Feb 16, 2013

Russian meteor: lack of fragments sparks conspiracy theories

Divers searched a lake near the city of Chelyabinsk, where a hole several metres wide had opened in the ice, but had so far failed to find any large fragments, officials said. Search teams said they had found small objects up to about 1 cm wide that might be fragments, but no larger pieces.

The scarcity of evidence on the ground has fuelled scores of conspiracy theories over what caused the fireball and the huge shockwave that hit Chelyabinsk, which plays host to many defence industry plants.

Nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky told reporters in Moscow it could have been "war-mongers" in the United States. "It's not meteors falling. It's a new weapon being tested by the Americans," he said.

A priest from near the explosion site called it an act of God. Social media sites were flooded with speculation about what might have caused the explosion.

"Honestly, I would be more inclined to believe that this was some military thing," said Oksana Trufanova, a local human rights activist.

Asked about the speculation, an official at the local branch of Russia's Emergencies Ministry simply replied: "Rubbish".

Residents of Chelyabinsk, an industrial city 1,500 km (950 miles) east of Moscow, heard an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt a shockwave that blew out windows and damaged the wall and roof of a zinc plant.

The meteor travelled through the atmosphere at 19 miles per second, according to Russian space agency Roscosmos, leaving a long white trail visible as far as 125 miles away.

NASA estimate the object was around 55 feet across before entering Earth's atmosphere and weighed about 10,000 tons.

It exploded miles above Earth, releasing nearly 500 kilotons of energy - about 30 times the size of the nuclear bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War Two, NASA added.

"We would expect an event of this magnitude to occur once every 100 years on average," said Paul Chodas of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"When you have a fireball of this size we would expect a large number of meteorites to reach the surface and in this case there were probably some large ones."

The Chelyabinsk regional governor said the strike caused about 1 billion roubles ($33 million) worth of damage.

Life in the city had largely returned to normal by Saturday although 50 people were still in hospital. Officials said more than 1,200 people were injured, mostly by flying glass.

Repair work had to be done quickly because of the freezing temperatures, which sank close to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) at night.

Read more at The Telegraph

Meet the Youngest Video Game Programmer

A bright young programmer from Philadelphia recently unveiled a video game involving ballerinas, jewels and vampires — sure to be a hit with young girls. The programmer herself also happens to be seven years old.

Zora Ball, a first grader at the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in Philadelphia, created the video game in a class focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics led by Tariq Al-Nasir, who heads the STEMnasium Learning Academy.

Al-Nasir’s organization uses open-source software called Bootstrap and Alice 2.0 that was originally developed for university-level coursework. While sixth and seventh graders are usually advanced enough to begin learning it, Al-Nasir told me he made the software more accessible with a programming language called Racket.

Once he got them into a this new programming environment, Al-Nasir was essentially teaching math to Ball and her classmates in a fun way. The students designed interactive games involving three elements: a player, a goal and something to avoid, all moving along X and Y coordinates. Then they picked a setting for the game.

For Zora Ball, that meant making the player a ballerina who’s searching for a jewel in a nail salon while trying to avoid a vampire — something she doesn’t like, Al-Nasir said. ”She was obviously very comfortable understanding that the danger is moving on the X and the player will be moving on the Y coordinate,” he added.

The Philadelphia Tribune’s Damon C. Williams called Zora the youngest individual to create a full version of a mobile application video game. Recently Zora demonstrated her skills at Will.i.am’s TRANS4M benefit show in Los Angeles, where she showed the singer a new game she’d made. Will.i.am was the player, microphones were the goal and the danger was a bad note, Al-Nasir explained.

And to think that in first grade my big achievement was making a Guy Smiley puppet with a popsicle stick. Seriously, nice work Zora.

Next, Al-Nasir said his first grade students are going to be designing more elaborate games based on the Alice programming language and then entering them into a competition. Meanwhile his eighth and ninth grade students are developing an app using Java and C programming called “Let Freedom Ring” in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 15, 2013

Why Good Hair Matters: First Animal Model of Recent Human Evolution Reveals That Mutation for Thick Hair Does Much More

The first animal model of recent human evolution reveals that a single mutation produced several traits common in East Asian peoples, from thicker hair to denser sweat glands, an international team of researchers reports.

The team, led by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, Fudan University and University College London, also modeled the spread of the gene mutation across Asia and North America, concluding that it most likely arose about 30,000 years ago in what is today central China. The findings are reported in the cover story of the Feb. 14 issue of Cell.

"This interdisciplinary approach yields unique insight into the generation of adaptive variation among modern humans," said Pardis Sabeti, associate professor in the Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and one of the paper's senior authors.

"This paper tells a story about human evolution in three parts," said Cliff Tabin, head of the HMS Department of Genetics and co-senior author. "The mouse model links multiple traits to a single mutation, the related association study finds these traits in humans, and computer models tell us where and when the mutation likely arose and spread."

Previous research in Sabeti's lab had identified the mutation as a strong candidate for positive selection. That is, evidence within the genetic code suggested the mutant gene conferred an evolutionary advantage, though what advantage was unclear.

The mutation was found in a gene for ectodysplasin receptor, or EDAR, part of a signaling pathway known to play a key role in the development of hair, sweat glands and other skin features. While human populations in Africa and Europe had one, ancestral, version of the gene, most East Asians had a derived variant, EDARV370A, which studies had linked to thicker scalp hair and an altered tooth shape in humans.

The ectodysplasin pathway is highly conserved across vertebrates -- the same genes do the same thing in humans and mice and zebrafish. For that reason, and because its effects on skin, hair and scales can be observed directly, it is widely studied.

This evolutionary conservation led Yana Kamberov, one of two first authors on the paper, to reason that EDARV370A would exert similar biological effects in an animal model as in humans. The HMS research fellow in genetics developed a mouse model with the exact mutation of EDARV370A -- a difference of one DNA letter from the original, or wild-type, population. That mouse manifested thicker hair, more densely branched mammary glands and an increased number of eccrine, or sweat, glands.

"This not only directly pointed us to the subset of organs and tissues that were sensitive to the mutation, but also gave us the key biological evidence that EDARV370A could have been acted on by natural selection," Kamberov said.

The findings prompted the team to look for similar traits in human populations. When co-first author Sijia Wang and the team including collaborators at Fudan examined the fingertips of Chinese volunteers at colleges and farming villages, they found that the sweat glands of Han Chinese, who carry the derived variant of the gene, were packed about 15 percent more densely than those of a control population with the ancestral variant.

At the same time, Wang and the team including collaborators at University College London were working to zero in on when and where the mutation arose. Computer models suggested that the derived variant of the gene emerged in central China between 13,175 and 39,575 years ago, with a median estimate of 30,925 years. Researchers concluded the derived variant is at least 15,000 years old, predating the migration from Asia by Native Americans, who also carry the mutation.

That time span suggests that different traits could have been under selection at different times. The mutation's many effects, known as pleiotropy, only complicate the question. If changes to the sweat glands conferred an advantage in new climates -- one of the theories the researchers plan to explore further -- changes to hair and to mammary glands could have conferred other advantages at other times.

Not all of these advantages need be direct effects on fitness. "When Pardis started this work, I would not have predicted that a gene that makes good hair would top of a list of mutations that confer evolutionary advantage among humans," said Bruce Morgan, HMS associate professor of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-senior author on the paper. "However, in this case 'good hair' may have a biological meaning because it is genetically linked to a physiologically adaptive trait like increased sweating capacity. A cultural preference for a physically obvious trait like hair type could have arisen because individuals with it were more successful, and this would help increase selection on the new variant."

"That (pleiotropy) makes it harder for us to make a guess," Wang said. "If there were only one associated trait, we could say with confidence that's where the selective advantage comes from. But with many traits, we don't know which is the target of selection, and which are just hitchhiking." Wang intends to focus on that question in his new role, as a Max Planck independent research group leader in dermatogenomics at Chinese Academy of Sciences -- Max Planck Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai.

Read more at Science Daily

Frogs Find Safe Haven in West Africa

A global plague, the chytrid fungus, afflicts amphibians and has even driven some species to extinction in the wild, such as the Kihansi spray toad in Tanzania. However, a recent study found that the disease has not yet ravaged West Africa. No one knows how long this safe haven will remain, as conditions are ripe in the region for the fungus to spread.

Nearly 800 West African amphibians were tested for the fungus and all of them were found to be free of the disease in a study published in PLOS ONE. Most of the species were frogs from a variety of habitats in seven nations, Bénin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone. Conditions in the rainforests of the regions are perfect for the fungus, but it seems that geography may have kept the fungus at bay.

The researchers suggested that a geographic barrier, the Dahomey Gap, may have protected West African frogs. The Dahomey Gap is strip of arid land that splits the Congo forest from the western African rainforest. The dry savannah of the Dahomey Gap may be blocking the fungus, which depends on moist conditions.

Unfortunately for frogs, the Dahomey Gap is no barrier to humans. Highways link the chytrid-infected regions to the east and south with the disease-free west. Some frogs that are regularly eaten can harbor the disease, and human commerce in these animals could spread the disease across the gap.

The disease doesn’t depend on live animals for transport. For example, the study’s authors called for researchers and tourists to avoid moving equipment across the Dahomey Gap. They also recommended mining tools be purchased anew, instead of transported from the east to the west in Africa. However, it seems unlikely that mining companies will spend millions of dollars to avoid infecting frogs.

Read more at Discovery News

Owl Makes 140-Mile Trip Stuck in SUV Grille

A great horned owl managed to avoid becoming roadkill in a swift maneuver that then got it stuck on a 140-mile overnight road trip.

The owl was under veterinary care and expected to make a full recovery, the Sun Sentinel reported.

Sonji Coney-Williams was driving her Ford SUV along Florida’s Turnpike Thursday, Feb. 7, when she saw the bird in the dark in the middle of the road near Yeehaw Junction.  “It didn’t move. It just stood there and I couldn’t stop,” she told the Sun Sentinel.

That night she checked into a hotel and the next morning as she was driving off a couple pointed to the grille on her SUV.  “I lost it,” she said. “I told them I didn’t want to see it. I knew exactly what happened.”

But the bird was alive and Coney-Williams called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “FWC Officer Lex Corteguera removed the SUV’s grille and transported the feathered patient to the non-profit center. The center’s director, Sherry Schlueter, said the owl arrived dehydrated but responsive,” the Sun Sentinel reported.

Read more at Discovery News

Asteroid Buzzes Earth in Record-Breaking Flyby

An asteroid half the size of a football field buzzed Earth in a historic flyby today (Feb. 15), barely missing our planet just hours after a much smaller object exploded above Russia, injuring perhaps 1,000 people.

The 150-foot-wide (45 meters) near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 cruised within 17,200 miles (27,000 kilometers) of Earth at 2:24 p.m. EST (1924 GMT) today, coming closer than many communications satellites circling our planet.

The flyby marked the closest approach by such a large asteroid that astronomers have ever known about in advance. But it wasn't even the most dramatic space-rock event of the day.

That distinction goes to a brilliant fireball that exploded early this morning in the skies over Russia's Chelyabinsk region, which is about 930 miles (1,500 km) east of Moscow. The blast damaged hundreds of buildings and wounded perhaps 1,000 people, according to media reports.

Scientists think the Russian fireball was caused by a object that was about 50 feet wide (15 m) and weighed about 7,000 tons before it hit Earth's atmosphere. For comparison, 2012 DA14 tips the scales at 140,000 tons or so. The two space rocks are completely unrelated, NASA researchers say, making the dual events a spooky cosmic coincidence.

Scientific treat

Astronomers had been looking forward to 2012 DA14's flyby for a while, since it gave them the rare chance to study a decent-size asteroid up close.

"We're going to use our radars to bounce radio waves off this asteroid, watch it spin, look at the reflections and understand its size, its shape and perhaps even a little bit about what it's made of," Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, said in a video released by the space agency Thursday (Feb. 14).

Indeed, researchers around the world trained instruments on 2012 DA14, tracking the space rock as it cruised toward Earth, gave our planet a historically close shave and then slipped silently off into the depths of space once again.

Cosmic shooting gallery

There are lessons to be taken from today's asteroid flyby and fireball blast, researchers said.

"Today's events, both with 2012 DA14 and the Russian meteorite, are a reminder that our solar system is a crowded place," Chris Lewicki, president of asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources, wrote in a blog post today.

Our planet has indeed been pummeled by asteroids many times over its history — perhaps most famously 65 million years ago, when a 6-mile-wide (10 km) behemoth wiped out the dinosaurs — and it will continue to be struck in the future.

The good news is that we probably don't have to worry about a potential civilization-ending strike anytime soon. NASA researchers have mapped out the orbits of 90 percent of the biggest and most dangerous near-Earth asteroids, and none of them seem to be on a collision course with Earth in the foreseeable future.

But there are a lot of smaller space rocks out there waiting to be discovered and mapped. Researchers have identified just 9,600 near-Earth asteroids to date, but they think a million or more are likely to be out there. (2012 DA14 itself was just discovered in February 2012.)

Spotting the most threatening of these space rocks may require lofting dedicated asteroid-hunting space telescopes, researchers say. The nonprofit B612 foundation plans to do just that; in 2017 or 2018, it aims to launch an instrument called the Sentinel Space Telescope, which would scan Earth's neighborhood from a Venus-like orbit, freeing it from having to contend with the glare of the sun.

Read more at Discovery News

Russian Meteor Explosion Not Caused by Asteroid Flyby

The meteor explosion over Russia that injured more than 500 people and damaged hundreds of buildings was not caused by an asteroid zooming close by the Earth today (Feb.15), a NASA scientist says.

NASA asteroid expert Don Yeomans, head of the agency's Near-Earth Object Program Office, told SPACE.com that the object which exploded over a thinly inhabited stretch of eastern Europe today was most likely an exploding fireball known as a bolide.

More than 500 people were injured, mostly by glass cuts when windows shattered during the blast, according to the Russian Emergency Ministry.

"If the reports of ground damage can be verified, it might suggest an object whose original size was several meters in extent before entering the atmosphere, fragmenting and exploding due to the unequal pressure on the leading side vs the trailing side (it pancaked and exploded)," Yeomans told SPACE.com in an email. "It is far too early to provide estimates of the energy released or provide a reliable estimate of the original size."

Yeoman stressed that the bolide event was likely not associated at all with the incoming asteroid 2012 DA14, which will fly within 17,200 miles (27,000 kilometers) of Earth when it passes safely by our planet today.

"The asteroid will travel south to north," Yeomans said. "The bolide trail was not south to north and the separation in time between the fireball and 2012 DA14 close approach is significant."

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is 150 feet (45 meters) wide -- about half the size of a football field -- and will make its closest approach to Earth at 2:24 p.m. EST (1924 GMT) when it passes over Indonesia. It will be about 5,000 miles (8,046 kilometers) closer to Earth than the communications satellites circling the planet in geosynchronous orbits.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 14, 2013

Unlocking the Mystery Behind Saturn's Moonlets

Research by Loughborough University physicists casts new light on Saturn's moonlets -- and could help solve some of the mysteries surrounding planet formation.

Saturn's F ring has long been of interest to scientists as its features rapid change on timescales from hours to years, and it is probably the only location in the solar system where large scale collisions happen on a daily basis.

When CASSINI began imaging the Saturn system back in 2006 the discovery of a proliferation of moonlets -- small natural satellites -- in Saturn's F ring was an unexpected find. Powerful tidal forces were thought to minimize the clumping of particles necessary to create these moonlets and scientists were at a loss to explain the high population in Saturn's rings.

As the processes at work in Saturn's rings are comparable to those of a protoplanetary disk, understanding them could be key to unlocking the secrets of our own solar system. Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Loughborough's Department of Physics have revealed a new computer model which could help solve this mystery.

"Saturn's rings offer a nearby astrophysical laboratory to study and observe -- in real time -- many mechanisms and processes theorised to take place in astrophysical disks with the use of the CASSINI space craft," explains Loughborough physicist Phil Sutton. "And Saturn's F ring is probably the most active in the solar system. That's why we think it is so fascinating."

Work on Saturn's F ring, the outermost of the dense rings, has shown that the nearby 'shepherd' moon Prometheus directly influences the formation of moonlets in the ring itself. These moonlets can themselves create structures within the F ring. The interaction between Prometheus and the F ring transpires because of the difference in alignment of the elliptical F ring and the elliptical orbit of Prometheus. Over time changes in the rotational axis alters this alignment, resulting in very close approaches to the F ring by Prometheus. During the closest approaches over the course of one orbital period Prometheus moves towards and then back away from the F ring, creating structures known as streamer-channels.

Previous numerical modelling has used a massless F ring (where particles were non-interacting with each other) interacting with Prometheus and showed that the density of particles at streamer-channel edges increased over a series of orbital periods after the original encounter. However, the modelling did not account for the fast growth of moonlets necessary to explain the large population observed by CASSINI.

"In our paper we report the results of our numerical modelling that assumed an F ring with mass where all particles were gravitationally interacting," Mr Sutton explains. "What we see is an accelerated growth of the density seen at the same places on the streamer-channel edges than previously reported. This increase is around 5% each orbital period for the first five orbits, compared with a 0% increase for the same regions over the same time period using the non- interacting model.

"Where all the particles in the F ring interact with each other we see a more fluid-like motion. It is this fluid-like motion that creates turbulence and subsequent vortices within the F ring as a perpendicular force to the flow (Prometheus) disrupts it.

Read more at Science Daily

Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by 7 Months

Babies as young as seven months can distinguish between, and begin to learn, two languages with vastly different grammatical structures, according to new research from the University of British Columbia and Université Paris Descartes.

Published February 14 in the journal Nature Communications and presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, the study shows that infants in bilingual environments use pitch and duration cues to discriminate between languages -- such as English and Japanese -- with opposite word orders.

In English, a function word comes before a content word (the dog, his hat, with friends, for example) and the duration of the content word is longer, while in Japanese or Hindi, the order is reversed, and the pitch of the content word higher.

"By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart," says UBC psychologist Janet Werker, co-author of the study.

Previous research by Werker and Judit Gervain, a linguist at the Université Paris Descartes and co-author of the new study, showed that babies use frequency of words in speech to discern their significance.

"For example, in English the words 'the' and 'with' come up a lot more frequently than other words -- they're essentially learning by counting," says Gervain. "But babies growing up bilingual need more than that, so they develop new strategies that monolingual babies don't necessarily need to use."

Read more at Science Daily

Genders Not So Different?

Turns out men and women aren’t so different.

That’s according to new research by psychologists who examined personality traits, such as being good at math, being aggressive, being a good listener or empathetic, playing video games or talking with friends -- that many of us believe split men and women.

"Just because men and women look very different and sometimes have different interests and behaviors, we shouldn't assume that what goes on in our heads is just as different, at least with the psychological characteristics we looked at," said Bobbi Carothers, a data analyst at the Center for Public Health Systems Science at Washington University in St. Louis. At the risk of being cliche, I'd say the take-home message is "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Carothers and Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, analyzed data from 13 sex-difference studies over the past few decades. The studies included data from more than 13,000 research volunteers, most of them college students. They also examined studies of adolescents and mature adults.

The pair analyzed 122 different qualities such as preferences over how to spend their free time: golfing or scrap booking? Bath or boxing? They also looked at the so-called Big Five psychological traits: extraversion (sociability and enthusiasm); agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and intellect. Other analyses examined how men and women chose sexual partners and mates.

Instead of scores falling along neat lines between males and females, like height or physical strength differences -- psychological indicators fell on a spectrum for both genders.

There are average differences, but they are not large enough to classify men and women as consistently separate gender categories. Reis said that their statistical analysis shows that it's hard to tell men and women apart, even when it comes to sexuality.

"Many people act as if men and women are different species," Reis said. "The message to me is that these qualities don't belong to one sex, these are human differences and any given individual can have more or less than any of them."

The study flies in the face of pop-psychology best-sellers such as "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus" that argue the genders are hard-wired to behave differently in psychology and emotions. The results of Carothers and Reis’ analyses, "Men and Women Are From Earth," was published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Shuts Down (Temporarily)

The particle collider that gave scientists a glimpse of what may be the Higgs Boson shut down Thursday for a two-year revamp that will allow it to pursue the quest with renewed vigor.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), straddling the border between France and Switzerland, has been working non-stop for three years to find the elusive "God Particle". The boson is theorized to explain the mysteries of mass.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which operates the collider, said its crew began winding down the vast facility just after 7:00 am (0600 GMT) on Thursday.

It is due to go completely offline on Saturday.

"We have every reason to be very satisfied with the LHC's first three years," CERN's director general, Rolf Heuer, said in a statement.

"The machine, the experiments, the computing facilities and all infrastructures behaved brilliantly, and we have a major scientific discovery in our pocket."

The LHC smashes invisible particles together to better understand the micro-moment after the creation of our Universe some 14 billion years ago.

British physicist Peter Higgs is one of the physicists who theorized in 1964 that the boson could be what gave mass to matter as the Universe cooled after the Big Bang.

Located in a 26.6-kilometer (16.5-mile) circular tunnel, the LHC was the scene of an extraordinary discovery announced in July 2012.

CERN's scientists said they were 99.9 percent certain they had found the Higgs Boson, an invisible particle without which, theorists say, humans and all the other joined-up atoms in the Universe would not exist.

At a cost of up to 50 million Swiss francs (40 million euros/$54 million), the upgrade will boost the level of energy at which the LHC smashes protons together.

This is necessary to confirm definitively that its particle is the elusive Higgs, and allow the LHC to probe new dimensions such as supersymmetry and dark matter.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 13, 2013

Rare Explosion Created Our Galaxy's Youngest Black Hole, Study Suggests

New data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory suggest a highly distorted supernova remnant may contain the most recent black hole formed in the Milky Way galaxy. The remnant appears to be the product of a rare explosion in which matter is ejected at high speeds along the poles of a rotating star.

The remnant, called W49B, is about a thousand years old as seen from Earth and located about 26,000 light-years away.

"W49B is the first of its kind to be discovered in the galaxy," said Laura Lopez, who led the study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It appears its parent star ended its life in a way that most others don't."

Usually when a massive star runs out of fuel, the central region of the star collapses, triggering a chain of events that quickly culminate in a supernova explosion. Most of these explosions are generally symmetrical, with the stellar material blasting away more or less evenly in all directions.

However, in the W49B supernova, material near the poles of the doomed rotating star was ejected at a much higher speed than material emanating from its equator. Jets shooting away from the star's poles mainly shaped the supernova explosion and its aftermath.

The remnant now glows brightly in X-rays and other wavelengths, offering the evidence for a peculiar explosion. By tracing the distribution and amounts of different elements in the stellar debris field, researchers were able to compare the Chandra data to theoretical models of how a star explodes. For example, they found iron in only half of the remnant while other elements such as sulfur and silicon were spread throughout. This matches predictions for an asymmetric explosion.

"In addition to its unusual signature of elements, W49B also is much more elongated and elliptical than most other remnants," said co-author Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz of the University of California at Santa Cruz. "This is seen in X-rays and several other wavelengths and points to an unusual demise for this star."

Because supernova explosions are not well understood, astronomers want to study extreme cases like the one that produced W49B. The relative proximity of W49B also makes it extremely useful for detailed study.

The authors examined what sort of compact object the supernova explosion left behind. Most of the time, massive stars that collapse into supernovas leave a dense, spinning core called a neutron star. Astronomers often can detect neutron stars through their X-ray or radio pulses, although sometimes an X-ray source is seen without pulsations. A careful search of the Chandra data revealed no evidence for a neutron star. The lack of such evidence implies a black hole may have formed.

"It's a bit circumstantial, but we have intriguing evidence the W49B supernova also created a black hole," said co-author Daniel Castro, also of MIT. "If that is the case, we have a rare opportunity to study a supernova responsible for creating a young black hole."

Read more at Science Daily

Sea Slug Has Disposable Penis

A sea slug's unusual mating behavior -- it discards its penis after copulation, grows a new one, and has sex the next day -- is reported in the latest issue of Biology Letters.

The sea slug, Chromodoris reticulata, is a type of soft-bodied marine mollusk, and its disposable penis is very rare in the animal kingdom.

As for what happens after sex ... "The penis just falls off," lead author Ayami Sekizawa told Discovery News.

Sekizawa, a researcher at Osaka City University, and colleagues made the discovery after studying C. reticulata individuals that they collected during scuba diving trips in shallow coral reef areas near Okinawa, Japan.

The researchers set up an experiment tank and watched as the sea slugs copulated 31 times.

These animals are "simultaneous hermaphrodites," meaning each performs both the "male role" of donating sperm to a mating partner and the "female role" of receiving sperm from the partner simultaneously during copulation.

A typical mating episode involves two individuals touching each other with their genital orifices. They then "project" their penises and each insert them into the other’s vagina and start copulation. After a short time, one removes its penis from the partner. Later, the other mate removes its penis too.

Both individuals then crawl away, with their elongated penises still dangling. The sexual organs, which feature backward-pointed spines for possibly trapping rival sperm, would then suddenly sever from their bodies and float away.

"The sea slug sheds 1/3 of the internal penis length after each copulation," Sekizawa said. "The sea slug is able to grow the penis gradually to its original length."

The loss and regrowth doesn’t seem to hamper the sea slug’s active sex life.

"In one case," the researchers wrote, "we observed three successive copulations each separated by approximately 24 hours."

Sekizawa said that "we have no idea about the evolutional conditions for this unique mating behavior."

Only a few other animals have been found to "dispose" of their penis, or male reproductive appendages.

One other is Argonauta, a type of octopus. Some orb-weaving spiders will also shed organs used for mating.

Earlier studies on the periwinkle, a type of edible sea snail, found that they shed their penises after the reproductive season "probably to save the cost of maintenance," Sekizawa and his colleagues believe.

That tactic, however, may not apply to the sea slug, since it has to keep regrowing its penis.

Read more at Discovery News

New Documentary 'Earth from Space' Is Cosmic

A new documentary premiering tonight (Feb. 13) on PBS promises to show the Earth as you've never seen it before ... from space.

Produced by NOVA, the documentary "Earth from Space" explores how satellites and spacecraft have revolutionized how scientists look at the world and its intricate systems.

Only by taking a satellite eye's view of the Earth can scientists studying the geology and climate of the planet gain a sense of just how interconnected the sea, land and air of the planet are, said Waleed Abdalati, the director of the Earth Science and Observation Center run through the University of Colorado at Boulder and a participant in the two-hour documentary.

"I think intuitively we know there are connections, but when you can actually trace dust storms off the Sahara to weather events in North America it changes things," Abdalati said.

Thanks to satellite data, climate models have been refined, Abdalati added. All 15 climate models in place before most of the Earth-observing satellites were launched have now been changed to reflect the new data gathered by the satellites. Scientists have taken that information to craft a more accurate picture of what future climates could look like.

"The real power of satellite observations is that they represent objective truth," explains Piers Sellers, an ecologist and former astronaut, in the documentary. "They tell us about what the world actually is doing not what we would like to be doing, not what we might fear it to be doing, but what it's actually doing. And it's that that allows us to see change, real change for what it is."

NOVA senior executive producer Paula Apsell — the creator of NOVA scienceNOW, a popular science news program — and her team of filmmakers compiled images, video and other information from some of the 120 Earth-observing satellites in orbit today to make the new film.

NOVA used information from the ocean monitoring Aqua satellite to use computer animation to show what water evaporating from the ocean at the Equator could look like. The filmmakers also utilized data from the polar orbiting NPP Suomi satellite to show how the ice caps have changed through time.

While most Earth-observing satellites are still hard at work long past their expected life times, many of the Earth orbiters will need to be replaced in the next five or 10 years, Abdalati said. It's particularly important that these observations are continuous, Sellers added, because scientists need these satellites to see the broader view of the planet's unified systems.

NASA's fleet of Earth-observers got an upgrade this week with the launch of a new Landsat Data Continuity Mission satellite that will replace a satellite that will be retired in the next two years.

Read more at Discovery News

Stone Age Women Endured Regular Violence

Stone Age farmers lived through routine violence, and women weren't spared from its toll, a new study finds.

The analysis discovered that up to 1 in 6 skulls exhumed in Scandinavia from the late Stone Age -- between about 6,000 and 3,700 years ago -- had nasty head injuries. And contrary to findings from mass grave sites of the period, women were equally likely to be victims of deadly blows, according to the study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Ancient pastoralists

Linda Fibiger, an archaeologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and her colleagues focused on the late Stone Age, when European hunter-gatherers had transitioned into farming or herding animals.

Mass graves unearthed from that time in Talheim and Eulau, Germany, contained mostly males who had died in violent conflicts. As such, researchers had thought women were spared from conflicts due to their potential childbearing value, Fibiger told LiveScience.

But looking only at the aftermath of big, bloody conflicts can obscure the day-to-day realities of Neolithic farmers.

"It would be like only looking at a war zone to assess violence," Fibiger said. "That's not going to tell you what's going on in your neighborhood."

Routine violence

To see what more humdrum days looked like for these Stone Age farmers, the team assessed 478 skulls from collections throughout Sweden and Denmark from between 3900 B.C. and 1700 B.C. They distinguished bumps due to falls or accidents from violent wounds, which might leave evidence such as an "axe-shaped hole in the skull," Fibiger said.

Nearly 10 percent of the Swedish skulls exhibited signs of violent injury, and nearly 17 percent of the Danish skulls had such wounds. Men had more nonfatal injuries, but women were just as likely as men to have lethal head wounds -- which can be identified because they never healed.

That suggests these ancient herders routinely experienced violence, likely due to raids, family feuds, or other daily skirmishes with competing groups, Fibiger said.

Poor fighters

It's not clear why women were frequent victims of violence.

Domestic violence could be a factor, but proving it requires looking for repeat injuries and wounds to the ribs and torso, Fibiger said. Given that skulls and skeletons are jumbled up at these sites, and many skeletons weren't preserved, that's not possible, Fibiger said.

More likely is that women suffered fatal injuries, because they couldn't fight ferociously in raids, she told Live Science.

Men may have trained from a young age to fight, whereas women were probably tasked with child rearing.

That would have slowed them down, "because you're probably going to try and protect your children rather than being able to properly defend yourself," Fibiger said.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 12, 2013

What Does Horse Meat Taste Like?

People throughout Ireland and the U.K. have been scandalized by revelations that some of their beef products (such as frozen beef lasagna) have actually been made with horse meat instead of beef.

It was also revealed that consumers may have been duped into dining on horse meat for up to a year, according to USA Today. Only DNA testing revealed the presence of horse meat. This leads one to ask: What does horse meat taste like?

(And — jokes about the British palate notwithstanding — couldn't anyone tell the difference?)

Horse meat is widely reported to be somewhat sweet, a little gamey, and a cross between beef and venison, according to the International Business Times. While meat from younger horses tends to be a bit pinkish in color, older horses have a darker, reddish-colored meat.

It's also a very versatile meat that lends itself to a variety of preparations — which is why it's so popular in so many different cultures, according to the Huffington Post. (And why, perhaps, it was so easy to disguise in frozen lasagna.)

In northern Italy, horse meat is used to make pastissada de caval, a rich, hearty stew ("caval" is Italian for horse). In Japan, horse meat, or basashi, is sliced thin and eaten raw. Horse is also the basis for many dishes in Kazakhstan, Indonesia and Mongolia.

The meat is leaner than beef or pork, so it needs a shorter cooking time to avoid dryness. It's also high in iron and omega-3 fatty acids, according to KQED, a public radio and TV station. Nonetheless, horses aren't considered food in many countries, including much of China, North America and the British Isles.

Some critics responding to the scandal in the U.K. over horse meat have sounded the alarm about contaminants that might be present in the meat, such as the drug phenylbutazone, or "bute," according to PulseToday.

Bute is an anti-inflammatory painkiller that has been used in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis in dogs and horses. It has been banned from use in humans, as some people have had adverse reactions to the drug, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "As phenylbutazone can cause severe toxic reactions, it was also banned from use in food-producing animals as it is unclear whether there is a 'safe' level of the drug," according to a statement by the NIH.

Britain's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, said an investigation is under way to determine how horse meat got into the food supply, according to the NIH. "There is nothing to suggest a safety risk to consumers who may have eaten the products. All of the retailers involved so far have removed potentially affected products from their shelves.

Read more at Discovery News

How Valentines Took Off in the U.S.

The American tradition of sending valentines originated with a young paper-obsessed and romance-loving woman from New England, suggests a new museum exhibit.

It was Esther Howland‘s vision and small business drive that heightened the prominence of Valentine’s Day in the States and began the tradition of sharing beautiful cards to help mark the occasion.

Howland (1828-1904), a native of Worcester, Mass., graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847 and wondered what she’d do in life.

Her inspiration came from an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend. She loved the look of it, along with its sentiment.

Howland’s father owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, so she arranged with him to have valentine-making materials sent from England. The card giving tradition already had been established in England, along with other places in Europe — especially Germany. The materials she ordered included paper lace, floral decorations, colorful paper and more.

Howland hand-crafted the first valentines and began to take orders for them.

According to the American Antiquarian Society, she then began to recruit friends to help her keep up with the demand. She started to advertise in a Worcester newspaper in early 1850 for help. This effort led to an assembly line operation, turning her home-based operation into a thriving business that grossed $100,000 annually.

She retired in 1881 and sold her business to the George C. Whitney Company. That company later installed machinery to make lace and emboss paper, eliminating the expensive need to order supplies from abroad. The company’s early valentines resembled the first hand-crafted ones produced by Howland.

You can see some early cards at this page.

Read more at Discovery News

Latin a Dead Language? Not Really

By making his historic announcement in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI breathed new life into the so-called dead language. In fact, a knowledge of the ancient tongue and the ability to understand Benedict’s XVI whispered farewell speech, allowed Italian journalist Giovanna Chirri to get the world scoop.

Chirri, a veteran Vatican journalist for Italy’s ANSA news agency, was the first to pick up the news of the Pope’s resignation.

“I understood it right away. It wasn’t hard to understand after so many years covering the Vatican,” Chirri said in an interview.

“My legs were shaking, but I knew that I had understood it correctly,” she said.

Well aware that Benedict XVI’s announcement was something unprecedented in modern times, Chirri rushed to call Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi to confirm, but got no reply.

Confident in her Latin knowledge, Chirri decided to go ahead. ANSA broadcast the news at 11:46 a.m.: “Papa lascia pontificato dal 28/2″ (the Pope will leave the papacy on Feb 28).

Later, Chirri, who in her Twitter profile calls herself an “unfashionable Vatican reporter,” played down her scoop by tweeting: “Benedict XVI’s Latin is very easy to understand.”

The official language of the Roman empire, Latin was the tongue of learning and science in Europe throughout the Renaissance and remained the language of the liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Vatican II (1962 -1965). At that time permission was given to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular, or local people’s language.

Latin gave rise to Romance languages, which include Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian. It is also central to the vocabularies of medicine, law and the sciences.

One of the last fluent Latin-speakers, Benedict promoted a partial return of the Latin mass. Last November he established the Pontifical Academy for Latin to support the study and spread knowledge of the ancient tongue, including ecclesiastic Latin.

Read more at Discovery News

Magic Trick Offers Insight Into Neuroscience

By studying a magic trick that has been around for thousands of years, neuroscientists have shed light on human attention and visual systems -- as well as on the trick, itself.

"Magicians, in particular, are very intellectual performance artists. They are very interested in the mind and how behavior happens," Dr. Stephen Macknik, director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute(BNI), told Discovery News. "What scientists are doing when we study perception is pretty much the same thing, except we're using the scientific method."

The hope is that magicians' intuitive insight could help instruct the field of neuroscience and perhaps, even be applied in medicine to help people with attention deficit issues.

In their study, recently published in the inaugural issue of PeerJ, the researchers focused upon a famous trick by a pair of very famous magicians. Penn & Teller's 10-year run at The Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino has made them one of the longest-running and most beloved acts in Las Vegas history.

Their trick, "Cups and Balls," is a classic illusion performed by Roman magicians as far back as 2,000 years ago when gladiators still battled in the Colosseum.

Read more at Discovery News

Amateur Astronomers Help Find Galaxy's Arms

Even a familiar night sky object can hold some interesting surprises. This is especially true when looked at with a fresh set of eyes. Or telescopes.

The image above is of Messier 106, a galaxy with an active supermassive black hole at its center. The image was composed of data from the Hubble Space Telescope, reprocessed by Robert Gendler for the Hubble Hidden Treasures competition. He included in the mosaic astrophotography from his own telescope and from that of fellow astroimager Jay GaBany to fill in the places where there were no Hubble data.

Though the galaxy’s structure is dominated by two large spiral arms, there are two fainter arms that can be seen in this image in red. These arms are not made of bright, newly formed stars like the other, but of very hot gas expelled from the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center. They are comprised of hot gas seen in infrared and in Hydrogen alpha emission.

When you look at M106 is non-visible wavelengths, this activity is even more obvious.

Another name for this galaxy is NGC4258, and this is also well known for the masers (or microwave lasers) found near the supermassive black hole in the center. These spots of water vapor that act like lasers have been tracked with exquisite precision by astronomers using the Very Long Baseline Array, giving an accurate measure of the distance to this galaxy at 24 million light years away, and the mass of its black hole at 40 million times the mass of the sun.

The supermassive black hole at the center is pulling material onto it, but not all that material can make it into the black hole at once. As a result, there is a disk of hot glowing material that powers a number of phenomena, including the small radio jets perpendicular to the disk and the water megamasers in the accretion disk. It also powers the wispy red gas forming the two newly seen spiral arms in the disk of the galaxy.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 11, 2013

Benedict XVI Not the First Pope to Resign

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising upcoming resignation is rare, but not unprecedented.

Indeed, Canon 332 of church law envisions the possibility of papal resignation, requiring only that it is “freely made and duly manifested.”

The last time a pope resigned was in 1415, when Gregory XII reluctantly gave up the position in order to end the Western Schism between competing papal claimants.

The last pope to resign willingly was Celestine V, who accepted the papacy in 1294 at age 85 after having lived as a Benedictine hermit in the Abruzzi mountains.

Celestine stepped down five months later, citing “deficiencies of physical strength” and “longing for the tranquility of the former life” among the reasons for his decision.

However, Celestine V could not enjoy tranquility in his final months. Fearing a schism, his successor Boniface VIII confined the former pope to a fortress. Celestine died there within a year and a half and was probably killed, as a hole found in his skull suggests.

Although historical evidence is not always clear, historians date the first resignation to as early as 235 A. D.

At that time, following Rome’s persecution of Christians, Pope Pontian was arrested and condemned to exile in salt mines in Sardinia. Worried about leaving the church without a head, Pontian resigned on Sept. 28, 235. He did not survive the exile and died of maltreatment soon after.

Benedict XVI stated his declining health is the reason for his resignation — but many popes have been sick during their mandates.

For example, Clement XII was blind for eight years before he died at age 88 in 1740. More recently, John Paul II carried out his mission until the end, despite being afflicted with Parkinson’s disease.

Read more at Discovery News

Secrets to World's Saltiest Pond Revealed

Antarctica’s Don Juan Pond stays liquid in one of the unlikeliest places on Earth, the frigid McMurdo Dry Valleys. The pond is the saltiest body of water on Earth, eight times brinier than the Dead Sea. The secret to how the pond stays moist and salty suggests the possibility of water flowing on the face of Mars.

A team lead by Brown University geologists discovered that Don Juan Pond gets its salt and some of its water from a nearby deposit of calcium chloride salt. The salt deposit sucks water from the icy air whenever the humidity increases. That salt laden water then slowly trickles downhill towards the pond. The rest of the pond’s water comes from occasional snow melt that helps to wash the salt into the pond.

When the salt deposits suck moisture from the air they form dark streaks on the surface. Similar dark streaks, called slope lineae, have been documented on the down slope of cliffs on Mars.

Could these lines be a sign of tiny amounts of water flowing on Mars?

“Don Juan Pond is a closed basin pond and we just documented a couple hundred closed basins on Mars,” study co-author James Head of Brown said in a press release. “So what we found in Antarctica may be a key to how lakes worked on early Mars and also how moisture may flow on the surface today.”

“Broadly speaking, all the ingredients are there for a Don Juan Pond-type hydrology on Mars,” lead author James Dickson of Brown said in a press release. “It’s not likely that there’s enough water currently on Mars for the water to form ponds, but stronger flows in Mars’s past might have formed plenty of Don Juan Ponds.”

Read more at Discovery News

Megadunes and Hoar Frost: 6 Facts About Snow

Winter snowstorms, like the Nor'easter that just slammed New England, transform gray days into winter wonderlands.

So while you're stuck inside, or within snowshoe-walking distance, here are six fun facts about snow, from the idea that no two snowflakes are alike to the bizarre megadunes that blanket Antarctica.

Unique beauty

According to physicists, it's actually true that no two snowflakes are alike — well, at least when it comes to complex snowflakes.

Snowflakes form when water droplets in the clouds freeze to form a six-sided crystal structure. As the temperature cools, more water vapor freezes and grows in branches from the six sides of the seed crystal. As the crystals form, they are randomly tossed about inside the clouds, which vary in temperature.

The temperature greatly affects how the snowflake forms, so while the simplest hexagonal crystals may look alike, more complicated beauties each have their own unique shapes.

White triangles

Most snowflakes form dazzling crystal patterns with six sides. But occasionally, a triangular crystal forms, something that has puzzled physicists for years. A 2009 study in the open-access, pre-publish journal arXiv.org revealed that triangular snowflakes form when the six sides of the seed crystals are slightly asymmetric. This makes them wobble randomly as a snowflake falls, allowing the bigger sides to hit the fast-flowing air inside the cloud, and grow at the expense of the smaller sides.

Other snowflakes have even stranger shapes: Some look like hourglasses, others like spools of thread and still others like needles. And while the quintessential snowflake is the six-armed, symmetrical beauty, most versions are hardly so picturesque. In fact, since the arms of a snowflake all grow randomly, asymmetrical snowflakes are more common.

Snowy shapes

The types of snowflakes that form depend a lot on the temperature and moisture in the clouds, according to a 2005 review in the journal Reports on Progress in Physics. Right around freezing temperatures, hexagonal plates (the cross-section is a two-dimensional hexagon) and the iconic, six-sided snowflake (known as a dendrite) form.

As the temperature cools, snowflakes develop into needles, then hexagonal prisms and even hollow columns. Go colder still, and dendrites form at much larger sizes. And at truly frigid temperatures, the frigid air forms prisms and flat plates.

Read more at Discovery News

You Can Name Pluto's Moons of the Underworld

Pluto may have been demoted, but its family is getting bigger and bigger. Now, two of the dwarf planet’s tiniest moons need names — but rather than leaving the Plutonian satellites’ naming ceremony to astronomers, that honor has fallen to you.

The discoverers of Pluto’s smallest moons — measuring only 20 to 30 kilometers (15 to 20 miles) across — have designated the moons “P4″ and “P5,” but it’s about time that they grow up and get some real names. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 by the Hubble Space Telescope, this tiny duo joins Charon, Nix and Hydra in a very close-knit family of objects orbiting Pluto.

All of the objects were named after Hades and the underworld in ancient Greek mythology. Hades, god of the underworld, who was also known as “Plouton” (meaning “Rich One”), was Latinized by the Romans to, simply, Pluto. And the ninth planetary body from the sun was given that name by 11-year old schoolgirl Venetia Burney shortly after the small world was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in 1930. The mythological name for the dark and cold world on the outskirts of the solar system has now been inherited by Pluto’s satellites.

So, the SETI Institute has launched a new website called “Pluto Rocks” to decide new names for P4 and P5. Of the possible mythological names, the following can be selected: Acheron, Alecto, Cerberus, Erebus, Eurydice, Hercules, Hypnos, Lethe, Obol, Orpheus, Persephone and Styx. You can also make your own suggestions.

“The Greeks were great storytellers and they have given us a colorful cast of characters to work with,” said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., in a press release.

Voting will remain open till Feb. 25, when the P4/P5 discovery team will take the winning suggestions to the International Astronomical Union so the satellite pair can officially be named.

On Monday (Feb. 11) at 11 a.m., two astronomers involved in the P4/P5 discoveries — Mark Showalter and Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland — will be available live to take your questions about the naming of these moons via a special Google+ hangout. If you want to get involved, be sure to use the #PlutoRocks hashtag on Twitter, the SETI Institute Facebook page and the Google hangout.

The naming of P4 and P5 may seem frivolous, but this more than a public outreach project. As NASA’s New Horizons probe flies through interplanetary space toward Pluto, in July 2015 the world will be awestruck by the first close-up photographs of dwarf planet Pluto and its largest companion Charon. The Plutonian moons will likely become household names (and the debate as to the planetary status of Pluto will likely be reignited).

But like any story from the underworld, there is a sinister back-story.

Last year, when Hubble spotted P4 and P5, concern mounted for the possibility of more, sub-resolution debris that may be hanging in Pluto orbit. The current plan for New Horizons is to fly straight between Pluto and Charon (only 6,200 miles from the surface of Pluto, pictured top), but if there’s a cloud (or ring) of debris or many smaller moonlets, there could be a substantial collision risk. This has prompted the NASA New Horizons Team — headed by Alan Stern — to formulate a “bale out” plan should the risk be deemed too great. This means mission managers may opt to command New Horizons to carry out its much anticipated flyby further away from Pluto and any potential dangers that lay in wait.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 10, 2013

Molecular 'Calcium Sponge' Created to Tackle Heart Failure

Researchers at the University of Minnesota's Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology and the Lillehei Heart Institute have utilized molecular genetic engineering to optimize heart performance in models of diastolic heart failure by creating an optimized protein that can aid in high-speed relaxation similar to fast twitching muscles.

Within heart cells, calcium plays a major role in orchestrating normal heart pump function. However, in diastolic failure the calcium signaling process is slowed; calcium levels rise to the peak needed for the squeezing action of the heart but don't then drop quickly enough for an efficient relaxation period -- the condition known as diastolic heart failure.

University researchers were able to pinpoint a specific protein, parvalbumin -- which aids in high-speed relaxation of fast twitching muscles in nature -- and optimize it to become a calcium sponge for heart muscle. As a result, the optimized protein, ParvE101Q, soaks up excess calcium at a precise instant, allowing the heart to relax efficiently after contraction.

The advance offers a solid conceptual step forward in solving the puzzle of diastolic heart failure. The next step will be determining the best possible small molecule or gene delivery mechanism for the protein, which should allow the discovery to be used in clinics.

Their approach is outlined in the latest issue of Nature Medicine.

"In nature, there are unique organisms known to be able to contract and relax muscles quickly," said Joseph M. Metzger, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota Medical School professor and chair of the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology. "We hoped research and discovery could help identify what was promoting this highly efficient activity so we could harness it for use in the heart. We've discovered that our optimized variation of parvalbumin can fulfill that role by treating diastolic heart failure."

According to Metzger, who also serves as the Maurice B. Visscher Endowed Chair in Physiology, the sponge mechanism works as a temporary depot for calcium along its normal pathway. It increases productivity in the relaxation phase of the heart cycle without negatively impacting the contracting phase.

If they can develop an ideal delivery system for the optimized protein, the researchers believe they may have found a unique clinical application to treat diastolic heart failure. Heart failure is a common killer of both men and women across the country and the rate of heart failure is increasing as our population ages and as the survival rate after recovery from first heart attack goes up.

Read more at Science Daily

NASA Curiosity Rover Collects First Martian Bedrock Sample

NASA's Curiosity rover has, for the first time, used a drill carried at the end of its robotic arm to bore into a flat, veiny rock on Mars and collect a sample from its interior. This is the first time any robot has drilled into a rock to collect a sample on Mars.

The fresh hole, about 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep in a patch of fine-grained sedimentary bedrock, can be seen in images and other data Curiosity beamed to Earth Saturday. The rock is believed to hold evidence about long-gone wet environments. In pursuit of that evidence, the rover will use its laboratory instruments to analyze rock powder collected by the drill.

"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed is now a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. "This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America."

For the next several days, ground controllers will command the rover's arm to carry out a series of steps to process the sample, ultimately delivering portions to the instruments inside.

"We commanded the first full-depth drilling, and we believe we have collected sufficient material from the rock to meet our objectives of hardware cleaning and sample drop-off," said Avi Okon, drill cognizant engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Rock powder generated during drilling travels up flutes on the bit. The bit assembly has chambers to hold the powder until it can be transferred to the sample-handling mechanisms of the rover's Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device.

Before the rock powder is analyzed, some will be used to scour traces of material that may have been deposited onto the hardware while the rover was still on Earth, despite thorough cleaning before launch.

"We'll take the powder we acquired and swish it around to scrub the internal surfaces of the drill bit assembly," said JPL's Scott McCloskey, drill systems engineer. "Then we'll use the arm to transfer the powder out of the drill into the scoop, which will be our first chance to see the acquired sample."

"Building a tool to interact forcefully with unpredictable rocks on Mars required an ambitious development and testing program," said JPL's Louise Jandura, chief engineer for Curiosity's sample system. "To get to the point of making this hole in a rock on Mars, we made eight drills and bored more than 1,200 holes in 20 types of rock on Earth."

Inside the sample-handling device, the powder will be vibrated once or twice over a sieve that screens out any particles larger than six-thousandths of an inch (150 microns) across. Small portions of the sieved sample will fall through ports on the rover deck into the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. These instruments then will begin the much-anticipated detailed analysis.

The rock Curiosity drilled is called "John Klein" in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011. Drilling for a sample is the last new activity for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project, which is using the car-size Curiosity rover to investigate whether an area within Mars' Gale Crater has ever offered an environment favorable for life.

Read more at Science Daily