Thursday, 8 July 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Magnetic Nanoparticles Can Remotely Control Worms

Posted: 07 Jul 2010 02:19 PM PDT

Using magnetic nanoparticles, scientists have found a way to remotely control neurons and affect animal behavior.

The nanoparticles, which are targeted to attach to cell membranes, heat up when exposed to a magnetic field. Researchers have demonstrated that the heat can open calcium ion channels in cells, activate neurons and even cause C. elegans worms to recoil, according to a paper released in Nature Nanotechnology June 27.

"This research will help us unravel the signaling networks that control animal behavior," physicist Arnd Pralle of the University of Buffalo, co-author of the study, said in a press release July 6.

The work could also have applications in cancer treatments and diabetes therapies. If the nanoparticles can be targeted to specific proteins or cells, it may be possible to kill cancer cells by overheating the cell wall, or to stimulate the pancreatic cells to release insulin. The method only affects cell walls, so patients wouldn't actually feel the heat.

"It would take forever to heat up [a] whole cell since it is cooled so well by all the water around it," Pralle said.

One of the major questions for using the technique in human applications is where the heat-sensitive ion channels are in the body. In the C. elegans worms, the researchers were able to target known ion channels that opened up at 93 degrees Fahrenheit, which caused the recoil response.

In humans, similar ion channels in fingers open up at 122 degrees Fahrenheit, which is what causes our fingers to jump back when we touch something too hot, but little is known about other places where this happens in the body.

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Stone Age Europeans Get Older and Colder

Posted: 07 Jul 2010 01:50 PM PDT

Stone tools and animal remains found on England's coast suggest that humans arrived in northern Europe at least 150,000 years earlier than was previously thought.

Maybe the toolmakers stayed. Maybe they were part of successive migrations that went north during Ice Age thaws, then retreated south when the cold came back.

Either way, "this has significant implications for our understanding of early human behavior, adaptation and survival, as well as the tempo and mode of colonization after their first dispersal out of Africa," wrote a team of researchers from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project in the July 7 Nature.

The researchers describe their excavation of a site in Happisburgh, a coastal town that sits on what was once an estuary of the River Thames.

Dozens of stone tools were found in sediments deposited when the polarity of Earth's magnetic field pointed south rather than north, a phase ending 780,000 years ago. No human bones were found, but animal fossils include the tooth of a mammoth species that disappeared 800,000 years ago, and bones of red deer that went extinct a million years ago. Pollen grains and plant fossils suggest a landscape in transition from temperate to Ice Age, which happened 950,000 years ago and again 840,000 years ago.

Until recently, it was thought that early humans stayed south after leaving Africa. The only human remains dating from around that time in Europe were found in Spain. But tentative evidence of sparse settlement in England, as well as in Germany and France, has raised the possibility of earlier northward expansion.

The latest findings reinforce that possiblity, move the dates back, and underscore just how resilient and resourceful early humans were.

"What I find amazing is that these early humans were pretty tough. They survived winters that were probably 5 degrees Fahrenheit colder than present," said Australian National University anthropologist Andrew Roberts, who wrote a commentary accompanying the findings. "I'd want a heated house — not a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This tells us that these early humans were better adapted to cold than we thought."

It's not known from the tools and fossils whether the cold-hardy settlers had clothing, shelters or even fire. It's also not clear whether the remains represent a population that had migrated during a warmer time, or braved the cold in moving north.

Given those caveats, "I think the paper gives a sound provisional idea to test. The idea of investigating the limits of early human adaptability is now a vital dimension of paleoanthropological research," said Rick Potts, curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"Knowing where we came from and how we fit in to the wider picture is fundamental to our existence," said Roberts. "If it was me, I would have stayed in the Mediterranean."

Images: 1) Artist's rendition of Happisburgh, about 900,000 years ago./John Sibbick, AHOB. 2) Stone hammer flakes, along with a fossilized pine cone (i) and mammoth tooth (j).

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Citation: "Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe." By Simon A. Parfitt, Nick M. Ashton, Simon G. Lewis, Richard L. Abel, G. Russell Coope, Mike H. Field, Rowena Gale, Peter G. Hoare, Nigel R. Larkin, Mark D. Lewis, Vassil Karloukovski, Barbara A. Maher, Sylvia M. Peglar, Richard C. Preece, John E. Whittaker & Chris B. Stringer. Nature, Vol. 466, No. 7303, July 8, 2010.

"Early human northerners." By Andrew P. Roberts and Rainer GrĂ¼n. Nature, Vol. 466, No. 7303, July 8, 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

Leafy Green Coherence: Quantum Physics Fuels Photosynthesis

Posted: 07 Jul 2010 10:04 AM PDT

Not so long ago, quantum physics at room temperature was found mostly in classroom discussions or over science-geek cocktails. But the mind-bending mechanics seems to be present in many everyday phenomena — including photosynthesis, the driving force behind life's harvest of solar energy.

A process called coherence allows photon energy to find the shortest path through a leaf's surface by taking all possible paths simultaneously, then "picking" the best one. The resulting energy transfer is almost perfectly efficient.

"Coherence is well-known in energy transfer in nonbiological systems," said Elad Harel, a University of Chicago physicist. "The question was whether biological systems take advantage of this as well."

In a paper published July 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, physicists led by the University of Chicago's Greg Engels describe coherence in the FMO protein complex. A wildly complicated tangle of molecules, the FMO complex directs energy from photon-sensitive "antenna" proteins on a photosynthetic bacterium's surface to internal, charge-converting proteins.

To measure coherence, the researchers charged antennae with brief laser pulses, then measured fluctuations in another laser beam that shone through the FMO complex. Fluctuations corresponded to energy passing from the antennae through the complex's molecules.

Distant molecules quivered in tandem — a phenomenon possible only through coherence, in which energy exists in multiple, linked states simultaneously. Once energy has explored the possible routes through the FMO complex and found the most efficient one, it collapses back into a single state.

The findings dovetail with research by University of Toronto biophysicist Greg Scholes, who found coherence in the photosynthesis of a common marine algae. Scholes showed indisputably that coherence — previously observed only in ultracold temperatures in nonbiological systems — could happen in biology, at room temperature. Because the FMO complex is used as a model system for plant photosynthesis, Engels' findings suggest that coherence is everywhere in the leafy green world.

Researchers hope these findings will guide the design of solar panels that are as efficient as nature's, said Harel. In the meantime, scientists will continue looking for more evidence of quantum biology, which has been also been posited in the structure of DNA and operations of the mind.

"I'd be surprised" if quantum effects are not ubiquitous in biology, said Harel. "To have a tool at your disposal, and not use it, is not a law of biology."

Images: 1) Flickr/Linda Kenney. 2) The FMO complex/Wikimedia Commons. 3) Coherence dephasing from extremely low to above-freezing temperatures./PNAS.

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Citation: "Long-lived quantum coherence in photosynthetic complexes at physiological temperature." By Gitt Panitchayangkoon, Dugan Hayes, Kelly A. Fransted, Justin R. Caram, Elad Harel, Jianzhong Wen, Robert E. Blankenship, Gregory S. Engel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 28, July 6, 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

‘Horrendously Intense’ Laser Shrinks the Proton

Posted: 07 Jul 2010 10:00 AM PDT

New laser-assisted measurements find that the fundamental building block of matter, the proton, is about 4 percent smaller than previously thought. The new size could poke holes in one of the pillars of the standard model of particle physics.

"It's a big deal," commented physicist Jeff Flowers of the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K., who was not involved in the new work. "It's given us a glimpse of a chance that there's a real theoretical leap forward to be made."

The potentially threatened theory, called quantum electrodynamics or QED, describes how charged particles interact with light. Since the late 1940s, the theory has been wildly successful at predicting where electrons in atoms will spend most of their time. The calculations are especially accurate for the simplest atom, hydrogen, which consists of just one proton and one electron.

But the distance between the electron and the proton depends slightly on the proton's size, similar to how a planet's distance from its star depends on the star's mass. In the last decade, the accuracy of hydrogen studies and the precision of theoretical predictions have gotten so good that physicists can no longer ignore the proton's girth.

"If you want to compare theory and experiments, you need to know the charge radius of the proton," said physicist Randolf Pohl of the Max-Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Germany, a coauthor of the new study. The results appear in the July 8 issue of Nature.

To get the most accurate measurement yet, Pohl and a huge international group of collaborators built an exotic form of hydrogen and blasted it with intense laser light to see how the electrons reacted.

Before Pohl's study, the most accurate value for the proton's radius — about 0.8768 femtometers, or less than a quadrillionth of a meter — came from studies of ordinary hydrogen.

According to quantum mechanics, an electron can orbit only at certain specific distances, called energy levels, from its proton. The electron can jump up to a higher energy level if a particle of light hits it, or drop down to a lower one if it lets some light go. Physicists measure the energy of the absorbed or released light to determine how far one energy level is from another, and use calculations based on quantum electrodynamics to transform that energy difference into a number for the size of the proton.

Instead of electrons, Pohl's group used muons, negatively charged particles about 200 times heavier than electrons. Because of their extra bulk, muons orbit closer to the proton, and their energy levels are more sensitive to the proton's size.

The team created hundreds of muons per second and rammed them into a diffuse hydrogen gas using the world's strongest muon source, a powerful particle accelerator at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland. The muons smacked electrons out of the hydrogen, and got caught in orbit around the leftover proton.

Only 1 percent of the "muonic hydrogen" created this way was useful, Pohl said. These atoms live for just two microseconds. Because there are so few and their lives are so short, the team had to use a "horrendously intense laser" to probe their energy levels, Flowers said. As soon as the atoms formed, the laser zapped them with a precise amount of energy that the physicists could change over the course of the experiment. If the muons took in the right energy, they jumped up to a higher energy level, and almost immediately emitted an X-ray as they decayed back down.

The physicists looked for an excess of X-rays after the laser flashed to figure out which energy made the muons change levels. Then they used equations similar to those used in earlier hydrogen experiments to calculate the proton radius. The measurement was 10 times more accurate than had ever been achieved before.

"With muonic hydrogen, the size of the uncertainty is drastically smaller," said Flowers. "This new method is a much better method. The trouble is, they don't give you the same answer."

The new value for the proton's radius is 0.84184 femtometers, way too far from the previous value to be a fluke.

There are three possible explanations for the difference. First, one of the experiments could have goofed. Pohl is confident that his group's experiment is sound.

"Our experiment is elegant and simple," he said. "Accuracy is easy to achieve. That's why we firmly believe that our measurement is not wrong."

Alternatively, the theoretical equation used to derive the radius from the data may have had an error. This is what Pohl suspects.

"As experimentalists, we think something is wrong with theory. But the theorists claim firmly that it's not their fault," he said laughingly. "Time will tell us what is the real reason."

The most exciting possibility is that the experiment picked up on some previously unknown physical effects or undiscovered particles, like what high-energy physics experiments like the Large Hadron Collider are searching for.

"If this holds up, in the sense that further experiments find the same thing, then it's a hint that there's some extra terms in the interaction of the atom and its environment," Flowers said. "They may be new particles," he added, though he cautioned that it's too early to do more than speculate. "At the moment, it's anybody's guess."

Image: CREMA collaboration/PSI

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Predicting the Next Deadly Manhole Explosion

Posted: 07 Jul 2010 09:42 AM PDT

Every so often in New York City, a disk of cast iron weighing up to 300 pounds will burst out of the street and fly as high as several stories before clattering back to the blacktop. Flames, smoke or both may issue from the breach, as if somebody had pulled hell's own pop-top.

sciencenewsManhole explosions aren't just spectacular; they're dangerous. As one firefighter observed after a manhole exploded near Times Square in May: "It's not Disneyland, people. Get the hell out of the way."

Ever since Thomas Edison fired up the city's commercial electric grid in 1882, New Yorkers have had to contend with the random hazards of smoking, flaming and exploding manholes. Many of the blasts result from decrepit wiring, which can lead to sparks. Throw in a bit of gas and a confined space and, like a combustion engine, the blast can move metal. Until recently, there was no way of knowing where or when the next outburst would occur; repairs commenced only after a manhole had growled.

But in 2004 Con Edison began a proactive inspection program, with the goal of finding the places in New York's snaking network of electrical cable where trouble is most likely to strike.

The company also called upon a team of Columbia University researchers for help in predicting which of New York City's manholes might be the next to blow. Led by Cynthia Rudin, now at MIT, the scientists developed an algorithm that directs a computer to identify subterranean trouble spots. Now a report in the July issue of Machine Learning suggests the researchers are winning the battle of machine versus manhole.

"To us it was like solving an ancient puzzle, but one that we weren't sure we were going to crack, and one that nobody had solved before," Rudin says.

Rudin and her team tackled Manhattan first. Beneath the borough's streets and avenues lies 21,000 miles of cable, enough to girdle more than three-quarters of the Earth.

The researchers set out to rank the manholes of Manhattan by vulnerability to serious events, such as fires and explosions. They had piles of historical data: Con Edison has records on its miles of cable dating back to the 1880s. The team also had 10 years worth of "trouble tickets" — more than 61,000 reports typed by dispatchers as they directed crews in the field.

Some tickets recorded relevant past events such as fires, explosions, smoking manholes or flickering lights. There was also a huge amount of irrelevant information, says Rudin: "Parking information for the Con Ed vehicle, or the fact that there is a customer that has a language problem, or other things like that." Order had to be created from confusion, she says.

Knowing the past doesn't necessarily mean you can predict the future, and Rudin wasn't sure it could be done. Serious manhole events are rare — only a few hundred occur each year even though there are 51,000-odd manhole and service boxes in Manhattan.

"Finding a pattern when something is very rare is very hard," says computer scientist Gary Weiss of Fordham University in the New York City. "If you only have a few examples, there are so many patterns that can fit those few examples … you can't really tell the difference between a pattern that is meaningful and one that is coincidental."

The algorithm's job was to "learn" from the past records and find meaningful patterns. Then it could predict the likelihood that a particular manhole with particular characteristics would have a future flare-up.

The researchers realized they had to take the long view. "We were not getting anywhere by trying to predict events in the short term," says Rudin. They developed what they call a hot-spot theory. The team discovered that manholes with larger cables — and so a larger amount of insulation subject to decay and thus to sparking — turned out to be more vulnerable to serious events.

Con Edison blind-tested the team's model by withholding information on a recent set of fires and explosions. The top 2 percent of manholes ranked as vulnerable by the algorithm included 11 percent of the manholes that had recently had a fire or explosion, Rudin notes.

Tweaking and adding more data has improved the model further, says Rudin, and Con Edison is now using it to help prioritize inspection and repairs on the grid. The team has just completed rankings for manholes in Brooklyn and the Bronx. And Rudin has plans to return to Manhattan's grid, armed with the most recent inspection and repair data.

"I never really felt like a New Yorker, even though I lived there for several years," says Rudin. "But contributing to the basic infrastructure of the city really helped somehow."

Image: New York firefighters and ConEdison workers flood an open manhole with water
at the scene of a reported explosion on Broadway and Wall Street in New York
Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007. / AP Photo/Edouard H.R. Gluck.

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Home Team Wins May Influence Elections

Posted: 06 Jul 2010 02:31 PM PDT

Whether politicians win or lose may come down to how local athletes play the game. When local football and basketball teams were victorious, voters were more pleased with elected officials, a study appearing online July 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds. The capricious link between sports teams and politicians' performance is a clear example of how irrelevant events can shape important judgments.

The idea that emotions from unrelated events spill over into other areas isn't new, says study co-author Neil Malhotra of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Lab studies have found that in the afterglow of a free gift, people rate their cars and televisions more highly, for instance.

"There is a lot of evidence of the predictable irrationality of human beings," Malhotra says. "The question is, does this stuff actually happen in the real world?"

So Malhotra and his colleagues tallied up the wins and losses of 62 Division I college football teams from 1964 through 2008 and found how voters in each team's home county behaved. The study excluded the University of Connecticut and University of South Florida, which are relative newbies to Division I status, and excluded the University of Southern California and UCLA because they share Los Angeles county.

A local football team's win in the 10 days before an election garnered the incumbent senator, governor or president (or his or her political party) an extra 1.61 percentage points of the vote, the researchers found. They found no effect for games played earlier than two weeks before the election, suggesting that the game must be fresh in the voter's mind to have an effect.

The find is "a pretty arresting result," Malhotra says. The extra points for incumbents from counties with winning teams means that voters are basing their judgments on "their mood and feelings rather than analyzing the data," he says.

Political scientist Herb Weisberg of Ohio State University in Columbus says that while the study is statistically sound and based on interesting logic, it didn't adjust for the overall political leanings of a county. "They find that the vote in a county is 1 or 2 percent more favorable to the incumbent's party when a local team wins, but what if the whole state is 3 or 4 percent more favorable to the incumbent's party when that team wins?"

In a second analysis, the researchers surveyed over 3,000 people at three times during the 2009 NCAA college basketball tournament. Respondents were asked to name their favorite team and then were asked to rate the performance of President Obama. On average, people whose favorite teams had just won a March Madness game rated the president 2.3 percentage points higher than did those whose teams had recently lost.

The researchers also found that the importance of these irrelevant events was shattered when they were pointed out. When the respondents were explicitly told about the results of the basketball game before they were asked to judge the president's job performance, the effect disappeared completely, Malhotra and his colleagues found. "Making people more aware of these biases is how to counteract them," Malhotra says.

Pointing out subtle effects like these and learning how to eliminate them may ultimately help people process information in a more reasoned manner, Malhotra says. "Just because we're looking at college football doesn't mean [the research is] trivial."

The same principle at work in the new study could help explain other phenomena, too, Weisberg says. For instance, the results could explain why a good economy leads people to vote for the incumbent.

"But what are the limits of this logic?" Weisberg asks. "Should victories by pro football teams also affect voting in the area in which the team plays? What about victories by high school football teams? Would Obama have gone up in the public opinion polls if the U.S. had won the World Cup?"

Photo: Peter Morenus/University of Connecticut

Ocean Acidification Gives Young Fish a Death Wish

Posted: 06 Jul 2010 02:04 PM PDT

Changing ocean chemistry could turn some fish species into easy meals, with senses of smell so scrambled they're actually attracted to their predators.

Researchers discovered the potentially deadly problem through a series of experiments on common reef-dwelling fish that were raised in seawater with acidity levels resembling what's expected by the century's middle and end.

"Instead of avoiding the odor of a predator, they're attracted to it," said biologist Douglas Chivers of the University of Saskatchewan. "When you take them into the wild, their behavior has changed. We ended up with huge mortality."

When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, the concentration of hydrogen ions increases, making it more acidic. Global oceanic pH — the scale used to measure acids and bases — has changed by 0.1 in the last century. The number looks small, but in geological terms it's a massive change, and Earth's oceans are more acidic now than at any time in the last 650,000 years. Scientists say marine pH could change by another 0.3 by the year 2100.

Concerns about the effects of changing ocean acidity on animals has focused on weakening shells in corals, crustaceans and shellfish, but fish may also be affected. Chivers' findings, published July 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, build on earlier work showing acidified waters make it hard for clownfish to find home, a feat they accomplish by recognizing subtle olfactory cues in water.

In the latest study, the researchers raised clownfish and damselfish in the sort of water conditions expected by 2050 under current CO2 pollution rates, and those that could prevail by the century's end if those rates don't change. A control group was raised in current water acidity levels.

In an aquarium, clownfish from the control group instinctively fled from the scents of their natural predators. So did those in the mid-century group. But half the fish raised in end-of-century concentrations swam straight towards the scents. Had predators rather than scientists been waiting, they would have been eaten.

Damselfish were then raised in a similar set of conditions, and relocated to coral reefs in the wild. Once again, fish from the low- and mid-level acidity groups behaved normally, but those raised in higher levels were disoriented. The latter were between five and nine times more likely to die than the others.

In the future, the researchers plan to study ocean acidification's effects on other species. They also want to know what happens to whole populations over multiple generations. Will species be wiped out? Or can they adapt, with acidity-resistant fish breeding fast enough to replace those lost to olfactory disorientation?

"That's the million-dollar question," said Chivers. "We don't know yet. It's probably going to depend on how fast acidification happens."

Photo: Joshua Nguyen/Flickr

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Citation: "Replenishment of fish populations is threatened by ocean acidification," by Philip Munday, Danielle Dixson, Mark McCormick, Mark Meekan, Maud Ferrari, and Douglas Chivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 28, July 5, 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

10 Crazy-Looking New Deep-Sea Creatures

Posted: 06 Jul 2010 12:52 PM PDT

<< previous image | next image >>

Ten new possible species could change everything about the way we think about deep-sea life in the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of the creatures are so strange, it is hard to know which direction they swim or where their mouths are.

The images were captured by researchers from the University of Aberdeen during more than 300 hours of diving with a remotely operated vehicle between 2,300 feet and 12,000 feet deep along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the largest mountain range on Earth, which runs down the center of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and Africa on the east and the Americas on the west.

Three of the species, which look like colorful wavy worms, belong to a group of creatures called Enteropneust, which is believed to be the evolutionary link between backbone and invertebrate animals. Previously only a few specimens of the group, from the Pacific Ocean, were known to science.

"They have no eyes, no obvious sense organs or brain but there is a head end, tail end and the primitive body plan of backboned animals is established," said Monty Priede, one of the lead researchers on the project, part of the Census of Marine Life.

One of the most surprising observations by the researchers was how different the species are on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, just tens of miles apart. "[The two sides of the ridge are] mirror images of each other," Priede said. "but that is where the similarity ended."

"It seemed like we were in a scene from Alice Through the Looking Glass," Pried said. "This expedition has revolutionized our thinking about deep-sea life in the Atlantic Ocean. It shows that we cannot just study what lives around the edges of the ocean and ignore the vast array of animals living on the slopes and valleys in the middle of the ocean."

Captions courtesy University of Aberdeen


Deepsea Jellyfish

Trachymedusa: Feeds on plankton and small crustacea near the sea floor.

Image: David Shale

Hubble Captures Fireworks in the Starburst Cluster

Posted: 06 Jul 2010 09:05 AM PDT

This gorgeous star cluster doesn't need a holiday to set off fireworks. Officially called NGC 3603, the small community of young stars is located about 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina.

Ultraviolet radiation and violent stellar winds from the cluster's stars shoved away the cloud of gas and dust in which the stars formed, giving the Hubble Space Telescope's new Wide Field Camera 3 a clear view. Hubble captured this image in August 2009 and December 2009, just a few months after the new camera was installed, in both visible and infrared light. The image shows a sharper view of the stars than an earlier image taken with Hubble's NICMOS infrared camera in 2007, and traces sources of sulfur, hydrogen and iron.

Most of the stars in the cluster were born around the same time, but age differently depending on their masses. Clusters like NGC 3603 give astronomers a lab to study stars' life cycles in detail, as well as a window into the origin of massive star formation in the distant universe. NGC 3603's stars are among the most massive known. After they burn through their fuel, these stars will end their lives in spectacular supernova explosions.

Image: NASA

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Incredible New Microwave Map of the Entire Sky

Posted: 05 Jul 2010 02:47 PM PDT

The Planck satellite released its first microwave radiation map of the entire sky. The image is made from 10 months of data and will be followed by three more all-sky surveys by the end of the European Space Agency's mission in 2012.

Astronomers will use the data to study the early universe and how stars and galaxies form.

"This single image captures both our own cosmic backyard — the Milky Way galaxy that we live in — but also the subtle imprint of the Big Bang from which the whole universe emerged," David Parker of the U.K. Space Agency said in a press release July 5.

The Milky Way galaxy dominates the center of the image, the blue light is the dust in the galaxy and the red is hot gas. The yellow-spotted areas are the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, which the oldest light in the universe. It was emitted 400,000 years after the Big Bang and reveals information about how galaxies first began to form.

The mottled look of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation is the result of differences in temperature and density. The light from the Milky Way will be digitally removed from the image so that astronomers can study the most precise picture yet of the entire CMB. Planck records microwave radiation in nine different frequency bands, which will help scientists separate the light from the galaxy and the light from the early universe.

"Just looking at the pictures you can tell we're seeing new things about the structure of our galaxy," David Clements of Imperial College London said in a press release. "Once we've done that, and stripped away these foregrounds, then it's on to the Cosmic Microwave Background and the glow of the Big Bang itself!"

Image: ESA, LFI, HFI Consortia. Higher resolution version.

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