NASA’s new image of the stars that shouldn’t exist

National Geographic / NASA

Beautiful, isn’t it? But I think it also looks a bit weird compared to most galaxies. Lots of scientists think it’s strange too, although not just because of what it looks like.

Until now it was thought that the majority of stars always form in the centers of galaxies, because that’s where most of the star-forming material is. Also, there are lots of triggers for star formation in the center of a galaxy, like shock waves that come after stars explode and die that can trigger material to start reacting, and thus form new stars.

But as often happens in science, this new photo shows that maybe scientists were wrong about where stars form after all. The The Sombrero Galaxynew photo shows a huge number newborn stars in the outer red spiral arms of the galaxy – something unexpected, because the spiral arms are quite sparse compared to the galactic center 140,000 light years away.

We have known for a long time that stars can form in the spiral arms of a galaxy, but to find so many young stars in such a relatively empty empty area of space is puzzling astronomers. This new galaxy could revolutionize our understanding about how and where stars form.

It’s just one of those things about science – whenever you think you understand something, something crops up that means you have to start over. But hey, that’s how we make progress!

How to live until you’re 10,000: Turn into a tree

National Geographic How old can something living be? Humans aren’t too good, coming in at about 75 years in the developed world. Tortoises often live until they’re 150, but 150’s nothing compared to some trees. A few Bristlecone pines in California date back a massive 5000 years, but they may no longer be the oldest living thing in the world.

A new tree found in Sweden has been alive for a staggering 10,000 years according to scientists, meaning it started growing just after the end of the last Ice Age

 It doesn’t look like the most impressive of trees – OK , I have to admit it looks pretty pathetic since it’s supposed to have been growing for so long. (I thought maybe National Geographic had put the wrong picture up until I read the article. 🙂 )

But this tree has a special trick: the trunk lasts for ‘only’ about half a century, and when the trunk dies a new shoot springs up from the roots. This means that what we actually see of the tree isn’t that old, but its roots have been radiocarbon-dated back thousands of years. (I hope I don’t get any comments from my older readers who wish they were a tree – the trees’ method of looking young is so much more effective than all these beauty creams.)

National Geographic The good news is that this tree could mean our planet won’t suffer quite as much from climate change. Because it started growing so soon after the last Ice Age, it’s started scientists thinking that maybe trees can migrate faster than we thought, so maybe there won’t be as many dead trees because of global warming.

I always like good news – it’s great to hear that maybe our forests won’t die as soon as we thought they might. But that’s not an excuse for us to forget about the environment – after all, it simply means that the trees will take longer to die out.

And there’s some bad news for this little tree too unless we stop churning out extra carbon: it will soon be swamped by thousands of other trees that will migrate north because of our pollution, and it will probably die. Just think about that next time you get in your car.

NASA’s twins that could save our world

Wikipedia Imagine a billion tonnes of scorching hot gas and radiation being hurled toward you – it’s not the sort of thing you come across every day.

This is actually something our Sun does on a regular basis, although fortunately for us our atmosphere stops anything too dangerous getting in and hurting us.

But satellites, as well as any astronauts in space, feel the full force of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – as these massive bursts from the Sun are known – and they can be really dangerous.

That’s why NASA decided to launch the Stereo mission, two twin satellites that give us unprecedented views of CME’s – something that would be vital if a CME was ever to come toward us. (Click here for two interesting videos from Stereo)

And it’s not just about damage prevention – we’re learning loads about the Sun too like new footage from Stereo showing just how powerful solar bursts can be as they rip the tail off a comet. The Stereo probes are telling us loads of things we didn’t know about our parent star.

BBC NewsSo why are there two probes in Stereo – wouldn’t just one have been cheaper? The whole point of Stereo is to give us a 3D view of the Sun – just like having two eyes a small distance apart helps our brains give depth to our vision, the two Stereo probes can give us a three-dimensional view of our Sun because one follows a path slightly in front of Earth’s orbit, and its twin trails on behind.

What would happen if one of these CME’s flew straight into our planet? Something not many people realize is that the effects on our lives could actually be huge. For a start many satellites would be knocked out, meaning no television, GPS, weather forecasting and more for a few days. And then there’s cell phones, the internet, and anything else that needs satellites to work.

Wikipedia The good news is that thanks to Stereo, we will be given a few hours’ warning if a CME is heading toward our planet, giving operators vital time to shut down any satellites in the path of the Solar blast, as well as making sure any astronauts are safely inside radiation-proof areas.

The wonderful Stereo probes are yet another example of why scientific research isn’t just about proving some professor’s theory or doing some irrelevant calculations – it really could save our lives. Of course, until the day when a CME is headed our way, it’s always fascinating  to discover more about our amazing Universe.

Interested? Read about how radiation could prevent humans from ever going to Mars.

Scientists discover how to make on-demand lightning

Wikipedia Back in the days of ancient Greece or Rome, if someone could magically generate lightning-on-demand they’d probably be hailed as a god. Until not too many years ago most people believed that lightning and the roaring thunder that follows were some sort of warning or punishment from the heavens.

Well now scientists in New Mexico have put an end to those theories – or at least they nearly have. By firing lasers into a thundercloud they just about managed to generate a bolt of lightning. They didn’t actually manage it because their techniques aren’t yet well enough developed, but they say they should be ready before too long.

It sounds pretty cool doesn’t it, lightning whenever and wherever you want it (although obviously it only works when you’ve got a thundercloud). So how did they do it? It sounds almost like science fiction: they shot laser beams up into thunderclouds, which caused a line of gas in the cloud to become ionized – that means it was given a charge.

Wikipedia Because lightning is essentially just a huge stream of charged particles, the line of particles that the laser created acted much like a lightning rod, and it directed the flash of lightning downward. It didn’t hit the ground in this experiment because the technique used was not powerful enough, but before long scientists should have mastered the technology.

Wikipedia It’s all very well being able to generate lightning, but as with so many experiments like this you just have to wonder, well, why? Actually, it could have some good uses. By knowing exactly when and where lightning is going to strike, scientists can do their research into this deadly killer a lot more easily. It’s also going to be useful for testing how lightning-resistant new planes and power lines are.

We’ve already discovered how to create rain (well at least sort-of), and now we can make lightning. It’ll be interesting to see where weather research takes us next in the decades ahead. I bet those scientists wish they lived in Ancient Rome – think of all the special treatment they’d get now as gods!

National Geographic has an excellent interactive page showing how lightning works.

Taking traffic mapping to a whole new level: Microsoft releases Clearflow

Loads of people use their GPS systems to plan car journeys. But imagine being able to get a computer to vary its suggested route as traffic conditions change – even if that means driving off on some of the thousands of side-streets scattered through every city.

Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to know what the traffic conditions are like on every single side street in every city you want traffic information for? Well that’s what Microsoft has done, and they have now released their revolutionary new traffic-jam avoidance system, ‘Clearflow’ onto their web mapping platform for everyone to use.

image Wait a minute… what’s so great about this new technology – we’ve been able to get traffic information from Google Maps or traffic.com for years now, so what’s the difference? Basically, Google Maps and similar websites only monitor the traffic on major roads – after all, it would be impossible to keep track of the traffic on every single side-street 24 hours a day.

What Microsoft did was to analyze what happens to traffic on side streets as levels of traffic on main roads varies. This involved using GPS systems to record a massive 125,000 miles of car journeys, and then computing all this data to work out which side-streets are faster.

The result is that Clearflow really can calculate the fastest route for you, even if it involves a long and convoluted journey through dozens of smaller roads.

So next time you’re driving in the Big Apple in rush hour, you might just want to check out the new system at maps.live.com.

IMPORTANT: Users in the UK cannot use the URL given above – for some unknown reason it redirects to much-inferior Multimap.com. Use this URL instead: http://maps.live.com/?mkt=en-us

NASA captures a new 3D view of Mars’s moon Phobos

NASA You’d think that Mars’s moon Phobos – a 13.5-mile wide lump of brownish rock full of craters – wouldn’t be the most interesting place in the Solar System to take photos. But then space exploration does tend to throw up a lot of surprises.

One of NASA’s Mars probes recently captured the above image, and it’s revealing some fascinating details about something most people probably didn’t even know existed.

The most obvious thing about Phobos is the huge crater on the bottom-right of the image. Scientists say that its slight bluish color means it hasn’t been exposed to space as long as the rest of the moon, meaning the impact that produced the crater could have been quite recent.

Wikipedia Phobos may also be home to water-ice and materials rich in carbon, which is why a Russian-Chinese mission to collect samples from Phobos is expected to launch next summer.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped the new shot of Phobos from 4000 miles away, so I’m pretty impressed that the detail’s so good. In the full size image each pixel represents 22 feet (6.8 meters), so you can zoom in quite a lot. (Click here to download the full-size image. Be warned! It’s a 20mb file, so if you’re still using ancient dial-up be prepared to wait a few hours.) It’s really cool zooming in on the thousands of craters dotting the moon, especially the ones on the edge of the Moon and on the day-night border.

Phobos and Deimos What else is so great about the new image? OK, several probes have imaged Phobos before, but because MRO took two photos you can actually see the photo in 3D if you’ve got some of those special glasses.

The image also shows landslides around the massive crater (Stickney crater), and you can see some craters in the dark region illuminated by Mars-shine. This is when light from the Sun reflects off Mars onto Phobos, and it happens with the Earth and our Moon too – take a look next time there’s a crescent Moon.

Above all, I just think it’s amazing that yet another bit our Universe is proving to be so interesting. Before I heard about this photo I just though Phobos was a boring old lump of rock, but as you can see it’s actually a pretty interesting corner of our Solar System after all.

Want to know more about the Red Planet? See the Solar System’s biggest volcano in 3D, see photos of the first ever avalanche captured on Mars, and read why radiation may prevent humans from ever visiting it.

The frog without lungs – but why?

All frogs have lungs, right, because otherwise they couldn’t breathe. Well that’s what we used to think – until now. Scientists have discovered a frog that doesn’t need lungs – instead it breathes through its skin, like fish do.

But wait a minute… since frogs are amphibians and spend a lot of their lives in water, why would they have lungs anyway? In fact, all frogs can breathe through their skin, but most frogs also have lungs so that they can cope with being out of water for long periods of time. That’s what makes this new frog species so unique – it has got rid of its lungs and gone to gills-only, as if it was evolving back into a fish again.

Why would it want to do that? This particular frog lives in fast-flowing, cold waters (on the Indonesian island of Borneo). Fast cool water contains more oxygen than still warm water, so it can get more oxygen directly from the water than most frogs can.

Also, it has a lower metabolic rate than other frogs, meaning it doesn’t need as much oxygen anyway.

Borneo

However, scientists are still puzzled as to why the frog would want to get rid of its lungs entirely. After all, frogs’ noisy mating sounds require lungs, so surely any species that lost its lungs would not be a successful breeder – at least that’s what we used to think until this species was discovered.

Maybe the new species survived fine staying in water all the time, and having lungs was a waste of energy – we really don’t know. One theory is that the loss of lungs enabled the frog to become flatter, and get a bigger surface area. Bigger surface area means more space for air to enter through the skin.

Scientists hope to carry out much more research into this new species, although environmental factors like mining and climate change could make it extinct before we have a chance to discover all its secrets. And what a tragedy it would be to lose this intriguing creature before we even got to know it properly.