Distances Driven on Other Worlds

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Distances Driven on Other Worlds

by Karl Tate, SPACE.com Contributor
View the list of extraterrestrial vehicles and distances traveled on other worlds.

Astronomers discover an entirely new class of black hole

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Astronomers discover an entirely new class of black hole

George Dvorsky

Astronomers discover an entirely new class of black hole

Scientists working with CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array have found a new kind of black hole that would make Goldilocks quite happy: By not being too big, nor too small, it falls within a new class of “middleweight” black holes. The discovery indicates that black holes can take on a larger variety of sizes than previously assumed — and that they might be the younger version of something bigger yet to come.

Prior to the discovery, we believed that black holes only came in two major varieties. Supermassive black holes are typically be found in the center of galaxies and have a million to a billion times the mass of our sun. And then there are stellar mass black holes, which are anywhere from three to 30 times our sun’s mass.

Astronomers discover an entirely new class of black holeBut by observing distant outbursts of super-hot gas, astronomers believe they have stumbled upon a black hole that’s anywhere from 20,000 to 90,000 times the mass of our sun — placing it squarely within an intermediate class of black holes.

Called HLX-1 (“hyper-luminous X-ray source 1”), the black hole is about 300 million light-years away. The object was discovered by Natalie Webb from Université de Toulouse and her research team, which included astronomers from France, Australia, the UK and the USA.

The object is described as being “hyper-luminous” because it is giving off a tremendous amount of X-rays. Astronomers theorize that the black hole is consuming either a gas cloud or an entire star — and when black holes suck up all this energy it is heated to extreme temperatures causing it to shine bright in X-rays.

It was this exact observation that led Farrell and his team to conclude that there must be a black hole responsible for the hyper luminosity. But at 10 times the brightness of other similar objects, the team concluded that a very special kind of black hole must be responsible — one that’s about 3,000 times bigger than regular stellar black holes.

The researchers suspect that a star is responsible for the X-ray bursts. Because the X-ray flashes happen at fairly regular intervals, about once every day or so, they theorize that the black hole is in the process of consuming an orbiting companion sun.

The researchers are particularly excited by the discovery of this new black hole because it could explain where supermassive black holes come from. They’re positing the idea that middleweight black holes eventually graduate to supermassive class given the right circumstances.

Since this is the first black hole discovered of its kind, the astronomers are hoping to find more, and this is where they will focus their future research.

You can check out the entire paper in Science.

All images via CSIRO.

Mind-reading helmet could help interrogators distinguish friend from foe

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Mind-reading helmet could help interrogators distinguish friend from foe

George Dvorsky

Mind-reading helmet could help interrogators distinguish friend from foe

Criminals and captured enemy combatants who pride themselves on their ability to withstand tough interrogations could be in for a bit of a surprise. U.S. based company Veritas Scientific is developing an EEG helmet that will pick up on the unique signatures emitted by a person’s brain, allowing interrogators to pick up on their thoughts and memories. The device is primarily intended to help the military distinguish friend from foe — but its potential to invade our privacy is a major cause for concern.

Inspired by the insights of neuroscientist J. Peter Rosenfield, the EEG helmet will work by reading the brain activity of subjects as they are given various bits of information — like an image for example. Scientists know that familiar images prompt spikes of electrical activity that indicate recognition. It will be through the careful crafting of “information slideshows” that interrogators will be able to identify an enemy.

Writing in IEEE Spectrum, Celia Gorman explains how it works:

Rosenfeld’s tests-and Veritas’s work-is based on certain types of brain activity known as event related potentials (ERPs). When the brain recognizes someone, there is a specific, well-documented response called a P300. A person sees a face and then identifies it as John, Mary, or Mom. As the person’s brain puts a name to the face, a sharp dip in the EEG appears between 200 and 500 milliseconds after first seeing the face. That dip reveals that the subject recognizes that person. The same reaction occurs with a photo of an object, a place, or even a name.

It sounds simple, but it isn’t. For each test, there is a probe image-the one the subject may recognize. It has to be a surprise, so it is mixed into a series of dummy images, some related to the probe, some not. Sometimes there’s an image that prompts a physical response, such as pressing a button, to show the subject is paying attention.

It will be hard to avoid reacting inside Veritas’s helmet. Fitted tightly to the head without being painful, it will be soundproofed against the outside world, says Elbot. The visor will display images only centimeters from the eyes. The metal brush sensors, still in development, are being designed to go easily through hair and conduct brain signals without the conductive gel used in hospitals.

But as Gorman rightly points out, the advent of an interrogation helmet raises a host of ethical and legal issues:

But whose enemy? Veritas would provide the U.S. military with the device first, as a way to help them pick friend from foe among captured people. But [CEO Eric] Elbot imagines that the brain-spying, truth-telling technology will also be useful for law enforcement, criminal trials, and corporate takeovers. Eventually, it will even make its way into cellphone apps for civilians, he says.

“Certainly it’s a potential tool for evil,” says Elbot. “If only the government has this device, it would be extremely dangerous.”

EEG experiments on mock terrorism plots have been conducted in laboratories, identifying participants and detecting criminal details. Veritas wants to put its helmets on real suspected terrorists. According to Elbot, the U.S. military used an earlier Veritas device called BrainTruth to test the thoughts of suspected Iranian agents crossing the Mexican border into the United States.

According to Elbot, a specific real-world application could see people in a village in Afghanistan rounded up and interrogated with the device, allowing U.S. soldiers to classify them as friend or foe. He wants to have a prototype ready for the Pentagon’s war games later this year, and is pursuing a military contract.

There’s much more to Gorman’s story so check it out at IEEE Spectrum.

Image via rolffimages at BigStock.com.

Astronomers discover a fifth moon orbiting Pluto

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Astronomers discover a fifth moon orbiting Pluto

Robert T. Gonzalez

It may not be a planet, but Pluto’s got moons to burn. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have spied the icy orb’s fifth satellite. Everybody, say hello to S/2012 (134340), or “P5” for short.

Measuring somewhere between 6 and 15 miles in diameter, P5 may have to compete with P4 — which was discovered almost exactly one year ago — for the title of Pluto’s smallest moon, but astronomers say it fits right in with the rest of the dwarf planet’s system. “The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits,” said team lead Mark Showalter in a statement released by Hubble, “a bit like Russian dolls.” (Below Infographic  to see how P5 stacks up against the rest of Pluto’s moons.)

Dwarf planet Pluto has one giant moon, Charon, but now is known to have four more tiny satellites.

Pluto is the second-largest object in the outer reaches of our solar system, barely smaller than another dwarf planet, Eris.

Charon, Pluto’s most massive moon, was discovered in 1978. Charon has a diameter of 648 miles (1,043 kilometers) and orbits Pluto at a distance of 12,200 miles (19,640 kilometers). 

Charon completes one orbit in 6.4 Earth days, which is the same time it takes Pluto to rotate once on its axis. As a result, the two bodies are tidally locked, eternally facing one another, just as our moon always presents the same face to Earth. [Photos: Pluto and its Moons]

In recent years, other small moons of Pluto have been discovered orbiting the distant dwarf planet. Nix and Hydra, both discovered in 2005, each have a diameter of about 31 to 62 miles (50 to 100 kilometers).

P4, found in 2011, is smaller at 8 to 21 miles in diameter (13 to 34 kilometers). The latest discovery, P5, was found in 2012 and is the smallest moon so far, only 6 to 15 miles across (10 to 25 kilometers).

Its size also means NASA will have to keep an eye out for P5 when its New Horizons spacecraft soars through the Pluto system in 2015. The Agency has been using Hubble to look for potential hazards to New Horizons in the months and years leading up to its historic flyby.

Astronomers discover a fifth moon orbiting Pluto“The inventory of the Pluto system we’re taking now with Hubble will help the New Horizons team design a safer trajectory for the spacecraft,” said Southwest Research Institute’s Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator.

Seeing as we’re already talking about planetary nomenclature today, I can’t help but wonder what they’ll wind up naming P4 and 5. (NixCharon and Hydra are all figures from Greek mythology with ties to Hades (aka Pluto), god of the Underworld.)

Read more over at HUBBLESITE.

Deaf people use the hearing parts of their brain to sense touch

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Deaf people use the hearing parts of their brain to sense touch

George Dvorsky

Deaf people use the hearing parts of their brain to sense touch

It’s often said that when you lose one sense you heighten the others — and now we have scientific evidence to back it up. New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that people who are born deaf process the sense of touch differently than people who are born with normal hearing.

The study shows how the loss of a sense results in the rewiring of the brain — an indication that, in the absence of sensory stimuli, the brain will adapt and take on additional sensory processing tasks.

The research was conducted by Christina Karns at the University of Oregon, Eugene, who, along with her colleagues, showed that deaf people use their auditory cortex to process touch and vision much more than hearing people do. Their finding shows just how malleable the brain can be, and how it goes about “multisensory processing.”

According to an article in LiveScience, past research has shown that deaf people use their brains differently than those born with hearing:

For instance, researchers found when deaf individuals are signing, they rely on the same brain areas that interpret spoken language, suggesting that something about language is universal.

Another study has shown that those born deaf are better at processing peripheral vision and motion, the researchers noted. Perhaps, the researchers said, deaf individuals use several brain regions, particularly auditory ones, to process vision. But would deafness also affect how the brain processes touch and vision together? This has been a tough one to answer, say the researchers, because in the lab, it’s tricky to produce precise tactile stimuli.

In the new study, researchers used MRI scanners to make the discovery. The scientists observed that blood flow levels increased to active areas of the brain following touch stimuli (puffs of air on the skin). Specifically, they noted increased activity in Heschl’s gyrus, a region in the primary auditory cortex where sound first reaches the brain.

Looking ahead, the researchers predict a number of different applications for their findings. In particular, they’d like to see teachers use touch and vision to help the deaf learn math or reading. The finding could also inspire clinicians to develop better quality cochlear implants.

Learn more about the study in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Photo by Michal Bednarek via BigStock.com.

Napoleonic Dragons and Post-Apocalyptic Survivors Like You’ve Never Seen Them

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Napoleonic Dragons and Post-Apocalyptic Survivors Like You’ve Never Seen Them

Charlie Jane Anders

A Paris gallery, Galerie Daniel Maghen, has an amazing exhibit of art inspired by great books — including a number of fantasy and science fiction classics. Behold some amazing takes on Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Robert E. Howard’sConan.

Here are a few of our favorites — check out more great pictures at Tor.com and the gallery website.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, by Karl Kopinski.

Napoleonic Dragons and Post-Apocalyptic Survivors Like You've Never Seen ThemGene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, by Andre Kalfas

Napoleonic Dragons and Post-Apocalyptic Survivors Like You've Never Seen ThemRichard Matheson’s I Am Legend, by Michael Fleming



Robert E. Howard’s Conan, by Agnès Fouquart

Napoleonic Dragons and Post-Apocalyptic Survivors Like You've Never Seen ThemBeowulf, “La Mere,” by Paul Bonner

Earth’s magnetic field just might be gearing up for a reversal

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Earth’s magnetic field just might be gearing up for a reversal

Alasdair Wilkins

Earth's magnetic field just might be gearing up for a reversal

ur planet’s magnetic field periodically flips its direction, with the magnetic North and South Poles switching places. Such a reversal could wreak havoc on human society — and there’s now reason to think one could happen soon… in geological terms, at least.

If nothing else, it’s been an unusually long period since the last reversal — the geological evidence suggests the field flips about once every 450,000 years, and it’s been about 780,000 years since the last reversal. That in itself doesn’t necessarily mean a reversal is imminent, as there have been past instances where a million years passed from one reversal to the next. Just over 200,000 years may not be much time as far as the planet is concerned, but it would mean the chances of humanity having to deal with a magnetic field reversal in even the long-term future remain extremely low.

To have any idea of when a reversal might occur, we first need to know more about the mechanism that causes it, and that’s where new research by Peter Olson and Renaud Deguen of Johns Hopkins enters the picture. Their seismic imaging of Earth’s core revealed lopsided growth — in other words, the core wasn’t spherical or even all that close to it, with one hemisphere slowly melting into something noticeably smaller than the other half. Currently, the eastern hemisphere of the core is bigger than its western counterpart.

This lines up neatly with the current location of the axis of Earth’s magnetic field. The line linking the two magnetic poles doesn’t pass right through the center of the Earth, but is in fact offset about 300 miles eastward. Their data suggests this is a change from recent history, as until about 200 years ago the magnetic axis was solidly in the western hemisphere for at least 10,000 years. In what is likely not a coincidence, it was about two centuries ago that the inner core’s eastern hemisphere started growing bigger.

All this indicates some fairly rapid movement from west to east, and Olson and Deguen’s research indicates a link between these sorts of quick shifts and magnetic field reversals in the past. This might be enough to suggest that a magnetic reversal is already underway, although the researchers are quick to point out that the core is simply too chaotic to say anything with certainty at this stage. It’s only a possibility, perhaps a very remote one, but this new model at least suggests that it is a possibility.

Besides, reversals take anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 years — even if you do want to grant that we’re two centuries into one, that doesn’t necessarily mean its more serious effects on human technology will be felt in the next few centuries, let alone in our lifetimes. This is the problem with being in the middle of a geological event — they’re so damn slow it’s hard to tell if anything is actually happening at all.

Via Nature Geoscience. Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr.