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Kepler 438b: Most Earth-like planet ever discovered could be home for alien life

New discovery is likely to be a rocky world in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone of its parent star where the temperature is just right for liquid water to flow

An Earth-like planet orbiting a star that has formed a planetary nebula. Earlier in its life, this planet may have resembled the newly discovered Kepler 438b. Illustration: David A Aguilar/CfA

An alien world that orbits a distant star in the constellation of Lyra may be the most Earth-like planet ever found outside the solar system.

The planet, named Kepler 438b, is slightly larger than Earth and circles an orange dwarf star that bathes it in 40% more heat than our home planet receives from the sun.

The small size of Kepler 438b makes it likely to be a rocky world, while its proximity to its star puts it in the “Goldilocks” or habitable zone where the temperature is just right for liquid water to flow.

A rocky surface and flowing water are two of the most important factors scientists look for when assessing a planet’s chances of being hospitable to life.

Kepler 438b, which is 470 light years away, completes an orbit around its star every 35 days, making a year on the planet pass 10 times as fast as on Earth. Small planets are more likely to be rocky than huge ones, and at only 12% larger than our home planet, the odds of Kepler 438b being rocky are about 70%, researchers said.

Kepler-186f is part of five-planet system 795 lights years away. The find is described in the journal Science as ‘a landmark on the road to discovering habitable planets’. Photograph: Nasa Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Cal/PA

Source: TheGuardian Read more

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Are we alone?

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Complex organic molecule found in interstellar space

The scientists searched for the molecule deep in the Milky Way

Scientists have found the beginnings of life-bearing chemistry at the centre of the galaxy.

Iso-propyl cyanide has been detected in a star-forming cloud 27,000 light-years from Earth.

Its branched carbon structure is closer to the complex organic molecules of life than any previous finding from interstellar space.

The discovery suggests the building blocks of life may be widespread throughout our galaxy.

Various organic molecules have previously been discovered in interstellar space, but i-propyl cyanide is the first with a branched carbon backbone.

The branched structure is important as it shows that interstellar space could be the origin of more complex branched molecules, such as amino acids, that are necessary for life on Earth.

Dr Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy is lead author of the research, which appears in the journal Science.

“Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it. The question in the background is: is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?”

Watch the skies

The molecule was detected in a giant gas cloud called Sagittarius B2, an active region of ongoing star formation in the centre of the Milky Way.

As stars are born in the cloud they heat up microscopic dust grains. Chemical reactions on the surface of the dust allow complex molecules like i-propyl cyanide to form.

The molecules emit radiation that was detected as radio waves by twenty 12m telescopes at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (Alma) in Chile.

Each molecule produces a different “spectral fingerprint” of frequencies. “The game consists in matching these frequencies… to molecules that have been characterised in the laboratory,” explained Dr Belloche.

“Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium.”

Previously discovered molecules in the Sagittarius B2 cloud include vinyl alcohol and ethyl formate, the chemical that gives raspberries their flavour and rum its smell.

But i-propyl cyanide is the largest and most complex organic molecule found to date – and the only one to share the branched atomic backbone of amino acids.

“The idea is to know whether the elements that are necessary for life to occur… can be found in other places in our galaxy.”

Source: BBCNews Read and see more

The bringer of life and death

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Nitrogen:

Nitrogen is one of the most paradoxical elements in the periodic table. Flames are extinguished and animals die in an atmosphere of pure nitrogen – so it was once known as “azote”, Greek for “lifeless”. And yet this colourless, odourless gas, making up 78% of the atmosphere, has a highly explosive nature.

For mankind nitrogen is the bringer of life – and death – on an epic scale.

Atmospheric nitrogen is N2, a molecule consisting of two nitrogen atoms held together with an incredibly strong “triple bond”, in which the atoms pool six electrons. But split this bond apart and nitrogen’s nature changes dramatically.

“The flip side to nitrogen’s incredible stability is the fact that some of its compounds turn out to be very, very reactive,” explains Prof Andrea Sella in his laboratory on the University College campus in central London.

He picks up a long wooden pole and uses it to point to a small mound of a greyish purple powder sitting on a board on one of the lab tables.

“Cover your ears,” he warns. Then he taps the mound with the pole.

I’m expecting something dramatic, but I still yelp at the violence of the detonation. Sella laughs.

The bang rings in my ears and a mysterious whiff of purple smoke rises up from a scorch mark where the powder was.

“That is a very famous compound called nitrogen tri-iodide,” he tells me with a grin.

“Like almost all explosives, it exploits the tendency of nitrogen to form that triple bond.”

Nitroglycerin and TNT (Trinitrotoluene) are compounds of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, while one of gunpowder’s main constituents is potassium nitrate. Nitrogen tri-iodide, for its part, is made of nitrogen and the purple-coloured iodine.

Gunpowder explosion

These compounds are held together by relatively weak bonds. When they are broken, the nitrogen atoms form strong triple bonds with each other releasing huge amounts of energy.

What’s more, Sella explains, you are taking a solid and converting it into a gas, so the substance expands by close to 1,000 times.

“This combination of expansion and heat really gives us incredible power,” he says.

The history of explosives in warfare and mining provides eloquent evidence of that. But nitrogen also plays a crucial role in sustaining life.

DNA and RNA – the molecules which carry the instructions for life – include nitrogen. So do amino acids, the basic units that make up proteins, which Sella describes as the machines of the biological world.

“They provide the catalysts, the little engines that do all of the hard work inside cells,” he says.

“They operate as pumps, moving molecules and ions around, they transform one molecule into another, they separate the DNA and do the details of the copying.”

And because plants need nitrogen to build these little machines, nitrogen is an essential fertiliser.

But like explosives, plants can only use reactive nitrogen. The triple bonds that make atmospheric nitrogen a tough brick of a molecule must be broken – but how?

Certain bacteria, says Sella, are capable of performing an extraordinary chemical conjuring trick.

“They have learned to use metal atoms embedded in a matrix to attack nitrogen, bombarding it with a mixture of electrons and protons at the same time,” he says.

This converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into ammonia (NH3) – which plants can use.

“The entire living world is based on this nitrogen fixation process,” says Sella.

This has led to one of the most profitable symbiotic relationships in all nature.

Certain plants, notably “legumes” such as peas, beans and clover, nurture the bacteria in nodules attached to their roots. They secrete sugars to feed the bacteria and in return the bacteria supply the plants with a ready supply of nitrogen – and when the plants die, any remaining nitrogen is returned to the soil.

Nitrogen-fixing nodule

In short, such plants are excellent natural fertilisers, which is why they are known as “green manure”.

Farmers spotted at least 8,000 years ago how useful legumes could be. Growing them in rotation with other crops like cereals helped kept the soil nitrogen-rich, and at the same time they produced nourishing high-protein seeds (think soya beans and chick peas).

While crop rotation continued to be perfected right up until the 18th Century (notably by the British aristocrat Viscount Charles “Turnip” Townshend) there is a limit to how much nitrogen can be extracted from the air and delivered to crops by this technique.

So with European and American populations growing rapidly in the 19th Century, the world was hungry for fertiliser – and in 1864 it experienced its first nitrogen war. Spain and Peru used nitrogen-based explosive weapons to secure access to the nitrogen resources of the craggy Chincha Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The source of the element was none other than bird poo – guano – deposited by generations of sea birds over thousands of years.

Island covered in guano Guano often gives islands a thick white crust

With help from Chile, Peru won the war. But a decade later, the guano was already running out, and so attention shifted to another source of nitrogen close at hand – the saltpetre flats of the Atacama desert.

And, naturally enough, it wasn’t long until former allies Chile and Peru went to war with each other over the Atacama.

Which prompts a question.

The world’s population has increased five-fold since the 1870s. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. So where does all the nitrogen fertiliser come from today? Why are there no more nitrogen wars?

I travelled to Ludwigshafen in Germany, to find out.

Ludwigshafen by night

This nondescript city is home to one of the most important scientific inventions in history – the Haber-Bosch process. It has been described as miraculous, creating “bread from air”, and it was at the BASF chemical plant that the industrial process for fixing nitrogen from the air to make ammonia was developed.

The key breakthrough was made in 1909 by an ambitious young chemist called Fritz Haber, who conducted a table-top experiment to demonstrate that it was possible. But there was a problem – the process required almost 200 atmospheres of pressure and temperatures of over 400C (752F).

Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein Haber (left) won a Nobel prize in 1918, Albert Einstein (right) won his in 1921

BASF engineers led by Carl Bosch overcame the challenge in a feat comparable to that of an Apollo Moon mission, says Dr Michael Mauss, who used to run the vast ammonia plant, one of the largest chemical facilities in the world.

“The financial risk to the company was tremendous,” he tells me when we meet in a pretty park on the edge of the plant. “Everything had to be invented – the compressors, the catalysts and the reactors that could bear these huge temperatures and pressures.”

But by 1912 BASF had got the plant working.

Mauss is adamant that the company’s interest in nitrogen was the necessity to head off a looming food crisis – but to begin with the plant’s output was used for a very different purpose. With World War One looming, the ammonia was diverted into munitions production. Once again, nitrogen’s dual nature was apparent.

These days, explosives make up only a tiny part of the market for the huge quantities of ammonia produced using the Haber-Bosch process. Most goes to manufacture fertiliser, and all this “synthetic” nitrogen has vastly increased agricultural output across the world over the years.

The majority of the nitrogen in your body probably came from the Haber-Bosch process. And without it, more than half of the world’s population would have nothing to eat.

The incredible yields synthetic fertilisers deliver explain why obesity has replaced hunger as the rich world’s biggest nutritional challenge.

And there are other drawbacks.

All the extra nitrogen mankind is extracting from the air has to end up somewhere. Some of it passes through our bodies, and those of our animals, and is flushed away in sewage.

Still more is washed straight off the fields into rivers by heavy rain, or leaches into groundwater. All this causes ecosystems to become overloaded with nitrogen, a process known as “eutrophication”. What happens is great blooms of algae, and then bacteria, feed on the surplus nitrogen. In the process, they suck all the oxygen from the water, killing fish and other organisms.

An algal bloom on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

“By 2050, we’re looking at getting huge amounts [of reactive nitrogen] into our oceans,” says Giles Oldroyd, of the John Innes Centre, a century-old agricultural research centre in Norwich. “It has the potential to see a massive collapse of our oceanic systems, and all the fish that we are dependent on for our food.”

He is trying to figure out how to transfer the complex set of genes responsible for creating those nodules in legumes such as peas, across to major cereal crops such as rice and wheat.

“I hope I can achieve it within my career, and I’ve got 30 years until I retire,” he says.

If Oldroyd and his team are successful, it would massively reduce the world’s dependence on the Haber-Bosch process. Not only would that reduce eutrophication, it would also cut greenhouse gas emissions – Haber-Bosch is reckoned to use 1% of the world’s energy supplies, which reflects just how hard it is to rip those triple-bonds apart.

Source: BBC News Read more

The French have Lost the Plot

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The Roma are gypsies, we all know that. We know that many Roma cause problems, but not all.

Does this look like a gypsy family to you?

Leonarda and her family posed for a picture on the stairs to their home – Photo: BBC News

I see a relatively normal happy family, well cared for and fed.

Yet the French government see ROMA! in big red letters and that is all, they have thrown away any semblance of humanity and expelled the family from France after their application for refugee status was denied.

areject

Row over Kosovo Roma expulsion grips France

AFP visited Leonarda in a house in Mitrovica

France’s government is embroiled in a row over the repatriation of a Kosovo Roma schoolgirl, who was removed from her school bus.

The 15-year-old, Leonarda Dibrani, was expelled along with her parents and five siblings after they lost their battle for asylum in France.

When the order was enacted, she was on a school field trip and was removed in view of the other children.

Leonarda told French radio she was being denied education in Kosovo.

She said she wanted to return to France to finish school.

The government is conducting an inquiry into how the case was handled.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that if a mistake had been made, the family could return to France to have its situation reassessed in respect of French “laws, practices and values”.

His Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, defended the expulsion. Last month he declared Roma people incompatible with the French way of life.

Mr Valls is voted France’s favourite politician in opinion polls but he has been strongly criticised by human rights campaigners and figures within his own party for his strident comments.

Critics accuse President Francois Hollande’s administration of following the hard line on the Roma taken by his conservative predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The new row has deepened the rift within the ruling left on how to tackle the issue, the BBC’s Christian Fraser reports from Paris.

‘Pupils shocked’

The Dibrani family left Kosovo for France five years ago and were living in Levier, in the Doubs region of eastern France. They cited discrimination in Kosovo as grounds for asylum.

An order for their expulsion was issued after they lost their battle for asylum. After two postponements, it was rescheduled for this month and the father, who was detained in a different town, was expelled on 8 October.

A blog posted by the French news website Mediapart describes in detail what happened next.

Arriving at the family’s home on 9 October, border police found that Leonarda was on the field trip – she had stayed the night at a schoolfriend’s house in order not to miss the bus – and they contacted one of the teachers on the bus, through the school.

The indignant teacher, Mrs Giacoma, argued with the police over the phone before finally stopping the bus and getting off with Leonarda, when police took her into custody.

“My colleagues then explained the situation to some of the pupils, who thought Leonarda had stolen something or committed an offence,” she was quoted as saying by Mediapart.

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Opinion:

Come on France, there are ways and ways. The callous treatment of this family by French authorities is a blight on humanity.

The girl wants an education… criminal offence.

It’s not as though she was a gypsy living in a ramshackle encampment.

 

The 20 big questions in science

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From the nature of the universe (that’s if there is only one) to the purpose of dreams, there are lots of things we still don’t know – but we might do soon. A new book seeks some answers

What’s at the bottom of a black hole? See question 17. Photograph: Alamy

1 What is the universe made of?

Astronomers face an embarrassing conundrum: they don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of. Atoms, which form everything we see around us, only account for a measly 5%. Over the past 80 years it has become clear that the substantial remainder is comprised of two shadowy entities – dark matter and dark energy. The former, first discovered in 1933, acts as an invisible glue, binding galaxies and galaxy clusters together. Unveiled in 1998, the latter is pushing the universe’s expansion to ever greater speeds. Astronomers are closing in on the true identities of these unseen interlopers.

2 How did life begin?

Four billion years ago, something started stirring in the primordial soup. A few simple chemicals got together and made biology – the first molecules capable of replicating themselves appeared. We humans are linked by evolution to those early biological molecules. But how did the basic chemicals present on early Earth spontaneously arrange themselves into something resembling life? How did we get DNA? What did the first cells look like? More than half a century after the chemist Stanley Miller proposed his “primordial soup” theory, we still can’t agree about what happened. Some say life began in hot pools near volcanoes, others that it was kick-started by meteorites hitting the sea.

3 Are we alone in the universe?

science 3

Perhaps not. Astronomers have been scouring the universe for places where water worlds might have given rise to life, from Europa and Mars in our solar system to planets many light years away. Radio telescopes have been eavesdropping on the heavens and in 1977 a signal bearing the potential hallmarks of an alien message was heard. Astronomers are now able to scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for oxygen and water. The next few decades will be an exciting time to be an alien hunter with up to 60bn potentially habitable planets in our Milky Way alone.

4 What makes us human?

science 4

Just looking at your DNA won’t tell you – the human genome is 99% identical to a chimpanzee’s and, for that matter, 50% to a banana’s. We do, however, have bigger brains than most animals – not the biggest, but packed with three times as many neurons as a gorilla (86bn to be exact). A lot of the things we once thought distinguishing about us – language, tool-use, recognising yourself in the mirror – are seen in other animals. Perhaps it’s our culture – and its subsequent effect on our genes (and vice versa) – that makes the difference. Scientists think that cooking and our mastery of fire may have helped us gain big brains. But it’s possible that our capacity for co-operation and skills trade is what really makes this a planet of humans and not apes.

5 What is consciousness?

We’re still not really sure. We do know that it’s to do with different brain regions networked together rather than a single part of the brain. The thinking goes that if we figure out which bits of the brain are involved and how the neural circuitry works, we’ll figure out how consciousness emerges, something that artificial intelligence and attempts to build a brain neuron by neuron may help with. The harder, more philosophical, question is why anything should be conscious in the first place. A good suggestion is that by integrating and processing lots of information, as well as focusing and blocking out rather than reacting to the sensory inputs bombarding us, we can distinguish between what’s real and what’s not and imagine multiple future scenarios that help us adapt and survive.

6 Why do we dream?

We spend around a third of our lives sleeping. Considering how much time we spend doing it, you might think we’d know everything about it. But scientists are still searching for a complete explanation of why we sleep and dream. Subscribers to Sigmund Freud’s views believed dreams were expressions of unfulfilled wishes – often sexual – while others wonder whether dreams are anything but the random firings of a sleeping brain. Animal studies and advances in brain imaging have led us to a more complex understanding that suggests dreaming could play a role in memory, learning and emotions. Rats, for example, have been shown to replay their waking experiences in dreams, apparently helping them to solve complex tasks such as navigating mazes.

7 Why is there stuff?

science 7

You really shouldn’t be here. The “stuff” you’re made of is matter, which has a counterpart called antimatter differing only in electrical charge. When they meet, both disappear in a flash of energy. Our best theories suggest that the big bang created equal amounts of the two, meaning all matter should have since encountered its antimatter counterpart, scuppering them both and leaving the universe awash with only energy. Clearly nature has a subtle bias for matter otherwise you wouldn’t exist. Researchers are sifting data from experiments like the Large Hadron Collider trying to understand why, with supersymmetry and neutrinos the two leading contenders.

8 Are there other universes?

Our universe is a very unlikely place. Alter some of its settings even slightly and life as we know it becomes impossible. In an attempt to unravel this “fine-tuning” problem, physicists are increasingly turning to the notion of other universes. If there is an infinite number of them in a “multiverse” then every combination of settings would be played out somewhere and, of course, you find yourself in the universe where you are able to exist. It may sound crazy, but evidence from cosmology and quantum physics is pointing in that direction.

9 Where do we put all the carbon?

For the past couple of hundred years, we’ve been filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide – unleashing it by burning fossil fuels that once locked away carbon below the Earth’s surface. Now we have to put all that carbon back, or risk the consequences of a warming climate. But how do we do it? One idea is to bury it in old oil and gas fields. Another is to hide it away at the bottom of the sea. But we don’t know how long it will stay there, or what the risks might be. Meanwhile, we have to protect natural, long-lasting stores of carbon, such as forests and peat bogs, and start making energy in a way that doesn’t belch out even more.

10 How do we get more energy from the sun?

science 10

Dwindling supplies of fossil fuels mean we’re in need of a new way to power our planet. Our nearest star offers more than one possible solution. We’re already harnessing the sun’s energy to produce solar power. Another idea is to use the energy in sunlight to split water into its component parts: oxygen, and hydrogen, which could provide a clean fuel for cars of the future. Scientists are also working on an energy solution that depends on recreating the processes going on inside stars themselves – they’re building a nuclear fusion machine. The hope is that these solutions can meet our energy needs.

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Longevity

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Red Wine Chemical Could Let You Live to 150

 

A number of studies have pointed out the health benefits of resveratrol, a compound found naturally in red wine and other foods like berries and peanuts. Now scientists are testing synthetic forms of resveratrol on patients with an eye toward extending life.

Like calorie restriction and exercise — but without weight loss — resveratrol speeds up a target enzyme called SIRT1, which has the potential to prevent disease and slow aging. The latest findings were recently reported in the journal Science.

“Some of us could live to 150,” Harvard genetics professor David Sinclair told the Daily Mail. “But we won’t get there without more research.”

The drugs that were tested are 100 times stronger than what you’d find in a glass of wine. They could be oral or topical and may be available within five years.

via the Daily Mail

My source: Discovery News

Life Begins with the Egg

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VudPK2

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