Earth-like exoplanets have gotten a lot of attention in the last few years; it's exciting to think that there's life — or even just life-sustaining conditions — on planets other than Earth, whether near by (on Mars) or much farther away (orbiting Vega). Projects like NASA's Kepler, and the ground-based HARPS, attempt to spot planets outside our solar system of all kinds. These exoplanet discoveries have been ramping up lately, and so has sorting of the discovered planets by size and other characteristics; the odds are looking good, say astronomers quoted by Space.com, that an Earth-like planet will be found this year. Abel Mendez runs the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, and UC Berkeley astromer Geoff Marcy looks for planets as part of the Kepler team; they explain in the article why they think 2013 is an auspicious one for planet hunters.
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Hugh Pickens writes "Adam Nagourney reports that after a yearlong investigation a team of climate scientists announced that it is throwing out a reading of 136.4 degrees claimed by the city of Al Aziziyah, Libya on Sept. 13, 1922 making the 134-degree reading registered on July 10, 1913, at Greenland Ranch in Death Valley the official world record as the hottest place on earth. 'It's about time for science, but I think we all knew it was coming,' says Randy Banis. 'You don't underestimate Death Valley. Most of us enthusiasts are proud that the extremes that we have known about at Death Valley are indeed the most harsh on earth.' The final report by 13 climatologists appointed by the World Meteorological Organization, the climate agency of the United Nations, found five reasons to disqualify the Libya claim, including questionable instruments, an inexperienced observer who made the reading, and the fact that the reading was anomalous for that region and in the context of other temperatures reported in Libya that day. 'The more we looked at it, the more obvious it appeared to be an error,' says Christopher C. Burt, a meteorologist with Weather Underground who started the debate in a blog post in 2010."
cylonlover writes "NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion engine has set a new world record by clocking 43,000 hours of continuous operation at NASA's Glenn Research Center's Electric Propulsion Laboratory. The seven-kilowatt thruster is intended to propel future NASA deep space probes on missions where chemical rockets aren't a practical option. The NEXT is one of NASA's latest generation of engines. With a power output of seven kilowatts, it's over twice as powerful as the ones used aboard the unmanned Dawn space probe, yet it is simpler in design, lighter and more efficient, and is also designed for very high endurance. Its current record of 43,000 hours is the equivalent of nearly five years of continuous operation while consuming only 770 kg (1697.5 lbs) of xenon propellant. The NEXT engine (PDF) would provide 30 million newton-seconds of total impulse to a spacecraft. What this means in simple terms is that the NEXT engine can make a spacecraft go (eventually) very far and very fast."
The next generation of Russian spacecraft will be ready for test flights by 2017, according to Energia President Vitaly Lopota. 'We have completed the technical design project taking into account the fact that the new spaceship is to fly to the Moon, among other places,' he said. Federal Space Agency Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin says the new ship would be built by 2018 and would be able to conduct missions to the International Space Station and the Moon.
A British plan to blast a path through more than two miles of ice to reach an Antarctic lake has been suspended because of technical problems. From the article: "In a move that clears the way for U.S. and Russian teams to take the lead, Professor Martin Siegert said technical problems and a lack of fuel had forced the closure on Christmas Day of the 7-million-pound ($11 million) project, which was looking for life forms and climate change clues in the lake-bed sediment. 'This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year,' said Siegert of the University of Bristol, principal investigator for the mission, which was headed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). 'By the end, the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field-tested,' he said on the BAS website."
jomama717 writes "Another chapter in the fascinating life of Srinivasa Ramanujan appears to be complete: 'While on his death bed, the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan cryptically wrote down functions he said came to him in dreams, with a hunch about how they behaved. Now 100 years later, researchers say they've proved he was right. "We've solved the problems from his last mysterious letters. For people who work in this area of math, the problem has been open for 90 years," Emory University mathematician Ken Ono said. Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematician born in a rural village in South India, spent so much time thinking about math that he flunked out of college in India twice, Ono said.'"
skade88 writes "Does life exist on Mars? We might assume if there ever was life on Mars then it most likely came about when Mars was a wetter and warmer place than it is now. So the question is, if life did exist on Mars in the past, does it still exist? Ars takes a look at how microbes have survived on Earth in environmental conditions much like we currently see on Mars."
cylonlover writes "The SpaceX Grasshopper vertical takeoff vertical landing (VTVL) testbed has successfully flown to a height of 40 meters (131 ft), hovered for a bit and subsequently landed in a picture perfect test on December 17, 2012. The Grasshopper had previously taken two hops to less than 6 m (20 ft) in height, but the latest test was the first that saw it reach an altitude taller than the rocket itself, which is a modified Falcon 9 orbital launch vehicle. The flight lasted 29 seconds from launch to landing, and carried a 1.8 m (6 ft) cowboy dummy to give an indication of scale."
Lasrick writes "David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists analyzes the debris from North Korea's December 11th Unha-3 launch. From the article: 'According to press reports, traces on the inner walls of the tank show that the first-stage oxidizer is a form of nitric acid called "red-fuming nitric acid," which is the standard oxidizer used in Scud-type missiles. There had been some speculation that this stage might instead use a more advanced fuel with nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as the oxidizer. Since the Nodong engines believed to power the first stage are scaled-up Scud engines, the use of RNFA is not a surprise. There have also been claims that the stage uses a more advanced fuel called UDMH, but it appears instead to be the kerosene-based fuel used in Scuds. In his recent RAND study, Markus Schiller noted that a test Iraq performed using UDMH in a Scud engine gave poor performance, and that burning UDMH gives a transparent flame. The North Korean video of the launch instead shows an orange flame characteristic of Scud fuels (Figure 3 is an image from 12:44 into the video). These findings confirm that the stage is still Scud-level technology.'"
An anonymous reader writes in with news about a bird flu outbreak in Bangladesh. "At least 150,000 chickens and 300,000 eggs have been destroyed at a giant poultry farm near Dhaka in Bangladesh after the major outbreak of avian flu was detected last week, officials said Wednesday. This season's bird flu outbreak was the worst in five years. Officials at Bay Agro at Gazipur detected the deadly H5N1 flu strain 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Dhaka on Monday after dozens of birds died, which had prompted the poultry company to send samples to a laboratory for testing. 'There are about 150,000 chickens at the farm. We have already killed and destroyed 120,000 chickens and we will kill the rest today,' livestock department director Mosaddeq Hossain said, according to AFP. Hossain said that it was the worst avian flu outbreak in five years."
An anonymous reader writes with news of a study out of the Netherlands (abstract) about the link between psychosis and marijuana use. The researchers wanted to examine what caused the relationship — was marijuana use leading to psychosis, or did those suffering from psychosis have a higher tendency to seek out marijuana? As it turns out, they found evidence for both. From the article: "... using pot at 16 years old was linked to psychotic symptoms three years later, and psychotic symptoms at age 16 were linked to pot use at age 19. This was true even when the researchers accounted for mental illness in the kids' families, alcohol use and tobacco use. Griffith-Lendering said she could not say how much more likely young pot users were to exhibit psychotic symptoms later on. Also, the new study cannot prove one causes the other. Genetics may also explain the link between pot use and psychosis, said Griffith-Lendering."
Tests on milk from several different farms across the U.K. have turned up evidence for a new strain of MRSA — bacteria which have evolved resistance to common antibiotics. As long as the milk is properly pasteurized, it poses no threat to consumers, but anyone working directly with the animals bears a small risk of infection. According to The Independent, "The disclosure comes amid growing concern over the use of modern antibiotics on British farms, driven by price pressure imposed by the big supermarket chains. Intensive farming with thousands of animals raised in cramped conditions means infections spread faster and the need for antibiotics is consequently greater. Three classes of antibiotics rated as 'critically important to human medicine' by the World Health Organization – cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and macrolides – have increased in use in the animal population by eightfold in the last decade."
Lockheed Martin and Boeing have been getting all government launch contracts for the past six years. That is, until SpaceX demonstrated they could reach the International Space Station successfully this year. Asked about the new competition brought by SpaceX, Lockheed CEO Robert Stevens made light of the younger company's success. "I’m hugely pleased with 66 in a row from [the Boeing-Lockheed alliance], and I don’t know the record of SpaceX yet," he said. "Two in a row?" When he was asked about the skyrocketing price of launching his sky rockets, he said, "You can thrift on cost. You can take cost out of a rocket. But I will guarantee you, in my experience, when you start pulling a lot of costs out of a rocket, your quality and your probability of success in delivering a payload to orbit diminishes." SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was blunt about the source of the price difference between the companies: "The fundamental reason SpaceX’s rockets are lower cost and more powerful is that our technology is significantly more advanced than that of the Lockheed-Boeing rockets, which were designed last century." The Delta IV and Atlas V rockets of Lockheed-Boeing average about $464 million per launch, while SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches for $54 million. Its upcoming Falcon Heavy will go up for $80-125 million.
An anonymous reader sends this excerpt from a UC Berkeley news release: "Our eyes may be our window to the world, but how do we make sense of the thousands of images that flood our retinas each day? Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that the brain is wired to put in order all the categories of objects and actions that we see. They have created the first interactive map of how the brain organizes these groupings."
A recent paper in Science (abstract) examines the insurance industry's reaction to climate change. The industry rakes in trillions of dollars in revenues every year, and a shifting climate would have the potential to drastically cut into the profits left over after settlements have been paid. Hurricane Sandy alone did about $80 billion worth of damage to New York and New Jersey. With incredible amounts of money at stake, the industry is taking climate projections quite seriously. From the article: "Many insurers are using climate science to better quantify and diversify their exposure, more accurately price and communicate risk, and target adaptation and loss-prevention efforts. They also analyze their extensive databases of historical weather- and climate-related losses, for both large- and small-scale events. But insurance modeling is a distinct discipline. Unlike climate models, insurers’ models extrapolate historical data rather than simulate the climate system, and they require outputs at finer scales and shorter time frames than climate models."