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How NASA Could Discover Oceans on Distant Planets

planet

Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover how habitable these far-off worlds are.

But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take to detect mountains on a world too far away to photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.

The trick is to see their shadows as the planet passes in front of its host star, a phenomenon known as “transiting.” During these brief eclipses, the planet cuts off some of the host star’s light, which lets astronomers measure the size of the planet and how quickly it orbits. McTier and Kipping showed that if they observe multiple transits, astronomers might be able to see smaller fluctuations in the light when mountains are on the “horizon.”

“My paper is, to my knowledge, the first work that’s ever been done to come up with a method for finding mountains on planets outside our solar system,” McTier told The Daily Beast. “We’ve found mountains inside our solar system, on Earth and on other planets like Mars. But we’ve never found [mountains] outside of our solar system, even though we’ve found thousands of these types of planets out there.”

Many exoplanets are gas giants like Jupiter or Neptune, without a solid surface to have any mountains at all. However, “super-Earths” are another extremely common type: planets bigger and more massive than Earth, but still made of rock. Since no planet in the solar system is like that type of planet, we don’t know much about them yet, including whether they could have mountains or make oceans of water. Though they’re harder to detect, Earth- or Mars-sized exoplanets are probably even more common.

Even a large mountain on a super-sized super-Earth won’t block out that much extra light during a transit. So, instead of trying to see individual topographic features, McTier worked out a way to measure the overall mountainousness of an exoplanet.

“We really wanted bumpiness—as we called it—to be a measure of how much an average feature sticks out from the surface of the planet,” she said. That’s better than looking for big standalone mountains, like Mauna Kea on Earth or Olympus Mons on Mars. “This method could find anything that sticks out from the surface, so it could be mountain ranges, it could be single mountains, it could be volcanoes.”

Here’s how the method works. As an exoplanet orbits its host star, it turns relative to astronomers on Earth. During that turning, we get a bit of a sunrise or sunset effect as the star’s light is blocked or unblocked by mountains, over the course of its transit. It’s not a huge effect, so McTier calculated we might need to see hundreds of transits to get an accurate measurement.

But the potential payoff is big: “If we’re able to actually detect bumpiness, then we could potentially learn something about oceans on an exoplanet, and whether or not it has tectonic plate movement,” McTier said.

Surface oceans are a particularly exciting possibility. Earth is the only world we know that has them, and we don’t know whether it’s a coincidence that we’re also the only world known to have a life. (Icy moons like Europa and Enceladus have subsurface oceans, which are another intriguing possibility for life.)

Mars probably once had oceans but doesn’t anymore. That absence makes the planet “bumpier” than Earth: The difference between its highest peaks and deepest valleys aren’t hidden by water. Measuring bumpiness may allow us to distinguish between a watery world and a dry one. Saturn’s moon Titan, which has liquid (and very frigid!) hydrocarbon lakes, has a natural “sea level” like Earth—a potentially common feature of planets with surface liquids.

Similarly, Earth has plate tectonics, which makes our big mountain ranges, but doesn’t grow volcanoes as large as the ones on Mars.

“If it’s really bumpy (meaning there are a lot of features), we can do work from there to figure out what those features are,” McTier said.

The biggest bumps aren’t the mountains: They’re making the observations. Finding mountains is easiest for a very large planet orbiting a very small star because transiting data depends on the ratio of the planet’s size to the star’s size. For that reason, McTier’s calculated example was a Mars-sized planet orbiting a white dwarf—the burned-out remnant of a star. A typical white dwarf is about the size of Earth, but with a mass comparable to the Sun, so the paper doesn’t describe a normal exoplanet system.

To measure bumpiness of a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star (one of the most common systems we see), McTier estimated we would need a huge telescope like the Colossus, which is still in the design stages.

To McTier, the potential science is worth the wait. “We could learn about the length of its day, which is really exciting and currently extremely difficult to do for these small rocky planets orbiting stars hundreds of light years away.”

“Habitability is what gets people excited about exoplanet science,” she added. “If we can overcome those challenges, we can learn exciting things about the planet.”

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Google takes steps to combat fake news ‘snippets’

google

Google announced this week that it is revamping its “snippets” feature, which is the featured description you usually see at the top of search results when you input a question. Recently, the search engine has come under fire for displaying “fake news” as snippets. Now, the company is updating its Search Quality Rater Guidelines to help human raters more accurately flag hoaxes, conspiracy theories and false and/or offensive information. Additionally, it is adjusting its rankings to promote high-quality content and demote low-quality content.

a screenshot of a cell phone© Google

The company is also improving the quality of results by displaying more than one snippet. After all, sometimes there isn’t one correct answer to a question. “There are often legitimate diverse perspectives offered by publishers, and we want to provide users visibility and access into those perspectives from multiple sources,” said Matthew Gray, the lead of the snippets team.

Google is also making it easier to provide feedback about snippets. This way, users can raise concerns about questionable snippets they see. A link at the bottom of the snippet box makes that quick and easy to do.

It’s good to see that Google is taking action on this troubling front. The additional features it’s putting into place (especially the rankings algorithm) will help prevent people from gaming the system in order to ensure that fake news is the first source that Google searchers see.

Apple tipped to launch three new Macs, with its own processors

aple

Watch out Qualcomm and Intel, Apple is apparently going big into the world of computer chip manufacturing and it’s starting with its own Mac line-up.

According to a report from Bloomberg, Apple is working on three new Macs which it will release as soon as this year. These are apparently arriving in the form of two laptops and one desktop, each sporting Apple’s own new co-processors.

Sure Apple does already make its own chips in the form of the A11 Bionic and earlier variants for phones and tablets, plus the W1 and W2 in its EarPods and Apple Watch. But all of these are based on ARM reference designs and built by others like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

Now Apple is apparently taking back more control so it doesn’t have to rely on other companies like Qualcomm and Intel. Hiring of Qualcomm employees by Apple suggests it could also be working on its own modems for its iPhones, tablets and watches too.

Previous rumours have suggested we can expect a new 13-inch entry level Apple MacBook later this year. Perhaps this will be one of the units to get Apple’s new processor onboard.

Apple making its own chips for Macs could mean faster processing, more power efficiency and a lower price for the consumer. All the possible Macs that could get the upgrade, based on the current lines are the MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, Mac Pro, and the Mac mini.

Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro haven’t been updated since 2015, if you ignore the addition of the Touch Bar in 2016. That should mean a major update is due soon and what better way to make an impact than to launch them with all new Apple made processors?

Razer Phone now streams Netflix in all its HDR glory

phone

Looks like Razer’s latest update for its first smartphone should be worth installing. The new software enables support for Netflix HDR videos as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, so you can better immerse yourself in your favorite fictional universe. This makes the Razer Phone one of a handful of smartphones available that can render the streaming giant’s HDR content, and the first to offer both HDR10 and Dolby Digital 5.1 support.

That’s thanks to the handset’s 5.7-inch Sharp IGZO display, which our senior editor Chris Velazco found gorgeous in his review. The Razer Phone’s 120Hz refresh rate will also make for smooth playback, although not many games can take advantage of that yet.

According to Razer’s tweet, the update will also improve the camera and theme store, as well as deliver a security patch for January. All told, if you own a Razer Phone, this is clearly a download to look out for.

Vietnam group behind foiled airport attack named ‘terrorists’

vietnam

Vietnam declared a US-based group a “terrorist organization” on Tuesday, a rare designation in the communist country after some members were convicted for plotting to attack Ho Chi Minh City’s airport.

Though Vietnam heavily cracks down on critics, few anti-government organisations or activists have been jailed for terrorism, which is punishable by death in the authoritarian state.

Vietnam’s police-run security ministry on Tuesday labeled the California-based Provisional National Government of Vietnam (PNGV) terrorists, just weeks after 15 of its members were convicted of planting petrol bombs in 2017 at Tan Son Nhat international airport, the country’s busiest.

“The PNGV is a terrorist organisation,” the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) said on its website, adding that anyone found promoting or colluding with the group would be “punished in accordance with Vietnamese law”.

PNGV emerged in Vietnam from relative obscurity following the December 2017 trial uncovering the foiled airport attack, which the judge said had been funded from abroad.

The group, formed in 1991, says its stands for free and fair elections in Vietnam, which it labels a “dictatorship” on its website.

Some of its members include former officials from the US-backed southern regime who fled to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War, according to MPS.

Five PNGV members have arrested in 2015 Vietnam for allegedly trying to buy weapons to commit terrorist acts, it added.

PNGV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Scores of dissidents are behind bars in Vietnam, many serving sentences for “anti-state propaganda” or attempting to overthrow the government, though terrorism convictions are not common.

Most are in jail for speaking out against the communist government or pushing for peaceful reform, not political violence.

In 2016, Vietnam labeled the US-based Viet Tan anti-government group a “terrorist organization” for “instigating violence”, a charge the group rejects.

Tests link Syrian government stockpile to largest sarin attack – sources

syria

The Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile has been linked for the first time by laboratory tests to the largest sarin nerve agent attack of the civil war, diplomats and scientists told Reuters, supporting Western claims that government forces under President Bashar al-Assad were behind the atrocity.

Laboratories working for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons compared samples taken by a U.N. mission in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta after the Aug. 21, 2013 attack, when hundreds of civilians died of sarin gas poisoning, to chemicals handed over by Damascus for destruction in 2014.

The tests found “markers” in samples taken at Ghouta and at the sites of two other nerve agent attacks, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, two people involved in the process said.

“We compared Khan Sheikhoun, Khan al-Assal, Ghouta,” said one source who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the findings. “There were signatures in all three of them that matched.”

The same test results were the basis for a report by the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism in October which said the Syrian government was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens.

The findings on Ghouta, whose details were confirmed to Reuters by two separate diplomatic sources, were not released in the October report to the U.N. Security Council because they were not part of the team’s mandate.

They will nonetheless bolster claims by the United States, Britain and other Western powers that Assad’s government still possesses and uses banned munitions in violation of several Security Council resolutions and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The OPCW declined to comment. Syria has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the conflict now in its seventh year and has blamed the chemical attacks in the rebel-held territory of Ghouta on the insurgents themselves.

Russia has also denied that Syrian government forces have carried out chemical attacks and has questioned the reliability of the OCPW inquiries. Officials in Moscow have said the rebels staged the attacks to discredit the Assad government and whip up international condemnation.

Under a U.S.-Russian deal after the Ghouta attack in 2013, Damascus joined the OPCW and agreed to permanently eliminate its chemical weapons programme, including destroying a 1,300-tonne stockpile of industrial precursors that has now been linked to the Ghouta attack.

But inspectors have found proof of an ongoing chemical weapons program in Syria, including the systematic use of chlorine barrel bombs and sarin, which they say was ordered at the highest levels of government.

The sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April last year prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a missile strike against the Shayrat air base, from which the Syrian operation is said to have been launched.

Diplomatic and scientific sources said efforts by Syria and Russia to discredit the U.N.-OPCW tests establishing a connection to Ghouta have so far come up with nothing.

Russia’s blocking of resolutions at the Security Council seeking accountability for war crimes in Syria gained new relevance when Russia stationed its aircraft at Shayrat in 2015.

Washington fired missiles at Shayrat in April 2017, saying the Syrian air force used it to stage the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack on April 4 a few days earlier, killing more than 80 people.

No Russian military assets are believed to have been hit, but Moscow warned at the time it could have serious consequences.

In June, the Pentagon said it had seen what appeared to be preparations for another chemical attack at the same airfield, prompting Russia to say it would respond proportionately if Washington took pre-emptive measures against Syrian forces there.

“SERIOUS LAB WORK”

The chemical tests were carried out at the request of the U.N.-OPCW inquiry, which was searching for potential links between the stockpile and samples from Khan Sheikhoun. The analysis results raised the possibility that they would provide a link to other sarin attacks, the source said.

Two compounds in the Ghouta sample matched those also found in Khan Sheikhoun, one formed from sarin and the stabiliser hexamine and another specific fluorophosphate that appears during sarin production, the tests showed.

“Like in all science, it should be repeated a couple of times, but it was serious matching and serious laboratory work,” the source said.

Independent experts, however, said the findings are the strongest scientific evidence to date that the Syrian government was behind Ghouta, the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the Halabja massacres of 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.

“A match of samples from the 2013 Ghouta attacks to tests of chemicals in the Syrian stockpile is the equivalent of DNA evidence: definitive proof,” said Amy Smithson, a U.S. nonproliferation expert.

The hexamine finding “is a particularly significant match,” Smithson said, because it is a chemical identified as a unique hallmark of the Syrian military’s process to make sarin.

“This match adds to the mountain of physical evidence that points conclusively, without a shadow of doubt, to the Syrian government,” she said.

NO CHANCE REBELS BEHIND GHOUTA

Smithson and other sources familiar with the matter said it would have been virtually impossible for the rebels to carry out a coordinated, large-scale strike with poisonous munitions, even if they had been able to steal the chemicals from the government’s stockpile.

“I don’t think there is a cat in hell’s chance that rebels or Islamic State were responsible for the Aug. 21 Ghouta attack,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons.

The U.N.-OPCW inquiry, which was disbanded in November after being blocked by Syria’s ally Russia at the U.N. Security Council, also found that Islamic State had used the less toxic blistering agent sulphur mustard gas on a small scale in Syria.

The Ghouta attack, by comparison, was textbook chemical warfare, Smithson and de Bretton-Gordon said, perfectly executed by forces trained to handle sarin, a toxin which is more difficult to use because it must be mixed just before delivery.

Surface-to-surface rockets delivered hundreds of litres of sarin in perfect weather conditions that made them as lethal as possible: low temperatures and wind in the early hours of the morning, when the gas would remain concentrated and kill sleeping victims, many of them children.

Pre-attack air raids with conventional bombs shattered windows and doors and drove people into shelters where the heavy poison seeped down into underground hiding places. Aerial bombing afterwards sought to destroy the evidence.

The large quantity of chemicals used, along with radar images of rocket traces showing they originated from Syrian Brigade positions, are further proof that the rebels could not have carried out the Ghouta attack, the experts said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by Giles Elgood)

Gold treasure recovered from 1857 shipwreck to make debut

gold

More than $50 million worth of gold bars, coins and dust that’s been described as the greatest lost treasure in U.S. history is about to make its public debut in California after sitting at the bottom of the ocean for more than 150 years.

The 3,100 gold coins, 45 gold bars and more than 80 pounds (36 kilograms) of gold dust recovered from the wreckage of the S.S. Central America steamship are now sitting in a makeshift laboratory just south of Los Angeles.
Bob Evans, the chief scientist on the original voyage that discovered the shipwreck and its treasure in 1988, is now painstakingly cleaning each piece of gold by hand, soaking it in a solution and brushing off rust and grime that accumulated as the treasure sat 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) below sea level.

“This is a whole new season of discovery,” Evans told The Associated Press this week from the laboratory in Santa Ana. “We are now peering beneath the grime and the rust that is on the coins, removing those objects and those substances and getting to look at the treasure as it was in 1857.”

The Central America was laden with booty from the California Gold Rush when it sank in a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857. Four hundred and twenty-five people drowned and thousands of pounds of California gold were lost, contributing to an economic panic.

Using sable paintbrushes and a cleaning solution, Evans has been restoring the gold —some of which is completely caked over in black gunk — to its original luster for the past two weeks. He will continue that work through February, when the treasure will go on public display at the Long Beach Convention Center, just south of Los Angeles.

The gold is all for sale. Just one tiny coin alone could go for $1 million because of its combination of rarity and the history behind it, said Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group, which is displaying and selling the gold.

“This is something that in hundreds of years people will still be talking about, reading about, looking back on and collecting things from,” Manley said. “There’s no other ships that sank that haven’t been recovered that rival this or are similar to this, so it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime situation.”

Meanwhile the deep-sea treasure hunter responsible for finding the gold in the first place continues to sit in an Ohio jail over his handling of the original treasure recovered from the Central America.

Treasure hunter and Ohio native Tommy Thompson found the ship in 1988 after convincing 161 local investors to fund the voyage for nearly $13 million.

A lengthy battle ensued over who owned the gold, with Thompson and his investors eventually emerging as the victors over a group of insurance companies. Thompson’s company sold 532 gold bars and thousands of coins to the California Gold Marketing Group for about $50 million in 2000.

Investors never saw any of those proceeds. In 2005, they sued Thompson, who then went into seclusion in Florida and later became a fugitive after an Ohio judge issued a warrant for his arrest in 2012.

Authorities tracked Thompson to a Florida hotel room in 2015. A judge has held Thompson in contempt since December 2015 for violating terms of a plea deal by refusing to answer questions about the location of 500 missing gold coins. He’s been jailed ever since.

Thompson has previously said the coins were turned over to a trust in Belize. He has also said that the $50 million from the sale of the gold mostly went toward legal fees and bank loans.

Recovered in 2014, the gold going on display in California next month is only the second round of treasure brought up from the Central America.

Manley, of the California Gold Marketing Group, bought the gold from investors this month. It was the first time investors saw returns since their initial investment in the 1980s, though some of them died waiting to see such a day.

The gold will be on display Feb. 22-24 at the Long Beach Convention Center.