Discovery of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere could be sign of life

James Clerk Maxwell Telescope…1 of 2 used to detect phosphine on Venus

With phosphine in mind, an international team of researchers used two ground-based telescopes — the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile — to search for any possible signatures of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. Sure enough, they found the gas at a concentration of five to 20 parts per billion in the atmosphere. That’s a lot when you compare it to how much is found on Earth, where the gas is concentrated in parts per trillion and parts per quadrillion. “That is all very much evidence pushing towards this exotic explanation of something replenishing it and something making it at large quantities,” says Clara Sousa-Silva…

If the phosphine detection is confirmed, then people will set to work figuring out where it’s coming from. It may turn out that life isn’t even the best explanation. The phosphine may have been found in clouds with moderate temperatures, but the area is still a ghastly place for life to survive, even for the hardiest of microorganisms. “There’s nothing definitive saying it is biology,” Rakesh Mogul, a biological chemist at California State Polytechnic University focusing on extreme microbial life, who is not involved in the study, tells The Verge. “There’s still a lot of unknowns. And it’s nice to put biology as the answer, but really, as scientists, we need to back it up and make sure we exhaustively study all the other possibilities.”

Nice to see scientists in charge of this information gathering and analysis. Imagine the hullabaloo if our politicians had authority over this research.

Pic of the day

Click to enlargeDaniele Boffelli

Auroras usually occur high above the clouds. The auroral glow is created when fast-moving particles ejected from the Sun impact the Earth’s magnetosphere, from which charged particles spiral along the Earth’s magnetic field to strike atoms and molecules high in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The lowest part of an aurora will typically occur at 100 kilometers up, while most clouds usually exist only below about 10 kilometers. The relative heights of clouds and auroras are shown clearly in the featured picture from Dyrholaey, Iceland. There, a determined astrophotographer withstood high winds and initially overcast skies in an attempt to capture aurora over a picturesque lighthouse, only to take, by chance, the featured picture along the way.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Pictures of the day

Click on the photo for larger

A dairy farm has painted QR codes onto their cows. People passing Southfields farm in Somerby, Leicestershire, can scan the QR code using an app on a smartphone and get quick access to a website which contains information about the farm’s 100-strong herd of dairy cows. The farm is testing the idea out on their cow, Lady Shamrock, and scanners will be instantly directed to to find out more about her.

For more photos, just click and go here.

Buckyball solids found in space

After finding gaseous clouds of buckyballs in space last year, astronomers have now discovered the carbon balls in a solid form, around a pair of stars some 6,500 light-years from Earth.

Buckyballs are microscopic spheres, where 60 carbon atoms are arranged — with alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons — into a football-like pattern. The unusual structure makes them incredibly strong, and ideal candidates for things like superconducting materials, medicines, water purification and armor. They got their name because of their resemblance to the geodesic domes of the architect Buckminster Fuller.

So far, they’ve only been found in gas form in space. In 2010, astronomers using the Spitzer space telescope found the balls in a planetary nebula called Tc 1.

But with this latest discovery, again using data from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope, astronomers found particles consisting of stacked buckyballs. They had stacked together like oranges in a crate to form a solid shape.

“The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs,” said the paper’s lead author Nye Evans of Keele University in England.

The research team was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form. In all, the team detected enough solid buckyballs to fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests.

Buckyballs may be more widely distributed in space than anyone thought. They may be common enough to be an essential form of carbon as building blocks for organic substances, organic life.

Would you like to have clouds floating by over your cube?

The privilege of working under the open sky is reserved for just a few lucky professions. For the less fortunate majority, spending their working hours surrounded by gloomy office landscapes, the soothing sight of clouds drifting through the sky is unattainable. Setting up office cubicles in the open would do the trick but it’s hardly a practical option, especially in places where the weather cannot be trusted. Fortunately, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO), based in Stuttgart, Germany, know what else can be done to bring a little outdoor comfort to the office-bound. They built a dynamic luminous ceiling which allows office dwellers to gaze at clouds without ever leaving their desks.

As clouds shift shapes and move through the sky, the intensity of sunlight we experience on the ground is in constant flux. When replicated indoors, such lighting conditions could help entice the feeling of freedom and spaciousness that we associate with being outdoors. However, it takes more than attaching a set of your regular LCD TVs to a ceiling and playing footage of a cloudy sky to pull this off. The IAO researchers teamed up with LEiDs GmbH, an LED technology company, to make sure their ceiling simulates natural light conditions on a partially-cloudy day as accurately as possible.

A combination of red, blue, green and white diodes is used to produce the full light spectrum, which translates into over 16 million possible hues. This means the set-up is able to simulate dynamic changes in lighting conditions that are not immediately obvious to the naked eye. They may, however, influence your effectiveness at work…

For now, the prototype sky takes up 34 square meters of ceiling real estate and uses 32,560 LEDs to provide light with the intensity of over 3,000 lux (500 to 1000 lux is already enough to create comfortable lighting conditions). A small section of this virtual sky is going to be exhibited at the beginning of March in Hanover, Germany, during the CeBIT tradeshow, so you still have some time to talk your bosses into buying one of these. At the moment, the sky comes at 1000 euros per square meter, but the price is likely to come down with the solution growing in popularity.

I showed this to friends who work in a pretty typical American cube-farm and they thought the idea was terrific. Pay attention, boss!

Weird western cloudscape

Here’s what’s weird about these clouds. This about 6:45 AM MDT. I’m facing West at the beginning of my first walk of the day with Rally.

These clouds are ahead of me – to the West. The sun is going to be rising in a short while – behind me.

I’ve seen clouds illuminated like this with the sun behind them. But, not with the sun ready to come into view facing the clouds.

Strange clouds form when aircraft inadvertently cause precipitation

As turboprop and jet aircraft climb or descend under certain atmospheric conditions, they can inadvertently seed mid-level clouds and cause narrow bands of snow or rain to develop and fall to the ground, new research finds.

Through this seeding process, they leave behind odd-shaped holes or channels in the clouds, which have long fascinated the public.

The key ingredient for developing these holes in the clouds: water droplets at subfreezing temperatures, below about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius). As air is cooled behind aircraft propellers or over jet wings, the water droplets freeze and drop toward Earth.

“Any time aircraft fly through these specific conditions, they are altering the clouds in a way that can result in enhanced precipitation nearby,” says Andrew Heymsfield, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and lead author of a new study into the phenomenon.

Just by flying an airplane through these clouds, you could produce as much precipitation as with seeding materials along the same path in the cloud…”

As far back as the 1940s, scientists have wondered about the causes of these clouds with gaps seemingly made by a giant hole punch. Researchers have proposed a number of possible aviation-related causes, from acoustic shock waves produced by jets, to local warming of the air along a jet’s path, to the formation of ice along jet contrails.

Indeed, the earliest observations implicated jet aircraft, but not propeller aircraft, as producing the holes.

Researchers in the 1980s observed that propeller aircraft could transform supercooled droplets into ice crystals, and experiments were launched in the 1990s to characterize the phenomenon.

RTFA – for the tale of how one group of researchers had the data they needed to understand this process – fall into their laps.