The Bad Astronomer writes: "Just in time for the holiday season, the NASA space probe MESSENGER appears to have all but confirmed the existence of ice at Mercury's north pole. Ice has long been suspected to be hiding in permanently shadowed areas in deep craters at the planet's pole, but new data show several converging lines of evidence (thermal and visible light mapping, radar, neutron emission) that as much as a trillion tons of ice may be buried just centimeters deep under the surface. Scientists also see evidence of organic (carbon-based) molecules as well. That's not life, but it's more of an indication that volatile compounds can exist on the solar system's innermost planet."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "While nearly a thousand planets are known to orbit other stars, getting direct pictures of them is extremely difficult due to the glare from their host stars. Fewer than a dozen images of exoplanets exist. However, we can now add one more to the list: Kappa Andromedae b, or Kap And b for short. It's about 170 light years away, and orbits Kappa And, a massive star bright enough to see with the naked eye. One hitch: its mass puts it right at the upper limit for a planet, and it may edge into brown dwarf territory. Further observations are needed to pin its mass down."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Astronomers have announced that the nearest star system in the sky — Alpha Centauri — has an Earth-sized planet orbiting one of its stars. Alpha Cen is technically a three-star system: a binary composed of two stars very much like the Sun, orbited by a third, a red dwarf, much farther out. Using the Doppler technique (looking for very small changes in the velocities of the stars) astronomers detected a planet orbiting the smaller of the two stars in the binary, Alpha Centauri B. The planet has a mass only 1.13 times that of the Earth, making it one of the smallest yet detected.However, it orbits the star only 6 million kilometers out, so it's far too hot to be habitable.
The signal from the planet is extremely weak but solidly detected, giving astronomers even greater hope of being able to find an Earth-like planet orbiting a star in its habitable zone."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "For the first time, a planet has been found in a stellar system composed of four stars. The planet, called PH-1, orbits a binary star made of two sun-like stars in a tight orbit. That binary is itself orbited by another binary pair much farther out. Even more amazing, this planet was found by two "citizen scientists", amateurs who participated in Planet Hunters, a project which puts Kepler Observatory data online for lay people to analyze. At least two confirmed planets have been found by this project, but this is the first — ever — in a quaternary system."
another random user writes: Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner smashed a number of records with his "edge of space" stunt — including for live streaming.
More than eight million people flocked to their devices to watch the 43-year-old break the speed of sound live on Google's YouTube site. It is the largest number of concurrent live streams in the website's history, Google UK confirmed to the BBC.
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Using the newly-commissioned ALMA radio observatory, astronomers have taken detailed images of one of the most amazing objects in the sky: the red giant R Sculptoris. As the star dies, it undergoes gigantic seizures beneath its surface that blast out waves of gas and dust from the surface. These normally expand into a spherical shell, but the presence of a nearby companion star changes things. The combined orbits of the two stars fling out the material like a garden sprinkler, forming enormous and incredibly beautiful spiral arms. Measuring the size and shape of the spiral shows the last eruption was 1800 years ago, lasted for nearly two centuries, and expelled enough material to make a thousand earths."
another random user writes: Few researchers have given credence to claims that samples of dinosaur DNA have survived to the present day, but no one knew just how long it would take for genetic material to fall apart. Now, a study of fossils found in New Zealand is laying the matter to rest — and putting paid to hopes of cloning a Tyrannosaurus rex.
After cell death, enzymes start to break down the bonds between the nucleotides that form the backbone of DNA, and micro-organisms speed the decay. In the long run, however, reactions with water are thought to be responsible for most bond degradation. Groundwater is almost ubiquitous, so DNA in buried bone samples should, in theory, degrade at a set rate.
Determining that rate has been difficult because it is rare to find large sets of DNA-containing fossils with which to make meaningful comparisons. To make matters worse, variable environmental conditions such as temperature, degree of microbial attack and oxygenation alter the speed of the decay process.
By comparing the specimens' ages and degrees of DNA degradation, the researchers calculated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. That means that after 521 years, half of the bonds between nucleotides in the backbone of a sample would have broken; after another 521 years half of the remaining bonds would have gone; and so on.
another random user writes: Scientists in the Arctic have launched an urgent investigation into how solar storms can disrupt sat-nav.
Studies have revealed how space weather can cut the accuracy of GPS by tens of metres. Flares from the Sun interact with the upper atmosphere and can distort the signals from global positioning satellites.
The project is under way at a remote observatory on a windswept mountainside in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the High Arctic. The site was chosen for its isolation from electronic pollution and for its position in relation to the Earth's magnetic field which flows from space down towards the far North.
The Bad Astronomer writes: "A century ago, astronomers (including Edwin Hubble) discovered the Universe was expanding. Using the same methods — but this time with observations from an orbiting infrared space telescope — a new study confirms this expansion, and nails the rate with higher precision than done before. If you're curious, the expansion rate found was 74.3 +/- 2.1 kilometers per second per megaparsec — almost precisely in line with previous messureents."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "Astronomers have unveiled what may be the deepest image of the Universe ever created: the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, a 2 million second exposure that reveals galaxies over 13 billion light years away. The faintest galaxies in the images are at magnitude 31, or one-ten-billionth as bright as the faintest object your naked eye can detect. Some are seen as they were when they were only 500 million years old."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Eriq Gardner writes that on the premiere episode of Fox's Million Dollar Money Drop — which ran for 12 episodes from December 2010 to February 2011 — contestants Andrew and Patricia Murray were asked what is the most common computer password: "Password," "123456," or "I Love You." They opted for "Password" and bet all $580,000 they had remaining from the $1 million they started with. The Murrays guessed wrong losing everything. Or did they? After losing the money, the plaintiffs apparently researched the question further and discovered that data-security firm Imperva who provided the answer did not conduct its own, objective survey of computer users. Instead, the assertion that "123456" is the most common password was based on an analysis of a hacking incident involving a website, Rockyou.com. The Murrays say the question should have read, "According to a hacking incident involving the inadvertent leak of user passwords on the website Rockyou.com..." The Murrays still face formidable obstacles in court including a 13-page, take-it-or-leave-it "Contestant Release Agreement" plus a 16-page Million Dollar Money Drop Official Rules. "We have a feeling that 'What's the most common way to beat an iron-clad waiver' will make it onto a law school exam one day," writes Gardner. "According to John Roberts at Ball & Roberts, who is representing the Murrays, the answer is intentional and negligent misrepresentation, breach of written and oral contract, negligence and fraud.""
astroengine writes: "A new analysis of recent observations finds evidence for a protoplanetary disk around a red dwarf star plunging in the direction of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Ruth Murray-Clay and Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics did the theoretical work. Stefan Gillessen of the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics made the observations using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. The red dwarf star will make its closest approach in the summer of 2013, hurtling only 270 billion miles from black hole. (Or roughly 54 solar system diameters, as measured from the furthest edge of the Kuiper belt.) It won't get sucked into the black hole, but it will be flung back along its elliptical orbit out to a distance of a little more than 1/10 light-years."
The Bad Astronomer writes: "An extremely bright meteor burned up over Ireland and the northern UK around 22:00 UTC on Friday night, and was apparently witnessed by thousands of people. It traveled east to west, and was moving relatively slowly. It may have been an actual rock, or it may have been some human-made space debris — a satellite or rocket booster — burning up. Space junk tends to move more slowly, so that's a potential suspect, though orbiting debris usually moves in the opposite direction. I'm collecting pictures and images on my Bad Astronomy blog."