Category Archives: Science

Small companion to Brown Dwarf
Kamen Todorov of Penn State University and co-investigators used the keen eyesight of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory to directly image the companion of the brown dwarf, which was uncovered in a survey of 32 young brown dwarfs in the Taurus star-forming region. Brown dwarfs are objects that typically are tens of times the mass of Jupiter and are too small to sustain nuclear fusion to shine as stars do.
The mystery object orbits the nearby brown dwarf at a separation of approximately 2.25 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers — which is between the distances of Saturn and Uranus from the Sun). The team’s research is being published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The existence of this companion upsets some applecarts in our understanding of how planetary systems form, and where they can form. The mechanism of how this companion formed is unknown, and interesting at the same time.
I am reminded of a Van Rijn/David Falkayn story by Poul Anderson I recently re-read, where an unusual planetary system was a very important plot point. It seems that Anderson was right–there really are some unusual systems out there in the zoo of planetary systems. He would have loved to have heard of this discovery.

Cosmic dust Imagery

Over on the ESA site has some new imagery of the cosmic dust in our stellar neighborhood, courtesy of the telescope on the Planck satellite.
The image shows the filamentary structure of dust in the solar neighbourhood – within about 500 light-years of the Sun. The local filaments are connected to the Milky Way, which is the pink horizontal feature near the bottom of the image. Here, the emission is coming from much further away, across the disc of our Galaxy.
The image has been colour coded to discern different temperatures of dust. White-pink tones show dust of a few tens of degrees above absolute zero, whereas the deeper colours are dust at around -261°C, only about 12 degrees above absolute zero. The warmer dust is concentrated into the plane of the Galaxy whereas the dust suspended above and below is cooler.

Its a very, very interesting image. Even more interesting is that this image illustrates that the “cosmic void” between solar systems in our part of the galaxy is far more complex than we once thought.

The consequences of the Wolf Pen vandalism
You may have heard the story (I don’t know if it went National) about the vandalism of a mexican gray wolf pen at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake. Someone pried open the enclosure. The alpha female, “Medium Toast” escaped, leading to a merry chase that led from Forest Lake into the main Metro area before she was caught.
Now the consequences of that act of vandalism are clear–her return has led to her sisters rejecting her as leader. She was stressed, emaciate and weak from her excursion, and her sisters have displaced and rejected her so thoroughly, she is being moved somewhere else.
I hope the person who opened the enclosure in their misguided effort to “free” the wolves are happy about what they have done. These wolves, an endangered species,are not suited at this time to living in the wild–ESPECIALLY a metro area. I have no idea what the person responsible was thinking. This was not good for the wolf at all.

The Wolves of Yellowstone, and Me

This NPR story on the fall of the Yellowstone Druid Pack tells part of the story as to why I have pictures of Coyote, Fox, and many herbivores, but I have no pictures of Wolves.
Rotten luck.
During my trips to Yellowstone, in 2005…
Yellowstone Lake
And in 2009…
Paul at the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone
The Druid Pack was not doing well in either year, despite years of success for the most famous and visible pack of Wolves in Yellowstone. Now, according to the NPR story, the pack is so devastated that its down to a lone female who has all but fled the Lamar Valley.
Sad, and doubly ironic, since the Olsons and I this weekend had watched a documentary explaining the travails and trials of the Druids a couple of years ago (which gave us a clue why we had so much trouble seeing wolves in 2009). That documentary ended on a hopeful, positive note. Apparently, that optimism, and the temporary re-rise of the Druids, was only that: temporary. Predation, a nasty disease that kills cubs, and intra-pack aggression have done in the druids.
Alas, it may be a while, or perhaps never, before another “photogenic pack” takes the Druids place in Lamar Valley.

The Cosmic Bat

A little less well known than the Hubble and its gorgeous images is the ground based ESO.
ESO Stands for the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere
ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in the Atacama Desert region of Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. ESO’s first site is at La Silla, a 2400 m high mountain 600 km north of Santiago de Chile. It is equipped with several optical telescopes with mirror diameters of up to 3.6 metres. The 3.5-metre New Technology Telescope broke new ground for telescope engineering and design and was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror, a technology developed at ESO and now applied to most of the world’s current large telescopes. The ESO 3.6-metre telescope is now home to the world’s foremost extrasolar planet hunter: HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), a spectrograph with unrivalled precision.
ESO, thankfully, was not affected adversely by the recent Chilean Earthquake.
Anyway, if you like astronomy pictures a la the Hubble, signing up for ESO releases (or following them on Twitter or facebook) is another way to get your fix. For example, a release, today, from ESO is of a nebula in a neglected corner of the Orion Constellation: “The Cosmic Bat”

Alien Star Clusters in the Milky Way
Over on Universe Today, a link to a paper which puts forth the theory that 25% of all of the stars of the Milky Way are originally from other galaxies.
“It turns out that many of the stars and globular star clusters we see when we look into the night sky are not natives, but aliens from other galaxies,” said Duncan Forbes. “They have made their way into our galaxy over the last few billion years.”
Previously astronomers had suspected that some globular star clusters, which each contain between 10000 and several million stars were foreign to our galaxy, but it was difficult to positively identify which ones.”

I think the lede is a little off. Instead of thinking of them as invaders, one might think of them as subjugated stars, since its more likely that the Milky Way *captured* them than any other mechanism. I recall a paper not long ago that identified a former dwarf galaxy within the bounds of the Milky Way, but this paper suggests there are many more dwarf galaxies and globular clusters engulfed by our galaxy than I thought.

King Tut forensics
King Tutankhamen, known as Egypt’s boy pharaoh, probably spent much of his life in pain before dying at 19 from the combined effects of malaria and a broken leg, scientists say.
You may have read or heard this story already, giving a new analysis of the life (and probable) death of the boy king, King Tut.
Curved spine, cleft palate, malaria, injuries…even if he was a King, he didn’t have that Kingly a life. I did not know that 100 walking sticks were found in the tomb. It makes sense, given the problems he likely had in life.

Photosynthetic Sea Slug
Shaped like a leaf itself, the slug Elysia chlorotica already has a reputation for kidnapping the photosynthesizing organelles and some genes from algae. Now it turns out that the slug has acquired enough stolen goods to make an entire plant chemical-making pathway work inside an animal body, says Sidney K. Pierce of the University of South Florida in Tampa.
The slugs can manufacture the most common form of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that captures energy from sunlight, Pierce reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Pierce used a radioactive tracer to show that the slugs were making the pigment, called chlorophyll a, themselves and not simply relying on chlorophyll reserves stolen from the algae the slugs dine on.
The findings have to be replicated, of course. It could be a mistake and the slugs are getting the chlorophyll from algae rather than manufacturing it completely by themselves. Still, it shows that Nature is far more strange than we imagined…