Strange Signal from Space May Solve One of Science’s Greatest Mysteries


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A clue to one of the biggest questions in cosmology — why regular matter, rather than antimatter, survived to fill the universe — may have been found in data from a NASA space telescope.

A new study suggests that gamma-rays (high-energy light) detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope sho…

A clue to one of the biggest questions in cosmology — why regular matter, rather than antimatter, survived to fill the universe — may have been found in data from a NASA space telescope.

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A new study suggests that gamma-rays (high-energy light) detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope show signs of the existence of a magnetic field that originated mere nanoseconds after the Big Bang. In addition, the researchers on the new study speculate that the magnetic field carries evidence of the fact that there is far more matter than antimatter in our universe.

The detection of the signal in the Fermi data is currently too weak to be claimed as a “discovery,” and no other solid evidence of an early-universe magnetic field exists. But if the signal bears out and the researchers’ speculations withstand scrutiny, the work could help scientists understand why the observable universe is made primarily of matter and not antimatter.

Matter vs. antimatter

It’s easy to take matter for granted. The stuff that makes up our planet and everything on it — as well as our sun and all the other visible objects in the universe — never seems to be at risk of disappearing in an instant. But around the time our universe was born, there may have been just such an instant — a moment when matter won out and something called antimatter did not.

Cosmologists think the universe started with equal parts matter and antimatter; when matter and antimatter collide with great force, they annihilate each other. So, what happened to most of the antimatter (it still exists in the universe, but in very small quantities)? Why did matter dominate? It’s one of the biggest questions plaguing modern science.

Tanmay Vachaspati, a professor of physics at Arizona State University and his colleagues think they have found a clue to this mystery. They say that a signal in the Fermi gamma-ray data suggests an overwhelming production of matter, but not antimatter, in the early universe. They detailed their findings in a paper published online today (May 14) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A universal magnetic field

The team claims to have identified a sort of “twisting” of the gamma rays that the Fermi telescope detects, and the researchers say the detection of this twisted gamma-ray signal is verified in their paper.

Vachaspati and his colleagues’ interpretation of what that signal means boils down to this: The twisted gamma-rays are evidence of a magnetic field that has been present in the universe since less than a second after the Big Bang. This magnetic field has a left-hand orientation, and that is evidence of the overwhelming production of matter in the early universe, as antimatter would have produced a right-hand orientation, they said. [Most Amazing Gamma Ray Sources in the Universe]

There are many particle-physics events that must occur for this magnetic field to leave an imprint on the gamma-rays, the researchers .

Scientists don’t know for sure if this kind of “primordial” magnetic field exists in our universe. There have been magnetic fields observed in some galaxies and galaxy clusters that could be magnifications of a magnetic field that already existed in the universe, and to demonstrate that it exists would be a fascinating discovery, scientists say.

The discovery of this left-hand signal was first reported by Vachaspati and colleagues in a paper published in 2014.

“We were kind of cautious, and we didn’t want to make a big deal of it, because we thought maybe the signal would go away with more data or more analysis,” Vachaspati said. “And then, in [the new paper], we used more data and did other kinds of analysis. And the signal is still there.”

But the signal may not be a “discovery” quite yet.

In analyzing statistical data from instruments like the Fermi telescope, there is always a chance that a signal could arise purely by chance. The odds of this occurring are measured by a value called sigma. A result with 1 sigma has roughly 1-in-3 odds of arising purely by chance (not a very good bet).

The signal detected by Vachaspati and colleagues has a 3-sigma uncertainty, or about 0.3 percent odds that it has appeared purely by chance. This may seem good, but in particle physics, most signals are not officially called a “discovery” until they have a 5-sigma value (1-in-2-million chance that the signal is a purely random fluctuation).

Tonia Venters, a researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who works with Fermi telescope data, said it’s important to practice caution.

“Our field has seen many results at [2- and 3-sigma] significances come and go, so we tend to be rather skeptical when faced with even a 3-sigma result (0.3% probability of occurring by chance),” Venters told Space.com in an email. “To us, a 3-sigma result is interesting enough to wait for more data, but not enough to generate much excitement.”

It should be noted that there are other ways to judge the validity of a signal, and sigma is not always the best metric to use. However, it often serves as a good way to quickly evaluate the strength of a result. Vachaspati said he puts more weight on the fact that certain predictions made about the signal in the first paper were confirmed in the new analysis.

The next step, Vachaspati said, is to continue to look for the signal in more Fermi telescope data. The collaboration is expected to release new data this year. He will discuss the work with colleagues from around the world at a monthlong conference on cosmological magnetic fields this June and July.

“I think the most important part is that we’re seeing a suspicious signal in the data, and then the rest is kind of one step at a time,” Vachaspati said. “We think the most likely candidate for why this is happening is the magnetic field. And then, if it is the magnetic field, then it seems most likely to me it’s going to be this matter-antimatter asymmetry.

“But people have different ideas, so that part becomes more theoretical,” he added. “The interesting thing is that there seems to be a signal.”

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NASA Pluto Probe Begins Search for New Moons, Rings


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A NASA spacecraft speeding toward Pluto is casting a wary eye on the dwarf planet system, looking for anything that could trip it up in the home stretch of its historic mission.

NASA’s New Horizons probe, which is set to perform the first-ever flyby of Pluto on July 14, has begun hunting…

A NASA spacecraft speeding toward Pluto is casting a wary eye on the dwarf planet system, looking for anything that could trip it up in the home stretch of its historic mission.

pluto-new-horizons-art-2

NASA’s New Horizons probe, which is set to perform the first-ever flyby of Pluto on July 14, has begun hunting for possible rings and undiscovered moons, in an effort to identify potential hazards near the dwarf planet. The campaign began Monday (May 11) and involves roughly weekly observations with the spacecraft’s long-range camera through July 1, mission team members said.

“You know how Curiosity had its ‘seven minutes of terror?’” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, referring to the NASA Mars rover’s harrowing “sky crane” landing in August 2012. “Well, we call this ‘seven weeks of suspense.’”

Small debris, big impact

New Horizons was the speediest spacecraft ever launched when it blasted off in January 2006, and it’s now rocketing along at a healthy 32,570 mph (52,416 km/h) relative to the sun — so fast that a collision with a piece of debris just a few millimeters wide could prove fatal, even though the probe is protected by a Kevlar “bulletproof vest.”

So the hazard-hunting team is on the lookout for any regions on or around New Horizons’ path that may harbor such debris. That explains why the researchers are concerned about undiscovered moons.

“New moons might be shedding dust into the system, into a place where we can encounter it,” said New Horizons science team member John Spencer, also of SwRI, who is leading the hazard search. The odds of actually slamming into a newfound moon are extremely small, he added.

Pluto is known to have five moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. Charon, the innermost moon, was first spotted in 1978; at 648 miles (1,043 kilometers) in diameter, it’s nearly half as wide as Pluto itself. The other four satellites are all tiny, and were discovered by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope between 2005 and 2012.

Spencer said he wouldn’t be surprised if New Horizons did indeed add some more names to this list.

“We know quite a lot of places where moons could be stable in the system,” Spencer said.

Several options

Diagrams show New Horizons encounter with PlutoNew Horizons becomes the first probe to explore Pluto in mid-2015. See how the New Horizons mission to Pluto works in our full infographic here.

One option is to point New Horizons’ high-gain antenna forward, using it like a shield as the probe zooms through a debris field. But the spacecraft’s handlers hope to avoid resorting to this strategy.

“That change would hurt our science significantly, because we wouldn’t have the freedom to point in all the directions we’d like,” Spencer said.

The other option is to change course. Mission team members have mapped out three alternate trajectories, two of which are merely slight adjustments to the nominal one, which takes New Horizons within 7,800 miles (12,500 km) of Pluto’s surface. The third route would send New Horizons much closer to the dwarf planet, far inside Charon’s orbit.

Shifting to either of the first two alternate trajectories would likely not impact the flyby’s science return signficantly, Spencer said. But the same is not true of the super-close route.

“If we fly that very close one, we cannot fly the nominal sequence,” Spencer said. “We have to fly the sequence that has the antenna pointing forward, because things are just in too much of a different direction than they would be on the nominal sequence.”

In addition, photos taken very close to Pluto would probably not be as sharp as those snapped from the nominal trajectory or the two similar alternates.

“Our cameras are designed to work from a certain distance, with things moving at a certain rate of speed through the system,” Spencer said. “If you’re speeding along a highway,” he explained by way of analogy, “it’s hard to read the sign on the front of a business that’s right next to the road.”

If mission team members decide to go with one of the alternate trajectories, New Horizons would likely perform an engine burn 14 days before the July 14 flyby. This maneuver would use little fuel, Spencer said, and probably wouldn’t prevent New Horizons from visiting another object beyond Pluto in a potential extended mission (which NASA has not yet approved or funded).

Better safe than sorry

All of this being said, New Horizons’ current trajectory appears to be quite safe, Stern and Spencer stressed.

“All the models say that the odds of losing the spacecraft due to a debris impact are far less than 1 percent,” Stern told Space.com. “So, I really don’t lose any sleep over it.”

Still, he added, searching for hazards is the prudent thing to do, especially given the stakes involved: The $700 million New Horizons mission is about to return history’s first up-close looks at Pluto, which has remained mysterious since its 1930 discovery.

And mounting such a mission to the outer solar system takes decades, so it’s unclear when, if ever, the world would get a second chance at a Pluto first reconnaissance, Stern has said.

“This is a part of all exploration,” Stern said of the potential hazards New Horizons faces in the Pluto system. “We’re flying into the unknown.”

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A Preview Of The 2015 Central Pacific Hurricane Season


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We’re only two weeks away from the start of hurricane season and thanks to El Nino, Hawaii could see another active storm season this year.

The 2015 Central Pacific Hurricane Season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.
There is a good relation of El Nino years to increased hurricane activity.
The a…

We’re only two weeks away from the start of hurricane season and thanks to El Nino, Hawaii could see another active storm season this year.

Palm trees and warning flags are blown by strong winds brought by the arrival of Hurricane Paloma in George Town, Grand Cayman, Friday, Nov. 7, 2008. Late-season Hurricane Paloma's center was expected to pass near Grand Cayman late Friday or early Saturday, then gain strength as it moves toward Cuba which is already suffering from billions of dollars in damage from two previous hurricanes this season. (AP Photo/Joanna Lewis)

The 2015 Central Pacific Hurricane Season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

There is a good relation of El Nino years to increased hurricane activity.

The average number of tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes is about four to five per year.

But when you look at El Nino years, in some cases, the number of storms has doubled. For example:1982: 10 with a direct hit from Hurricane Iwa ; 1992: 11 with a direct hit from Hurricane Iniki.

We’ve gone through seasons with a high number of storms and no direct hits, such as 11 in 1994 and seven in 2009.

Then last year, which was a weak El Nino year, there were five storm systems with Tropical Storm Iselle hitting the southern tip of the Big Island.

El Nino causes warmer temperatures in the Pacific northern hemisphere and warm water makes storms spawn and survive.

Even last year with a weak El Nino, 22 systems were born in the East Pacific, the fourth highest on record.

According to the Climate Prediction Center, there is a 90-percent chance that El Nino will continue through this summer and an 80-percent chance through next year.

It won’t mean that we will get a direct hit, only that there is a higher chance of tropical cyclone formation for this hurricane season.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologists have some upgrades that will help with their forecasts.

New features added in January will increase resolution and pick up smaller features on the radar that normally aren’t seen. This will be the first time they will be used during hurricane season.

That means meteorologists can see more on their models and, in turn, lead to more accurate forecasts.

“The computer models that we use to forecast the weather can see smaller-scale features and because they can better analyze those features, it improves the long-term forecasting,” said meteorologist John Bravender. “So the increased computer resources helps to improve the computer models which will in turn lead to a better forecast.”

Bravender says the new upgrade should also help better track a storm’s path.

Forecasters say now is the time to prepare your emergency kits for this upcoming hurricane season.

The Central Pacific Hurricane Forecast will be released May 26.

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Volcano Watch: Restless Activity Beneath Mauna Loa Continues


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The recent high lava lake levels at Kīlauea Volcano have caught the attention of visitors and kama‘aina alike. But we shouldn’t forget that unrest at Mauna Loa continues.

Ongoing inflation in the upper Southwest Rift Zone and summit areas of Mauna Loa suggests that magma continues to rise into t…

The recent high lava lake levels at Kīlauea Volcano have caught the attention of visitors and kama‘aina alike. But we shouldn’t forget that unrest at Mauna Loa continues.

mauna lao volcano

Ongoing inflation in the upper Southwest Rift Zone and summit areas of Mauna Loa suggests that magma continues to rise into the volcano. The current rate and pattern of deformation are similar to the most recent episode of rapid inflation on Mauna Loa in 2004-2005. Earthquakes have also been occurring at elevated rates, particularly around the areas of inflation in the upper Southwest Rift Zone and summit.

Throughout its history, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) has taken advantage of advances in technology to better monitor volcanoes and earthquakes. Computers have become faster, methods of transmitting information have improved, and instrumentation has become smaller and more energy efficient. All these advances have been utilized to create an improved geophysical network that better supports HVO’s monitoring and science efforts.

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) enabled a major upgrade to HVO’s monitoring networks on Mauna Loa and Kīlauea, including a conversion to digital telemetry, additional monitoring sites, and improved instrumentation. These enhanced networks can now detect earlier stages of unrest, and the resulting data enables more sophisticated analyses of volcanic processes than were previously possible.

Since the two most recent eruptions of Mauna Loa in 1975 and 1984, HVO started using GPS, broadband seismometers, and several types of analyses that were not possible with previous geophysical networks and computers. Certainly, these new data streams and analysis techniques have led to an improved understanding of Mauna Loa and its magma storage system.

Scientists often try to compare previous periods of unrest, such as those in 1975 and 1984, to current unrest to gain perspective on and understanding of what might happen next. With our improved ability to detect smaller and smaller earthquakes and deformation, it is important to keep in mind that signals being recorded now might not have been detectable in past years. This leads to some interesting questions that we’re trying to answer.

Were the small earthquakes that we can now record present during previous periods of unrest on Mauna Loa? If so, what was their pattern?

With entirely new techniques available, such as GPS and interferometric radar (InSAR), we can measure the deformation of wide areas on the volcano, which allows us to detect a large, inflating magma reservoir beneath Mauna Loa that previously could not have been detected. But, was this same reservoir active before previous eruptions?

Continuously recording GPS receivers measure episodes of hugely varying rates of inflation interspersed with times of no inflation, which might indicate fluctuations in magma supply to Mauna Loa’s shallow storage system. Did these fluctuations occur in the past? The comparison of current and past activity is not as trivial as one might think.

And finally, what will be the outcome of Mauna Loa’s current unrest? Scientists cannot be sure at this point.

Seismic unrest is currently much less energetic than it was before the 1975 and 1984 eruptions. Several episodes of increased inflation since 1984 slowed and stopped without eruption. Each of these episodes, however, resulted in greater pressurization of the shallow storage system within Mauna Loa. Unfortunately, we do not yet completely understand exactly how much pressure is involved, or how much internal pressure the overlying rock can bear before it breaks and allows magma to move toward the surface.

Our knowledge and characterization of volcanic systems constantly evolves as improved geophysical networks lead to new scientific discoveries. But before scientists can clearly distinguish between episodes of inflation and elevated earthquake activity that accompany only the intrusion of magma (with no eruption) and those that actually lead to an eruption, there is still much work to be done.

So, HVO scientists continue their diligent efforts to fully understand the processes at work beneath Mauna Loa and to monitor the volcano’s restless activity.

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Volcano Eruption Lights The Night In Sicily


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Volcano watchers in Italy shared footage of Sicily’s Mount Etna erupting a stream of fiery lava against the backdrop of the night sky.

Mount Etna, considered one of the world’s most active volcanoes, starred in a pair of YouTube videos showing glowing orange lava flowing down the…

Volcano watchers in Italy shared footage of Sicily’s Mount Etna erupting a stream of fiery lava against the backdrop of the night sky.

etna

Mount Etna, considered one of the world’s most active volcanoes, starred in a pair of YouTube videos showing glowing orange lava flowing down the side of the volcano during an eruption Thursday evening.

The volcano overlooking the city of Catania has been active for an estimated 2,000 years. The latest round of activity, in the volcano’s southeast crater, began Tuesday.

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Rare May Storm Slams Into Southern California, Bringing Rain, Wind, Snow


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LOS ANGELES – A second round of rain from a rare spring storm swept into drought-stricken Southern California on Friday, along with heavy winds, snow in the mountains and the possibility of hail and lightning.

Scattered thunderstorms were expected from San Diego north to Ventura County as…

LOS ANGELES – A second round of rain from a rare spring storm swept into drought-stricken Southern California on Friday, along with heavy winds, snow in the mountains and the possibility of hail and lightning.

rain

Scattered thunderstorms were expected from San Diego north to Ventura County as the brunt of the system moved on shore and headed east, the National Weather Service said.

Drivers were urged to use caution on roads in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, where between 3 to 6 inches of snow was possible above 6,000 feet. Temperatures hovered around freezing at higher elevations.

The cold storm from the Gulf of Alaska brought bands of brief, heavy downpours Thursday to Los Angeles County and points east and south, dumping anywhere from trace amounts in some places to up to 1 ½ inches in portions of San Diego and Ventura counties.

Firefighters rescued six motorists and a dog who became trapped in 3 feet of water on a San Diego street, and they pulled a man from the rushing water of a flood control channel in Northridge, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, authorities said.

“One minute it’s a little bit of water and all of a sudden it got deeper and deeper really fast,” Capt. Joe Amador of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said about the flooded street.

Flooding and debris flows are possible if thunderstorms form over foothill areas stripped bare by wildfires.

The downpour delayed the San Diego Padres’ game against the Washington Nationals at Petco Park and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ game against the Colorado Rockies at Dodgers Stadium. Meanwhile, snow in the forecast for Friday forced organizers to relocate the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race from Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains to Santa Clarita.

The drenching was a bit of a surprise to forecasters.

“We don’t see these kinds of storms this late in May,” Stuart Seto with the National Weather Service in Oxnard said, “and not this cold.”

The rain was met with joy by parched residents.

“I’ve been actually waiting for this like, a whole week, for thunderstorms and rain and everything,” Michael Karapetyan of Glendale told KABC-TV. “I’m tired of this sunshine and sunshine.”

To the north, the storm brought thunder and lightning to the San Francisco Bay area with some bolts reaching the ground. Brief spurts of rain and hail were reported but generally only in trace amounts. Some street flooding occurred in Fresno.

The rain was doing little to ease water woes in the historically parched state.

“It won’t have any huge impact on the drought,” weather service meteorologist Ryan Kittell said of the storm. “But any little bit will help.”

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Extrasolar Planet Weather Forecasts


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The youngest example of one of the oldest objects in the universe may have been discovered by astronomers, who say it appears ready to hatch millions of stars.

The object, which astronomers are calling the “Firecracker,” is a dense, massive cloud of molecular gas and may be the…

The youngest example of one of the oldest objects in the universe may have been discovered by astronomers, who say it appears ready to hatch millions of stars.

planet

The object, which astronomers are calling the “Firecracker,” is a dense, massive cloud of molecular gas and may be the youngest example of what’s known as a globular cluster. Millions of stars can form from the material inside a globular cluster, but observations show that not a single star twinkles within the depths of the newly discovered Firecracker. You can see a video of this incredible discovery on Space.com.

“We may be witnessing one of the most ancient and extreme modes of star formation in the universe,” lead author Kelsey Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in a statement. “This remarkable object looks like it was plucked straight out of the early universe. To discover something that has all the characteristics of a globular cluster, yet has not begun making stars, is like finding a dinosaur egg that’s about to hatch.”

Beating the odds

Globular clusters are common throughout the universe — the Milky Way contains over 150 known clusters, and may hide others. As the dense clouds form new stars, heat and radiation from the newborns change the environment around them, making it difficult for scientists to understand the original conditions that birthed the clusters.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Johnson and her team studied a famous pair of interacting galaxies, NGC 4038 and NGC 4039, known as the Antennae galaxies. The forces generated by the two merging galaxies, which lie approximately 50 million light-years away, trigger star formationat a rapid clip.

But in one region, dubbed the Firecracker by the researchers, star formation has yet to begin. This allows the astronomers a first-ever look at the conditions that may have led to the creation of most, if not all, of these massive clusters.

“Until now, clouds with this potential have only been seen as teenagers, after star formation has begun,” Johnson said. “That meant that the nursery had already been disturbed. To understand how a globular cluster forms, you need to see its true beginnings.”

While most globular clusters formed around 12 billion years ago, when the first galaxies started out, a smaller population was created in more recent times by the merger of existing galaxies. The window for formation is relatively short, as the clusters are thought to evolve out of their star-free stage within a million years. Such clouds are rare, as they may be torn apart by gravitational forces.

“The survival rate for a massive young star cluster to remain intact is very low — around 1 percent,” said Johnson.

“Various external and internal forces pull these objects apart, either forming open clusters like the Pleiades or completely disintegrating to become a part of the galaxy’s halo.”

The scientists think that the Firecracker stands a good chance of beating these odds, however. Containing more than 50 million times the mass of the sun in molecular gas, the object should be dense enough to withstand destructive forces and eventually begin to form new stars.

The research has been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

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