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A new dinosaur from Portugal is Europe’s largest-ever terrestrial predator and was the biggest carnivorous dinosaur of the Jurassic Period, according to paleontologists who studied its remains.
The dinosaur, named Torvosaurus gurneyi, measured close to 33 feet long and weighed over 2,200 pounds, according to a paper in the latest PLoS ONE. The predator was at the top of Europe’s terrestrial food chain roughly 150 million years ago.
“The fauna of what is now Portugal was extremely diverse in the Late Jurassic,” paleontologist Octavio Mateus of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “This new species of carnivorous dinosaur is adding a little more (to the) diversity of dinosaurs of Portugal.
He added that the dinosaur lived at a time “when the Atlantic was well formed and Europe was an archipelago.”
Fossils for the dinosaur were found north of what is now Lisbon. The upper jaw retains eleven of the dinosaur’s teeth, each of which measures about 4 inches long.
The new dinosaur is the second known kind of Torvosaurus and is the European equivalent of Torvosaurus tanneri from North America. Both species were discovered in rocks of the same geological age and lived in similar environments dominated by dinosaurs. Both might have been covered with proto-feathers, and both belonged to a two-legged dino group that gave rise to birds.
The Portuguese dinosaur was a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex[/i, and had more teeth than T. tanneri. T. rex still retains its “King of the Dinosaur Predators” title, though, as it was larger than both of the Torvosaurus beasts. (The most complete skeleton for a T. rex suggests it grew to about 40 feet long.)
Paleontologist and co-author Christophe Hendrickx, also of Universidade Nova de Lisboa, said, of the new Portuguese dino, “This is not the largest predatory dinosaur we know. Tyrannosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Giganotosaurus from the Cretaceous were bigger animals.”
Color illustrations of rocket-propelled cats and birds have recently been found in a 16th century war manual, according to a University of Pennsylvania researcher.
Written by artillery master Franz Helm of Cologne, who likely fought against the Turks during the mid-16th century, the manual on artillery and siege warfare dates to about 1530.
Among fanciful illustrations, the text in German explains the shocking project to put timed explosives onto birds and cats in order to “set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise.”
Called “Buch von den probierten Künsten” (Book of the tested arts) Helm’s treatise circulated widely in manuscript but was not published until 1625. It was rediscovered by Mitch Fraas, a historian and digital humanities expert at the Penn library.
Fraas began researching the war treatise after finding its unusual and disturbing illustrations on the book blog BibliOdyssey.
Among various illustrations of explosive devices, one image appeared particularly odd. ”It showed a cat and a bird propelled by rockets towards a castle,” Fraas said.
Fraas was able to track the images to Helm’s manual, whose print edition is kept in the Penn collection.
According to Fraas’s translation, in the treatise Helm explained how the poor animals could be used as explosives.
“On cats the text paints a grisly picture of attaching lit sacks of incendiaries onto the animals to have them return to their homes and set fire to them,” Fraas said.
Whether the pyrotechnic warfare technique was ever actually employed by Helm, we may never know.
“But strangely enough the idea of using cats and birds in just this way appears in historical texts from many disparate regions of the world,” Fraas said.
Out of the thousands of craters scarring the face of Mars, one has emerged as the likely source of most of the Martian meteorites that have been recovered on Earth, a new study shows.
Researchers pinpoint Mojave Crater, a 34 mile (55 kilometer) wide basin on the planet’s equator, as the origin of the so-called “shergottites” meteorites, a family that includes about 75 percent of the roughly 150 known Martian meteorites.
The crater is located slightly north and east of Meridian Planum, where NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity landed in January 2004.
Knowing where the meteorites came from would help scientists piecing together the history and evolution of Mars, the planet most like Earth in the solar system.
With clear evidence of past surface water, Mars remains a prime candidate in the search for life beyond Earth.
Researchers homed in on Mojave Crater as the source of the shergottites for several reasons. First, its large size means it was created by an impact powerful enough to launch debris into space. Based on the amount of cosmic ray exposure the meteorites experience in space, scientists estimate the rocks spent 5 million years in interplanetary space before reaching Earth.
The shergottites that have cosmic ray exposures of only about 1 million years broke apart during transit, exposing fresh surfaces and new interiors to radiation, planetary scientist Stephanie Werner, with the University of Oslo in Norway, theorizes in a paper published in this week’s Science.
Second, Mojave Crater is relatively young, formed from an impact that took place less than 5 million years ago on terrain that is roughly 4.3 billion years old. That's the same age, the researchers say, as when the shergottites originally crystallized.
The third and final piece of evidence comes from a chemical analysis of the crater made from data collected by instruments aboard Europe’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellites. Scientists found telltale chemical fingerprints of pyroxene and olivine in and around the crater, two minerals commonly present in the Martian meteorites.
“Only Mojave Crater combines the appropriate site mineralogy, size, and the young crater-formation age of less than 5 million years,” Werner wrote in an email to Discovery News.
“Additionally, the shergottite meteorites are igneous rocks which have formed at the depth of up to a few kilometers, thus most volcanic provinces can be excluded,” Werner added.
Not everyone agrees with the scientists’ conclusions.
Hubble has observed some weird things since it was launched in 1990, but this is probably one of the strangest.
In September 2013, the Catalina and Pan-STARRS sky surveys spotted a mysterious object in the asteroid belt, a region of rocky debris that occupy the space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Follow-up observations by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii resolved three separate objects within the fuzzy cloud. It was so strange that Hubble mission managers decided to use the space telescope to get a closer look.
And what they saw has baffled and thrilled astronomers in equal measure.
Hubble resolved the slow-moving debris of an asteroid that is in the process of breaking up. The asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, hasn’t hit anything, as the fragments are moving too slow — it just seems to be falling apart. This is unprecedented, never before has an asteroid been seen disintegrating to this degree in the asteroid belt.
“This is a rock. Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing,” said David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the investigation.
Comets are often seen fragmenting in this way, particularly when they drift too close to the sun; ices sublimate, creating a violent out-gassing of vapor, causing the cometary structure to rupture and break apart. A recent example of a cometary breakup is that of Comet ISON that got shredded by the sun’s extreme heating and powerful tidal forces during Thanksgiving last year.
While analyzing Hubble data, Jewitt’s team could actually see ten separate chunks of asteroid slowly drifting apart — at only 1.5 kilometers per hour (the speed of a slow walk). Four of the largest chunks are around 400 meters wide, roughly four times the length of a football field.
“This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” said co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany, in a Hubble news release. “The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible.”
So what could possibly be causing this asteroid to just fall apart?
With the collision scenario already eliminated, could the break-up be down to ices trapped in the rock heating up and outgassing, causing fragmentation in a similar way to how comets disintegrate? This is unlikely, as there isn’t a significant heat source in the asteroid belt and the asteroid is far away from the sun.
The leading theory for the breakup of P/2013 R3 is a bizarre Yarkovsky–O’Keefe–Radzievskii–Paddack (YORP) effect. As the sun’s radiation heats up one side of a space rock, that heat is radiated away as the asteroid rotates. The infrared radiation that is emitted from the dark side of the asteroid gives the asteroid a tiny kick. Over millions of years, this tiny acceleration effect can cause the asteroid to “spin up.” Should the spinning become faster than the structure of the asteroid can hold itself together, centrifugal forces can literally rip it apart.
As many asteroids are believed to be loose collections of rocks and dust — known as “rubble piles” — the impact of the YORP effect can be pretty dramatic, as P/2013 R3 can attest.
“This is the latest in a line of weird asteroid discoveries, including the active asteroid P/2013 P5, which we found to be spouting six tails,” says Agarwal. “This indicates that the sun may play a large role in disintegrating these small solar system bodies, by putting pressure on them via sunlight.”
Over the last two decades, huge numbers of fossils have been collected from the western Liaoning Province and adjacent parts of northeastern China, including exceptionally preserved feathered dinosaurs, early birds, and mammals. Most of these specimens are from the Cretaceous Period, including the famous Jehol Biota. However, in recent years many fossils have emerged from sites that are 30 million years earlier, from the Middle-Upper Jurassic Period, providing an exceptional window on life approximately 160 million years ago. A new paper published in latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology shows that several of these Jurassic sites are linked together by shared species and can be recognized as representing a single fossil fauna and flora, containing superbly preserved specimens of a diverse group of amphibian, mammal, and reptile species.
This fossil assemblage, newly named the Daohugou Biota after a village near one of the major localities in Inner Mongolia, China, dates from a time when many important vertebrate groups, including our own group, mammals, were undergoing evolutionary diversification. The Daohugou Biota makes an immense contribution to our understanding of vertebrate evolution during this period, with such notable creatures as the oldest known gliding mammal, another early mammal that may have swum with a beaver-like tail, the oldest dinosaurs preserved with feathers, and a pterosaur that represents an important transitional form between two major groups. As described by Dr. Corwin Sullivan, lead author of the study, "The Daohugou Biota gives us a look at a rarely glimpsed side of the Middle to Late Jurassic -- not a parade of galumphing giants, but an assemblage of quirky little creatures like feathered dinosaurs, pterosaurs with 'advanced' heads on 'primitive' bodies, and the Mesozoic equivalent of a flying squirrel."
Almost more impressive than the diversity of the biota is the preservation of many of the vertebrate specimens, including complete or nearly-complete skeletons associated with preserved soft tissues such as feathers, fur, skin or even, in some of the salamanders, external gills. Dr Yuan Wang, co-author of the study, explained, "The Daohugou amphibians are crucially important in the study of the phylogeny and early radiation of modern amphibian groups."
Quasicrystals have teased and intrigued scientists for three decades. Now, this already strange group of materials has a bizarre new member: a two-dimensional quasicrystal made from self-assembling organic molecules.
This odd quasicrystal is flat, made from a single layer of molecules with five-sided rings. The molecules form groups within the layer as weak hydrogen bonds link them together. These molecular groups are assembled in a way that forces other molecules in the layer into shapes including pentagons, stars, boats, and rhombi. If this were a regular old crystal, you’d expect to see these groups and shapes repeated over and over throughout the layer in a predictable way. But in this quasicrystal, you’ll see the same shapes over and over in the layer, but not in any organized pattern.
The things that set these quasicrystals apart from all the others, scientists say, are its organic materials and self-assembling parts.
“They’re markedly different from just about everything else out there,” said physical chemist Alex Kandel, whose lab at the University of Notre Dame described the material today in Nature. Previously known quasicrystals are mostly metallic, and tied together by strong ionic bonds rather than the weaker hydrogen bonds that can be found in complex organic molecules like DNA.
As their name suggests, quasicrystals have a structure that’s part crystalline, part disorganized. In other words, they are something in between a structure with repeating, symmetric units, and one with completely random building blocks. Their atomic units are locally symmetric, but are not regularly repeated over longer distances. Because of these arrangements, quasicrystals are slippery and have been used in things like non-stick frying pans.
The first quasicrystal of any sort was also accidentally made in the lab, in 1982, by materials scientist Daniel Schechtman who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 2011. Up until that point, scientists thought the semi-organized structure of quasicrystals was an impossibility. Now, we know that’s not true. Not only can quasicrystals be grown in the lab, they can also grow in nature. In 2012, Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt showed that quasicrystals found in eastern Russia had fallen to Earth in a meteorite.
Kandel’s group discovered the organic quasicrystal accidentally. Instead of trying to make the thing, they were actually hoping to study how electrons are distributed in ferrocenecarboxylic acid, the molecule the quasicrystal is built from. To do that, the team needed to build a stable, linear group of molecules. But when the scientists tried, they produced a two-dimensional quasicrystal instead.
“The first images were quite a shock,” Kandel said. “Certainly, 2-D quasicrystals aren’t easy to make, which is why we’re only seeing very recent reports of them now, some 30-odd years after the first quasicrystalline materials were discovered.”
Wolf Widdra of Germany’s Martin Luther University, who made the first 2-D quasicrystal, reported in October 2013, is a bit skeptical of the new research. He doesn’t think there’s enough evidence yet to prove quasicrystal structure over a large enough area.
Back when the universe was half its present age, supermassive black holes were feeding from a steady and plentiful diet of neighboring galaxies, the first measurement of a distant supermassive black hole’s spin shows.
Taking advantage of a naturally occurring zoom lens in space, astronomers analyzed X-rays streaming from near the mouth of a supermassive black hole powering a quasar about 6 billion light years from Earth.
“The ‘lens’ galaxy acts like a natural telescope, magnifying the light from the faraway quasar,” University of Michigan astronomer Rubens Reis explains in a paper published in this week’s Nature.
Analyzing four magnified images created by the lens galaxy -- an elliptical galaxy about 3 billion light years away -- Reis and colleagues found that the quasar’s black hole is spinning at half the speed of light.
The spin rate directly relates to how black holes feed and grow: The steadier the diet, the faster the spin, computer models show.
“If the mass accretion was more messy it would suggest that the black hole would have a lower spin,” astronomer Mark Reynolds, also with University of Michigan, told Discovery News.
“What we found in this system is that it’s spinning very rapidly,” Reynolds said, consuming mass equivalent to about one sun per year.
That suggests that the quasar, known as RX J1131-1231, is growing primarily by what is known as “coherent accretion” such as what might happen when two galaxies merge, producing lots of gas that can funnel down toward the black hole very efficiently, Reynolds said.
Until astronomers measure the spin rates of other and even more distant supermassive black holes they won’t know if RX J1131 is an odd bird or not.
“This is the first time that we’ve been able to push out to this type of distance by using the gravitational lensing effect. We hope ... to carry out similar studies on other (more distant) galaxies. Then we can begin to really start relating the black hole to the actual galaxy it’s in, how many mergers happened and things like that,” Reynolds said.
Spin rates may evolve over time, reflecting changes in evolution of galaxies.
“Different theories of galaxy evolution predict a different rate of mergers, and a different process of gas inflow into the center of galaxies,” Guido Risaliti, with the INAF Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence, Italy, wrote in an email to Discovery News.
“These processes, in turn, determine the final black hole spin. So knowing the distribution of supermassive black hole spins is a way to constrain the way they were formed, and so, ultimately, the way their host galaxies formed and evolved,” Risaliti wrote.
When the sun sets, the show begins: night after night of incredible weather, shimmering aurorae, and stunning starry vistas over the rugged and rural landscapes of South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming are captured in “Huelux,” the latest time-lapse film from photographer Randy Halverson.
Shot over seven months, Huelux presents the night sky in a way only time-lapse photography — and a skilled artist — can. Lightning storms flash, clouds speed by, the Northern Lights dance and, behind it all, the grand vista of the Milky Way makes its stately arc across the heavens. Human activity is reduced to mere flickers at these time scales, as the meteor-like flashes of commercial jet planes and communications satellites show.
“I came up with the title Huelux, which comes from hue (a color property), and lux which is Latin for light. Some of the aurora and Milky Way were difficult to color correct, so I spent a lot of time with the hue settings, white balance, etc. during the month and a half edit. The low aurora on the horizon were often yellow, while closer (higher in the sky) aurora were green. If I adjusted the yellow aurora on the horizon green, it threw the rest of the colors, such as grass, way off and made the whole image too blue.”
Fantastic work — truly a testament to the beauty of the night sky, as well as a haunting exhibition of a slightly more ponderous passage of time.
Red dwarf stars may be small, but they could be critical in the continuing hunt for exoplanets and the possibility of finding habitable alien worlds. In a new study, an international team of astronomers have estimated that every red dwarf in our galaxy hosts at least one exoplanet and that one quarter host super-Earths orbiting within their habitable zones.
The field of exoplanetary science has blossomed in recent years with the mind blowing discoveries by the Kepler space telescope and ever-increasing sophistication of ground-based observatories. Last week, Kepler’s exoplanetary haul skyrocketed with the announcement of 715 new confirmed worlds. But this is only the tip of the exo-iceberg. With improved observation techniques, more refined models and increasingly precise analytical tools, we can expect the steady stream of discoveries to turn into a deluge in the coming years.
And there’s one particularly intriguing target for astronomers — the lowly red dwarf.
These cool, dim, small stars are less than half the mass of our sun, but for what they lack in stellar energy they make up for in longevity. As they burn through hydrogen in their cores at a more pedestrian rate than their larger siblings, red dwarfs can persist for tens of billions or even trillions of years. Should a habitable world in orbit around a red dwarf spawn life, it would have billions of years to evolve.
Needless to say, this factor alone has inspired many theories about the potential for vastly intelligent lifeforms persisting far longer than our sun could ever support.
Signals in the Wobble
Now, astronomers from the UK and Chile have analyzed data from two high-precision exoplanet surveys — the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory and Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) at the Very Large Telescope, both operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and located in Chile.
Although both surveys are prolific exoplanet hunters in their own right, this new study combines data from both projects to tease out extremely faint signals of exoplanets that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. A healthy dose of statistical analysis was applied to tease out the exoplanet orbits from the noise.
Both projects detect the slight “wobble” exerted on a star as an unseen exoplanet orbits around it. The gravitational tug as the world orbits creates a tiny shift in the star’s position, a shift that can be detected in the starlight received by the instruments. As expected, high-mass worlds that orbit close to the star will create a strong signal, whereas small worlds orbiting further away will have a weaker signal. This method is known as the “radial velocity” technique for detecting exoplanets and it differs from Kepler’s “transit” method technique as it doesn’t require the exoplanet to pass in front of the star — thereby causing a slight ‘dip’ in brightness — to be detected.
Although Kepler is tailored to hunt for small worlds, that doesn’t mean ground-based instruments like HARPS and UVES can’t get in on the act; it just takes some ingenuity when analyzing the data.
“We were looking at the data from UVES alone, and noticed some variability that could not be explained by random noise,” said lead astronomer Mikko Tuomi, of the University of Hertfordshire. “By combining those with data from HARPS, we managed to spot this spectacular haul of planet candidates.”
“We are clearly probing a highly abundant population of low-mass planets, and can readily expect to find many more in the near future — even around the very closest stars to the Sun.”
In their paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), Tuomi’s team identified eight new exoplanets orbiting nearby red dwarf stars, three of which are ‘super-Earth’ sized worlds that orbit within their stars’ habitable zones. The habitable zone around any given star is the orbital distance at which a rocky planet could possess liquid water on its surface — the world is neither too hot or too cold for water to exist in a liquid state. Liquid water is required by life as we know it to evolve.
All of these new discoveries orbit red dwarfs between 15 and 80 light-years from our solar system, so on cosmic scales, they are on our galactic doorstep. They have orbital periods ranging from 4 days to 9 years, which equates to orbital distances of 0.05 to 4 times the sun-Earth distance.
The astronomers have also identified another ten exoplanetary candidates that require further investigation before they can be confirmed.