Solar Sibling & Comets | SciByte 130

Solar Sibling & Comets | SciByte 130

We take a look at a solar sibling, mapping neurons with crowdsourcing, comets, an exoskeleton to help a paralyzed teen walk, Curiosity news, and as always take a peek back into history and up in the sky this week.

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Show Notes:

The Suns Long-Lost brother

  • A team of researchers has identified the first \”sibling\” of the Sun — a star that was almost certainly born from the same cloud of gas and dust as our star
  • The Suns \”Sibling\” | HD 162826
  • The solar sibling the team identified is a star called HD 162826, a star 15 percent more massive than the Sun, located 110 light-years away in the constellation Hercules
  • The star is not visible to the unaided eye, but easily can be seen with low-power binoculars, not far from the bright star Vega.
  • Data in the Data
  • By coincidence this star has been studied by the McDonald Observatory Planet Search team for more than 15 years
  • Combining the data from those studies, together with new calculations has ruled out any \”hot Jupiters\” — massive planets orbiting close to the star
  • The studies indicate that it\’s unlikely that a Jupiter analog orbits the star, either, but they do not rule out the presence of smaller terrestrial planets.
  • **Identifying***
  • The team identified HD 162826 as the Sun\’s sibling by following up on 30 possible candidates found by several groups around the world looking for solar siblings.
  • All of these observations used high-resolution spectroscopy to get a deep understanding of the stars\’ chemical make-up.
  • Several factors are needed to really pin down a solar sibling, in addition to chemical analysis, his team also included information about the stars\’ orbits, where they had been and where they are going in their paths around the center of the Milky Way galaxy
  • Combining information on both chemical make-up and dynamics of the candidates narrowed the field down to one: HD 162826.
  • Narrowing Down the Suspects
  • Even with information on more stars to work with, it\’s not straightforwards to identify potential stellar siblings
  • What the researchers are looking at is spectrographic analysis, certain key chemical elements that are going to be very useful
  • Elements are ones that vary greatly among stars which otherwise have very similar chemical compositions, but the team has identified the elements barium and yttrium as particularly useful for differentiating star of interest
  • Project Goals
  • The project has a larger purpose: to create a road map for how to identify solar siblings
  • \”The idea is that the Sun was born in a cluster with a thousand or a hundred thousand stars. This cluster, which formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, has since broken up,\” | Ivan Ramirez, McDonald Observatory
  • The member stars have broken off into their own orbits around the galactic center, taking them to different parts of the Milky Way today. A few, like HD 162826, are still nearby. Others are much farther
  • Learning More About the Sun
  • The newly developed methods for locating the Sun\’s \’siblings\’ will help other astronomers find other \”solar siblings,\” work that could lead to an understanding of how and where our Sun formed, and how our solar system became hospitable for life
  • To reach that goal, the dynamics specialists will make models that run the orbits of all known solar siblings backward in time, to find where they intersect: their birthplace.
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Astronomers find sun\’s \’long-lost brother,\’ pave way for family reunion | ScienceDaily


Gaming for Science | Eyewire

  • A team of researchers working at MIT has used data supplied by gamers on EyeWire to help explain how it is that the retina is able to process motion detection
  • The team describes how they worked with gamers at EyeWire and then used the resulting mapped neural networks to propose a new theory to describe how it is the eye is able to understand what happens when something moves in front of it.
  • What We Know
  • Scientists have known for quite some time that light enters the eye and strikes the back of the eyeball where photoreceptors respond
  • Those photoreceptors send information they receive to another type of neural cell known as bipolar cells
  • They in turn convert received signals to another signal format which is then sent to what are known as starburst amacrine cells (SACs)
  • Signals from the SAC are sent via the optic nerve to the brain
  • Scientists believe they have a pretty good idea about how the whole process works for static images, they have not been able to get a handle on what happens when images sent to the eyeball have information about things that are moving
  • New Research
  • The problem with figuring out how nerve cells work in the eye, of either mice or humans, is the inability to watch what happens in action-everything is too tiny and intricate
    +To get around that problem, researchers have been building three dimensional models on computers, but even that gets untenable when considering the complexity and numbers of nerves involved
  • In this new effort, the researchers sought to do just that-via assistance from thousands of gamers on the EyeWire game playing site
  • That\’s where the EyeWire gamers came in, a game was created that involved gamers creating mouse neural networks-the better they were at it the more points they got
  • EyeWire
  • In EyeWire you are given a cube to analyze, they have a basic idea of the shape of the Neuron they are looking for
  • That shape comes from sequential slices where the computer tries to fill in layer by layer how the neuron moves from slide to slide creating a basic shape
  • From that shape the user can scroll up and down the cube going slice by slice to visually correct anything that is not filled in or is filled in too much by the program
  • By using ‘crowdsourcing’ the speed in which it moves forward is increased based on the number of people playing
  • In addition to helping the scientists directly, they are also using the results to teach the program so that it’s processing ability also increases as the projects goes forward
  • The result was the creation of a model that the researchers believe is an accurate representation of the cells involved in processing vision, and the networks that are made up of them
  • Results So Far
  • They noted that in the model, there were different types of bipolar cells connecting to SACs-some connected to dendrites close to the cells center, and others connected to dendrites that were farther away
  • Prior research had shown that some bipolar cells take longer to process information than others
  • The researchers believe that the bipolar cells that connect closer to the center are of the type that take longer to process signals
  • This, they contend, could set up a scenario where the center of the SAC receives information from both types of bipolar cells at the same time-and that, they suggest, could be how the SAC comes to understand that motion-in one direction-is occurring
  • The researchers suggest their theory can be real-world tested in the lab, and expect other teams will likely do so
  • If they are right, the mystery of how our eyes detect motion will finally be solved.
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | How To Play EyeWire | EyeWire
  • YouTube | Gamers Help Solve Neuroscience Mystery | EyeWire
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • About EyeWire, A Game to Map the Brain
  • EyeWire gamers help researchers understand retina\’s motion detection wiring |

Old ‘Asteroid’ Now Comet

  • On October 23, 2013, astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey picked up a very faint asteroid with an unusual orbit more like a that of a comet than an asteroid
  • At the time 2013 UQ4 was little more than a stellar point with no evidence of a hazy coma or tail that would tag it as a comet
  • The Comet C/2013 UQ4, Formally Known As The Asteroid 2013 UQ4
  • On May 7 a remote telescope located in Siding Spring, Australia to take photos of 2013 UQ4 shortly before dawn in the constellation Cetus and they noticed that the asteroid had grown a little fuzz, making the move to comethood
  • Assuming the now renamed C/2013 UQ4 continues to spout dust and water vapor, it should brighten to magnitude +11 by month’s end as it moves northward across Pisces and into a dark morning sky
  • It currently displays a substantial coma or atmosphere, but no tail is visible yet
  • Studies of the comet/asteroid’s light indicate that it is a very dark but rather large object some 4-9 miles (7-15 km) across.
  • It’s estimated that it takes at least 500 years to make one spin around the sun
  • C/2013 UQ4, belongs to a special category of asteroids called damocloids
  • Damocloids
  • Damocloids are thought to be comets that have lost \”all their fizz\”
  • Their volatile ices spent from previous trips around the sun, they stop growing comas and tails and appear identical to asteroids
  • They have orbits resembling the Halley-family comets with long periods, fairly steep inclinations and highly eccentric orbits (elongated shapes)
  • Occasionally, one comes back to life. It’s happened in at least four other cases and appears to be happening with C/2013 UQ4 as well.
  • Observing
  • Perihelion occurs on June 5 with the comet reaching magnitude +8-9 by month’s end
  • Peak brightness of 7th magnitude is expected during its close approach of Earth on July 10 at 29 million miles (46.7 million km).
  • It’s still bright enough to see in a 12-inch telescope under dark skies
  • This should be a great summer comet, plainly visible in binoculars from a dark sky
  • It is moving at a very quick pace, at the rate of some 7 degrees per night!
  • That’s 1/3 of a degree per hour or fast enough to see movement through a telescope in a matter of minutes when the comet is nearest Earth
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | An Unusual Asteroid | NormalLifeIsNotReal
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Asteroid 2013 UQ4 Suddenly Becomes a Dark Comet with a Bright Future |


Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton

  • The World Cup opening ceremony on June 12 a mind-controlled exoskeleton designed to enable a paralyzed person to walk is to make its debut.
  • Opening Ceremony
  • A BBC report provided the latest developments in the robotic suit. \”If all goes as planned,\” wrote Alejandra Martins, \”the robotic suit will spring to life in front of almost 70,000 spectators and a global audience of billions of people.\”
  • The (DiVE) website talks about the day when \”the first ceremonial kick in the World Cup game may be made \”by a paralyzed teenager, who, flanked by the two contending soccer teams, will saunter onto the pitch clad in a robotic body suit.\”
  • According to the BBC, since November, Nicolelis has been training eight patients at a lab in Sao Paulo, amidst \”media speculation that one of them will stand up from his or her wheelchair and deliver the first kick of this year\’s World Cup.\”
  • The Exoskeleton
  • The exoskeleton was developed by an international team of scientists, part of the Walk Again Project, and described by the BBC report as a \”culmination\” of over 10 years of work
  • The exoskeleton is being controlled by brain activity and it is relaying feedback signals to the patient.
  • The patient wears a cap which picks up brain signals and relays them to a computer in the backpack, decoding the signals and sending them to the legs.
  • A battery in the backpack allows for around two hours\’ use. The robotic suit is powered by hydraulics.
  • Many different companies helped to build the skeleton\’s components
  • They used a lot of 3-D printing technology for purposes of both speed and achieving strong but light materials, along with using standard aluminum parts
  • \”When the foot of the exoskeleton touches the ground there is pressure, so the sensor senses the pressure and before the foot touches the ground we are also doing pre-contact sensing. It\’s a new way of doing skin sensing for robots\” | Dr Gordon Cheng, at the Technical University of Munich
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | Paralysed teen in exoskeleton to kick off World Cup | Truthloader
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Demo of mind-controlled exoskeleton planned for World Cup |

— Updates —

Comet Siding Spring

  • This October, a comet will brush by Mars giving scientists a chance to study how it possibly interacts with a planetary atmosphere
  • An impact of the comet on the surface of the Red Planet has long been ruled out; however, there is now an interesting possibility of possible interactions of the coma of A1 Siding Spring and the tenuous atmosphere of Mars
  • Last Time on SciByte …
  • SciByte 117 | Asteroid Belt Water | January 29, 2014
  • SciByte 90 | Alzheimer’s & Mars Missions | April 16, 2013
    • The Discovery
  • The comet C/2013 A1 was discovered in the beginning of 2013 by comet-hunter Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia
  • When the discovery was initially made, astronomers looked back over their observations to find “pre recovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012.
  • These observations placed the orbital trajectory of comet C/2013 A1 right through Mars orbit on Oct. 19, 2014
  • Spacecraft Safety
  • Orbiters are designed with the risk of space-dust collisions in mind
  • Over a five-year span for a Mars orbiter, NASA figures on a few percent chance of significant damage to a spacecraft from the background level of impacts from such particles, called meteoroids
  • If managers choose to position orbiters behind Mars during the peak risk, the further in advance any orbit-adjustment maneuvers can be made, the less fuel will be consumed
  • Mars “Fly-By”
  • With a nominal passage of 138,000 km [85,750 mi] from Mars, that is about one third the distance from Earth to the Moon, and 17 times closer than the nearest recorded passage of a comet to the Earth, Comet D/1770 L1 Lexell in 1780.
  • Although the nucleus will safely pass Mars, the brush with its extended atmosphere might just be detectable by the fleet of spacecraft and rovers in service around Mars
  • Spacecraft Involved
  • NEOWISE (The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) and Hubble are already monitoring the comet for enhanced activity
  • Currently on Mars, Curiosity rover is continuing science, the Opportunity rover is also still functioning, and Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express are still in orbit around the Red Planet and sending back data
  • India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA’s MAVEN orbiter arrive just before the comet.
  • MAVEN was designed to study the upper atmosphere of Mars, and carries an ion-neutral mass spectrometer (NGIMS) which could yield information on the interaction of the coma with the Martian upper atmosphere and ionosphere.
  • Other, Earth Based Observations
  • Proposals for using Earth-based assets for further observations of the comet prior to the event in October are still pending
  • Amateur observers will be able to follow the approach telescopically
  • It’s also interesting to consider the potential for interactions of the coma with the surfaces of the moons of Mars as well, though the net amount of water vapor expected to be deposited will not be large
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) near Mars | SpaceObs
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Interesting Prospects for Comet A1 Siding Spring Versus the Martian Atmosphere |


Methane Life

  • + Twitter | Kenny MacLeod ‏@siabost9deas
  • \”Probing the Depths of the Methane World\” Implications for life on worlds like Titan?
  • The Low Down
  • In 2011, Jennifer Glass joined a scientific cruise to study a methane seep off of Oregon\’s coast
  • In these cold, dark depths, microbes buried in the sediment feast on methane that seeps through the seafloor
  • The Eco-System
  • A product of their metabolism, bicarbonate, reacts with calcium in seawater to form tall rocky deposits
  • The chemical energy these organisms extract from methane supports a vibrant underworld
  • The group found evidence of a new microbial enzyme that seems to use the trace metal tungsten instead of molybdenum, the metal more commonly found in cold seep environments
  • Previously, tungsten had only been found in microbes living at high temperatures, such as the boiling waters of hydrothermal vents
  • \”It\’s a very unique chemical environment, with a lot of sulfur,\” \”We think that tungsten might just be more bioavailable in these highly sulfidic conditions.\” | Jennifer Glass
  • These systems don\’t depend on oxygen, so the microbe-methane relationship likely developed early in Earth\’s history before the rise of oxygen
  • What This Means for Exobiology
  • They could also serve as analogues for worlds beyond our Earth.
  • Methane has been detected in the atmosphere of other planets. Methane lakes have also been spotted on Titan, Saturn\’s largest moon, making it an intriguing candidate for life elsewhere.
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Probing the Depths of the Methane World |


  • Third Drilling Event
  • The full-depth hole for sample collection is close to a shallower test hole drilled last week in the same rock, which gave researchers a preview of the interior material as tailings around the hole
  • \”The drill tailings from this rock are darker-toned and less red than we saw at the two previous drill sites,\” said Jim Bell
    , deputy principal investigator for Curiosity\’s Mast Camera (Mastcam)
  • \”This suggests that the detailed chemical and mineral analysis that will be coming from Curiosity\’s other instruments could reveal different materials than we\’ve seen before.
  • Sample material from Windjana will be sieved, then delivered to onboard laboratories for determining the mineral and chemical composition
  • One motive for the team\’s selection of Windjana for drilling is to analyze the cementing material that holds together sand-size grains in this sandstone.
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube Curiosity Rover Report JPLnews
  • Image Galleries at JPL and Curiosity Mulimedia
  • Social Media
  • Curiosity Rover @MarsCuriosity
  • Further Reading / In the News


Looking back

  • May 17, 1954 : 60 years ago : CERN Groundbreaking : The official ground-breaking took place at the Meyrin site of the new CERN Laboratory in Geneva. A recommendation had been adopted 12 Dec 1949 at the European Cultural Conference for a European Institute of Nuclear Physics. By 1952, the third session of its provisional Council decided to locate in Switzerland. In Jun 1953, the host community, the canton of Geneva, gave strong approval in a referendum passing with 16539 votes to 7332. On 29 Sep 1954, twelve founding Member States ratified CERN (Centre Européenne de Recherche Nucléaire): Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.
  • The acronym CERN originally stood in French for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research), which was a provisional council for setting up the laboratory, established by 12 European governments in 1952
  • The acronym was retained for the new laboratory after the provisional council was dissolved, even though the name changed
  • Soon after the laboratory\’s establishment, its work went beyond the study of the atomic nucleus into higher-energy physics
  • The NeXT Computer used by British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN became the first Web server, and a Cisco Systems router at CERN was probably one of the first IP routers deployed in Europe

Looking up this week

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