February 12, 2013
This Friday afternoon at approximately 2:26 Eastern time, an asteroid roughly half the size of a football field (147 feet) in diameter will pass extremely close to the Earth—just 17,200 miles from our planet’s surface. That said, there’s no need to worry, as NASA scientists confirmed with certainty nearly a year ago that the asteroid will not make an impact and poses absolutely no threat.
Nevertheless, the proximity of the asteroid’s path is noteworthy: it will come within a distance 2 times the Earth’s diameter, passing us by even closer than some geosynchronous satellites that broadcast TV, weather and radio signals. As Phil Plait writes in his comprehensive post on the asteroid over at Slate, “This near miss of an asteroid is simply cool. It’s a big Universe out there, and the Earth is a teeny tiny target.”
The asteroid—likely made of rock and referred to as 2012 DA14 by scientists—was first spotted last February by astronomers at Spain’s Observatorio Astronómico de La Sagra. Asteroids, like planets, orbit the Sun, and this one passed us by on its last orbit as well, but at a much greater distance—it came within roughly 1.6 million miles last February 16. After this year’s near miss, the rock’s orbit will be altered significantly by the influence of Earth’s gravity, and scientists calculate that it won’t come near us again until the year 2046 at the soonest.
On Friday, though, it will pass by Earth between 18:00 and 21:00 UTC (1-4 p.m. Eastern time, or 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Pacific) and come closest at roughly 19:26 UTC (2:26 p.m. Eastern, 11:26 a.m. Pacific). That means that observers in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia get to see its closest pass at nighttime, whereas those in North America, Western Europe and Africa will have to wait until after sunset, when the asteroid has already begun to move away.
For all observers, the asteroid will be too small to see with the naked eye, though it should be viewable with binoculars or a telescope. Universe Today has the technical details on where exactly to spot the asteroid in the sky. A number of observatories and organizations will also broadcast video streams of the asteroid live, including NASA.
A fly-by like the one on Friday isn’t particularly rare in terms of mere proximity. There are seven closer asteroid passes on record—in 2011, a tiny asteroid set the record for near misses by coming within 3300 miles of Earth, and in 2008, an even smaller one actually made contact with the atmosphere, burning up over Africa.
Both of those rocks, though, were less a meter across.What distinguishes this asteroid is that it’s passing close by and theoretically large enough to cause major damage if an impact were to occur. While an asteroid of this size passes this closely roughly every 40 years on average, a collision with an object this size only happens once every thousand years or so.
What kind of damage would that impact wreak? For a comparison, many are noting the Tunguska event, an explosion over a remote area Russia in 1908 that was likely caused by an asteroid of similar size burning up in the atmosphere. The explosion knocked down more than 80 million trees covering an area of some 830 square miles; scientists estimate it released more than 1,000 times as much energy as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima and triggered shock waves that would have registered a 5.0 on the Richter scale.
Of course, unlike in 1908, we now have the power to observe approaching asteroids well ahead of time—and might have the ability to prevent potential collisions. Bill Nye is among those who argue that this event should serve as a wake-up call for the importance of investing in asteroid-detecting infrastructure, such as observatories and orbiting telescopes. The B612 Foundation supports this mission, and advocates for the development of technologies that could slightly alter the path or speed of an approaching object to avoid an impact.
This time, at least, we’re lucky. But Ed Lu, a former astronaut and head of B612, says this event should not be taken lightly. ”It’s a warning shot across our bow,” he told NPR. “We are flying around the solar system in a shooting gallery.”
December 28, 2012
Over the past year, we’ve seen a ton of scientific milestones and discoveries of historic importance, from the discovery of the Higgs Boson to the landing of a mobile laboratory on Mars. Science, though, is defined by its relentless march forward: No matter how much we learn, there are always more questions to answer. So, after our roundup of 2012′s most surprising (and significant) scientific events, we bring you the most exciting studies, projects and science developments we’ll be watching for in 2013.
1. Comet Ison: Back in September, a pair of Russian astronomers discovered a new comet heading in our direction. At the time, it was just a faint blip detectable only with the most sophisticated telescopes, and it was unclear how visible it would become during its approach. Now, though, astronomers are predicting that when it passes by us and closely orbits the sun in November and December of 2013, it could be the astronomical sight of our lifetimes. “Comet Ison could draw millions out into the dark to witness what could be the brightest comet seen in many generations—brighter even than the full Moon,” astronomer David Whitehouse writes in The Independent. One thing’s for sure: we’ll be watching.
2. Lake Vostok: For more than a decade, a team of Russian scientists has worked to drill nearly 12,000 feet down into Antarctica’s icy depths with a single purpose: to obtain samples from the ultra-deep isolated subglacial lake known as Lake Vostok. After barely reaching the water’s surface last Antarctic summer, they now plan to return at the end of 2013 to drill fully into the lake and use a robot to collect water and sediment samples. The lake may have been isolated for as long as 15 to 25 million years—providing the tantalizing potential for long-term isolated evolution that could yield utterly strange lifeforms. The lake could even serve as a model for the theoretical ice-covered oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa, helping us better understand how evolution might occur elsewhere in the solar system.
Rival American and British teams were also racing to probe the depths of other subglacial lakes in search of life—the American team’s efforts to reach subglacial Lake Whillans is expected to meet with success this January or February, while the British have been forced to cease their drilling efforts into subglacial Lake Ellsworth due to technical difficulties.
3. Algae Fuel: Experts predict that 2013 will be the year when vehicle fuels derived from algae finally take off. A handful of biofuel stations in the San Francisco area started selling algae-based biodiesel commercially for the first time last month, and after the product met state fuel standards, the pilot program is expected to be expanded shortly. Because algae use less space, grow more quickly and can be more efficiently converted into oil than conventional crops used for biofuels, advocates are excited about the possibility that algae-based fuels could wean us off petroleum without using up precious food crops.
4. Cosmic Microwave Background: Energy left over from the Big Bang still radiates through the universe—and the European Space Agency’s plans to use the Planck satellite to measure this energy more precisely than ever before could help us better understand the formation of the universe. The 1965 measurement of this microwave energy first supported the concept of the Big Bang, and subsequent examination of variations in the radiation has led to more sophisticated theories about our universe’s earliest days. The Planck satellite, launched in 2009, has already collected a wide range of valuable astronomical data and images, but plans to release all this info in early 2013 has the cosmology world all atwitter.
5. Supercomputers to the Rescue: A number of supercomputers around the world could have a remarkable impact at solving problems in health, the environment and other fields over the next year. Yellowstone, a 1.5 petaflops cluster computer in Wyoming, was installed this past summer and will spend 2013 crunching numbers (1.5 quadrillion calculations per second, to be exact) to refine climate models and help us better understand how storms and wildfires move across the planet. Meanwhile, Watson, IBM’s world-famous Jeopardy-winning supercomputer, is currently being trained by doctors to recognize medical symptoms and serve as a diagnostic tool, providing treatment options based on case histories and clinical knowledge. So far, the computer has been trained to recognize breast, lung and prostate cancers.
December 14, 2012
The year 2012 was a major one for science. We saw scientists develop a new type of drug to combat HIV, figure out how to store digital data in DNA—fitting an astonishing 700 terabytes of information into a single gram of it—and even invent a coating for the inside of condiment bottles that could eliminate our stuck-ketchup-headaches once and for all (though, admittedly, this one is a little less groundbreaking than the others). Yet a few milestones in particular—discoveries, technological feats, realizations, and inventions—stand out:
1. The Higgs Boson: The landmark discovery by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) of the once-mythical particle might be the most significant scientific discovery of our lifetimes, but it’s also one of the most surprising. Stephen Hawking, the Einstein of our time, famously bet Michigan physicist Gordon Kane $100 that it would never be found.
In an interview with The Atlantic, physicist Lawrence Krauss explained why so many experts had agreed with Hawking, arguing that the existence of the Higgs—a particle (and associated field) that makes certain types of elementary particles behave as though they had mass—was just too convenient, as it was originally posited simply to explain away an apparent difficulty in an otherwise appealing theory in theoretical physics.
The theory seeks to unite all physical forces under the same set of rules. But how can electromagnetic forces–governed by massless photons–fit under the same theoretical umbrella as the weak force, which is governed by bosons with discernible mass that control radioactive decay? Efforts to answer this conundrum gave birth to the Higgs boson. Krauss noted,”It seemed too easy…It seemed to me that introducing an invisible field to explain stuff is more like religion than science…Great, I invented invisible hobgoblins to make things right.”
Incredibly, in this case, it turned out the hobgoblins were real.
2. Earth-Like Planets: 2012 featured a ton of exoplanet discoveries, but the sighting of HD 40307g was without a doubt the most unexpected and exciting. The planet, bigger than earth but not so large as to be a gas giant, seems to orbit in its sun’s “goldilocks zone” (not too hot and not too cold), making it potentially capable of hosting liquid water, considered a prerequisite for life as we know it.
Even better, it’s just 42 light-years away: distant by human standards, but fairly close by compared many of the astronomical objects, making future projects to observe the planet much more feasible.
3. Curiosity Reaches Mars: Okay, the mission itself wasn’t too surprising—it’s been in the works since 2004—but what was so astonishing was the sudden surge of public interest in the rover and in space exploration as a whole. For decades following the manned Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s, general enthusiasm for space science had slowly ebbed. After Curiosity’s successful landing, though, it surged. Among other things, video of NASA engineers celebrating the feat went viral and the official Curiosity twitter account garnered some 1.2 million followers.
People are so interested in Curiosity‘s exploits, in fact, that even an engineer’s throwaway line about “a discovery for the history books” pumped up expectations so much that we were bound to be disappointed by the actual finding: that early Martian soil samples seem to be representative of what we know of the planet as a whole, and that its chemistry is complex enough to have potentially once supported life. Bigger news might come over the next few years, but as project scientist John Grotzinger said, “Curiosity’s middle name is patience.”
4. Climate Change Is Even Worse Than We Thought: After decades of warnings from scientists that our greenhouse gas emissions will soon wreak havoc with the climate, we’re now starting to see the consequences—and they sure aren’t pretty. As a whole, experts are saying that the even the most frightening climate scenarios have proved to be too conservative in their analysis of how rising carbon dioxide concentrations will alter precipitation patterns, drive ocean acidification, lead to more powerful storms and, in general, make most parts of the planet grow warmer.
One silver lining might be that the public is now starting to acknowledge climate change as a present-day problem, rather than a hypothetical trend that could take effect in the future. Sadly, this has come only after record-breaking heat waves, droughts and the tragic impacts of Hurricane Sandy. Although the most recent international climate talks in Doha accomplished little, there are hopes that this shift in opinion could lead to a long-awaited change in policy sometime soon.
5. A New Way to Desalinate Seawater: With world populations expected to keep growing and potable water projected to grow more scarce over the coming century, a practical and cheap means of desalinating sea water is one of materials science’s holy grails. In July, MIT researchers announced the development of a new method of desalinization using one-atom-thick sheets of graphene, a pure carbon substance. Their method could be far cheaper and less energy-intensive than existing systems—potentially providing a way to solve many of the world’s water problems once and for all.
December 4, 2012
Chances are, sometime today, you sat in an office, classroom or workplace lit by constantly humming fluorescent light bulbs. Although they’ve long been favored by those who design buildings for their energy efficiency, fluorescent tubes are widely detested by those who sit in them because of the fact that they hum, flicker at a just-barely-perceptible rate, and emit an unsettling green tinge.
Now, while we search for replacements for the now-phased-out incandescent bulb, a group of researchers from Wake Forest University offers a potential solution. As they described yesterday in an article published in the journal Organic Electronics, they’ve harnessed a technology called field-induced polymer electroluminescence (FIPEL) to produce a constant, energy-efficient, soft white light.
“People often complain that fluorescent lights bother their eyes, and the hum from the fluorescent tubes irritates anyone sitting at a desk underneath them,” said David Carroll, one of the scientists leading the team. “The new lights we have created can cure both of those problems and more.”
The technology converts an electrical charge into light with three layers of a white-emitting plastic polymer matrix that incorporates trace amounts of nanomaterials that glow when stimulated. The team says the consistent white light that is produced has a similar spectrum to natural sunlight, so it’s also more pleasant to the human eye than the blue-tinged glow of LED lights. Researchers have been working to make FIPEL-based bulbs viable for some time, but this is the first instance of a practical use of the technology to produce light.
“[LEDs] have a bluish, harsh tint to them, ” Carroll told BBC News, “it is not really accommodating to the human eye; people complain of headaches and the reason is the spectral content of that light doesn’t match the Sun—our device can match the solar spectrum perfectly.”
His team also claims a number of other advantages for FIPEL. It’s more than twice as energy efficient as compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs and roughly as efficient as LEDs. Unlike both of these bulbs, though, the bendable FIPEL technology is shatter-proof, so there’s no risk of contaminating a home or office with hazardous chemicals. It’s also extremely long-lasting: the researchers say a single FIPEL bulb may work effectively for up to a decade. Office workers will be especially excited to hear that it’s perfectly silent while in operation.
“What we’ve found is a way of creating light rather than heat,” he told BBC, explaining how his team’s devices achieve such a high level of energy efficiency. “Our devices contain no mercury, they contain no caustic chemicals and they don’t break as they are not made of glass.”
Additionally, the new technology can be manufactured in a variety of sizes and shapes. It could be incorporated into small bulbs with Edison sockets to fit light fixtures in homes, as well as large sheets to replace florescent tubes in offices. Although the team has focused on using it to make white light thus far, it can be altered to produce different colors, so it could eventually prove useful in large displays, such as public advertisements and storefronts.
The team says they’re currently partnering with a company to produce FIPEL-based bulbs on a broad scale and that the bulbs could be available to consumers sometime in 2013.
October 29, 2012
Hurricane Sandy has collided with a cold front to form a “Frankenstorm,” bringing extreme weather to the East Coast. Experts predict that the storm will cause billions of dollars in damages and could cause as many as 10 million people to lose power. This historically unprecedented weather event brings to mind a troubling question: Is the storm a natural occurrence or a consequence of human-driven climate change?
The answer—as often happens in science—is more complicated than a simple yes or no. For starters, there’s the distinction between weather and climate. As my colleague Sarah Zielinski wrote here in 2009, “Weather is a data point. Climate is a collection of data.” Science tells us that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases will doubtlessly change the climate, but linking that overall shift to any one weather event is far less certain.
Nevertheless, climate models do predict that on the whole, cyclones (a category that includes hurricanes, typhoons and other extreme storms, named depending on their location) will become more frequent and intense as the climate changes. The reason is that, as noted in a 2010 Nature Geoscience study, warmer oceans cause more evaporation and precipitation, theoretically leading to more frequent powerful storms like Sandy.
As Bill McKibben writes at The Daily Beast, “when that ocean is hot—and at the moment sea surface temperatures off the Northeast are five degrees higher than normal—a storm like Sandy can lurch north longer and stronger, drawing huge quantities of moisture into its clouds, and then dumping them ashore.” A study published earlier this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a strong positive association between warmer years and storm activity in the 20th century, while the Nature Geoscience study noted that the latest models indicate that by 2100, tropical cyclones (including hurricanes) will occur 6 to 34 percent more frequently.
However, it’s important to note that these predictions are made with less confidence than many others dealing with the climate’s future. As Adam Frank writes at NPR, these types of long-term climate forecasts are arranged in a confidence hierarchy. Climate models allow us to be most certain, for example, that global average temperatures will increase and extreme heat events will become more frequent.
The amount of confidence that can be assigned to the prediction of increased cyclones and hurricanes over time is lower. As an IPCC special report on extreme weather events notes, “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.”
The reason for this reduced amount of confidence is partly the fact that storm formation is far more complicated than the simpler physics of greenhouse gases trapping radiation and causing overall warming. Additionally, since cyclones occur irregularly—and there is limited historical data on their frequency and magnitude prior to the satellite era—the degree to which their formation can be linked to climate change is restricted.
As Andrew Revkin points out at the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, the overall scientific picture is simply more complex than advocates for action on climate change might prefer. He cites a 2002 Nature study [PDF] that notes:
Climate models suggest that human activities, specifically the emission of atmospheric greenhouse gases, may lead to increases in the frequency of severe storms in certain regions of the Northern Hemisphere. However, the existence of natural variability in storminess confounds reliable detection of anthropogenic effects.
Put most bluntly, this storm will bring terrible consequences to millions of East Coast residents, and we have many compelling reasons to limit anthropogenic climate change to whatever degree possible before it’s too late. But it’s scientifically disingenuous—even for those of us who are most desperate to convince others of the seriousness of the threat—to explicitly link this one weather event to the overall experiment we’re conducting on the planet’s atmosphere.