Doomsday Paranoia Prompts the Search for Threats outside of Earth

December 22, 2012, was a good day for some; this is because the world is still standing and did not come to an end the day before as some doomsday prophecies have theorized. However, while Dec 21 may have passed without incident, this does not mean mankind is out of the woods yet. Letting our guards down may be a little bit premature as astronomers have detected an asteroid heading right for Earth.

The asteroid is estimated to be about 140 meters and was discovered by scientists from the University of Hawaii. While the asteroid will just barely miss our planet by about 890,000 kilometers, the fact that a behemoth rock is able to come that close is reasonable cause for alarm.

The reason we should worry is because that very same asteroid could change course and be headed back at Earth’s direction in the year 2040. This is due to a phenomenon known as the Yarkovsky effect. The effect occurs when an asteroid absorbs energy from the sun, which can alter the original direction of the object’s trajectory.

The asteroid in question is relatively the same mass as the one that slammed into an uninhabited area of Siberia in 1908, which caused an impact comparable to that of 1,000 atomic bombs going off at once.

Most astronomers agree that being hit by an asteroid is not a matter of “if” but “when.” For this reason, The B612 Foundation, a California based organization, is in the process of obtaining a half billion dollar fund for an infrared space telescope that is capable of detecting large celestial rocks that may pose a threat to Earth.

The telescope they hope to produce is called the Sentinel and will orbit the planet and take pictures of the sky and relay it back home. Detection is the key because we cannot stop what we don’t see. It is estimated that the Sentinel will be able to capture the locations of about 10,000 new asteroids every month.

Discovery Changes Current Views on the Origins of the Solar System

The astronomy community is in shock and delight as a new discovery may completely change the current theory about the evolution of our solar system.

It is common knowledge that the sun is about 4.6 billion years old. At the time it was forming, it was surrounded by a cloud of dust and gas, which would ultimately become the building blocks for the billions of asteroids that circle the solar system today.

Current theories propose that two early types of solids were formed eons apart. However, astronomers from the University of Copenhagen have devised a new dating technique that puts this belief into question.

The two types of solids in question are chondrules and calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs), both of which are commonly found in meteorites. CAIs form when droplets of molten gas reach less than 1,880 degrees Fahrenheit. Chondrules, on the other hand, are formed when large collections of dust drop in temperatures below 1,340 degrees Fahrenheit.

The new model proposes that the spinning disk responsible for the creation of the sun, planets and moons had massive amounts of energy within it. This caused particles to flatten as the center of the disk was formed into the sun. As the material began condensing and collapsing, gigantic surges in energy caused a massive wave of heat that affected the state of the chondrules and CAIs.

The discovery could explain how all solids are formed within a protoplanetary disk. Previous models show that within our solar system, chondrules did not form for another two million years until after the formation of CAIs. This theory, however, puzzled astronomers as observation of other planetary systems suggest they were formed differently.

Old dating methods rely on the amount of aluminum found in meteorites. This method was flawed because not all forms of aluminum are distributed evenly within the solar system. Under the new dating system, meteorites are broken apart where the lead and uranium can be measured using spectrometers.

Asteroid Time!

According to NASA a newly discovered asteroid will experience a close encounter with Earth this coming Monday; but worry not – it will not spell disaster.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office contends that the small space rock – called 2011 MD – will pass 7,500 miles over Earth’s surface over the southern Atlantic Ocean.

While it will come close, it is not a distance record holder. Earlier in the year, a tiny asteroid flew by even closer; that is within 3,400 miles of the Blue Planet.

The last asteroid measures 33 feet long and was discovered with New Mexican telescopes. Scientists say that asteroids this size can sail past Earth every six years.

The asteroid will briefly be seen rather brightly; well, that is bright enough such that medium-size telescopes may be able to spot it.

What’s With All This Algae: Dead Zone in the Gulf

Scientists are predicting that this year’s “dead zone” of low-oxygen water in the northern Gulf of Mexico will be the largest to date. Every year when the nutrient-rich freshwater of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers pour into the Gulf, it causes massive algae blooms. Then this algae consumes the oxygen in the Gulf, making the low oxygen conditions.

Shrimp, fish and many other species have to escape the dead zone or face dying.

Federal scientists are predicting that this year’s zone will be between 8,500 square miles and about 9,400 square miles. The actual size of the dead zone is to be measured this summer.

The largest recorded dead zone was in 2002 with 8,400 square miles of the Gulf lacking sufficient oxygen for marine life.
The forecasts on the size of the hypoxic zone most of the time is close to the mark, however, hurricanes have shattered them in the past.

The biggest culprit is fertilizer and the phosphates and nitrates in them which wind up in the Mississippi River every spring and get flushed out to the Gulf.

States in the Mississippi valley in concert with the federal government are attempting to reduce runoff from lawns, farms and cities, however, those efforts haven’t curbed the problem thus far.

Introducing: The Conversation

A group of Australian scientists recently began a new online effort to correlate the body of science and the rising human influence on the climate system.

Their initial piece, “Climate change is real: an open letter from the scientific community,” covers The Conversation, an academic Web site that aims to provide a credible source of analysis and information on important issues as traditional journalism shrinks.

The letter is in the style of recent American-fronted efforts to counter individuals and groups who have mastered the use of the Web as a means of disseminating and aggregating all kinds of information be it fact or fiction so long as it casts doubt on climate science.

In contrast to Skeptical Science and RealClimate, tightly focused on science questions, this initiative appears to be trying to both clarify the state of the science on global warming and the same breath encourage policies that might possibly curb greenhouse gas emissions.

This excerpt manages to do a justice to the overall style:

“Like all great challenges, climate change has brought out the best and the worst in people. A vast number of scientists, engineers, and visionary businessmen are boldly designing a future that is based on low-impact energy pathways and living within safe planetary boundaries; a future in which substantial health gains can be achieved by eliminating fossil-fuel pollution; and a future in which we strive to hand over a liveable planet to posterity.”

“On the other extreme, economic instability and fear of radical change have been exploited by ideologues and other interests vested to whip up ill-informed, climate scientists and populist rage have become the punching bag of shock jocks and tabloid scribes.”

Moon Eclipse To Last Longer Than Usual

This year’s first total eclipse of the moon will last an unusually long time.

That is, unless you live in Canada or the United States. North America will not be privy to Wednesday’s lunar spectacle.

The period when earth’s shadow completely blocks the moon will last 1 hour and 40 minutes. The last time the moon was covered for so long was back in July 2000, when it lasted 7 minutes longer.

Normally, the full moon glows with reflected sunlight. A total lunar eclipse happens when the moon glides through the long shadow cast by the Earth and is blocked from the sunlight illuminating it.

As the moon plunges deeper into the shadow of the earth, the disk appears to gradually change color, turning from silver to red or orange. This is because some indirect sunlight still reaches the moon after passing through the atmosphere, which scatters blue light blue. Only red light hits the moon.

Because the moon will pass close to the center of the earth’s shadow, the total eclipse phase will last longer than usual.

The entire eclipse should last a little over 5 1/2 hours. Observers in Europe will miss the first part of the show because it will happen before the moon rises. Eastern Asia and eastern Australia will not catch the final stages, which will happen after the moon sets. Portions of South America will be able see the moon completely shrouded.

Oconee Nuclear Station: Analog is Still Alive

Enough already about the Arab Spring, the digital revolution is now coming to America’s nuclear power plants.
In the coming weeks, technicians will finish installing digital controls for the safety systems and operating of a nuclear reactor in South Carolina.

In a country where a digital blender may be bought for about $25 at Walmart, the Oconee Nuclear Station reactor will be the first of 104 reactors in the United States not controlled with the analog technology that brought the world cassette tapes and slide rules.

It has taken nuclear power plants so long to go digital because regulators wanted assurances the new control systems were as reliable as the old ones and could not be compromised by hackers.

“The systems in the plants right now, they are doing an excellent job. The plants are very safe – they’ve been doing their jobs for years…”

The catch behind going digital is saving money. Usually, systems in a nuclear power plant are monitors that bare four sensors. If more than one of them have out-of-whack readings, engineers often have to “trip” the plant, or shut it down, until the problem is resolved. If a nuclear plant is idle for a day or more, it may end up costing the utility company upwards of $2 million.

According to Jere Jenkins, director of Radiation Labs at Purdue University:

“Those utilities need to keep those plants running. To have unplanned outages as a result of an analog system isn’t doing what we need it to do – that’s a financial risk…”

Foreign Accent Syndrome? That’s right, Foreign Accent Syndrome!

Karen Butler is from Newport, Oregon but she speaks with an Irish accent. Though, she did not acquire it from spending time across the Atlantic. She picked it up at the dentist’s office.

Butler explained recently on the Today Show, she to the dentists’ for a surgical procedure about a year and a half ago. When she recovered from the anesthesia, the funny voice she was speaking with seemed to be a normal reaction to the procedure, along with the swelling and soreness that is. But as time went on, she healed from the surgery, her body returned to normal yet the voice did not go away.

The culprit may is an extremely rare condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome, triggered by a stroke or brain damage.

Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, medical director of the Providence Stroke Center in Oregon, said on “Today”:

“It’s so rare — less than 100 cases ever reported — that the average neurologist, even a stroke neurologist, would not see a case in their lifetime.”

The condition remains very mysterious, however, the best known case is probably of 30-year-old Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn, who picked up a German accent after being hit by a shrapnel in Oslo from a German air raid in 1941.

Some reports have indicated the condition can clear up over time, NBC’s chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman said during the segment. However, Butler is not demanding a cure, she exactly enjoys it.
It’s just like a new toy.”

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New Discovery in the Journal of Applied Physics

Light Magnet Lab

Researchers at the University of Michigan have made a discovery that presents a breakthrough in solar power generation.

Light Magnet LabStephen Rand, is a professor at the University of Michigan and author of the report that discusses his team’s discovery in the “Journal of Applied Physics,” the researchers discovered a way to make an “optical battery” that harnesses the magnetic properties of light which, until now, scientists did not imagine amounted to anything.

The paper explains how light has both magnetic and electric components though, until now, scientists believed the magnetic field effects were so weak they could be ignored. Rand and his associates, though, found that at the right intensity, when light is traveling through a material not conducting electricity, the light field may generate magnetic effects up to 100 million times stronger than once imagined possible. Under such conditions, according to Rand, the magnetic fields become similar in strength to a stalwart electric effect.

A doctoral student in applied physics at the same university as Rand, William Fisher, says what makes this possible is:

“A previously undetected brand of optical rectification.”

In traditional optical rectification, light’s electric field sends negative and positive charges to be pulled apart in a material.

Before, this effect had only been observed in crystalline materials which possessed a kind of symmetry. This process works with materials like glass, though, presently requires light that surpasses the sun’s natural intensity.

Reduce Carbon Emissions: Grow Pot Outdoors

A recent study shows that indoor marijuana production carries a formidably large carbon footprint.

Indoor marijuana farmEvan Mills, Ph.D of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory research has released a new independent report, “Energy up in Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production.” Mills reports that indoor Cannabis production uses 1% of the entire electricity consumption in the country. The final sum is an energy expenditure of $5 billion per year.

While 1% may not seem like such a huge settlement, the report claims that smoking one single joint is the equivalent of running a 100-watt light bulb for 17 hours. That joint emits two pounds of CO2 emissions.

According to the report:

“Each four-by-four-foot production module doubles the electricity use of an average U.S. home and triples that of an average California home. The added electricity use is equivalent to running about 30 refrigerators. Processed Cannabis results in 3000-times its weight in emissions. For off-grid production, it requires 70 gallons of diesel fuel to produce one indoor Cannabis plant, or 140 gallons with smaller, less-efficient gasoline generators.”

The report does not editorialize on the issue of marijuana legalization and Mills says cannabis production is not intrinsically polluting, however, rather currently engages in inefficient production. Mills proposes energy use for indoor production could be reduced with cost-effective improvements of up to 75%.

Fast Company finds in the report further reason that marijuana should be legalized.

Ariel Schwartz writes:

“Marijuana production needs to be legalized, so people will actually cast a critical eye on its energy usage. All the industry has to do is follow in the footsteps of the commercial agricultural industry, which has made strides in energy efficiency in recent years.”

Mills writes in the report that criminalization contributes to inefficient energy practice. Compared to say, electric grids, off-grid power production often emitted more greenhouse-gas.

Mills concludes:

“It is up to others to decide how to respond to the findings.”