NASA Van Allen Mission Finds Another Line of Planetary Defense

A cloud of cold, charged gas around Earth, called the plasmasphere and seen here in purple, interacts with the particles in Earth's radiation belts — shown in grey— to create an impenetrable barrier that blocks the fastest electrons from moving in closer to our planet. (Image Credit: NASA/Goddard)

Ozone hole got you down?α Maybe climate change is bringing just a bit too much sunshine and wrecking the grapes in your favorite wine?β Would you cheer up if we told you it could be worse?

Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine the private sector figuring certain things just for the sake of knowing. But, yes, it turns out that things really could be worse.

Two donuts of seething radiation that surround Earth, called the Van Allen radiation belts, have been found to contain a nearly impenetrable barrier that prevents the fastest, most energetic electrons from reaching Earth.

The Van Allen belts are a collection of charged particles, gathered in place by Earth’s magnetic field. They can wax and wane in response to incoming energy from the sun, sometimes swelling up enough to expose satellites in low-Earth orbit to damaging radiation. The discovery of the drain that acts as a barrier within the belts was made using NASA’s Van Allen Probes, launched in August 2012 to study the region. A paper on these results appeared in the Nov. 27, 2014, issue of Nature magazine.

“This barrier for the ultra-fast electrons is a remarkable feature of the belts,” said Dan Baker, a space scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and first author of the paper. “We’re able to study it for the first time, because we never had such accurate measurements of these high-energy electrons before.”

(Fox)

The more we understand about how the planet protects us against the Universe at large, the more we can learn about how to protect the planet against ourselves.

Pretty straightforward, that. But if you would like to know more about the Van Allen probes, there’s a mission page for that.

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α Yes, that still exists.

β A genuine challenge that is already here.

Fox, Karen C. “NASA’s Van Allen Probes Spot an Impenetrable Barrier in Space”. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 26 November 2014.

Ninety Million Years

Nothing lives forever.

However, death does not stop one’s role in the Universe; most dead things go to decay and recycle their basic elements back through nature. But some things go to the fossil record, instead:

Professionals from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, pictured from left to right, Tom Suazo, fossil preparer, Amanda Cantrell, geosciences collections manager, Jake Sayler, volunteer, and Asher Lichtig, student researcher, excavate a 90 million-year-old turtle fossil about six miles east of Turtleback Mountain, a well-known peak near Truth or Consequences. (Robin Zielinski - Sun-News)The terrain looked much like any other in the southern New Mexico desert with its clumps of desert grass, its stands of mesquite bushes and its rock-strewn soil.

But to keen-eyed Jeff Dornbusch, a volunteer with a Truth or Consequences museum, a certain pile of rocks he spotted on a hike years ago looked a bit different.

Sure enough, as he’d later learn, they were fragments of a roughly 90 million-year-old turtle fossil.

“It just looked like a pile of gray rocks out here,” he said.

(Alba Soular)

If there absolutely must be a moral to the story, we might find satisfaction in the reminder that the Universe is a fascinating place, and well worth paying attention to. Sometimes there are wonders very nearly underfoot.

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Alba Soular, Diana. “Team digs up 90 million-year-old turtle remains in Sierra County”. Las Cruces Sun-News. 2 November 2014.

Astronomy and Human Progress

This morning, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory issued a press release, which in and of itself is hardly extraordinary. Its contents, however, are extraordinarily awesome:

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

While this photo is not about to save a life or help a man improve his intimate relations, it occasionally occurs to us to remind that astronomy is not just about fancy photos. The human species needs astronomers.

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Danger Is a Diet, Not a Middle Name

A female great bustard studies the backside of a male in full courtship display. (Photo by Franz-Josef Kovacs)

Maybe there is something to it. How’s this for a lede?

The lengths we go to for love can sometimes be dramatic—and so it is for male great bustards (Otis tarda), whose daredevil diet of poisonous beetles may actually help them get a date, a new study reveals.

(Bittel)

Jason Bittel’s headline for National Geographic News calls the discovery a first. And perhaps the lede overstates things; the behavior is already known to help reduce parasite infestation. But a first? Then again, the question of just who finds who or what attractive as a symptom of alcohol poisoning through binge drinking is probably a little less clear.

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Bittel, Jason. “Male Birds Poison Themselves to Appear Sexier—a First”. National Geographic News. 24 October 2014.

Image credit: Detail of photograph by Franz-Josef Kovacs.