Popular Science’s Planet #9

 

The elusive Planet Nine might be responsible for this asteroid’s bizarre orbit

Something’s got the Kuiper belt’s rocks off, and there’s a scramble to find it.

Planet Nine

An artist’s interpretation of Planet Nine.

Kevin Gill via Flickr

For a few years now, the astronomy world has been hard at work searching for a ninth planet of the solar system (no, not Pluto, it’s time to move on). There’s evidence of something massive hanging around in the outer reaches of the solar system—10 times more massive than Earth, big enough to gravitationally warp the orbits of smaller objects in its vicinity, 10 to 20 times farther away than Pluto. And yet it apparently continues to hide in plain sight, eluding our best efforts to observe it directly. If a planet orbits the sun and nobody’s there to see it, is it even real?

The latest tantalizing bit of evidence to back up Planet Nine’s existence is an asteroid called 2015 BP519, first discovered three years ago in the vast reaches of the Kuiper belt (the region of the solar system beyond Neptune). We now know the asteroid possesses a bizarre elliptical orbit that suggests something gigantic is pulling at the little bugger as it tries to make its journey around the sun.

“I’m pretty excited about the new object,” says Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, one of the first people to characterize Planet Nine, who was not involved with the study. “It is the predicted link between the very distant elongated orbits that we’ve known about and the much closer tilted orbits that we’ve seen.”

In a new paper led by Juliette Becker, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, a group of researchers outline the discovery of BP519 through the Dark Energy Survey, an international collaboration that uses visible and near-infrared observations to study the expansion of the universe. It’s not exactly a typical object-hunting tool, but the DES is optimized for observing objects above the planet of the solar system—objects like BP519, which has an orbit tilted 54 degrees with respect to the solar system’s plane.

“The moment we saw its fitted orbit, we knew it was a remarkable object,” says Becker. “If the solar system is thought of as concentric rings sitting flat on a table, BP519’s orbit is another, larger oval tilted more than halfway up toward the ceiling.”

That’s where the influence of Planet Nine comes in. “Planet Nine, if it exists, could take objects that start out closer to the table and cause their orbits to change with time to eventually look like BP519’s orbit,” says Becker.

Besides its unique orbital inclination, we also know the object is perhaps the size of a dwarf planet, and its distance from the sun is about 450 times farther than Earth’s.

While other explanations could explain the asteroid’s strange orbit, such as a rogue star flying by the neighborhood, or a scattering effect created by a giant planet migration, none of those theories seem to fit the bill as well as Planet Nine. “At the moment, Planet Nine seems like the most likely culprit to me,” says Becker.

In addition, “this is the first discovery of a Kuiper belt object drawn from a population that was not already mapped out before our formulation of the Planet Nine hypothesis,” says Konstantin Batygin, a planetary scientist at Caltech who has led the investigation of Planet Nine in partnership with Brown. “Our theoretical models predict the existence of exactly this type of inclined orbit in the distant Kuiper belt, and seeing this prediction materialize into observational reality is extremely satisfying.”

Nevertheless, both Brown and Batygin emphasize the new discovery doesn’t do much in helping astronomers actually find Planet Nine. “We now know of so many objects influenced by Planet Nine, that adding a single extra one doesn’t significantly change our view,” says Brown. “Finding a few dozen more would be very helpful though!”

Nor is it certain BP519 even has anything to do with a new planet. “The only totally convincing evidence,” says Becker, “will be a direct detection of Planet Nine.” Something’s got the Kuiper belt’s rocks off, and there’s a scramble to find it.

Humans Are Better At Noticing Snakes Than We Are At Seeing Spiders

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POPULAR SCIENCE)

 

Humans Are Better At Noticing Snakes Than We Are At Seeing Spiders

Snake-grass

A snake in the grass.

Snakes get a bad rap, but we humans probably have them to thank — at least in part — for our superb vision.

A crafty serpent supposedly tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, causing the ruination of humankind; today, ophidiophobia is one of the most common fears of animals. But these aversions are rooted in evolution. Snakes really are dangerous, and have been throughout the evolution of primates — so we’re primed to be on the lookout for them, according to something called Snake Detection Theory.

A new study published in December put this theory to the test, comparing humans’ snake detection capabilities with our spider-sensing capabilities. It turns out people are remarkably good at noticing snakes, even when it’s hard for us to focus attention — like when snakes are camouflaged or when we only get a brief glimpse of them.

To study this natural snake-seeing power, Portuguese and Swedish scientists went back to Charles Darwin, who in 1872 published a self-experiment on snake fear. He recounted how he stood in front of a window at a zoo and stared at a puff adder, a poisonous viper from western Africa, vowing to himself that he would not recoil when the snake tried to strike.

“As soon as the blow was struck, my resolution went for nothing, and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity,” Darwin wrote. Snake fear is a natural reaction.

As the authors of this new study point out, more people die from snake bites every year than die from tropical diseases, including dengue fever, cholera, leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis, Japanese encephalitis, and Chagas’ disease. That’s according to a 2010 study in the Lancet. This equates to a significant evolutionary pressure, according to Snake Detection Theory. People who are good at noticing snakes would be less likely to be surprised and bitten, and more likely to survive to pass on their genes. So the need to detect serpents became a major driver of primate vision and even brain evolution, the theory goes.

But do snakes really take precedence over other “scary” animals? Psychological tests show that people are also sensitive to spiders, for instance, and rate them as “highly frightening.” They’re not as deadly as snakes, though — and they eat insects, not mammals. Still, the general human distaste for arachnids makes them a good comparison for snake sensing, according to study author Sandra Soares and colleagues.

They showed 205 volunteers a series of pictures, which contained images of snakes, spiders, mushrooms, flowers and fruits. The subjects had to press different button if the snakes or spiders were present or not. In a series of time trials, volunteers were more likely to notice the snakes than other targets, and they were more likely to accurately detect snakes than anything else, the researchers found.

The same was true when the researchers tested the volunteers’ peripheral vision: “Snakes were more efficiently detected than spiders and spiders were more efficiently detected than mushrooms,” the authors write. And when they tried to distract the viewers with other images, they were able to direct attention away from the spiders, but not the snakes.

In all, snakes got the most attention and got it the fastest, the authors say. That’s consistent with the basics of Snake Detection Theory.

“Our data provide new perspectives on the potentially unique role of snakes as agents likely to have shaped central aspects of primate evolution, including what has been regarded a hallmark of African apes, our superb vision,” the authors write.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

Citation: Soares SC, Lindström B, Esteves F, Öhman A (2014) The Hidden Snake in the Grass: Superior Detection of Snakes in Challenging Attentional Conditions. PLoS ONE 9(12): e114724. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114724.

Special forces are getting a stealth motorcycle that’s silent and deadly

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POPULAR SCIENCE)

 

Special forces are getting a stealth motorcycle that’s silent and deadly

Here comes the dirt bike, beware of the dirt bike.

SilentHawk stealth motorcycle

The SilentHawk can also run on jet fuel.

Logos Technologies

A dirt bike is a tool for getting a person to a place they shouldn’t be. Lightweight, made for rough terrain, and fast, motorcycles allow special forces to slip through woods, navigate narrow canyons, sneak through alleyways, or hurtle down footpaths. There’s only one problem: dirt bikes are really, really loud, so any secrecy gained by using a bike is lost to the engine’s roar. Which is why DARPA, the Pentagon’s future projects wing, is funding the development of a versatile electric dirt bike, so that special forces can have as silent a ride as possible on two powered wheels. The bike is called “SilentHawk,” and after receiving the first prototype, DARPA liked to so much they asked for two more.

SilentHawk is a collaboration between Logos Technologies, which makes military tools like drones and sensors, and Alta Motors, which makes electric dirt bikes. Creating a silent motorcycle meant starting from an electric bike. As designed, one modification of the SilentHawk uses a hybrid engine, so it can run on gas most of the time, and on electricity when it needs to be quiet. And it’s not limited to gas: It’s can run on diesel, as well as JP5 and JP8 jet fuels, so that the special forces using it in the field can power it with whatever fuel they might encounter. When running on fuel, the SilentHawk recharges its own batteries and any electronic devices the troops might have, like radios, GPS receivers, or tablets.

SilentHawk

SILENTHAWK

The SilentHawk motorcycle has an expected top speed of 80 mph, on either electric or hybrid power.

Logos Technologies

“Because they’re motorcycles and they’re relatively small, you can put several of these in the back of a V-22 and they could be dropped off somewhere,” said Doug Rombough, VP of Business Development for Logos Technologies. “They could go 50 miles, and when they get within 10 miles of an objective, they could shut off that multi-fuel engine, and go all-electric—the only noise [they] will produce at that point will be the noise of the tires on the surface and or the chain of the motorcycle.”

Running on fuel with the generator activated, the bike is about 75 decibels, or the sound of a garbage disposal. Switched to all-electric, SilentHawk lead engineer Alex Dzwill says it produces less than 55 decibels, or about the sound of normal conversation. Is it possible to make it quieter?

“Literally the loudest thing is the chain, and it’s possible for us to outfit a belt, though there’s a whole host of reasons for why you wouldn’t want a belt on a dirt bike,” said Dzwill. “If you get a rock in there, it’s very likely that you’ll rip the belt up, but if you’re in a sandy location like the desert, it’s possible you could use a belt and be fine.”

So 55 decibels may be as quiet as a dirt bike gets. Competition dirt bikes are regulated to stay under 113 decibels, so compared to the roaring engines that normally come with such vehicles, the SilentHawk represents a world of improvement.

SilentHawk motorcycle

SILENTHAWK MOTORCYCLE

SilentHawk

Logos Technologies

The bike is so quiet it even surprised its designer. Dzwill recalls a testing session in the woods where a rider was able to sneak up on him undetected. “He just popped up behind us, like the sound of us walking was enough to completely hide the sound of the motorcycle approaching behind us.” As a comparison, they were able to hear a traditional gas-powered dirtbike from almost a mile away.

There are no other stealth features for the SilentHawk other than its quiet engine, but that’s still probably enough for the silent professionals that may take it into battle. Traveling undetected is a tremendous advantage, provided the bike itself doesn’t end up a encumbrance. Which nods to one of DARPA’s goals in asking for new prototypes: reducing the weight, while retaining all the added functionality.

Off the shelf, an Alta Motors electric motorcycle weighs 270 pounds. With everything added to the first prototype, including two-wheel drive, the hybrid engine, and the control system, the total weight is 350 pounds. To get that heft back down, Logos is going to need to rework part of the hybrid engine. Originally built for the Parahawk unmanned aerial vehicle program, the engine is liquid-cooled. A new air-cooled engine could do-away with the radiator and shed pounds in the process.

And to provide flexibility as well as lightening the load of the bike, SilentHawk is somewhat modular. One kit will provide auxiliary power, a user interface, and equipment storage. Another one will extend the range of the bike. Both kits can work with the hybrid engine, and the seat with generator attached can be swapped out for a standard seat. (The generator can work even if the bike isn’t moving, too). The end goal is something flexible for lots of needs, which can be adapted in the field.

“You can transfer a hybrid power motorcycle back to an all-electric motorcycle, in about 30 minutes, maybe an hour if you’re not experienced at doing it,” said Rombough, “You could leave that in the environment, go back and forth if you want a slightly more nimble motorcycle for your upcoming mission.”

The soon-to-be-signed follow-on contract with DARPA will produce these new prototypes within a year. If DARPA likes what it sees, the next stage would be more of a production model, and then after that it’s possible special forces could get a brand-new bike for moving undetected wherever they may need to go. Just don’t expect them to make a big noise about it.

Astronomers just discovered a super massive black hole from the dawn of the universe

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POPULAR SCIENCE)

 

Astronomers just discovered a supermassive black hole from the dawn of the universe

And it’s much bigger than we expected.

black hole and quasar

An artist’s image of a black hole with an accretion disk and a quasar shooting away from it.

Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science

There was a bang. A big one. It was the beginning of everything, but for several hundred million years, all was darkness. Then, lights started flickering to life, stars and gases and galaxies all coming online.

One of the brightest lights during that dawn had a dark and hungry hole at its heart. More massive than 800 million suns, the black hole existed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was still an infant.


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Researchers, including Eduardo Bañados, reported the existence of the black hole and its accompanying bright quasar in a paper in Nature this week. The astronomers were looking for evidence of black holes in these early days of the universe, but they were still surprised at the sheer size of this one, named J1342+0928.

Black holes are points in the universe where gravity is so intense that nothing can escape. Not rocks, not gas, not even light. Near large black holes, surrounding material swirls around to form something called an accretion disk. Material in the disk spins at thousands of miles per second, heating up as it moves and slams into other bits of dusts and gas, all riding the same frantic carousel toward doom.

The material itself spins down into the black hole, never to be seen again, but its jostling releases energy that heads out into the universe in the form of immensely bright heat and light. That light made the quasar that Bañados and his co-authors were able to detect, which they used to estimate J1342+0928’s surprising mass.

Bañados says that a typical black hole, forming as a star collapses, might have the mass of 50 to 100 suns. “If you make it grow, feed it material like gas from its surroundings and let it grow for 690 million years, you wouldn’t be able to reach the size of this supermassive black hole,” Bañados says.

To figure out how this black hole could have gotten so large so quickly, observational astronomers like Bañados must team up with theoretical astronomers and astrophysicists. In the process, they’re also looking into ever-so-slightly broader questions, like the evolution of everything. “This object is so distant and so luminous that it provides a laboratory to study the early universe,” Bañados says.

Bañados has discovered about half of the most distant quasars on record, but this one—while not the most massive—is the furthest of them all. Because light takes time to travel, the more distant an object is, the earlier back in history we’re peering when we look at it. So this object comes from earlier in the universe’s lifespan than any of the others scientists have observed.

“This record is nice, but we’re not doing this for the record,” Bañados says. “This is so mature that I would be very surprised if this is the first quasar ever formed. I hope we or someone else will break this record soon.”

This particular quasar is so bright that it outshines the galaxy where it’s located—it’s 1000 times more luminous. And it’s not like that galaxy is a slouch either, even though the quasar at its heart drowns it out in both the optical and ultraviolet wavelengths of light. Fortunately, if you look at the galaxy in longer wavelengths, you can start to see some details. Bañados is a co-author on another paper that came out this week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters that focuses on the galaxy around the black hole. They the galaxy was positively choked with interstellar dust, producing somewhere around 100 new solar masses (the mass of our star) per year. Our galaxy only makes about one solar mass per year.

They were also able to detect something about the neighborhood of space around the black hole, finding that about half of the area had un-ionized hydrogen (which would have blocked out light, leading to those first few hundreds of millions of years of darkness in the universe) and half had ionized hydrogen, indicating that this black hole could have existed at the time when the universe switched from being dominated by the former to the latter.

“How this happened and when this happened have fundamental implications for the evolution of the universe later on,” Bañados says. “But we need to find and keep searching for more objects even further away and try to repeat that experiment.”

Luckily, there are now more opportunities to look into those universal origins. In 2018, Bañados and other researchers around the world will use a variety of telescopes to explore this object more thoroughly and look for others in the night sky.

“We’re a very fortunate generation,” Bañados says. “We’re the first human beings to have the technology to study and characterize in detail some of the first galaxies and black holes that formed in the universe. If that’s not fascinating, I don’t know what is.”

A Woman Had Stomach Pains. Doctors Discovered It Was Something She Swallowed–A Decade Ago

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

 

A woman had stomach pains. Doctors discovered it was something she swallowed — a decade ago.

 August 8

(iStock)

Doctors at a hospital in Australia were bewildered when a 30-year-old woman showed up with intense stomach pains.

Her heart rate was faster than normal, and the membrane lining her abdominal wall was inflamed, one of her doctors wrote in a medical article published Monday by BMJ Case Reports. But her vital signs, laboratory tests, ultrasound and a scan of her liver, gallbladder and bile ducts were all normal.

The woman also had not had surgery recently, which eliminated the possibility that a surgeon accidentally left a foreign object inside  her, according to Popular Science. But a CT scan revealed that a thin, metallic wire was lodged in her intestines.

And it had been there for at least a decade.

That object, a little more than 2½ inches long, was a dental brace wire that the woman used to wear, according to her doctors. It caused her intestine “to twist around on itself — a condition known as volvulus,” according to a news release from BMJ Case Reports, an online collection of articles and case reports submitted by health-care professionals and researchers.

The woman told doctors that she wore braces 10 years ago and has had them removed since. She also said she does not remember ingesting the wire or losing part of her braces, wrote Talia Shepherd, one of the doctors who treated the woman at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Nedlands in Western Australia.

A thin metallic wire is lodged in a woman’s intestines. (BMJ Case Reports)

“The case is so unique is because normally if you swallow something like that, it presents earlier,” Shepherd told Popular Science.

More typically, people unknowingly ingest things like fish bones instead of metallic objects, Shepherd said. And they usually realize it shortly after. In the woman’s case, she didn’t experience any pain until recently.

“We were all a bit dumbfounded,” Shepherd told the magazine. “It wasn’t what I was expecting to find at all.”

Accidentally ingesting foreign objects is not unheard of.

Last May, Live Science published a list of “11 Weird Things People Have Swallowed.” It includes small and pointed objects like a bobby pin and a dental instrument, as well as larger ones like a cellphone, a pen, a lighter and a toothbrush.

In a 2015 medical case from Saudi Arabia, doctors examining an X-Ray of a 16-month-old boy’s esophagus came face-to-face with an image of a smiling SpongeBob SquarePants. Ghofran Ageely, a radiology resident at King Abdulaziz University Hospital in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, told Live Science that the toddler had swallowed his older sister’s SpongeBob pendant.

Ageely said she initially thought it was a pin or a hair accessory because an X-ray of the child’s body from the side showed a thin object in his esophagus. She was shocked after looking at the frontal view.

“‘ SpongeBob,’ I screamed!!!” Ageely told Live Science in an email. “I was amazed by the visible details. You can see the freckles, shoes and fingers … AMAZING.”

Last May, a Texas mother warned other parents after her daughter accidentally swallowed a fidget spinner. They were in a car when she noticed her daughter choking, Kelly Rose Joniec wrote on her Facebook page, according to USA Today.

recent report by a consumer watchdog group warned parents of the dangers of the popular toy, which it said has “the potential to lead to tragic or deadly consequences.”

As for the woman from Australia, Shepherd said she recovered well.

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Snakes can actually hunt in packs

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POPULAR SCIENCE)

Snakes can actually hunt in packs

But you should only be scared if you live in a cave in Cuba.

Cuban boa

Scary enough on its own.

The world is a scary place without knowing that snakes hunt in packs. But one biologist in Cuba just couldn’t leave well enough alone, so he proved for the first time ever that reptiles don’t just hunt near each other, they hunt with each other.

Snakes are not social creatures. They don’t live in packs like wolves or chatter to each other like prairie dogs. They join forces for just one thing: to kill. Snakes have long been known to hunt in groupings, it just wasn’t clear how coordinated these efforts were. It makes sense that they would all have a similar sense of where the best spot to hunt is, so many snakes gathering in one area doesn’t necessarily mean they’re coordinating. To prove that, you’d have to prove that the snakes were actually taking each other into account—that if boa #2 shows up and sees boa #1, he’s more likely to stick near that first snake, because being together helps them. And ideally, you would also prove that when snakes hunt together, they’re more successful.

Of course, to do that for the Cuban boa, you have to hang out in a cave all night watching snakes dangle from the ceiling eating bats. And that’s exactly what Vladimir Dinets, an assistant professor at University of Tennessee, decided to do. He published his results in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition. Desembarco del Granma National Park in eastern Cuba has one cave in particular where Dinets set up shop. Nine boas lived inside, which he could apparently tell apart by their markings because he is a snake whisperer, and for eight consecutive days he watched them hunt. The boas would slither up the walls at sunset and just before dawn to catch bats, hanging upside down from the ceiling of the passage that connected the roosting chamber to the exit where their leathery prey would have to pass by.

Keep in mind that all this goes down in almost complete darkness. They’re in a national park with little light pollution, inside a cave, at fairly dark times of the day. Dinets sat in a dark cave filled with snakes and bats and calmly recorded each and every movement that the snakes made. He divided up the passage areas into sections, so he could later monitor how close the snakes were to each other, and noted every time a new snake joined the fray. And then each and every time a snake caught a bat, he recorded that too. Not just the fact that a snake caught a bat, but which snake caught a bat.

The boas themselves aren’t bothered by the dark because they hunt by touch. When bats brush against them, the snakes strike. Dinets wasn’t bothered because he seems to be some kind of superhuman.

Boas who hunted alone were in the very tiny minority, and it’s no wonder—they were much worse at catching bats. With three snakes present, each boa caught an average of one bat per snake and usually did it in under seven minutes (the boas left once they caught a bat, so the maximum batting average was one). If the snake was alone, that average dropped to 0.33 and it took them about 19 minutes to even get the bats they managed to get. Some lone boas actually gave up and went home. So when the boas entered the passage and encountered other snakes, they nearly always chose to set up camp alongside each other. Together they could form a kind of barrier, such that bats had a harder time avoiding the boas.

Unlike wolves, the boas didn’t otherwise hang out together. They’re solitary creatures. Wolves hunt together for primarily social reasons—multiple studies have shown that they don’t necessarily get more food by sticking with a pack. Snakes hunt together for the strategy. How cold-blooded of them.

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