Life Ingredients Found in Superhot Meteorites

Hot on the heels of finding arsenic-loving life-forms, NASA astronomers have uncovered amino acids—the fundamental foundation for life—in a place where they shouldn't be.

The acids—precursors of proteins—have been unexpectedly found inside fragments of previously superheated meteorites that landed in northern Sudan in 2008, a new study says.

Amino acids have already been found in a variety of carbon-rich meteorites formed under relatively cool conditions. (See asteroid and comet pictures.)

But this is the first time the substances have been found in meteorites that had been naturally heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 degrees Celsius). That extreme temperature which should have destroyed any hint of organic material inside, said study leader Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

"Previously, we thought the simplest way to make amino acids in an asteroid was at cooler temperatures in the presence of liquid water," Glavin said in a statement. "This meteorite suggests there's another way involving reactions in gases as a very hot asteroid cools down."

The discovery also "provides additional support for the theory that life's ingredients were delivered to the Earth by asteroids," he said.

ET Amino Acids a "Big Deal"

The meteorites came from a 13-foot-wide (4-meter-wide) parent asteroid that entered an Earth-crossing orbit in 2008.

A collision about 15 million years ago sent the 59-ton asteroid closer to Earth—and provided scientists the first opportunity to observe a celestial object before it entered our atmosphere in October 2008.

(See "Meteorites in Africa Traced to Asteroid 'Parent.'")

During desert treks, scientists later recovered nearly 600 meteorite fragments from the meteor shower.

"Finding evidence for the extraterrestrial amino acids in this meteorite is a big deal," Glavin said, "since we can learn about the chemistry that took place in space prior to the origin of life on Earth."

Likewise, "these meteorites would have contributed to the amino acid inventory of the early Earth and other planets in our solar system, including Mars."

This may mean that organic compounds such as amino acids—delivered via asteroids—may have been much more pervasive throughout the solar system than thought, he said.

The new meteorite research is featured in 20 papers published this week in an issue of the Meteoritical Society's journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

See What You Slept Through

A full moon winks at Washington, D.C. during last night's total lunar eclipse. Pictured alongside the business end of the Washington Monument, the moon is shown just shy of totality, when the entire orb is engulfed by Earth's shadow and takes on a rusty glow.

Coinciding with the winter solstice for the first time since 1638, the December 21, 2010, lunar eclipse was anything but ordinary.

Around 1 a.m. ET, the moon began going slightly shady, marking the arrival of Earth's faint outer shadow, or penumbra. Shortly after 1:30 a.m. ET, the first signs of a dim "bite"—Earth's dark umbra—began advancing across the moon from the left.

Totality began at about 2:40 a.m. ET, turned the moon a photo-friendly red, and lasted a little over 70 minutes. The full show—the moon's passage through penumbra, umbra, and penumbra again—lasted about three and a half hours.

Giant Mars Pits Revealed in Sharp Detail

Looking like space slug hidey-holes, huge pits gouge a bright, dusty plain near the Martianvolcano Ascraeus Mons in a picture taken between October 1 and November 1 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Released in December, the image is among a series of new views snapped by MRO's HiRISE camera that show intriguing geological features on Mars. Each image covers a strip of Martian ground 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) wide and can reveal a detail about as small as a desk—and so far no sign of Star Wars monsters.

MRO's sister orbiter, Mars Odyssey, first noticed the two deep pits—which are about 590 feet (180 meters) and 1,017 feet (310 meters), respectively—a year earlier using its infrared camera, THEMIS. (Related: "Seven Great Mars Pictures From Record-Breaking Probe.")

"When compared to the surrounding surface, the dark interiors of the holes gave off heat at night but were cool by day," said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator on the HiRISE camera.

"So we then decided to target these with MRO because this thermal information may be evidence for these being caves—but the jury is still out on that."

(See "Mars Has Cave Networks, New Photos Suggest.")

The MRO has been studying Mars since 2006, beaming back more data than all other past and current missions to the planet combined.

Lightning Captured by X-Ray Camera

The first x-ray images of a lightning strike have been captured by a, well, lightning-fast camera, scientists say. The pictures suggest a lightning bolt carries all its x-ray radiation in its tip. (Get lightning facts.)

During recent thunderstorms in Camp Blanding, Florida, the camera's electronic shutter "froze" a lightning bolt—artificially triggered by rockets and wires—as it sped toward the ground at one-sixth the speed of light.

"Something moving this fast would go from the Earth to the moon in less than ten seconds," said Joseph Dwyer, a lightning researcher at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

Scientists have known for several years that lightning emits radiation, said Dwyer, who revealed the photos at an annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco earlier this month.

But until now scientists didn't have the technology to take x-ray images quickly enough to see where the radiation comes from, he said.

(Read "New Lightning Type Found Over Volcano?")

Lightning Imaged by 1,500-Pound Camera

Making a camera capable of taking such quick images was an achievement in and of itself, Dwyer emphasized.

"You can't just go buy a camera and point it at lightning," he said. "We had to make it."

The resulting 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) camera—created by Dwyer's graduate student Meagan Schaal—consists of an x-ray detector housed in a box about the size and shape of a refrigerator. The box is lined with lead to shield the x-ray detector from stray radiation.

X-rays enter the box through a small hole that in turn focuses them, like an old-fashioned pinhole camera.

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"Fake Diamond" Star Discovered

Dubbed LS IV-14 116, the faint, blue star lies about 2,000 light-years from the sun. Detailed new measurements reveal the star to be the most zirconium-rich known to date, with levels more than 10,000 times higher than those in our sun.

While real diamonds are made of carbon, jewellers make false diamonds out of zirconium dioxide crystals, aka cubic zirconia. The mineral zirconium silicate, or zircon, is also widely used as a gemstone. (Related: "'Diamond Planets' Hint at Dazzling Promise of Other Worlds.")

In addition to zirconium, astronomers studying LS IV-14 116 found chemical signatures for high amounts of three other elements rarely seen in stellar atmospheres: strontium, germanium, and yttrium.

"It really is quite an oddball," said team member Simon Jeffery of Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.

An In-Between Star

Jeffery and colleagues found the high amount of zirconium while studying the chemistry of LS IV-14 116. Previous measurements had indicated the star is a rare, helium-rich hot subdwarf.

When less massive stars die, they swell up and start shedding their outer layers of gas, becoming red giants. When all the gas is released, the leftover core of the dead star is called a white dwarf.

Hot subdwarfs represent a phase of evolution for some stars that comes between red giants and white dwarfs, so studying them will give scientists greater insight into how stars live and die. (Related: "Red Giant Sun May Not Destroy Earth.")

Using the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, the team took a closer look at LS IV-14 116's spectral lines, the frequencies of light emitted by the star, as determined by the elements and molecules present.

The spectral line for zirconium was not only strong, it corresponded to a form of the metal that exists only at temperatures above 20,000 degrees Celsius. This form had previously never been seen in any astronomical object

Cosmic 'enlightenment' dawned slowly

The end of the universe's "dark age" was long and drawn out, according to the first direct measurement of the period when the first stars and galaxies heated up intergalactic gas.

Right after the big bang, the universe was a roiling soup of subatomic particles. These cooled and coalesced into neutral atoms within 400,000 years, beginning the cosmic dark age. This only ended when ultraviolet light from the first stars and giant black holes had once again ionised the fog of neutral atoms filling the universe. How long this process of "re-ionisation" took isn't clear.

To find out, Judd Bowman of Arizona State University in Tempe and Alan Rogers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology deployed a small radio antenna called EDGES in Western Australia.

The telescope detects radio waves that have been emitted by neutral hydrogen atoms. These have a wavelength of 21 centimetres when they are emitted, but this gets stretched as they travel across space due to the universe's expansion.
Slow and steady

Based on the amount of stretch, the team knew that EDGES measured light released when the universe was a few hundred million to a billion years old. It did not find a sudden decrease in the brightness of the light emitted by neutral hydrogen atoms at any point in that period, suggesting that re-ionisation did not occur suddenly.

"I'm excited," says Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It's the first time we have a constraint on the duration of re-ionisation."

"It's also nice to see two people getting a result before the big teams that have much more money," Loeb adds. A range of large radio telescope arrays are under construction, such as the LOFAR telescope in the Netherlands and Germany. These projects, which consist of hundreds or thousands of antennas, will attempt to take high-resolution maps of the hydrogen.

EDGES, which measures the total amount of radiation from hydrogen atoms over a large swathe of the sky, cannot image the gas in detail. But the small telescope may be better at looking even farther into the past than the larger arrays, allowing it to look at hydrogen atoms heated by the very first stars, Bowman says.

Quartet of giant planets puzzles astronomers

The discovery of a fourth giant world around the star HR 8799 is straining the two leading theories of how planets form.

Planets are thought to coalesce from a dusty disc around a young star. One model, called core accretion, says that giant planets form when the dust gathers into a rocky core, which then draws in gas to form a massive atmosphere. Another, called disc instability, says that these planets collapse suddenly from sections of the disc.

HR 8799's four planets, each five to 13 times Jupiter's mass, are too far apart to be explained easily by either model, say Christian Marois of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues.

"This is the widest range of orbital radii of any planetary system known," Marois told New Scientist. His team imagedMovie Camera three planets around the star in 2008 and has now found the fourth.

The outermost planet is nearly 70 times as far from its star as the Earth is from the sun. At that distance, dust moves so slowly that by the time it had snowballed into a rocky core, the star would already have blown away most of the gas in the disc around it. That would have prevented a giant planet from forming in the core accretion model, the researchers say.

The newly discovered innermost planet challenges the rival disc instability model. It orbits at 15 times the Earth-sun distance – where the star's heat would prevent the disc from collapsing, the researchers argue.

It is unlikely that a mixture of the two processes would have produced planets with such similar masses, they say. Instead, the planets may have formed further in or out and then migrated through the gassy disc to their current positions.

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Fetal genome mapped from mother's blood for first time

For the first time, a fetus has had its entire genome mapped from a sample of its mother's blood. This technical tour de force could open the door to new methods of prenatal genetic diagnosis.

In 1997, researchers led by Dennis Lo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that "floating" fetal DNA can be detected in maternal blood plasma – it passes across the placenta from fetal cells that have broken down.

Lo's discovery sparked a lot of interest, because it raised the possibility of diagnosing genetic problems in a fetus without the need for invasive procedures such as chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis to extract fetal cells, both of which carry a small risk of inducing a miscarriage.

But it's hard to distinguish fetal sequences from the larger quantity of a woman's own DNA. This has so far largely limited practical applications of the technique to unambiguous situations in which particular fetal genes are not carried by the mother. For instance, fetal sex can be determined by detecting sequences from the male Y chromosome. It's also possible to identify fetuses at risk of rhesus disease, where the mother's immune system attacks a protein on her fetus's red blood cells, by looking for the gene for this rhesus protein in the blood of women who are rhesus negative.

Lo has previously worked on methods to detect fetuses with Down's syndrome from floating fetal DNA. Now, through a combination of brute-force DNA sequencing and sophisticated bioinformatics, his team has shown that it should be possible to detect any genetic disease from a sample of a pregnant woman's blood.

Blue whale feeding methods are ultra-efficient

Blue whales are the biggest and perhaps most efficient animals alive. Their method of filter-feeding takes in 90 times more energy than it uses.

The enormous mammals dive up to 500 metres beneath the surface, then lunge into the swarms of tiny krill above them at several metres per second. As they strike, their massive mouths fill with huge volumes of water, including plenty of krill. The water is pushed out through the filters, or baleen, in each whale's mouth, trapping the krill.

This feeding technique takes a lot of effort due to the energy needed for the lunges. "We wondered how they coped," says Robert Shadwick of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Shadwick's colleague Jeremy Goldbogen of the University of California, San Diego, led a team who set out to track blue whales as they fed. In small boats they zoomed up alongside surfacing whales and attached tracking devices to them using suction caps.
Energy efficient

In total the team tracked 265 blue whales as they carried out 200 foraging dives and 654 lunges. From the speeds the whales reached while lunging, they calculated that each lunge used about 3200 kilojoules of energy.

That may seem high, but it was dwarfed by the amount of energy the whales got from their food. Based on known krill densities in the whales' feeding grounds, each lunge netted between 34,000 and 1,912,000 kJ – up to 237 times the energy used. Even when the energy costs of diving are included, the whales still gained 90 times the energy they used.

Shadwick says the results could explain how blue whales survive their migratory lifestyles. They feed in Antarctic waters in the summer, then head north to their tropical breeding grounds where little food is available. Even so, the females must still produce enormous volumes of milk for their calves. "This explains how they can cope with seasonal starvation," Shadwick says.

Foraging whales must have high densities of krill for their feeding methods to be effective, says Alejandro Acevedo-Gutiérrez of Western Washington University in Bellingham. Lunge feeders "have to get more bang for the time underwater, so to speak", he says.

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