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Archives – April, 2010

Source of Water on Earth– Icy Asteroids?

It’s still not clear what led to formation of huge reservoirs of water on the earth’s surface. But recent discovery of ice on asteroid might be able to provide few answers or lead us to think in different direction about how our solar system was formed. Asteroids are basically failed planets and these huge chunks are remainants or you can say building blocks of our solar system. Asteroid belt lies in between Mars and Jupiter and these celestial bodies have largely remained unchanged all these past 4 billion years, unlike the planets, and so studying asteroids might provide clues to how our solar system evolved including the answer to the question “Why our Earth is blue?”. Scientists until recently thought that these asteroids are too close to the sun (orbiting at 297 million miles from sun) for them to retain any water on their surface, but these ideas have been debunked by few recent discoveries including the present one where scientists have found presence of water and organic materials on the asteroids surface. Recent study, published in latest edition of Nature, shows the presence of thin coating of ice and other organic compounds on asteriod 24 Themis by using absorption spectroscopy. This leads us to speculate that maybe these asteroids were the first source of water on earth’s surface when they smashed our dry earth and left huge reservoirs of water during the Late Heavy Bombardment period (LHB). Recently NASA’s instrument onboard India’s Chandrayan-1 spacecraft  discovered ice caps on the North pole of the moon as well by measuring OH species using combination of near IR and UV-Vis spectroscopic data. Here are some absorption spectra from the recent asteroid study by Rivkin et.al. showing the detection of water at 3.1 µm (0.4µm wide), C-H stretching at 3.4-3.5 µm, and aromatic compound stretch bands at 3.3 µm. (The spectra images have been linked to the article in Nature and so if you are not able to see the images, probably you might need Nature subscription to view it).

Reference: Detection of ice and organics on an asteroidal surface, Andrew S. Rivkin& Joshua P. Emery, Nature Volume: 464, Pages: 1322–1323 Date published: (29 April 2010) DOI: doi:10.1038/nature09028

Picture Source:Asteroid Illustration- NASA; Absorption Spectra- Nature©

Leave a Comment April 29, 2010

Coronal Rain

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4kT0xoCiPg The data from Solar Dynamics Observatory just keeps us amazing. SDO started taking data just few weeks back and it has already sent us so much of information and data about Sun’s temperature, magnetic fields, activities on sun such as solar prominence and now comes images  about coronal rain. The video here shows the event from April 19th, where after solar prominence event which led to release of billions of tons of material into the space, some of the pieces of plasma falls back into the sun. The phenomenon also called as coronal rain happens because of the sun’s immense gravitational force which pulls back some of the exploded plasma material back. While the phneonmenon is interesting to watch, it was not understood untill now as to why coronal rain falls back so slowly even in the presence of such immense gravitaional pull. SDO is now able to provide answer to this by measuring the temperature using Atmoshperic Imaging Assembly instrument (AIA) and it found out that the plasma debri or coronal rain is relatively very cool (60,000K) and it is cushioned by much hotter gases on the sun’s surface (1,000,000-2,000,000 K) causing the fallback to slowdown. You can see in this snapshot taken from the video the bright splashes when the coronal rain falls on the surface due to interaction between highly energetic particles in the plasma and the sun’s surface.

Source: Science@NASA And Solar Dynamic Observatory

2 Comments April 29, 2010

Primes is in Nature

Well, the title of my post resembles the title of very famous paper on primality test by my IITK batch mates Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena, but I am not going to talk about any maths here rather share this information about how nature has incorporated prime numbers in the evolution process of certain species. Magicicada is one of the genus of cicada species and are primarily found in eastern US and they have a very interesting periodic life cycle pattern. They follow either a 13 or 17 year life cycle pattern where after hatching from the eggs, and lying under the ground for 13 or 17 years, all of them emerge at once on the surface. Emergence of all the adult cicadas after 13/17 years is well synchronized. After they come on the surface in hundreds and thousands, they mate and reproduce and live for few weeks before they die. Female cicadas lays hundreds of eggs in the bark of the trees which hatch and the nymphs fall on the ground and ultimately burrow themselves beneath the ground for another 13/17 years and life cycle goes on. Interesting thing to note is the 13/17 years of cycle, they both are prime numbers. Such prime cycles help them in protecting themselves from the predators. Most of the cicada predators have small life cycles of 2-5 years and so firstly, these predators cannot evolve themselves to eat cicadas, secondly, the life cycles of cicadas (being in primes) rarely coincides with their predators’ life cycle and thus helps them in preserving their species. Even when it coincides once in a while, their sudden occurrence in large numbers comes to their advantage. I found this whole cicada life cycle very interesting; Nature is simply amazing, isn’t it. Next set of cicadas are going to emerge in West Virginia during Apr-May 2012!!

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: T. Nathan Mundhenk

1 Comment April 28, 2010

New Catalyst for Hydrogen Generation

Scientists at UC Berkley have discovered a new Molybdenum based catalyst which can generate hydrogen from neutral buffer water as well as sea water. As we all know that hydrogen as a fuel provides a clean and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Hydrogen combustion does not produce any CO2 and the fuel can be generated by just splitting apart the water molecule by using a catalyst such as Platinum. Only issue with the use of Platinum is that it’s very expensive for the method to become commercially viable. Alternatively, hydrogenase enzymes having Iron and Nickel based protein have been used which generate hydrogen by catalytic action. But again these enzymes are bulky and very unstable in ambient conditions and thus calls for the need of a catalyst which is cheap , robust and effective in hydrogen generation.This new Molybdenum-oxo catalyst (PY5 group) can provide solution to these issues as the scientists report in the article which is going to be published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature.

According to the article, “We now report a simple molybdenum-oxo complex that catalyses the generation of hydrogen from neutral buffered water or even sea water with a turnover frequency of 2.4 moles of H2 per mole of catalyst per second and a turnover number of 6.13105 moles of H2 per mole of catalyst. This metal-oxo complex represents a distinct molecular motif for reduction catalysis that has high activity and stability in water.”

Source: Nature, Krunadasa et. al. Nature 464, 1329-1333 (29 April 2010)

Leave a Comment April 28, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Spilling Incident

On April 20th, Deepwater Horizon oil rig located off the coast of New Orleans  caught fire leading to explosion and spilling of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven employees working on the rig are missing and are presumed to be dead. The incident is turning out to be one of the biggest environmental disaster in recent times as the oil spill is continuing at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day and it might take another 2-4 weeks to control the spill. This huge amount of oil spill and its proximity to the Louisiana coastline is a cause of great concern to the ecosystem. US Coast guard reports area of the spill to be 42 x 80 miles lying 40 miles offshore. Besides causing environmental concerns, this incident is also going to have political implications with regard to offshore drilling.You can follow the detailed story by Washington Post and New York Times. Here is a recent satellite image provided by NASA showing the oil spill area.


Picture credit: US Coast Guard; NOAA & NASA Earth Observatory

1 Comment April 27, 2010

Clash of Reform Bills: Climate Change vs Immigration

Looks like the Senate Climate change bill, which was supposed to be introduced today is heading to dooms-ville, at least for now. The bill which was being authored by senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Lieberman, was a result of collaborative efforts between politicians, environmentalists, industry partners and oil companies.The bill, if introduced in the Senate had some chance of passing to the next level due to tri-partisan efforts by the authors of the bill. Senator Lindsey Graham was the lone supporter from Republicans but he was getting the heat from his fellow party members and ultimately he caved in this weekend and decided to pull off the support. The blame also lies on Democrats part as they started pushing for immigration reforms motivated by political gains (as they are eyeing on upcoming elections in Nevada). Immigration reforms are needed but timing of pushing the bill,I guess, was not right. Senator Lindsey Graham was opposed to this immediate pushing of Immigration reforms and ultimately pulled out of the Cimate Change Bill and the introduction of the proposed bill has now been postponed sine die. So here goes in vain all bi or tri-partisan efforts; partisan politics trumps climate reforms. Both the issues, immigration and climate change reforms, are important and it’s sad that one issue is leading to demise of the other. For climate change, background work has been done by bringing various stakeholders together and chances of getting it to next level were good this year but for immigration reforms the background work has not even started as of now. Still hoping the bill to be introduced this year. It’s ironic that just few days after the celebration of 40th anniversary of Earth Day, much awaited climate change bill seems to be hitting the dead end even before the discussion started.

Talking about immigration reforms, what prompted Democrats to focus on immigration with such an emergency? The reason lies in the controversial immigration law passed by Arizona last week which requires all immigrants to carry immigration documents with them, failure to show the document can end them up in jail. According to NYtimes:

The bill requires police officers, “when practicable,” to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials, unless doing so would hinder an investigation or emergency medical treatment.It also makes it a state crime — a misdemeanor — to not carry immigration papers. In addition, it allows people to sue local government or agencies if they believe federal or state immigration law is not being enforced.

The bill has caused furor all over Arizona including other parts of the country forcing Democrats to focus on immigration reform as Senate majority leader Harry Reid is facing re-election this year and immigration issue is more politically saleable for election purposes than climate reforms. This ultimately led Lindsey Graham to walk off the climate bill. Way to go Politicians!! Here is a nice article by Paul Krugman about how both the parties look at the immigration issue differently. According to him:

Democrats are torn individually (a state I share). On one side, they favor helping those in need, which inclines them to look sympathetically on immigrants; plus they’re relatively open to a multicultural, multiracial society…On the other side, however, open immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net; if you’re going to assure health care and a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.

So Democrats have mixed feelings about immigration; in fact, it’s an agonizing issue.

Republicans, on the other hand, either love immigration or hate it. The business-friendly wing of the party likes inexpensive workers (and would really enjoy a huge guest-worker program that would both provide such workers and ensure that they can neither vote nor, in practice, unionize). But the cultural/nativist/tribal conservatives hate having these alien-looking, alien-sounding people on American soil.

So immigration is an issue that divides Republicans one from another, not within each individual’s heart.

Photo credit: Toonpool.com by Barbeefish

Leave a Comment April 27, 2010

Life of a Plastic Bag

Here is a very interesting 18 minute video depicting perinnial life and journey of a plastic bag starting from the grocery store where it’s life originates to landfills and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean trash vortex. The film takes on the issue of how we have been treating our world as a trash can. Interesting watch.

Source: Futurestates.tv

2 Comments April 26, 2010

Hubble Turns 20

One of the most popular, famous and long-lived science experiment, Hubble Telescope Observatory, celebrates it’s 20th anniversary this year. To celebrate this occasion NASA has released this recent picture taken by Hubble telescope which is just magnificent. Hubble was launched on April 24th 1990 and since then it has sent back thousands of images and huge amount of data which has garnered so much of public and well as scientific community’s interest.

About this new image, NASA press release says ” NASA is releasing today a brand new Hubble photo of a small portion of one of the largest seen star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula. The scene is reminiscent of Hubble’s classic “Pillars of Creation” photo from 1995, but is even more striking in appearance. The image captures the top of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being pushed apart from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks like arrows sailing through the air.

The different colors you see are the result of emission from different gases such as Hydrogen, Oxygen, Helium and are dpendent on their concentration , temperature and so on. On the the top of the image you can witness the formation of a new star where it is spinning in the center and forming a thin disc on its exterior where planet formation might take place. You can take a look at this video which pans the above image, also called as Mystic Mountain. You can find more views of this Mystic Mountain here


Source: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

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Leave a Comment April 25, 2010

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