A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for August 2012

[LINK] On exoplanet Gliese 163c

io9’s George Dvorsky alerted me to the discovery of a broadly Earth-like planet orbiting a relatively nearby star.

An international team of scientists working at European HARPS have announced the discovery of a large rocky planet residing within the stellar habitable zone of the red dwarf star Gliese 163. That increases the number of known potentially habitable planets to six — the majority of which have been discovered in the past year.

To better understand the significance of the discovery, we contacted Abel Méndez, an Associate Professor of Physics and Astrobiology in the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. Méndez told us that the detection of Earth-like worlds is pacing up — and that there’s likely a lot more to come. “There are more observatories dedicated to these types of searches, “he told io9, “and many of them now have the required sensitivity to find these potentially habitable planets.”

Considered a superterran, or “super-Earth”, the exoplanet is being called Gliese 163c. Located at the reasonable distance of 50 light years from Earth in the Dorado constellation, it is no smaller than 6.9 Earth masses and requires only 26 days to orbit its star.

That said, the HARPS astronomers speculate that Gliese 163c might be significantly smaller, about 1.8 to 2.3 Earth radii — but that will depend on subsequent analyses to detect its composition, most notably its rock and water content. It also receives on average about 40% more light from its parent star than the Sun, making it considerably hotter than Earth.

Méndez and the rest of the team at HARPS aren’t sure what the atmosphere is like, but they suspect that it’s a scaled up version of Earth’s — giving it a surface temperature around 60°C. Most organisms on Earth cannot withstand temperatures above 50°C, but we know of many forms of extremophilic microbial life forms can thrive at those temperatures or higher.

Gliese 163c is now the sixth potentially habitable planet catalogued by Méndez, a list that includes four that orbit a red dwarf (Gliese 581d, Gliese 667Cc, Gliese 581g, and now Gliese 163c), one around a K-Star (HD 85512), and one around a Sun-like star (Kepler-22b). Méndez told us that upwards of 40% of red dwarf stars may have habitable planets. “Gliese 163c is now part of this statistic,” he said, “but there should be many more waiting to be discovered.”

The most noteworthy thing about Gliese 163, a red dwarf star visible only from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere and then only with a telescope, is that it’s in the same general neighbourhood as Zeta Reticulii, famous to UFO watchers as the star supporting the homeworld(s) of the Grey aliens. (No signs of life on Gliese 163, of course!)

A press release from the aforementioned Planetary Habitability Laboratory goes into more detail about the Gliese 163 system and the habitability of worlds orbiting red dwarf stars more generally.

A new superterran exoplanet (aka Super-Earth) was found in the stellar habitable zone of the red dwarf star Gliese 163 by the European HARPS team. The planet, Gliese 163c, has a minimum mass of 6.9 Earth masses and takes nearly 26 days to orbit its star. Superterrans are those exoplanets between two and ten Earth masses, which are more likely composed of rock and water. Gliese 163 is a nearby red dwarf star 50 light years away in the Dorado constellation. Another larger planet, Gliese 163b, was also found to orbit the star much closer with a nine days period. An additional third, but unconfirmed planet, might be orbiting the star much farther away.

[. . .]

The potential for habitable planets around red dwarf stars has been and issue of much debate. Tidal effects on the planets around these stars might cause extra surface heating or even tidal locking (always giving the same face to its parent star). Also, these stars are more active and their stellar wind might erode planetary atmospheres much faster. These factors might preclude the potential for life on smaller planets but not for planets with thicker atmospheres, something expected for superterran planets. Our Solar System lacks an example of a superterran. Its eight planets are either the smaller terrestrial kind, like Earth, or the larger gas giants, like Jupiter. Understanding superterrans around red dwarf stars, a non Sun-like star, just adds to the challenge of assessing their habitability.

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Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 11:06 pm

[LINK] “JUICE: Europe’s next mission to Jupiter?”

The Planetary Society Blog’s Emily Lakdawalla noted earlier that JUICE, the proposed European Space Agency unmanned mission to Jupiter and its icy moons that I blogged about last December, has been officially selected and will likely be adopted. This is certainly of note, not only because JUICE is a major expedition that’s the European Space Agency’s attempt to salvage its part of a joint NASA-ESA mission canceled by the American agency, but because this is the first ESA mission into the outer solar system, to this point an exclusive preserve of NASA.

The Twitterverse is buzzing this morning with news that the Science Programme Committee of the European Space Agency has recommended that the next large European mission be JUICE, a mission to explore the three icy Galilean satellites and eventually to orbit Ganymede. The recommendation is not binding; it must be voted upon (a simple majority vote, according to BBC News), at a meeting of the Science Programme Committee, consisting of representatives of all 19 ESA member states, on May 2. The committee is likely to green-light this recommendation, but it shouldn’t be taken as a certain decision just yet.

JUICE is being recommended over ATHENA (an x-ray observatory) and NGO (a gravitational wave observatory). It would launch in June 2022, enter Jupiter orbit in January 2030, and end in Ganymede orbit in June 2033. It is a concept that has been modified from JGO, the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter, originally conceived as Europe’s half of a US-Europe two-spacecraft mission to Jupiter, where NASA had originally proposed to provide a Jupiter Europa Orbiter. NASA canceled its plans to participate in that mission just as it canceled its participation in ExoMars more recently, and as with ExoMars, ESA appears ready to go forward without the USA. In fact, ESA has modified the originally proposed JGO mission to incorporate some of the science goals that would have been accomplished by NASA’s Europa mission.

Here’s the mission description and profile from the ESA document:

Science goals

The JUICE mission will visit the Jupiter system concentrating on the characterization of Ganymede, Europa and Callisto as planetary objects and potential habitats and on the exploration of the Jupiter system considered as an archetype for gas giants in the solar system and elsewhere. The focus of JUICE is to characterize the conditions that may have led to the emergence of habitable environments among the Jovian icy satellites, with special emphasis on the three ocean-bearing worlds, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto. The mission will also focus on characterizing the diversity of processes in the Jupiter system which may be required in order to provide a stable environment at Ganymede, Europa and Callisto on geologic time scales, including gravitational coupling between the Galilean satellites and their long term tidal influence on the system as a whole.

Mission profile

The mission will be launched in June 2022 by an Ariane 5 ECA and will perform a 7.5 yr cruise toward Jupiter based on an Earth-Venus-Earth-Earth gravitational assist. The Jupiter orbit insertion will be performed in January 2030, and will be followed by a tour of the Jupiter system, comprising a transfer to Callisto (11 months), a phase studying Europa (with 2 flybys) and Callisto (with 3 flybys) lasting one month, a “Jupiter high-latitude phase” that includes 9 Callisto flybys (lasting 9 months) and the transfer to Ganymede (lasting 11 months). In September 2032 the spacecraft is inserted into orbit around Ganymede, starting with elliptical and high altitude circular orbits (for 5 months) followed by a phase in a medium altitude (500 km) circular orbit (3 months) and by a final phase in low altitude (200 km) circular orbit (1 month). The end of the nominal mission is foreseen in June 2033.

[. . .]

This selection — if it is accepted — represents a big win for planetary science and a big loss for space-based astrophysics in Europe. Which is, one can’t help but notice, opposite to what the currently-proposed NASA budget represents.

I’m pretty ignorant of the internal and external politics involved in these decisions, and also of the relative merits of JUICE, ATHENA, and NGO, so while I admit I’m happy the planetary mission got selected, I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether it should have or shouldn’t have been the one that ESA picked. But, as a member of the American public, I can’t help but see this decision as Europe stepping in to the sucking vacuum left by NASA in the exploration of the outer planets. NASA’s inability to follow up on decades of spectacular successes in outer solar system exploration with any mission beyond Cassini’s end in 2017 leaves an opportunity for Europe to take over the leadership of Earth’s exploration of the solar system beyond the asteroid belt. It remains a challenge that Europe doesn’t currently have the capability to produce radioisotope power sources for spacecraft; limited to solar power at present, that means Europe can’t get beyond Jupiter. But Jupiter is far enough, for now.

The outer planets science community is a small and international one, so for sure there will be American participation in the science team, and probably also in the payload; the ESA document says specifically that “NASA has expressed an interest in contributing to the payload.” Science instruments on ESA missions work differently from NASA. They aren’t paid for by ESA; ESA builds and pays for the spacecraft, but different member states propose, build, and operate the science instruments using their own funds. ESA estimates that the spacecraft will cost €830 million and that ESA member states will spend an estimated €241 million to build instruments. NASA may contribute up to €68 million toward the payload. I hope it contributes the full amount; it’d be hard to imagine a way to get more bang for one’s bucks than to pay for a couple of instruments and 10 or 20 scientists to work on a mission being built, developed, launched, and operated by someone else.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 11:02 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Glad Day 2.0 re-invents itself for the LGBTQ community”

Over the years, I’ve posted regularly about Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop, the oldest queer-themed bookstore in Canada (perhaps North America). A long-standing and seemingly inevitable downwards spiral towards closure was averted earlier this year when a group of community investors bought a community institution with plans to relaunch it as a hub.

Ab Velasco’s blogTO report of a recent event–I couldn’t attend, sickness–reinforces my general poisitve impression of the changes taking place there over this year.

This past Monday evening, an intimate crowd gathered at Glad Day Bookshop to hear Dan Parent speak about creating Archie Comics’ first gay character, Kevin Keller. Introduced in 2010, the character signalled a new era for the publisher.

Glad Day is also experiencing new life. In January, the bookstore’s fate was bleak. Thanks to 22 new co-owners who took over in February, the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore launched in a new direction. These days, the store is fostering a community space with its new third floor programming room, formerly occupied by another tenant.

“We knew that in order to grow the business, we had to do something other than just sell books,” says co-owner Scott Robins, who organized the Dan Parent event. “A lot of other successful bookstore models rely on programming. We knew that in order to survive, we also had to be a community space.”

Glad Day 2.0 – as the new team have nicknamed it – has now hosted numerous readings and discussions. During this year’s Pride, the store revived and became the new home for the Proud Voices literary series, formerly run and subsequently discontinued by Pride a few years back. The programming, it seems, is bringing in new and lapsed customers.

[. . .]

The owners also made changes to product offerings and store layout. Titles for women, multicultural audiences and even comic geeks are more prominent. Shelf space for titles of interest to the trans community have increased four-fold.

Manager Scott Dagostino says the store always had a steady male clientele, but was more lacking for other communities. Recent changes are helping make an impact. “Our trans titles are among the highest selling titles right now, because the need for them is great,” he says.

The owners also invested in buying new inventory, a response to long-time criticism that their stock was outdated. Dagostino admits that because of limited funds, it’s still a growth area. “Our biggest issue is cash flow. We want to buy every single awesome LGBT book out there, but we don’t have the money and resources. So finding the middle ground is my job.”

Despite the buzz, the owners are mindful of continued threats. “The immediate challenge is Amazon,” says Robins. “They provide such deep discounts, free shipping and that’s very attractive for people who are facing economic strife. But the problem is that Amazon is impersonal.” Dagostino recounts an exchange he had with a father who came into the store. “He asked if we have any coming out books. I asked him, ‘Is this for you?’ It was for his son, who’s 13. They’re all pretty sure he’s gay. The son is starting high school and he’s terrified of being bullied.”

[. . .]

The Glad Day team is forging ahead with more programming plans. “I’m really excited about a new series called Out of the Vault,” says Robins. “There are so many amazing books in the store that, in a small cramped space, they don’t get the attention they deserve. So we’re spotlighting different sections within a social context. The first event in September is about poetry.”

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 9:14 pm

[LINK] “On to Ceres: Dawn Spacecraft Ready to Say Farewell to Asteroid Vesta”

Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson lets us know that the NASA space probe Dawn is set to depart the mini-planetVesta that it’s been orbiting for just over a year for the even larger mini-planet Ceres.

[N]ext week’s departure for the Dawn spacecraft from Vesta will be monumental. Dawn is on track to become the first probe to orbit and study two distant solar system destinations. The spacecraft is scheduled to leave the giant asteroid Vesta on Sept. 4 PDT (Sept. 5 EDT) to start its two-and-a-half-year journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.

“Thrust is engaged, and we are now climbing away from Vesta atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director. “We are feeling somewhat wistful about concluding a fantastically productive and exciting exploration of Vesta, but now have our sights set on dwarf planet Ceres.

In the video above, the Dawn team looks back at the highlights of the year-plus stay in orbit around Vesta. Dawn’s orbit provided close-up views of Vesta, revealing unprecedented detail about the giant asteroid. The mission revealed that Vesta completely melted in the past, forming a layered body with an iron core. The spacecraft also revealed the scarring from titanic collisions Vesta suffered in its southern hemisphere, surviving not one but two colossal impacts in the last two billion years. Without Dawn, scientists would not have known about the dramatic troughs sculpted around Vesta, which are ripples from the two south polar impacts.

“We went to Vesta to fill in the blanks of our knowledge about the early history of our solar system,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator, based at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). “Dawn has filled in those pages, and more, revealing to us how special Vesta is as a survivor from the earliest days of the solar system. We can now say with certainty that Vesta resembles a small planet more closely than a typical asteroid.”

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 9:00 pm

[LINK] “Chimps Have Geniuses, Too”

ScienceNOW’s Sarah C.P. Williams reports on recent research suggesting that, among chimpanzees as among humans, intelligence is variable, with not only different individuals evidencing different levels of intelligence but individuals being better at evidencing some skills than others.

Natasha, a chimp at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, has always seemed different from her peers. She’s learned to escape from her enclosure, teases human caretakers, and scores above other chimps in communication tests. Now, Natasha has a new title: genius. In the largest and most in-depth survey of chimpanzee intelligence, researchers found that Natasha was the smartest of the 106 chimps they tested—a finding that suggests that apes have their geniuses, too.

“Natasha was really much better than other chimps,” says biologist and first author of the new study Esther Herrmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Herrmann and her colleagues had previously tested chimps in a study designed to compare the skills of the animals with those of human children. During the study, they noticed a wide range of skills among the chimps and wondered whether they could measure this variation in ability—and whether there were studies that could predict the chimps’ overall performance in all areas, like an IQ test in humans. So they gave a battery of physical and social tests to 106 chimps at Ngamba Island and the Tchimpounga chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo, and to 23 captive chimpanzees and bonobos in Germany. In one experiment, chimps were asked to find food in a container after it had been shuffled around with empty containers. In another, they had to use a stick to get food placed on a high platform. The researchers analyzed the data to determine if the scores in some tests helped predict performance in others.

“In general, we don’t find any kind of general intelligence factor that can predict intelligence in all areas,” Herrmann says. “But we did find a big variation overall, and this one outstanding individual.”

The stand-out individual, Natasha, was the chimp that caretakers—who don’t administer tests to the chimps but do feed them, clean their cages, and accompany them on walks—consistently ranked as the smartest based on only the way she interacted with them. But there’s nothing about Natasha’s life—extra attention or time spent with humans, for example—that explains how she became so astute. “Motivation and temperament probably play a role,” Herrmann says. “That’s something that we want to look more into.”

In general, apes that were good in one area—such as tests requiring creative tool use—were not necessarily good in another—such as copying the actions of a test-giver to get a reward, the team reports this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. But continuing to add new challenges to the battery of tests still could lead to a standardized intelligence factor, Herrmann says.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm

[LINK] “Most Neanderthals Were Right-Handed Like Us”

LiveScience’s Megan Gannon writes about interesting research suggesting that just like contemporary human beings, right-handedness among Neanderthals was much more common than not.

The paper in question, published at PLoS ONE, is “Hand to Mouth in a Neandertal: Right-Handedness in Regourdou”.

Right-handed humans vastly outnumber lefties by a ratio of about nine to one, and the same may have been true for Neanderthals. Researchers say right-hand dominance in the extinct species suggests that, like humans, they also had the capacity for language.

A new analysis of the skeleton of a 20-something Neanderthal man confirms that he was a righty like most of his European caveman cousins whose remains have been studied by scientists (16 of 18 specimens). Dubbed “Regourdou,” the skeleton was discovered in 1957 in France, not far from the famous network of caves at Lascaux.

Scientists previously had argued that Regourdou was right-handed based on the muscularity of his right arm versus his left arm. Now an international team of researchers say they have confirmed that assumption by conducting a more sophisticated analysis of his arms and shoulders and then linking that data with the scratch marks on Regourdou’s teeth.

Neanderthals used their mouths like a “third hand” for manipulating objects like food, resulting in significant wear and tear on their front teeth, University of Kansas researcher David Frayer, who was involved in the study, explained in a statement from the school. And the angles of the scratch marks on the teeth can indicate which hand was gripping the food and which hand was cutting. They found that right-angled scratches were the most common and left ones the least for all the teeth.

“We’ve been studying scratch marks on [Neanderthal] teeth, but in all cases they were isolated teeth, or teeth in mandibles not directly associated with skeletal material,” Frayer said.”This is the first time we can check the pattern that’s seen in the teeth with the pattern that’s seen in the arms.”

If Neanderthals were indeed right-handed, that “confirms a modern pattern of left brain dominance, presumably [signalling] linguistic competence,” the researchers write in their paper published online Aug. 22 in the journal PLoS ONE. (In humans, the left side of the brain plays a primary role in language.)

“The long-known connection between brain asymmetry, handedness and language in living populations serves as a proxy for estimating brain lateralization in the fossil record and the likelihood of language capacity in fossils,” the researchers, led by Virginie Volpato of the Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, write.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 6:30 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Glad Day 2.0 re-invents itself for the LGBTQ community”

Over the years, I’ve posted regularly about Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop, the oldest queer-themed bookstore in Canada (perhaps North America). A long-standing and seemingly inevitable downwards spiral towards closure was averted earlier this year when a group of community investors bought a community institution with plans to relaunch it as a hub.

Ab Velasco’s blogTO report of a recent event–I couldn’t attend, sickness–reinforces my general poisitve impression of the changes taking place there over this year.

This past Monday evening, an intimate crowd gathered at Glad Day Bookshop to hear Dan Parent speak about creating Archie Comics’ first gay character, Kevin Keller. Introduced in 2010, the character signalled a new era for the publisher.

Glad Day is also experiencing new life. In January, the bookstore’s fate was bleak. Thanks to 22 new co-owners who took over in February, the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore launched in a new direction. These days, the store is fostering a community space with its new third floor programming room, formerly occupied by another tenant.

“We knew that in order to grow the business, we had to do something other than just sell books,” says co-owner Scott Robins, who organized the Dan Parent event. “A lot of other successful bookstore models rely on programming. We knew that in order to survive, we also had to be a community space.”

Glad Day 2.0 – as the new team have nicknamed it – has now hosted numerous readings and discussions. During this year’s Pride, the store revived and became the new home for the Proud Voices literary series, formerly run and subsequently discontinued by Pride a few years back. The programming, it seems, is bringing in new and lapsed customers.

[. . .]

The owners also made changes to product offerings and store layout. Titles for women, multicultural audiences and even comic geeks are more prominent. Shelf space for titles of interest to the trans community have increased four-fold.

Manager Scott Dagostino says the store always had a steady male clientele, but was more lacking for other communities. Recent changes are helping make an impact. “Our trans titles are among the highest selling titles right now, because the need for them is great,” he says.

The owners also invested in buying new inventory, a response to long-time criticism that their stock was outdated. Dagostino admits that because of limited funds, it’s still a growth area. “Our biggest issue is cash flow. We want to buy every single awesome LGBT book out there, but we don’t have the money and resources. So finding the middle ground is my job.”

Despite the buzz, the owners are mindful of continued threats. “The immediate challenge is Amazon,” says Robins. “They provide such deep discounts, free shipping and that’s very attractive for people who are facing economic strife. But the problem is that Amazon is impersonal.” Dagostino recounts an exchange he had with a father who came into the store. “He asked if we have any coming out books. I asked him, ‘Is this for you?’ It was for his son, who’s 13. They’re all pretty sure he’s gay. The son is starting high school and he’s terrified of being bullied.”

[. . .]

The Glad Day team is forging ahead with more programming plans. “I’m really excited about a new series called Out of the Vault,” says Robins. “There are so many amazing books in the store that, in a small cramped space, they don’t get the attention they deserve. So we’re spotlighting different sections within a social context. The first event in September is about poetry.”

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm