- Mafia’s Corpse Dissolving Claims Exaggerated
- Baby Exoplanets Photographed During Formation
- 3 Great Ways to Watch the Last Space Shuttle Missions
- Dust-Watching Satellite to Launch Friday
- Gorgeous Jeweled Beetle Reveals Its Tricks
- Video: Secrets of Swimming in Sand Revealed
Posted: 24 Feb 2011 09:50 AM PST
CHICAGO — Contrary to claims made by informants within the Sicilian Mafia, sulfuric acid will not dissolve a corpse in minutes, a new study finds. The research, reported February 23 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, was part of a wider effort to test claims about the mafia's "lupara bianca," or "white shotgun" murders, wherein the subject is known to be dead but a body is never found.
Experiments conducted on partial pig carcasses, a widely accepted stand-in for human bodies, showed that it takes days to melt flesh in sulfuric acid. Adding water to the acid speeds up the process, dissolving muscle and cartilage within 12 hours and turning bone to dust within two days, suggesting that the technique could render a corpse completely unrecognizable.
"But it is impossible that they completely destroyed a corpse with acid," said study coauthor Massimo Grillo of the University of Palermo in Italy.
Police found tanks of acid in a Palermo hideout known as the "chamber of death," where crime boss Filippo Marchese purportedly dissolved victims after torturing them in the early 1980s, said Filippo Cascino, another study coauthor at the University of Palermo.
Informants had described the disposal method, the researchers say, with statements like, "We put the people in acid. In 15, 20 minutes they were no more — they became a liquid."
The research suggests that the members of the crime clan were not as good at telling time as they were at ritual murder.
But "they are smarter than some Georgia criminals," said Michael Heninger, an associate medical examiner in Fulton County, where Atlanta is located. "People think they will destroy a body, but they'll do things that preserve it. These guys are more experienced," he said of the Palermo killings.
It isn't obvious whether the new research will translate into something usable for future investigations. "We constantly see cases that are weird," says Heninger. "I'm never going to see this exact case, but when you do see something weird like this, it gets you thinking about how you would figure it out."
Posted: 24 Feb 2011 09:21 AM PST
Infant planets have been spotted forming in the disk of gas and dust around their stars for the first time.
Four groups of astronomers caught three different stars transforming from lone bachelors with thick disks of material around their middles to proud parents of a growing family of gas giant planets.
The new observations directly show a companion orbiting in the disk around young star T Chamaeleontis (T Cha), the first time a potential planet has been seen mid-formation. The young stars LkCa15 and AB Auriga also have Saturn-like rings with gaps in the middle, indicating the presence of at least one planet.
"We think we're seeing the baby photos of a planetary system that is just forming, which in fact may be quite similar to our own solar system at a younger age," said astronomer Christian Thalmann of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, lead author of a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters describing LkCa 15. "But with a big 'may' there."
An infant star forms from a collapsing cloud of dust and gas and gathers a dense, flat disk of material that rotates with the star like a record.
The material in the disk will eventually clump up into nascent planets. Theoretical models of planet formation predicted that those protoplanets should suck up more gas and dust with their gravity, clearing a wide gap in the otherwise solid disk.
"If you see this disk with a gap, it's a pretty clear sign that you probably have a planet forming as you're watching," said astronomer Adam Kraus of the University of Hawaii, who observed the companion around T Cha, a 7-million-year-old sun-like star about 350 light-years from Earth.
Other snapshots of gaps in disks turned out to have been cleared by binary stars, not planets. Planets have been photographed in dust disks around their stars as well, but those planet systems were much more mature.
"This discovery is the first time that we've looked and seen something there causing a cleared region of the disk, but it's not just another star," Kraus said. "It looks like it's consistent with maybe being a brown dwarf or a planet."
Earlier observations of T Cha by Johan Olofsson of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and colleagues showed that the disk around it was split into two parts, a narrow ring about 12 million miles from the star and a second band starting about 680 million miles from the star. The gap between the two rings could have been formed by a growing planet.
To check, Kraus and an international group of colleagues observed T Cha with a suite of instruments called NaCo at the Very Large Telescope in Chile. They used a special technique called sparse aperture masking that helps clear up the distortions a star's light experiences as it travels through Earth's blurring atmosphere.
"The advantage of this method is that allows you to detect very faint objects very close to a very bright star," said astronomer Nuria Huélamo of the Centro de Astrobiología in Spain, lead author of the paper a paper to appear in Astronomy & Astrophysics reporting the new observations.
When the team looked in near-infrared wavelengths on a clear night in March 2010, they saw a bright object right in the gap. The object is about 620 million miles from the star, or 6.7 times the distance from the Earth to the sun.
Unfortunately, the object didn't show up in follow-up observations on a cloudier night in July. The object could have a disk of gas and dust of its own, perhaps precursors to rings like Saturn's, that smeared it out in the second observing run, the astronomers suggest.
"We still do not know if it is a planet or not," Huélamo said. The object could also be a brown dwarf, a giant ball of gas up to 80 times more massive than Jupiter but still too small to burn like a star.
"We need new observations to understand its nature," Huélamo said.
Thalmann, who was not involved in the T Cha study, thinks the object is probably not a planet.
"But I think the word 'planet' might be a bit overrated in the scientific community," he said. "If it turns out that it's possible to form such massive objects as a product of planet formation, that could have implications on what exactly is possible. I think that's pretty neat."
In a different study, published in the August 2010 Astrophysical Journal Letters, Thalmann and colleagues used the Subaru telescope in Hawaii to observe the young star LkCa 15. The star lies about 450 light-years from Earth and is nearly identical to the sun, but about a thousand times younger.
The images did not reveal planets directly, but they did get a good look at the inner edge of the gap in LkCa 15's disk. The gap is wide enough to fit our entire solar system inside.
"Our images are the first that really pierced the glare of the star close enough, at small enough separations and high enough contrasts, to image that sharp edge of the gap," Thalmann said.
The structure of the disk suggests there should be planets there, he said. The planets don't need to be observable to be there. Several infant planets smaller than Jupiter could be hiding in the dust.
"It's very tempting to think that since the star is also a sun-like star, we're looking at something that could have been a close relative of the sun at a much younger age," Thalmann said.
A group led by Jun Hashimoto of the National Observatory of Japan also used the Subaru telescope to observe the star AB Auriga, which is even younger than LkCa 15. The team saw nested rings that are tilted with respect to the star's equatorial plane. The disk is clumpy and asymmetric, which also suggests hidden infant planets.
"This is a very exciting discovery to make," Kraus said. "That starts telling you things like where should you start looking for the planets."
The astronomers all agree that they need to take more observations to figure out exactly what is happening in these hole-riddled dust disks. Current observing techniques may not be good enough to actually see the planets around LkCa 15 and AB Auriga.
"But we're always developing new technology, so this could change next year. It could change next month," Kraus said. "The technical side of the field is progressing very rapidly."
Images: 1) An artist's rendition of the large object in the disk around the star T Cha. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada 2) The bright edge of the disk around the star LkCa 15. Credit: MPIA (Christian Thalmann) & NAOJ
"Warm dust resolved in the cold disk around TCha with VLTI/AMBER." J. Olofsson, M. Benisty, J.-C. Augereau, C. Pinte, F. Ménard, E. Tatulli, J.-P. Berger, F. Malbet, B. Merín, E. F. van Dishoeck, S. Lacour, K. M. Pontoppidan, J.-L. Monin, J. M. Brown and G. A. Blake. Astronomy & Astrophysics, accepted.
"Imaging of a Transitional Disk Gap in Reflected Light: Indications of Planet Formation Around the Young Solar Analog LkCa 15." C. Thalmann et al. Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 718 No. 2, Aug. 1, 2010. DOI: 10.1088/2041-8205/718/2/L87
"Pre-transitional Disk Nature of the AB Aur Disk." M. Honda et al. Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 718 No. 2, Aug. 1, 2010. DOI: 10.1088/2041-8205/718/2/L199
Posted: 23 Feb 2011 02:08 PM PST
NASA's space shuttle Discovery is queued up for its final mission Thursday Feb. 24 at 4:50 p.m. Eastern time, but you don't need to race to the Space Coast to catch the action.
Thanks to the magic of the internet (and taxpayer dollars), you can watch Discovery and the two other final shuttle flights this year in high-definition, for free.
If space agency technobabble isn't your thing, worry not: A handful of space-obsessed videocasters rip the NASA TV feed and provide their own user-friendly live shows.
Below are three of the best internet streams able to cater to any flavor of space geek. To watch future space shuttle and other missions, bookmark this page and check NASA's TV schedule (PDF) and launch schedule.
Hosted by super-fans of space, Benjamin and Cariann Higginbotham, Spacevidcast is perhaps the most street-friendly source of live mission commentary available.
The duo reads and responds to chatroom banter during their coverage, making for an engaging, but sometimes noisy, experience. This year, Spacevidcast plans to take video call-in questions from readers using Vokle.
2. Spaceflight Now
When CNN gave veteran space journalist Miles O'Brien the boot in December 2008, he joined Spaceflight Now's webcasting team.
O'Brien brings high-profile guests onto the show to help with mission commentary, including former astronauts and NASA mission managers. Expect a mix of traditional journalism and humor geared toward space enthusiasts.
3. NASA TV
Since its inception, NASA has a long tradition of providing live mission commentary. Unfortunately, NASA TV first timers can find the government-sponsored feed a tough multimedia pill to swallow.
For purists who have learned the cryptic language associated with human spaceflight, however, it's the stream to watch.
Image: Space shuttle Discovery is lugged out to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on January 17, 1997. (NASA) [high-resolution version available]
Posted: 23 Feb 2011 11:51 AM PST
Updated: NASA has delayed Glory's launch to Feb. 25 at 2:09 am PST. This story was updated on Feb. 24, 2011 at 7 a.m. PST.
NASA will launch a new satellite designed to probe how the sun and the Earth's atmosphere conspire to shape Earth's climate early Friday morning.
The satellite, called Glory, will watch the sun and the Earth's atmosphere simultaneously to see how they interact. The six-foot-tall satellite comes equipped with instruments to measure the amount of solar energy that strikes the top of the atmosphere, and measure the concentration of small droplets and particles called aerosols that float suspended in the atmosphere.
Atmospheric scientists know that aerosols play a role in shaping the planet's overall climate, but exactly how they do this is unclear. Aerosols can directly warm or cool an area of the Earth by absorbing heat from the sun or reflecting sunlight into space. They can also indirectly influence climate by serving as the seeds of clouds, and changing clouds' properties like brightness, how long they last and how much they rain.
The particles can come from natural sources, like volcanoes, sandstorms, forest fires and sea spray, or from human activity, such as burning fossil fuels or clearing land by burning plants. Glory's mission is to sort out which particles are which by analyzing the physical direction of light reflected off the droplets. The satellite's measurements will provide data for climate models to learn how each aerosol works.
Glory is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California at 2:09 am Pacific time in the middle of a 48-second long launch window. The launch was originally scheduled for 2:09 Wednesday morning, but a technical glitch forced engineers to scrub the launch at the last minute.
"We were in safe mode, and externally received signal to go into safe mode. We don't quite understand why that occurred," said assistant launch manager Chuck Dovale in an interview on NASA TV. "We're going to troubleshoot in the next few hours, and certainly won't continue until we understand it."
Image: An artist's representation of Glory in orbit. Credit: NASA
Posted: 23 Feb 2011 10:19 AM PST
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The Japanese jewel beetle has been a prized ornament since ancient times, and now researchers have revealed the secret to its scintillating good looks.
Brilliant metallic purples and greens run the length of each beetle's body. Each color band corresponds to varying numbers of stacked chitin layers in its wing covers. These nanoscale layers scramble light and reflect an iridescent sheen, reported a team from the Netherlands and Japan in the Mar. 12 issue of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
"This surprises me. I've always assumed they had the same number of layers throughout the body," said Dave Kavanaugh, curator of the insect collection at the California Academy of Sciences, who was not involved with the study. "It makes the color change much less accidental."
For many iridescent insects, color seems incidental, a quirk of the cuticle surface. In the insects Kavanaugh studies, surface ridges cause visible iridescence, but their primary job is to deflect water or mud. Many are active at night, when their colors can't be seen. But the Japanese jewel beetle's surface is smooth, and the study's authors suspect that iridescence helps these insects recognize each other and find mates.
If you find yourself in Japan, on a summer walk through the woods, you might find one yourself. If you can't make it to Japan, enjoy these photographs.
Image: Takehiko Sato.
Citation: "Polarized iridescence of the multilayered elytra of the Japanese jewel beetle, Chrysochroa fulgidissima." Doekele G. Stavenga, Bodo D. Wilts, Hein L. Leertouwer, Takahiko Hariyama, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Mar. 11, 2011. DOI:10.1098/rstb.2010.0197.
Posted: 23 Feb 2011 10:00 AM PST
Using a lizard, a snaky robot and computer simulations, researchers have captured the secrets of swimming through sand.
Physicists filmed the movements of sandfish lizards and snake-like robots as they burrowed through sand, then boiled their motion down into a numerical theory. The theory ultimately led to a computer model, described in a Feb. 23 study in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, that can emulate the fluid-like physics of sand and objects that can swim through it.
"They've taken advantage of biodiversity to answer questions in physics and inspire new engineering designs," said biomaterials scientist Kellar Autumn of Lewis & Clark College, who wasn't involved in the study.
The research, led by physicist Daniel Goldman of Georgia Tech, builds on his team's previous work. By 2009, Goldman and his colleagues had discovered the sandfish lizard's sand-swimming motion and designed a snake-like robot to emulate it. In the new study, Goldman's team used the experiments to create a highly predictive model.
The work may lead to many applications, from landmine detection and earthquake monitoring to sub-surface discoveries on other worlds.
"We've never had such a detailed, quantitative, accurate model of an organism moving through an environment that isn't water or air," Goldman said. "You can make devices that can sort of wiggle into or through granular materials. We're already talking to NASA about it."
Goldman's team first explored sand-swimming motion by studying sandfish lizards, also known as Scincus scincus. The reptiles are native to North-African deserts and can quickly burrow into sand to escape predators and scorching heat.
The team found sine-wave-like movement allows the lizard, and their robot, to push forward in sand, but creating computer models for the experiments proved problematic. Simulating all of the tiny sand grains required a lot of money to purchase time on powerful computers. So, the team performed the same experiments using 3-millimeter-wide glass beads instead of sand.
"We wanted something easy to simulate that had some predictive power. We got lucky, because it turned out [the lizard and robot] swim beautifully in the same way through larger glass beads," Goldman said.
When the researchers compared data from all three systems — the lizard, the robot and the simulation — the forces matched within 8 percent of one another.
"That means we can use this model to generate hypotheses, for example, about what is going on internally in the lizard that allows it to swim," Goldman said. "We can go in and get the physiology of organism and use it to do something useful."
Only a handful of laboratories research sand-swimming physics, said Stephan Koehler of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who wasn't involved in Goldman's work. Despite the low number, Koehler thinks the implications of such work could lead to world-changing technology.
"As with a lot of basic research, no one sees it seriously until a killer application puts the science on steroids," Koehler said. "The Wright brother's work was seen as something of an oddity 108 years ago, and they initially had a difficult time selling their product. But now look where we are."
Peko Hosoi, a mechanical engineer and roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said work like Goldman's is crucial for robot innovation.
"You don't want to blindly copy what animals can do. That doesn't get you very far," said Hosoi, who also wasn't involved in the study. "You need to know the fundamental mechanics behind them to inspire truly useful designs."
Goldman ultimately hopes to plug models like his team's into future robots and give them some brains.
"Not just Watson-type machines that can answer Jeopardy questions," he said. "Ones that can smartly interact with the physical world."
Video: The sandfish lizard swims through sand by turning itself into a sine wave. Researchers recreate the effect with a robot in glass beads and a computer model. (Ryan D. Maladen, Yang Ding, Paul B. Umbanhowar, Adam Kamor, Daniel I. Goldman, Georgia Tech, 2011)
Image: The high-speed X-ray camera setup used to track the motion of lizards and robots able to swim through sand. (Goldman Lab)
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