should help to answer these questions.

Meanwhile, I expect Know-Nothings ranging from creationist cults to Fox Noise to accept the easy-peasy early bird theorem as proof that we’re #1, we’re #1.

Consumer survey explains how pollsters don’t understand why Clinton will win the election

A new question added to the University of Michigan’s Survey of Consumers could turn out to be more accurate than ordinary opinion polls in predicting the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

In June and July, respondents to the monthly survey were asked who they expected to become the next president — rather than who they intended to vote for. The results belie the horse-race nature of the campaign that’s being implied by most polls of voter intent.

58 percent of the households surveyed by the University of Michigan said they thought Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious, relative to just 37 percent for the real estate and reality TV mogul Trump. That presents a very different picture to aggregations of voter intention; as is shown by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, which has Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency at 53.3 percent versus Donald Trump at 46.7 percent.

A report published by Ludwig Maximilians University Research Fellow Andreas Graefe in 2014 found that asking voters who they think will win has proved a better crystal ball than asking them which candidate they themselves are likely to support.

“Across the last 100 days prior to each of the seven U.S. presidential elections from 1988 to 2012, expectations provided more accurate forecasts of election winners and the final vote shares,” he wrote, relative to benchmark methods like intention polls, prediction markets, expert judgments, and quantitative models. “Gains in accuracy were particularly large compared to intention polls: on average, expectations reduced the error of intentions by more than half.”

Wonder how many professional pollsters will take note of this finding?

When will police departments stop using cheapo drug tests that give false positives?


Mr. Rushing buys a doughnut every other weekOrlando Sentinel

Daniel Rushing probably won’t be eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts in his car any more.

The 64-year-old was arrested on drug charges when Orlando police officers spotted four tiny flakes of glaze on his floorboard and thought they were pieces of crystal methamphetamine…

Cpl. Shelby Riggs-Hopkins wrote in an arrest report that during a traffic stop on 11 December she noticed the flakes on the floorboard. Two roadside drug tests were positive for the illegal substance and Rushing was arrested. But a state crime laboratory test cleared him several weeks later.

“It was incredible,” Rushing said. “It feels scary when you haven’t done anything wrong and get arrested … It’s just a terrible feeling.”

It started on a Friday afternoon when Rushing dropped off a neighbor at a hospital for a weekly chemotherapy session. Then, he drove to a convenience store to pick up a friend who needed a ride home.

Riggs-Hopkins said she was staking out the area for drug activity. Rushing told her he had a concealed weapons permit, according to an arrest report. She asked him to step out of his car and noticed a “rock like substance” on the floorboard.

“I recognized through my eleven years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer the substance to be some sort of narcotic,” she wrote…

Uh-huh.

Riggs-Hopkins and other officers spotted three other pieces of the substance.

“I kept telling them, ‘That’s … glaze from a doughnut,” Rushing said.

He was charged with possession of methamphetamine with a firearm and spent 10 hours in jail before being released on bond.

The Florida’s law enforcement department told the newspaper that an analyst in its Orlando crime lab did not try to identify what police found in the car, only to determine whether it was an illegal drug. They determined it was not and three days after Rushing’s arrest the state attorney’s office dropped the charges.

Mr. Rushing is going to sue the city. The coppers – of course – say the bust was lawful. Going by the book is sufficient as far as they’re concerned.

I think he should sue them for stupid. And probably for cheap. For using a test that gives false positives for doughnuts.

Thanks, Honeyman

Dolly’s clone sisters have aged like any other sheep, OK?


Click to enlargePress Association

The four clones from the same cell line as Dolly the Sheep

Dolly the Sheep started her life in a test tube in 1996 and died just six years later. When she was only a year old, there was evidence that she might have been physically older. At five, she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis. And at six, a CT scan revealed tumors growing in her lungs, likely the result of an incurable infectious disease. Rather than let Dolly suffer, the vets put her to rest.

Poor Dolly never stood a chance. Or did she?

Meet Daisy, Diana, Debbie and Denise. “They’re old ladies. They’re very healthy for their age,” said Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist who, with his colleagues at the University of Nottingham in Britain, has answered a longstanding question about whether cloned animals like Dolly age prematurely.

In a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications, the scientists tested these four sheep, created from the same cell line as Dolly, and nine other cloned sheep, finding that, contrary to popular belief, cloned animals appear to age normally…

Dolly’s birth, 20 years ago this month, blew the world away. Scientists had taken a single adult cell from a sheep’s udder, implanted it into an egg cell that had been stripped of its own DNA, and successfully created a living, breathing animal almost genetically identical to its donor.

Now, based on results of this new study, researchers have confirmed what most scientists believed years ago: Cloning does not lead to premature aging.

Many scientists hope that changes in perception will lead to advances in reproductive technology that will enable us to provide food for a growing global population, save endangered species and develop advanced therapies…Even then, welfare and ethical concerns will remain.

Some of those concerns are legitimate and should be the focus of scientific study. Most are crap grounded thoroughly in ignorance and fear.

In my reading, most of the self-titled scientific ethicists have little to do with science or ethics. They are religious moralists at root and dedicated to raising so-called concerns rooted in superstititon and retribution from their g_d.

Meanwhile, virtually all the laws governing clone research persist – even though they are about as legit as, say, laying on hands to raise the dead.