Archive for December, 2010

Cryovolcano on Titan

Scientists believe they have found a cryovolcano, or ice volcano, on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Ice volcano

Scientists are excited by the discovery of what appears to be an enormous “cryovolcano” on one of Saturn’s moons.

Experts have been searching for years for proof that ice volcanoes exist on the surface of Titan, where temperatures are thought to be as low as minus 180C.

Now new 3D maps based on images captured by NASA‘s Cassini spacecraft have provided the strongest evidence yet.

Dr Randy Kirk of the US Geological Survey (USGS), whose team created and analysed the maps, told he was certain of the finding.

“When we see these mountains with holes blasted out of them and flows coming out, my colleagues and I think there’s not any other way to explain that than volcanism,” he said.

Dr Kirk’s team first studied an image of an area of Titan’s surface known as Sotra Facula in 2004. At the time it seemed promising, but not conclusive.

“We were lucky there was a second image that was taken that covered the same area,” he said.

“My group at the USGS developed the tools to take the two images and use them as stereo images and make a topographic map.

“When we did that we found that not only was the round feature a mountain, but there were huge depressions in the ground.

“There was a bite out of the peak of the mountain and a pit deeper than anything we’ve seen anywhere on Titan next to it, and additional mountains nearby in the flow area and beyond.

“It looks like a whole cluster of volcanoes to us. We were quite excited.

“The real ‘jumping up and down’ phase came when we made a little video of it (Cassini) flying over the thing.

“It turned out that really put everything in perspective and showed us what we were looking at better than just the topographic map itself.”

Instead of molten lava, ice volcanoes are generally thought to erupt a watery mixture that flows out and turns to ice.

Dr Kirk said while he was sure the formation was volcanic, there was nothing to say whether or not it was active at the moment.

“We really don’t have any evidence one way or the other,” he said.

“With the radar instrument we’ve measured the heat, the temperature of the surface in that area and that the time we looked at it, it was no warmer than the rest of the surface.

“It’s possible that like volcanoes on earth, an active volcano might only erupt once a century or something.”

From ice to life?

One of the reasons the existence of ice volcanoes on Titan is so interesting is that it could explain the presence of methane in the moon’s atmosphere.

“Calculations show that the Sun would basically destroy all of it (methane) in only about 10 million years, so somewhere there must be a source that’s replenishing it,” Dr Kirk said.

“Volcanoes would be a very good way to bring gases like methane out of the interior of Titan and keep the atmosphere supplied.”

Another reason is that it may suggest the existence of water under the moon’s surface — leading to speculation about the possibility of life.

Observational astronomer Dr Michael Brown of Monash University’s School of Physics told that the idea excited many experts.

“The thing that is very intriguing about this it suggests that if this volcano is spewing out water, there might be liquid water somewhere under the surface of Titan,” he said.

“The reason people start thinking about life when they see something about this is that anywhere that we look on Earth we see life wherever there is liquid water.

“Titan is known to have a lot of organic molecules in its atmosphere and on its surface as well, so people are sort of thinking that if the building blocks of life are there, the liquid water is there, perhaps there’s life there.”

Dr Brown said it was far too soon to say anything for certain, but there was a reason for all the excitement.

“They don’t have any direct evidence for life yet, it’s just there are a couple of elements of the puzzle there and that’s getting people very excited,” he said.

“But there’s a good reason to be excited if there’s some things that could be primitive building blocks towards life and liquid water there.”

Dr Kirk said more research needed to be done to find out what sort of material was erupted by the volcano before it could be said to increase the chances of life-sustaining conditions.

“Now that we have a model that says we found a rather tall mountain and chips blasted out of the ground and flows that are rather thin, those will be the constraints for theoreticians to try and make models and say which chemical compositions might have been erupted,” he said.

“Hopefully in that way we can understand a little bit better what this volcano might be made out of.”

Dr Kirk added: “It’s been a privilege to explore Titan for the first time. It really is almost the most interesting body in the solar system after Earth, just because so many things are going on there.”

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NASA: Sun storm to hit with ‘force of 100m bombs’

Posted December 16, 2010 By David Kolle
Solar storm

After 10 years of comparative slumber, the sun is waking up – and it’s got astronomers on full alert.

This week several US media outlets reported that NASA was warning the massive flare that caused spectacular light shows on Earth earlier this month was just a precursor to a massive solar storm building that had the potential to wipe out the entire planet’s power grid.

NASA has since rebutted those reports, saying it could come “100 years away or just 100 days”, but an Australian astronomer says the space community is betting on the sooner scenario rather than the latter.

Despite its rebuttal, NASA’s been watching out for this storm since 2006 and reports from the US this week claim the storms could hit on that most Hollywood of disaster dates – 2012.

Similar storms back in 1859 and 1921 caused worldwide chaos, wiping out telegraph wires on a massive scale.

The 2012 storm has the potential to be even more disruptive.

“The general consensus among general astronomers (and certainly solar astronomers) is that this coming Solar maximum (2012 but possibly later into 2013) will be the most violent in 100 years,” astronomy lecturer and columnist Dave Reneke said.

“A bold statement and one taken seriously by those it will affect most, namely airline companies, communications companies and anyone working with modern GPS systems.

“They can even trip circuit breakers and knock out orbiting satellites, as has already been done this year.”

Regardless, the point astronomers are making is it doesn’t matter if the next Solar Max isn’t the worst in history, or even as bad as the 1859 storms.

It’s the fact that there hasn’t been one since the mid-80s. Commodore had just launched the Amiga and the only digital storm making the news was Tetris.

No one really knows what effect the 2012-2013 Solar Max will have on today’s digital-reliant society.

Dr Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics division, told Mr Reneke the super storm would hit like “a bolt of lightning”, causing catastrophic consequences for the world’s health, emergency services and national security unless precautions are taken.

US government officials earlier this year took part in a “tabletop exercise” in Boulder, Colorado, to map out what might happen if the Earth was hit with a storm as intense as the 1859 and 1921 storms.

The 1859 storm was of a similar size to that predicted by NASA to hit within the next three years – one of decreased activity, but more powerful eruptions.

NASA said that a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause “$1 to 2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to 10 years for complete recovery”.

Staff at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado, which hosted the exercise, said with our reliance on satellite technology, such an event could hit the Earth with the magnitude of a global hurricane or earthquake.

The reason for the concern comes as the sun enters a phase known as Solar Cycle 24.

All the alarming news building around the event is being fuelled by two things.

The first is a book by disaster expert Lawrence E. Joseph, Guilty of Apocalypse: The Case Against 2012, in which he claims the “Hurricane Katrina for the Earth” may cause unprecedented planetwide upheaval.

The second is a theory that claims sunspots travel through the sun on a “conveyor belt” similar to the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt which controls weather on Earth.

The belt carries magnetic fields through the sun. When they hit the surface, they explode as sunspots.

Weakened, they then travel back through the sun’s core to recharge.

It all happens on a rough 40-50-year cycle, according to solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science and Technology Center in the US.

He says when the belt speeds up, lots of magnetic fields are collected, which points to more intense future activity.

“The belt was turning fast in 1986-1996,” Prof Hathaway said.

“Old magnetic fields swept up then should reappear as big sunspots in 2010-2011.”

Most experts agree, although those who put the date of Solar Max in 2012 are getting the most press.

They claim satellites will be aged by 50 years, rendering GPS even more useless than ever, and the blast will have the equivalent energy of 100 million hydrogen bombs.

“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr Fisher told Mr Reneke in the most recent issue of Australasian Science.

“Systems will just not work. The flares change the magnetic field on the Earth and it’s rapid, just like a lightning bolt.

“That’s the solar effect.”

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$60,000 robot programmed to smash a pinata at your command

Posted December 16, 2010 By David Kolle
Carlos the robot

MAR robot design engineer Hossein Kordbacheh at Carlos’s control desk.

DEEP inside a concrete warehouse in western Sydney, there’s a giant robot bashing a pinata.

His name is Carlos.

Carlos lives at the Machinery Automation and Robotics (MAR) building in Silverwater, alongside a mannequin wearing Aviators and a caftan, called Sanchez, and a design engineer named Hossein Kordbacheh.

Hossein has programmed Carlos to destroy a huge pinata at the command of strangers on the internet.

Behind a yellow link chain, Carlos gets to work with a variety of weapons including a golf club (which he broke, twice) an axe, a sword and a cricket bat.

Sanchez just stands there, holding a computer screen displaying the name of internet users and some of their messages, such as “Yippee-ay-yay mofos!” and “Howzat!”

The whole set-up is part of a marketing campaign for Vodafone. To enter a competition, Facebook users can install an app that will let them order Carlos to take a swing.

The engineers at MAR have programmed Carlos to emulate human movement. He has a wrist, an elbow and a shoulder which move according to the requests of the Facebook users.

Carlos can perform several different swings, from the “Slam Dunk” to “The Tornado”, which includes a wind-up.

“Robots can do anything. It depends on a company like us, on how we program the robots. This is called ‘action implementation’,” says Mr Kordbacheh.

Carlos is valued at up to $60,000 and would usually be doing something a bit more constructive, like welding metal together or moving things around. MAR is a company that programs robots to perform those sort of tasks.

So far in his role as pinata-basher, Carlos is doing quite well. However Mr Kordbacheh has had to tweak some of his moves.

“We increased the intensity by 20 per cent on the second day,” said Chris Gross, the social media manager for Vodafone.

“We kind of got the robot shifting around to make sure the whole pinata is getting bashed, so it’s not just one spot over and over again. We really try to give it a good whacking.”

Tomorrow Vodafone will let the people on Facebook vote for which weapon Carlos should use next — the axe or the sword.

Mr Gross said he expected the pinata to be broken by tomorrow. Inside is 4kg of confetti and bon-bons.

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Scientists to test marking human embryos with bar codes

Posted December 16, 2010 By David Kolle

Scientists are planning to test a method for imprinting human embryos with bar codes to prevent IVF mix-ups.

Embryo bar codes

IT sounds like something out of a futuristic movie, but a team of scientists are proposing to bar-code human embryos for easy identification.

Researchers from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain have just finished testing a method for imprinting microscopic bar codes on mouse embryos and they now plan to test the procedure on humans.

The venture is meant to avoid mismatches during in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer procedures.

Privacy experts and children’s rights advocates were instantly concerned by the concept of “direct labelling” of embryos, calling for transparency in the process.

“An embryo is a human life, so we have to move forward with this very, very cautiously,” Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, told

“Obviously we can’t ask the embryo what it wants, so the individual making the donation must consent to this as well as the individual receiving the donation. There’s got to be a lot of public discussion.”

The researchers insist their technique is perfectly safe, claiming that the bar codes simply evaporate as the embryo develops into a foetus.

Dr Arthur Caplan, the director of the Centre for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said as long as development wasn’t affected, any improvement on embryo transfer would be extremely beneficial since mistakes could be heartbreaking.

“When you’re talking about mismatch, those kinds of errors are psychologically and emotionally devastating,” Dr Caplan told

“You have parents who want to reject the child saying that the child clearly isn’t the same race as they are. There’s also a danger that the donor may change their mind and want to get involved in parenting.

“People really want that biological connection. So I think this is a terrific idea to reduce those difficulties.”

The bar codes are not hidden or concealed – in fact, they’re easily observed through a standard microscope, and the research team hopes to develop an automatic code reading system when they perfect their technique for labelling mouse embryos.

Once that is done, testing on human embryos will begin.

“We’re very enthusiastic about it,” said Elena Ibáñez, one of the researchers for the project – a collaboration with researchers from the Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona and the Spanish National Research Council.

“It’s something that if it works out, it could be extremely helpful for embryologists. Right now, fertility clinics are simply labelling the Petri dish. We’re just making an improvement on that system,” she said.

The process involves injecting the bar codes, made from silicon, in the perivitelline space of embryos, the space between an embryo’s cell membrane and its protective outer cover, known as the zona pellucida.

When the embryo attaches to the uterine wall, it frees itself from the zona pellucida, and the codes are meant to disappear right along with it, the researchers say.

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