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Star Trek-like invisible shield found thousands of miles above Earth

Scientists have discovered an invisible shield roughly 7,200 miles above Earth. Credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta

Scientists have discovered an invisible shield roughly 7,200 miles above Earth. Credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth that blocks so-called “killer electrons,” which whip around the planet at near-light speed and have been known to threaten astronauts, fry satellites and degrade space systems during intense solar storms.

The barrier to the particle motion was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, two doughnut-shaped rings above Earth that are filled with high-energy electrons and protons, said Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Held in place by Earth’s magnetic field, the Van Allen radiation belts periodically swell and shrink in response to incoming energy disturbances from the sun.

As the first significant discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts were detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen and his team at the University of Iowa and were found to be comprised of an inner and outer belt extending up to 25,000 miles above Earth’s surface. In 2013, Baker — who received his doctorate under Van Allen — led a team that used the twin Van Allen Probes launched by NASA in 2012 to discover a third, transient “storage ring” between the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts that seems to come and go with the intensity of space weather.

The latest mystery revolves around an “extremely sharp” boundary at the inner edge of the outer belt at roughly 7,200 miles in altitude that appears to block the ultrafast electrons from breeching the shield and moving deeper towards Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker, the study’s lead author. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”

A paper on the subject was published in the Nov. 27 issue of Nature.

The team originally thought the highly charged electrons, which are looping around Earth at more than 100,000 miles per second, would slowly drift downward into the upper atmosphere and gradually be wiped out by interactions with air molecules. But the impenetrable barrier seen by the twin Van Allen belt spacecraft stops the electrons before they get that far, said Baker.

The group looked at a number of scenarios that could create and maintain such a barrier. The team wondered if it might have to do with Earth’s magnetic field lines, which trap and control protons and electrons, bouncing them between Earth’s poles like beads on a string. The also looked at whether radio signals from human transmitters on Earth could be scattering the charged electrons at the barrier, preventing their downward motion. Neither explanation held scientific water, Baker said.

“Nature abhors strong gradients and generally finds ways to smooth them out, so we would expect some of the relativistic electrons to move inward and some outward,” said Baker. “It’s not obvious how the slow, gradual processes that should be involved in motion of these particles can conspire to create such a sharp, persistent boundary at this location in space.”

Another scenario is that the giant cloud of cold, electrically charged gas called the plasmasphere, which begins about 600 miles above Earth and stretches thousands of miles into the outer Van Allen belt, is scattering the electrons at the boundary with low frequency, electromagnetic waves that create a plasmapheric “hiss,” said Baker. The hiss sounds like white noise when played over a speaker, he said.

While Baker said plasmaspheric hiss may play a role in the puzzling space barrier, he believes there is more to the story. “I think the key here is to keep observing the region in exquisite detail, which we can do because of the powerful instruments on the Van Allen probes. If the sun really blasts the Earth’s magnetosphere with a coronal mass ejection (CME), I suspect it will breach the shield for a period of time,” said Baker, also a faculty member in the astrophysical and planetary sciences department.

“It’s like looking at the phenomenon with new eyes, with a new set of instrumentation, which give us the detail to say, ‘Yes, there is this hard, fast boundary,'” said John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory and a study co-author.

Facundo Fernandez (left) and Rachel Bennett, use a robotic arm to probe objects with irregularly-shaped surfaces for mass spectrometry. Credit: GA Tech

Astrobiology Acupuncture: Collecting Data from Non-Planar Surfaces

A team of researchers supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Program has turned to acupuncture in order to study samples from rough and uneven surfaces, such as rocks and meteorites. Using the technique, scientists at the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE) at Georgia Tech have developed a robotic system that can collect samples from these non-planar surfaces.

The scientists programmed the robotic arm to poke the sample with an acupuncture needle. Credit: GA Tech

The scientists programmed the robotic arm to poke the sample with an acupuncture needle. Credit: GA Tech

Threading the Needle

The system uses a 3-D camera mounted on a robotic arm to map the irregular surface of an object. Then an acupuncture needle pokes and probes a tiny spot selected by the scientists. A minuscule amount of material is collected at the tip of the needle and carried by the robotic arm to a mass spectrometer.

The system allows scientists to specifically ‘pinpoint’ the exact region of a rough and irregularly shaped object for sampling. The mass spectrometer then provides detailed information about the sample’s chemical composition. The technology could have many applications for astrobiologists, and the team hopes to use it for studies on the origins of life.

A Rough Origin

The inspiration for the study came from examining fine-scale details on the surface of meteorites. Life’s origins on Earth are thought to have occurred when small, simple molecules interacted with one another to form larger and larger molecules. Eventually, the components necessary for life, such as genetic material and structural molecules, became incorporated into the first living cells on Earth.

Understanding how and where these ancient reactions occurred is a fundamental goal of astrobiology. Some scientists believe that these first reactions could have been jump-started by minerals on the surface of meteorites. However, directly studying the surface of meteorites at such a fine scale is difficult because the surface is not flat. Meteorites are rough and uneven, and are covered with pores, cracks and fissures. The instrument helps solve the problem of collecting tiny, specific samples from the surface. Ultimately, it will allow scientists to collect samples from the exact areas of a surface where reactions are occurring.

Facundo Fernandez (left) and Rachel Bennett, use a robotic arm to probe objects with irregularly-shaped surfaces for mass spectrometry. Credit: GA Tech

Facundo Fernandez (left) and Rachel Bennett, use a robotic arm to probe objects with irregularly-shaped surfaces for mass spectrometry. Credit: GA Tech

The team hopes to simulate origin of life reactions on rocks and meteorites in the lab. Using their robotic acupuncturist, they will able to collect tiny samples of the reaction products from the surface of the objects in order to study them in detail. The team has not performed these experiments yet, but according to Facundo M. Fernandez of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech, this is where their work is headed. For now, they are exploring ways to improve the resolution of the technique. This includes upgrading the mass spectrometer and improving the 3D vision system and software.

“With these improvements, we hope to have a system that is competitive from the performance point of view to image such reactions on minerals,” says Fernandez. “We are particularly interested in phosphorylation reactions by the mineral schreibersite on organic substrates, work that we are carrying out in collaboration with Professor Matt Pasek and other CCE principal investigators.”

Fernandez and his team will be working with other CCE Principal Investigators, including Matt Pasek of the University of Southern Florida, to study how meteorites react with organics.

“Since meteorites are not planar surfaces, even when cut, the reaction of a meteorite with an organic substrate could generate mineral-specific compounds at the surface of the meteorite,” says Pasek.“Trying to figure out what these are on these 3D objects could definitely benefit from that analysis.”

In particular, Pasek and Fernandez will look at phosphorylation or organic substrates by the mineral schreibersite.

This rock encountered by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is an iron meteorite called "Lebanon," similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS

This rock encountered by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is an iron meteorite called “Lebanon,” similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The robotic system will help scientists study meteorites on Earth, and possibly on future missions to locations like Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS

Phosphorylation reactions occur when a phosphate group is added to an organic molecule. One reason that these reactions are vital for life is because the addition of a phosphate group turns many enzymes in cells ‘on’ and ‘off.’ When an enzyme is turned on, it takes an active role in cellular processes that are essential for keeping our cells alive and working.

Schreibersite is a rare mineral on Earth, and one of the only places to find it is in iron-nickel meteorites that fell to our planet from space. Studying schreibersite’s role in reactions important to life could help astrobiologists determine if materials delivered by meteorites were critical for the origin of life as we know it.

Beyond the Origin

The new robotic system will be incredibly useful in studying meteorites, but it also has numerous applications beyond studies on the origin of life, including fields unrelated to astrobiology. There are many fields that can benefit from studying molecular interactions on a 3-D surface.

The Robot Arm holds and maneuvers the instruments that help scientists get up-close and personal with martian rocks and soil. Credit: NASA

The Robot Arm holds and maneuvers the instruments that help scientists get up-close and personal with martian rocks and soil. The new technique could one day allow robotic explorers like Curiosity to perform ‘acupuncture’ on Mars rocks. Credit: NASA

“One idea would be the investigation of suspicious skin lesions on ears or other areas of the body to establish their malignancy,” says Fernandez. “Another application would be the automated screening of explosives/narcotics on the surface of luggage, where the robot takes a swab sample of the surface of a luggage piece passing by on a conveyor belt. It could even be useful for looking at a growing organism (such as a plant) or even a 3D cell culture.”

In terms of space exploration, the system could inspire instruments for robotic explorers on other worlds. Rather than scooping up a sample of soil, rovers or landers could perform this special form of acupuncture on rocks or other targets of scientific interest while exploring the surface of planets like Mars.

“[The system] could have an application in examining complex rocks from various angles and under situations which may be not ideal for taking a sample by drilling,” says Fernandez. “The opportunities are endless.”

This work was supported by the Center for Chemical Evolution, a joint program from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA Astrobiology Program. Initial funding came from a NSF Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Instrument Development Program grant.

The familiar continents of Earth are embedded in tectonic plates on the planet's surface that slowly collide with each over time.

Questions of Continental Crust

The familiar continents of Earth are embedded in tectonic plates on the planet's surface that slowly collide with each over time.

The familiar continents of Earth are embedded in tectonic plates on the planet’s surface that slowly collide with each over time.

Geological processes shape the planet Earth and are in many ways essential to our planet’s habitability for life. One important geological process is plate tectonics – the drifting, colliding and general movement of continental plates. This slow movement of mass has a role in causing all kinds of activity at the planet’s surface, from earthquakes to the formation of mountains.

Beneath Earth's solid crust are the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core. Scientists learn about the inside of Earth by studying how waves from earthquakes travel through the planet. Image credit: World Book illustration by Raymond Perlman and Steven Brayfield, Artisan-Chicago

Earth’s solid crust is a relatively thin layer of the Earth that rests above the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core. Although thin, the crust contains a record of our planet’s geological history and resources necessary for life. Image credit: World Book illustration by Raymond Perlman and Steven Brayfield, Artisan-Chicago

A new review published by the Geological Society of London examines questions about the continental crust of Earth, which is the primary repository for information about Earth’s geological history (as well as many natural resources of value to humankind).

In the volume, scientists explore when and how continental crust formed and how it evolved through time. These are important questions for astrobiologists, and could provide clues about whether or not crustal formation is essential for the habitability of distant worlds.

For more information about plate tectonics and the potential connections between life and the continents of Earth, see:
Plate Tectonics Could be Essential for Life
How Cosmic Crashes Could have Kickstarted Plate Tectonics

And here are a few resources for educators:
Continents (NASA)
NASA Window to Earth
Solid Earth Science Working Group

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Centipede’s genome reveals how life evolved on our planet

This is Strigamia maritima, the centipede species genetically sequenced in the study.  (Photo credit: Dr. Carlo Brena)

This is Strigamia maritima, the centipede species genetically sequenced in the study. (Photo credit: Dr. Carlo Brena)

Centipedes, those many-legged creatures that startle us in our homes and gardens, have been genetically sequenced for the first time. In a new study in the journal PLoS Biology, an international team of over 100 scientists today reveals how this humble arthropod’s DNA gave them new insight into how life developed on our planet.

Centipedes are members of the arthropods, a group with numerous species including insects, spiders and other animals. Until now, the only class of arthropods not represented by a sequenced genome was the myriapods, which include centipedes and millipedes. For this study, the researchers sequenced the genome of the centipede Strigamia maritima, because its primitive features can help us understand more complex arthropods.

According to Prof. Ariel Chipman, senior co-author of the study and project leader at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Science, the genetic data reveal how creatures transitioned from their original dwelling-place in the sea to living on land.

“The use of different evolutionary solutions to similar problems shows that myriapods and insects adapted to dry land independently of each other,” said Chipman. “For example, comparing the centipede and insect genomes shows that they independently evolved different solutions to the same problem shared by all land-dwelling creatures — that of living in dry air.”

Study co-author Prof. Ariel Chipman holds a jar of centipede specimens in his office at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy Prof. Chipman)

Study co-author Prof. Ariel Chipman holds a jar of centipede specimens in his office at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy Prof. Chipman)

According to Chipman, the study found that despite being closely related to insects, the centipede lacks the olfactory gene family used by insects to smell the air, and thus developed its own air-sniffing ability by expanding other gene families not present in insects.

In addition, Chipman said, this specific group of centipedes live underground and have lost their eyes, together with almost all vision genes and genes involved in the body’s internal clock. They maintain enhanced sensory capabilities enabling them to recognize their environment and capture prey.

Published in the latest edition of PLoS Biology, the research is a collaborative effort by over 100 scientists from 50 institutions. Thousands of human-hours went into looking at specific genes in the centipede genome, with each researcher looking at a limited set of genes or at specific structural characteristics to address specific questions.

Other leaders of the international research effort include Dr. Stephen Richards, Baylor College of Medicine; Dr. David Ferrier, University of St. Andrews; and Prof. Michael Akam of Cambridge University. The research paper is titled “The First Myriapod Genome Sequence Reveals Conservative Arthropod Gene Content and Genome Organisation in the Centipede Strigamia maritima.”

While early studies of genomics focused on humans, as sequencing equipment and expertise became more readily available, researchers expanded into animals directly relevant to human wellbeing. In the latest research, genomic sequencing has become more broad-based, investigating the workings of the world around us.

In explaining the purpose of the research, Hebrew University’s Chipman said: “If we have a better understanding of the biological world around us, how it operates, and how it came to be as it is, we will ultimately have a better understanding of ourselves.”

Miller's famous spark discharge experiment was designed to mimic lightning and the atmosphere of early Earth.

Novo estudo revisita o experimento Miller-Urey ao nível quântico

This News Exclusive was originally published in English on Sep 9, 2014. This translation for the Portuguese edition of Astrobiology magazine was provided by Bruno Martini. The original article is available here.


 

Miller's famous spark discharge experiment was designed to mimic lightning and the atmosphere of early Earth.

O famoso experimento com faíscas de descarga elétrica designado para imitar os raios e a atmosfera da antiga Terra.

Pela primeira vez, os pesquisadores reproduziram os resultados do experimento de Miller-Urey em uma simulação de computador, produzindo uma nova visão do efeito da eletricidade na formação dos blocos de construção da vida ao nível quântico.

Em 1953 o químico americano Stanley Miller tornou famosa uma simples mistura eletrificada de gás e água para simular os raios e a atmosfera da antiga Terra. O experimento revolucionário – que rendeu uma sopa amarronzada de aminoácidos – ofereceu um simples e potencial cenário para a origem dos blocos de construção da vida.  O trabalho de Miller deu origem à moderna pesquisa sobre a química pré-biótica e as origens da vida.

Pelos últimos 60 anos os cientistas investigaram outras possíveis fontes de energia para a formação dos blocos de construção da vida, incluindo a luz ultravioleta, impactos de meteoritos e fontes hidrotermais de mar profundo.

Stanley Miller, 1999 Credit: James A. Sugar

Stanley Miller, 1999. Crédito: James A. Sugar

Nesse novo estudo, Antonino Marco Saitta, da Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Sorbonne, em Paris, França e seus colegas queriam revisitar os resultados de Miller com campos elétricos, mas de uma perspectiva quântica.

Saitta e o co-autor do estudo Franz Saija, dois físicos teóricos, recentemente aplicaram um novo modelo quântico para estudar os efeitos dos campos elétricos na água, o que nunca foi feito antes. Depois de se depararem com um documentário sobre o trabalho de Miller, eles se perguntaram se uma abordagem quântica poderia funcionar para o famoso experimento de descarga de faíscas elétricas.

O método também permitiria a eles seguir átomos e moléculas individuais através do espaço e do tempo – e talvez leve a novas ideias sobre o papel da eletricidade no trabalho de Miller.

‘O espírito do nosso trabalho era mostrar que o campo elétrico é parte dele’, disse Saitta, ‘sem necessariamente envolver raios ou uma faísca’.

Seus resultados foram publicados esta semana no jornal científico Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Uma Rota Alternativa

Como no experimento original de Miller, Saitta e Saija submeteram uma mistura de moléculas contendo átomos de carbono, nitrogênio, oxigênio e hidrogênio a um campo elétrico. Como esperado, a simulação produziu glicina, uma aminoácido que é um dos mais simples blocos de construção das proteínas e um dos produtos mais abundantes do experimento original de Miller.

Mas a abordagem deles também produziu alguns resultados inesperados. Em particular, o modelo deles sugeriu que a formação de aminoácidos no cenário de Miller pode ter ocorrido através de um caminho químico mais complexo do que previamente imaginado.

Um intermediário típico na formação de aminoácidos é a pequena molécula de formaldeído. Mas a simulação deles mostrou que quando submetida a um campo elétrico, a reação favoreceu um intermediário diferente, a molécula formamida.

Acontece que a formamida poderia não apenas ter desempenhado um papel crucial na formação dos blocos de construção da vida na Terra, mas também em outros lugares.

‘Não estávamos procurando por ela, ou esperando por ela’, disse Saitta. ‘Apenas aprendemos após o fato, ao revisar a literatura científica, que esta é uma importante pista na química pré-biótica.’

Por exemplo, a formamida mostrou recentemente ser um ingrediente-chave para criar alguns dos blocos de construção do RNA, notavelmente a guanina, na presença de luz ultravioleta.

A typical intermediate in the formation of amino acids is the small molecule formaldehyde.

Formaldeído – um típico intermediário na formação dos aminoácidos.

A formamida foi recentemente observada no espaço – notavelmente em um cometa e em uma protoestrela semelhante à do Sol. Pesquisas anteriores também mostraram que formamidas podem se formar quanto cometas ou asteroides impactam a Terra.

‘A possibilidade de novas rotas para criar aminoácidos sem um formaldeído intermediário é nova e está ganhando espaço, especialmente em contextos extraterrestres’, escreveram os autores. ‘A presença de formamida pode ser a assinatura mais informativa de aminoácidos abióticos terrestres e extraterrestres.’

No entanto, Jeff Bada, que foi um estudante de pós-graduação do Miller nos anos de 1960 e fez sua carreira trabalhando na origem da vida, permanece cético sobre os resultados e a abordagem teórica deles.

‘O modelo deles pode não ter representado significativamente o que acontece em uma solução’, ele afirma. ‘Sabemos que há um monte de formaldeídos criados no experimento da faísca de descarga elétrica. Eu não acho que a reação de formamida seria significante em comparação com a reação tradicional.’

‘Mas Saitta aponta que a formamida é muito instável, então ela pode não durar tempo suficiente para ser observada nos experimentos reais de Miller. ‘Em nossa simulação, a formamida sempre se formou espontaneamente. E era um tipo de cadinho (prova severa) – ela tanto se quebraria em água e cianeto de hidrogênio, quanto se combinaria com outras moléculas e formaria o aminoácido glicina.’

Origem da Vida – nas Rochas?

Outra ideia chave do estudo deles é que a formação de alguns blocos de construção da vida pode ter ocorrido em superfícies minerais, uma vez que a maioria tem fortes campos elétricos naturais.

their model suggested that the formation of amino acids in the Miller scenario might have occurred via a more complex chemical pathway than previously thought.

Formaldeído – no modelo de computador deles, a reação favoreceu este intermediário mais complexo

‘Os campos elétricos de superfícies minerais podem ser facilmente de 10 a 20 vezes maiores que aquele no nosso estudo’, disse Saitta. ‘O problema é que ele apenas age com um alcance muito curto. Então para sentir os efeitos, as moléculas teriam de estar muito próximas da superfície.’

‘Eu penso que este trabalho é de grande significância’, afirmou François Guyot, um geoquímico do French Museum of Natural History (Museu Francês de História Natural).

‘A respeito das superfícies minerais, fortes campos elétricos sem dúvida existem em sua proximidade imediata. E por conta de seu forte papel na reatividade de moléculas orgânicas, eles podem aumentar a formação de moléculas mais complexas por um mecanismo distinto da concentração geotérmica de espécies reativas, o mecanismo que é frequentemente proposto quando superfícies minerais são invocadas para explicar a formação das primeiras biomoléculas’.

Uma das principais hipóteses no campo da origem da vida sugere que importantes reações pré-bióticas podem ter ocorrido em superfícies minerais. Mas até então os cientistas não compreendem completamente o mecanismo por trás dela.

‘Ninguém realmente olhou para os campos elétricos nas superfícies minerais’, afirmou Saitta. ‘Meu sentimento é que provavelmente há alguma coisa para se explorar lá.’

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transhuman-imagination

Beyond Human: Exploring Transhumanism

Image by Colin Anderson, 2005 (Masterfile)

Image by Colin Anderson, 2005 (Masterfile)

What do pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, Iron Man and flu vaccines all have in common?

They are examples of an old idea that’s been gaining in significance in the last several decades: transhumanism. The word denotes a set of ideas relating to the increasing integration of humans with their technologies. At the heart of the transhuman conversation, however, lies the oldest question of all: What does it mean to be human?

When talking about transhumanism, it’s easy to get lost because the definition is imprecise. “Transhumanism” can refer to the Transhumanist (with a capital T) movement, which actively pursues a technologically enhanced future, or an amorphous body of ideas and technologies that are closing the bio-techno gap, such as a robotic exoskeleton that enhances the natural strength of the wearer.

What is human?

At Arizona State University, a diverse set of researchers has been critically examining transhumanism since 2004.

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has been at the forefront of this work. Her research includes a project exploring the challenges of transhumanism in collaboration with ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

According to Tirosh-Samuelson, transhumanists seek to transcend human biology through techno-genetic enhancements. Their ultimate goal is the Singularity – a supposedly inexorable turning point after which humans as we understand them will eventually become obsolete, either because super-intelligent machines will replace them or because techno-genetic enhancements will render them unrecognizable. Essentially, it would be a new phase of human evolution driven by exponential technological growth.

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor in the Department of History and director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has been at the forefront of ASU's research on transhumanism since 2004.

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor in the Department of History and director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has been at the forefront of ASU’s research on transhumanism since 2004.

“Homo sapiens will give rise to Robo sapiens,” Tirosh-Samuelson says.

But Brad Allenby, a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at ASU, says the idea that transhumanism will end humanity is just one of many transhumanist narratives.

“That’s why transhumanism is so confusing,” says Allenby. “Because some of the time people are talking about very normative perspectives on what it means to be human, and some of the time they’re talking about specific technologies, or suites of technologies. That makes it very hard to define.”

Allenby describes transhumanism as being either a superficial cultural meme or a suite of technological projects.

Views supporting the cultural meme of transhumanism see human enhancement as inherently good. They disregard the fact that enhancing, say, a murderer, might have negative consequences. This view also tends to overlook the fact that one person’s enhancement impacts others. Allenby uses test-taking enhancements as an example:

“Let’s say you and I and a hundred other people are taking the SAT and you take an ADD drug to improve your performance,” says Allenby. “No biggie right? I mean it’s just you. (But) let’s say 10 of those people do. Let’s say 20. At some point, the fact that they make an individual choice to enhance makes me the new sub-normal because their scores on the SAT as a whole will be categorically better than my scores.”

Cultural meme-based views that are critical of transhumanism typically derive from religion. They see tampering with humanity as morally wrong. But religious belief is subjective and what’s more, people always strive to be more than they are, says Allenby.

The technological aspect of transhumanism is concerned more with the how of transhumanism than the why. It’s “basically the question of what can we do now the human is a design space? And that’s much more of a technical issue,” Allenby says.

Where does transhumanism begin?

The idea of humans and technology coming together to create something “more than human” isn’t new.

Humans have been technologically enhancing their capabilities for thousands of years, and many of our unquestioned activities involve technologically altering ourselves. For instance, vaccines are a medical technology that we introduce into our bodies to make them more resistant to diseases, so that we can “upgrade” our immune system.

The military, in particular, has evolved closely with technology. Soldiers are routinely aided in their missions by weapons, computers, drones and drugs. Allenby notes that pilots commonly take stimulants such as modafinil to keep them alert and successfully complete their missions.

But what constitutes an “enhancement?” Do glasses or wheelchairs count? What about stone tools? Have we ever notbeen technologically enhanced in some way? The answer is unclear because we don’t have a strict sense of where “human” stops and “transhuman” begins.

“Let’s say you wire me up to a machine,” says Allenby. “Do I become different when part of what I think I am is, say, a battle tank, or a fighter airplane? When do I cross that line to being not human?”

Just as the humans of tomorrow might be unrecognizable to us, the humans of today might be unrecognizable to people from several centuries ago. We live longer, our immune systems are different and our brains are even wired differently.

“For example, my class walks into my (room), they flip open their computers, and they’re automatically gods,” says Allenby. “If, in any other generation, you’d had anybody who could access the accumulated memory of our civilization, they would have been gods. But of course now everybody can do it, right? That’s what Google does.

“Now, it doesn’t mean those students know how to use it, so maybe they’re not so much gods as they are idiot savants, but it does mean that they’re very, very different than any generation that has ever gone before.”

He adds: “What a lot of the enhancement technologies do, and what the evolution of the human as a design space does, is obviously profoundly raise the question: What is human?”

A question of humanity

There are a number of common ways that humanity is defined. An evolutionary perspective holds that humans are the product of evolution by natural selection. A geneticist’s answer might be about how our DNA is unique when compared to the DNA of other species.

There are many stumbling blocks that get in the way of a straightforward scientific answer, however. For instance, is a baby born without a brain (a fatal condition known as anencephaly) human? After all, changes in the brain are one of the defining features of our emergence as Homo sapiens, and the brain is what makes us recognizably alive and able to operate. The same question could be asked of people who are brain dead.

And what about robots? If a robot could think and feel, if it had a conscience, would it be human? Or would its lack of genetic material render it forever “artificial?”

“For most people it seems to be that when I start changing your emotional structure significantly is when you stop being human,” says Allenby. “But again, we may not tolerate psychopaths and sociopaths well, but we don’t consider them not human. We may consider their lack of empathy disturbing, or possibly leading to criminal behavior, but we don’t consider them to be nonhuman. So when is somebody nonhuman? There’s no answer to that.”

Theology, philosophy and other areas of the humanities can enhance this conversation. For example, Tirosh-Samuelson adheres to a humanist perspective.

“(Humanism is a) worldview that values the existence of humans for its own sake … (and) emphasizes the human capacity to think symbolically, create language, imagine scenarios and abide by moral norms,” she says.

She says that humans are complex and can make mistakes, but that technology shouldn’t try to “improve” them; rather humanity is “an ideal we should aspire to.”

She also sees being human as a holistic experience in which mind and body are interdependent. In her opinion, “human embodiment is very much what it means to be a human,” and therefore she finds the transhumanist desire to dramatically alter or even do away with the human biological existence to be highly problematic.

Religion without revelation

Tirosh-Samuelson started studying transhumanism as part of her larger interest in the relationship between science and religion.

Religious ideas such as immortality and the transcendence of the soul are mirrored in transhumanist projects of radical life extension and the transcendence of the physical body through uploading minds onto computers.

Religious ideas such as immortality and the transcendence of the soul are mirrored in transhumanist projects of radical life extension and the transcendence of the physical body through uploading minds onto computers.

Since contemporary science is inseparable from technology, transhumanism offered the category within which she and her colleagues explored how science and technology function in contemporary culture. The book, “Building Better Humans? Refocusing the Debate on Transhumanism” (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2012) presents the deliberations of ASU scholars engaged in the critical examination of transhumanism.

“A major contribution of the book is the attention to the religious dimensions of transhumanism, showing it to be secularization of age-old motifs and impulses,” Tirosh-Samuelson writes.

The religious motifs in transhumanism are revealed in its rhetoric. Julian Huxley, the British evolutionary biologist and eugenicist who coined the term “transhumanism,” described his idea as “a religion without revelation.” In modern transhumanist circles, religious language is still present. The Singularity, for example, is suffused with religiosity – some versions bear a striking resemblance to the Christian Rapture.

“The transhumanist speculations about reality coming to an end, or the radical transformation of life, reflects a much older mentality that can be traced to antiquity, namely to Jewish and Christian apocalyptic movements,” says Tirsoh-Samuelson.

Religious ideas such as immortality and the transcendence of the soul are mirrored in transhumanist projects of radical life extension and the transcendence of the physical body through uploading minds onto computers.

Cultural diffusion

In 2012, Tirosh-Samuelson teamed up with Ben Hurlbut, a science historian and assistant professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, on a project called “The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization, and Eschatology.” The project has led to an international conference at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, a special journal issue and a book, “Perfecting Human Futures,” which will be published next year.

Ben Hurlbut is a science historian and assistant professor at ASU's School of Life Sciences who was co-principal investigator on a project called "The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization, and Eschatology."

Ben Hurlbut is a science historian and assistant professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences who was co-principal investigator on a project called “The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization, and Eschatology.”

The researchers used case studies to understand the social impact of transhumanist ideas and their relevance to our understanding of politics. One of the cases was Singularity University (SU), a program that “tries to do all the things it thinks universities ought to be doing but aren’t doing. It’s sort of a Silicon Valley startup version of a university,” says Hurlbut.

Although it’s not explicitly focused on transhumanism, one of the program’s founders, Ray Kurzweil, is a noted transhumanist.

The SU slogan, and the problem put to all of its students, is “How can you improve the lives of a billion people?” In some sense, this harkens back to the religious rhetoric of more explicitly transhumanist ventures, branding technology as salvationary. The SU also presents an interesting asymmetry, where the lives of the “billion” are shaped by the visions of a small, select group – it’s a vision of progress where “progress comes from the small number of technological elite and is then produced for and provided to a wider world,” says Hurlbut.

Ideas of technological change and disruption are not limited to transhumanism, however. Rather, as Hurlbut writes, “(transhumanism) refracts questions and anxieties that have come to loom large in scientific and technological societies in the last several decades.” Because of this, a lot of transhumanist ideas reflect wider preoccupations in modern culture that significantly affect economics and politics.

“One of the reasons I’m really interested in the transhumanist imagination (is) it’s not some self-contained niche thing, it’s actually drawing upon and trading in a set of ways of thinking about technological change, progress and the public good, that are much more widespread,” says Hurlbut. “When we talk about innovation, we’re talking about economic growth. We’re talking about the strength of a nation-state. We’re talking about the future. Many countries are thinking in precisely these terms.”

Transhuman interests inspire and are inspired by other areas of society, too, where technology is “challenging established ideas of, and relationships within, human life,” writes Hurlbut. For instance, companies are replacing many human employees with machines, and virtual worlds are becoming increasingly entangled with very real legal, scientific and social issues.

The widespread unease and uncertainty surrounding technology’s impact on society is revealed in many modern narratives where technology is seen as either causing crisis, curing it, or both. Many popular movies (Transcendence), video games (Deus Ex) and books (Neuromancer) also grapple with these concerns.

“Transhumanism is itself an expression of these ways of thinking,” writes Hurlbut, “but it takes these tropes and repackages them … (into) technocratic predictions of what the future of humanity will be, and an ethical account of what it should be, all wrapped into one.”

Saturn's moon Enceladus spews water vapor and ice particles from fractures in the ice. Scientists have found about 100 of these geysers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

How Can We Search For Life On Icy Moons Such As Europa?

Artist's conception of water vapor plume erupting from the icy surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Artist’s conception of water vapor plume erupting from the icy surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Our solar system is host to a wealth of icy worlds that may have water beneath the surface. The Cassini spacecraft recently uncovered evidence of a possible ocean under the surface of Saturn’s moon, Mimas.

Mimas is not alone in the possibility of having a global ocean, which would potentially provide a foothold for life to exist. Other worlds under examination include Jupiter’s moon, Europa. In 2013, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed evidence that Europa erupts water, while the Cassini spacecraft has observed geysers spewing on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

How likely is habitability on such icy worlds, and how would we search for it? This is one of the questions driving a research team led by Isik Kanik at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Kanik’s team was selected for a new grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute for a five-year project looking at how metabolism could come about by way of chemical differences on icy worlds, and how signatures of these unbalanced states can be detected. This is assuming that metabolism works similarly on these other worlds as it does on Earth.

One of the ways Kanik’s team will look for these signatures is to use analog environments on Earth. These are locations that scientists believe are similar, in certain respects, to what could be present on other worlds. In theory, life on another world could evolve from a chemical soup similar to that of certain places on Earth, such as within hot springs.

Saturn's moon Enceladus spews water vapor and ice particles from fractures in the ice. Scientists have found about 100 of these geysers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s moon Enceladus spews water vapor and ice particles from fractures in the ice. Scientists have found about 100 of these geysers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The Cedars, in California, and Cabeco de Vide, in Portugal, host natural springs that represent two extreme metabolic environments, with energy sources produced by water-rock interactions and particular types of organisms that find a way to take advantage of them, Kanik said.

“The sites are accessible field analogs to deep-sea hydrothermal systems on Earth’s seafloor, which are very costly to explore. These are life-supporting environments similar to those that could exist on Europa or early Mars, Kanik said.

Moving life from vents to the surface

Members of Kanik’s group have been at work with some of their research for decades, long before astrobiology was considered a distinct study of its own. This is their second grant with the NASA Astrobiology Institute; the first proposal, selected five years ago, focused on how life could have emerged from hydrothermal vents in the ocean.

“That’s important because NASA is considering sending a spacecraft to Europa,” Kanik said. “If they go and look for signatures of life, how are they going to interpret findings of organic molecules? That was the basic driver.”

Another major part of the research was modeling how life could evolve in the laboratory environment. Championed by the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Michael Russell, the sub-team set up experiments in a hydrothermal reactor in the laboratory using simulated ocean water, some organic molecules, and then “mixing them and looking at what comes out,” Kanik said.

NASA's Juno mission, slated to arrive at Jupiter in 2016, will have the agency in the neighborhood of icy Europa for the first time since the Galileo mission of the 1990s and early 2000s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Juno mission, slated to arrive at Jupiter in 2016, will have the agency in the neighborhood of icy Europa for the first time since the Galileo mission of the 1990s and early 2000s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The team produced about 250 papers based on their work over five years, he noted. Among the major milestones:

How life came to be in icy worlds

The new research focuses on four questions that are related to the possible emergence and evolution of life in icy environments, particularly in locations in the Universe such as Europa, Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.

The first question asks, “What geological and hydrologic factors drive chemical disequilibria at water-rock interactions on Earth and other worlds?” The researchers will conduct laboratory experiments and field investigations to understand more about the chemistry, including factors such as acidity and electrochemistry.

“There are three basic ingredients for life to emerge: water, free energy and chemicals. Chemical reactions need to keep happening in one direction or the other — either using or giving off energy,” Kanik said.

“As soon as reactions reach equilibrium, there is no energy to be used or made available. Therefore, once the system reaches equilibrium, nothing happens. So chemical disequilibrium is necessary for life to emerge.”

A part of the investigation will involve going to geological field sites in California and Portugal using portable scientific instruments that were developed through past NASA funding. Under the first Icy Worlds project, team members Lance Christensen and Steve Vance have been developing tunable laser spectrometers (TLS) to investigate methane and other small molecules produced by serpentinization. The JPL TLS instrument on Curiosity, part of the Sample Analysis at Mars package, has been used on Mars to analyze elements in rocks and in the atmosphere as the Curiosity rover searches for ancient habitable environments at its main science destination of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons).

“We are going to take them to these sites and look at what kind of gases come out, and analyze the water and gases from these places,” Kanik said. “We’ll take some samples and bring them to the lab to make sure we have done it correctly.”

The team also has a laboratory experiment to investigate serpentinization as it might have occurred on the early Earth before life emerged. This system provides a comparison of the natural sites where biology is present, allowing the team to understand the interaction between chemistry and biology.

NeutralAtmosphere

Many scientists believe that life on Earth arose from the oceans, making it possible for this same process to work on icy moons such as Enceladus or Europa. Credit: NASA

The second question asks whether geo-electrochemical gradients — changes in geology and electrochemistry — in hydrothermal vents can eventually create chemistry that leads to life. Using fuel cells, the investigators will simulate how a vent system works, with the aim of understanding how they would behave on icy worlds.

Third, the research team will ask, “How, where and for how long might disequilibria exist in icy worlds, and what does that imply in terms of habitability?” This will involve making models of how seafloors may be different on icy worlds due to to factors such as temperature and pressure.

The fourth question asks, “What can observable surface chemical signatures tell us about the habitability of subsurface oceans?” Again, simulations will take place of icy bodies, including factors such as a vacuum, radiation and the appropriate surface temperatures. The aim here is to link what is seen on the surface with what is happening below.

While the exact budget has not been established yet for Kanik’s team, on average the research groups awarded funding in this round received $8 million each. Kanik said the research will not only support dozens of scientists, but also provide extensive training for both graduate and undergraduate students training to become professional astrobiologists after graduation.

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New Antarctic Weather Data May Offer Clues About Mars

Researchers use remote data-gathering equipment to study long-term meteorological and geological forces at work in Antarctica. Time-lapse photography synched with weather data also helps understand natural forces on the surface of Mars.

Cameras, anchored against intense winds by boxes of rocks, will record up to two months of data. One advantage for solar-powered equipment: The sun never sets in the antarctic summer. Photo: Joseph Levy/University of Texas

Cameras, anchored against intense winds by boxes of rocks, will record up to two months of data. One advantage for solar-powered equipment: The sun never sets in the antarctic summer. Photo: Joseph Levy/University of Texas

In preparation for his upcoming fieldwork, Brown University research analyst Jay Dickson took 10,000 pictures of the inside of his freezer. He wasn’t investigating disappearing food or making sure the light went off when he closed the door. Dickson was making sure his new camera and timer would function properly for long periods in sub-freezing temperatures.

“Everything worked great in the freezer for five weeks,” Dickson said, “so hopefully it will all work in the field.”

That camera’s next stop: a remote Antarctic outpost, where it will left to take two-month’s worth of time-lapse images of geological features in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Dickson’s trip to the Dry Valleys this December will mark his seventh field season and Antarctica, and his sixth season using automated camera stations to gather scientific data.

Those stations are giving scientists from Brown and elsewhere a view of geological change in the Dry Valleys that can’t be glimpsed any other way. The cameras are not only unveiling new details about the changing climate on Earth, but also offering insight into what conditions might be like in the similar frozen deserts of Mars.

Dickson, along with Brown University geologist James Head and Joseph Levy of the University of Texas, a 2009 Brown Ph.D. graduate, describe their time-lapse technique and how it contributes to Antarctic science in this week’s issue of Eos, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union.

Capturing climate change

The Dry Valleys stretch for about 50 miles through the Transantarctic Mountains down to the coast of the Ross Sea. Dry katabatic winds that blow down from the mountain peaks and ice cap sap the region of much of its moisture, making it the largest portion of Antarctica not covered completely by ice. Because the region is so cold and so dry, the landscape is remarkably stable. But that doesn’t mean the region is entirely unchanging. Time-lapse offers a way to capture those changes.

Solar radiation
Scientists had thought that the river at the foot of the cliff had caused pieces to fall off — “calving.” Time-lapse photography shows that losses are due to melting from solar radiation. Image: Brown University

“The hunt is on for where climate change is manifesting itself,” Dickson said. “That’s been a challenge in Antarctica because changes there are extremely slow. Time-lapse allows us to speed that up and understand how it’s working.”

Time lapse made a key contribution to a paper Levy, Dickson and Head published last year investigating an ice cliff in Garwood Valley, a part of the Dry Valleys near the Antarctic coast. The ice was left behind 20,000 to 30,000 years ago when a glacier invaded the valley and later retreated. Using a variety of remote sensing techniques, the researchers were able to show that the cliff’s rate of melting over the last decade was 10 times faster than the melt rate over the last 10,000 years.

But understanding the mechanism behind that melting could only be done with time lapse. By combining two months of images taken at five-minute intervals with data on solar intensity captured by a nearby weather station, the researchers showed that the primary driver of the melting process is solar radiation.

“We could see that for about four to six weeks every year, just in the middle of the day, that thing melts like crazy,” Dickson said. “People thought maybe the cliff was retreating because of calving events, where the river that runs in front of it melts the bottom and causes chunks to break off. But we didn’t see that in the time lapse. What we saw was this very clear melting due to solar radiation.”

The ability to link the camera images to weather data is a key part of Dickson’s system. He wrote software that enables camera images to be automatically synched to data from any weather station that happens to be nearby.

“That’s a big part this,” he said. “We have a ton of measurements of what the climate is doing in terms of temperature, humidity, sunlight, and everything else. But we’re really far behind in terms of the surface response to those climate forcings. Our approach is able to link those forcings with what’s happening on the surface.”

Clues about Mars

Understanding Earth’s climate isn’t the only reason the researchers are interested in the Dry Valleys. The frigid, desiccated landscape is the closest analog on Earth to the surface of Mars. In another paper published last year, Dickson and his colleagues used time-lapse to reveal a hydrological process in the Dry Valleys that’s similar to a process scientists believe may be happening on Mars.

Scientists studying Mars have noticed peculiar dark patches that appear on Martian cliff faces on a seasonal basis. Some scientists think these “recurring slope lineae” could be the signature of a flowing saltwater brine. Head and Dickson have found similar features in Antarctica, and the time-lapse system has shed light on how they form.

Water tracks
The parched, salty soil on the valley floor pulls any available moisture out of the air. When the humidity spikes, the “water tracks” darken. The same process could be happening on present-day Mars. Image: Brown University

The camera images, synched to weather data, show that dark tracks form in certain spots on the valley floor when the humidity of the surrounding air jumps. Head and Dickson concluded that the dry, salty soil soaks up any available moisture in the air. So when the humidity spikes, these dark “water tracks” form.

“It’s possible that you have a similar hydrology happening on Mars in the form of these recurring slope lineae,” Dickson said.

A Challenging Environment

Dickson’s time-lapse work involves much more than simply throwing a camera on a tripod for two months. Keeping the stations running in one of the harshest environments in the world isn’t easy.

The cameras are housed in fiberglass enclosures about the size of a small microwave. The cameras are powered by two 12-volt car batteries.

While extreme cold is generally a problem for batteries, the Antarctic summer offers a bright side: the sun never sets. So Dickson uses small solar panels to keep the batteries charged.

A year’s worth of sandblasting by intense Antarctic winds rendered the window of a camera mount almost opaque. The clear portion had been covered by an anchor strap.

A year’s worth of sandblasting by intense Antarctic winds rendered the window of a camera mount almost opaque. The clear portion had been covered by an anchor strap.

But the cold isn’t the only problem. There are other elements that Dickson can’t recreate in his freezer. Chief among them is the wind, which often blows through the Dry Valleys with hurricane force. Dickson learned the hard way what these winds can do to his installations.

“The first station I installed was completely ripped apart by the wind,” he said. “One of the car batteries, we never found. So the wind can pick up a 70-pound battery with no problem.”

The newest installations are held together with heavy cargo straps and bolted to large rock boxes to keep them in place. The wind also blasts the fiberglass enclosure with dust, eventually turning the clear material opaque. So Dickson has to replace the window through which the pictures are taken at the end of each field season.

Another challenge is installing these stations in extremely remote locations. The team of researchers Dickson works with is transported to the Dry Valleys by helicopter, but specific installation sites must be reached on foot.

“The pilots don’t necessarily like landing in the most geologically interesting sites,” he said. “So sometimes we have to hike long distances.”

Those treks must be made with 70-pound car batteries strapped into backpacks. Then there’s the matter of getting back to those locations in February to retrieve the data at the end of the season.

That will make for plenty of hiking come December. During this upcoming trip, Dickson is installing a total of nine cameras for four different principal investigators.

“The sites span a lot of the range of climates that occur in the Dry Valleys,” he said. “My goal is eventually to cover as much of the Dry Valleys as possible and build a multiyear record of activity.”

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Permafrost soil: Possible source of abrupt rise in greenhouse gases at end of last Ice Age

35 meters high Pleistocene Ice Complex cliff at Sobo Sise Island (Lena Delta), Siberian Arctic. Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Thomas Opel

35 meters high Pleistocene Ice Complex cliff at Sobo Sise Island (Lena Delta), Siberian Arctic. Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Thomas Opel

Scientists have identified a possible source of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that were abruptly released to the atmosphere in large quantities around 14,600 years ago. According to this new interpretation, the CO2 – released during the onset of the Bølling/Allerød warm period – presumably had their origin in thawing Arctic permafrost soil and amplified the initial warming through positive feedback. The study now appears online in the journal Nature Communications.

One of the most abrupt rises in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at the end of the last ice age took place about 14,600 years ago. Ice core data show that the CO2 concentration at that time increased by more than 10 ppm (parts per million, unit of measure for the composition of gases) within 200 years.

This CO2 increase, i.e. approx. 0.05 ppm per year, was significantly less than the current rise in atmospheric CO2 of 2-3 ppm in the last decade caused by fossil fuels. These data describe an abrupt change in the global carbon cycle during the transition from the last ice age to the present-day warm interglacial and allow conclusions to be drawn about similar processes that could play a role in the future.

To determine the origin of the greenhouse gas, a team around by the geoscientists and climate researchers Dr. Peter Köhler and Dr. Gregor Knorr from the Alfred Wegener Institute has carried out computer simulations focusing on the new interpretation of these CO2 data. These calculations were motivated by new radiocarbon data (14C) that provide information on the age of the CO2 released to the atmosphere. The age of the carbon then allows conclusions to be drawn about the carbon source.

About one quarter of the earth's surface in the northern hemisphere is frozen permanently. Scientists classify these permafrost regions into areas with (1) continuous permafrost, (2) discontinuous or unstable permafrost or (3) occasional permafrost - depending on how much of the area is really frozen. Map: Hugues Lantuit, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

About one quarter of the earth’s surface in the northern hemisphere is frozen permanently. Scientists classify these permafrost regions into areas with (1) continuous permafrost, (2) discontinuous or unstable permafrost or (3) occasional permafrost – depending on how much of the area is really frozen. Map: Hugues Lantuit, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

“The virtual lack of radiocarbon in the CO2 that was released into the atmosphere shows us that the carbon must have been very old,” says Köhler. The carbon therefore cannot be originated from the deep ocean, Köhler adds: “The carbon stored in the deep ocean has been subject to exchange with the atmosphere over a period of millennia. In the atmosphere 14C has its only source. It is produced through the impact of galactic cosmic rays on molecules in the atmosphere.”

However, radiocarbon is unstable and decays with a half-life of around 5,700 years. The atmospheric data of CO2 and 14C can only be explained if a carbon source is assumed that contains virtually no 14C any more – thus the greenhouse gases must have had another source than the deep ocean.

Permafrost soil contains, to some extent, very old organic material, which is released in the form of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane when the soil thaws. Permafrost soil thus might be a possible source of old carbon. The thawing of Arctic permafrost soil might have been caused by a sudden resumption of large-scale Atlantic heat transport in the ocean that initiated the Bølling/Allerød warm period in the high northern hemisphere.

The scientists were able to estimate the amount of the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere by applying a computer model that simulates the global carbon cycle.

The simulation results indicate that the input of more than half a gigaton of carbon per year (1 gigaton = 1 petagram) over a period of two centuries is necessary to explain the observed data. This corresponds to a total amount of more than 100 gigatons of carbon. Present-day anthropogenic CO2 emissions due to fossil fuels, at approx. ten gigatons of carbon a year, are greater than the release rates of this natural process by a factor of at least ten.

Thermokarst depression with thermokarst lake at Bykovsky Peninsula, Siberian Arctic. Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Thomas Opel

Thermokarst depression with thermokarst lake at Bykovsky Peninsula, Siberian Arctic. Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Thomas Opel

According to the study, the proposed thawing of large areas of permafrost, followed by the rise in greenhouse gases, occurred at the same time as the warming in the northern hemisphere at the beginning of the Bølling warm period. The released greenhouse gases may amplify the initial warming through feedback effects.

A similar effect is also predicted for the future in the current IPCC report. Warming in Siberia, for instance, is already leading to thawing of permafrost soil: outgassing of CO2 and methane takes place. The same processes observed today – and are expected to an even greater extent in the coming decades – presumably occurred in a similar manner 14,600 years ago.

“However, the state of the climate on Earth today has already been changed by anthropogenically emitted greenhouse gases. Future CO2 release due to the proposed thawing of permafrost will be substantially less than the input due to fossil fuels. However, these emissions from permafrost soil are additional greenhouse gas sources that further amplify the anthropogenically induced effect,” says Köhler.

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Small Volcanic Eruptions Could Be Slowing Global Warming

Small volcanic eruptions might eject more of an atmosphere-cooling gas into Earth’s upper atmosphere than previously thought, potentially contributing to the recent slowdown in global warming, according to a new study.

The Sarychev Peak Volcano, on Matua Island, erupted on June 12, 2009. New research shows that eruptions of this size may contribute more to the recent lull in global temperature increases than previously thought. Credit: NASA

The Sarychev Peak Volcano, on Matua Island, erupted on June 12, 2009. New research shows that eruptions of this size may contribute more to the recent lull in global temperature increases than previously thought. Credit: NASA

Scientists have long known that volcanoes can cool the atmosphere, mainly by means of sulfur dioxide gas that eruptions expel. Droplets of sulfuric acid that form when the gas combines with oxygen in the upper atmosphere can remain for many months, reflecting sunlight away from Earth and lowering temperatures.

However, previous research had suggested that relatively minor eruptions—those in the lower half of a scale used to rate volcano “explosivity”—do not contribute much to this cooling phenomenon.

Now, new ground-, air- and satellite measurements show that small volcanic eruptions that occurred between 2000 and 2013 have deflected almost double the amount of solar radiation previously estimated. By knocking incoming solar energy back out into space, sulfuric acid particles from these recent eruptions could be responsible for decreasing global temperatures by 0.05 to 0.12 degrees Celsius (0.09 to 0.22 degrees Fahrenheit) since 2000, according to the new study accepted to Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

These new data could help to explain why increases in global temperatures have slowed over the past 15 years, a period dubbed the ‘global warming hiatus,’ according to the study’s authors.

The warmest year on record is 1998. After that, the steep climb in global temperatures observed over the 20th century appeared to level off. Scientists previously suggested that weak solar activity or heat uptake by the oceans could be responsible for this lull in temperature increases, but only recently have they thought minor volcanic eruptions might be a factor.

Climate projections typically don’t include the effect of volcanic eruptions, as these events are nearly impossible to predict, according to Alan Robock, a climatologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who was not involved in the study. Only large eruptions on the scale of the cataclysmic 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, which ejected an estimated 20 million metric tons (44 billion pounds) of sulfur, were thought to impact global climate.

But according to David Ridley, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and lead author of the new study, classic climate models weren’t adding up.

“The prediction of global temperature from the [latest] models indicated continuing strong warming post-2000, when in reality the rate of warming has slowed,” said Ridley.

That meant to him that a piece of the puzzle was missing, and he found it at the intersection of two atmospheric layers, the stratosphere and the troposphere– the lowest layer of the atmosphere, where all weather takes place. Those layers meet between 10 and 15 kilometers (six to nine miles) above the Earth.

Traditionally, scientists have used satellites to measure sulfuric acid droplets and other fine, suspended particles, or aerosols, that erupting volcanoes spew into the stratosphere. But ordinary water-vapor clouds in the troposphere can foil data collection below 15 km, Ridley said.

“The satellite data does a great job of monitoring the particles above 15 km, which is fine in the tropics. However, towards the poles we are missing more and more of the particles residing in the lower stratosphere that can reach down to 10 km.”

To get around this, the new study combined observations from ground-, air- and space-based instruments to better observe aerosols in the lower portion of the stratosphere.

Four lidar systems measured laser light bouncing off aerosols to estimate the particles’ stratospheric concentrations, while a balloon-borne particle counter and satellite datasets provided cross-checks on the lidar measurements.

AERONET consists of approximately 400 sites in 50 countries on all seven continents. The red squares on the map below indicate the locations of AERONET sites. Credit: NASA

AERONET consists of approximately 400 sites in 50 countries on all seven continents. The red squares on the map below indicate the locations of AERONET sites. Credit: NASA

A global network of ground-based sun-photometers, called AERONET, also detected aerosols by measuring the intensity of sunlight reaching the instruments. Together, these observing systems provided a more complete picture of the total amount of aerosols in the stratosphere, according to the study authors.

Including these new observations in a simple climate model, the researchers found that volcanic eruptions reduced the incoming solar power by -0.19 ± 0.09 watts of sunlight per square meter of the Earth’s surface during the ‘global warming hiatus’, enough to lower global surface temperatures by 0.05 to 0.12 degrees Celsius (0.09 to 0.22 degrees Fahrenheit).

By contrast, other studies have shown that the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption warded off about three to five watts per square meter at its peak, but tapered off to background levels in the years following the eruption. The shading from Pinatubo corresponded to a global temperature drop of 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

Robock said the new research provides evidence that there may be more aerosols in the atmosphere than previously thought. “This is part of the story about what has been driving climate change for the past 15 years,” he said. “It’s the best analysis we’ve had of the effects of a lot of small volcanic eruptions on climate.”

Ridley said he hopes the new data will make their way into climate models and help explain some of the inconsistencies that climate scientists have noted between the models and what is being observed.

Robock cautioned, however, that the ground-based AERONET instruments that the researchers used were developed to measure aerosols in the troposphere, not the stratosphere.  To build the best climate models, he said, a more robust monitoring system for stratospheric aerosols will need to be developed.

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It’s filamentary: How galaxies evolve in the cosmic web

Research team proposes that filaments in the cosmic web played a critical role in the distant universe

Galaxies are distributed along a cosmic web in the universe. "Mpc/h" is a unit of galactic distance (1 Mpc/h is more than 3.2 million light-years). Credit: Volker Springel, Virgo Consortium

Galaxies are distributed along a cosmic web in the universe. “Mpc/h” is a unit of galactic distance (1 Mpc/h is more than 3.2 million light-years). Credit: Volker Springel, Virgo Consortium

How do galaxies like our Milky Way form, and just how do they evolve? Are galaxies affected by their surrounding environment? An international team of researchers, led by astronomers at the University of California, Riverside, proposes some answers.

The researchers highlight the role of the “cosmic web” – a large-scale web-like structure comprised of galaxies – on the evolution of galaxies that took place in the distant universe, a few billion years after the Big Bang. In their paper, published Nov. 20 in the Astrophysical Journal, they present observations showing that thread-like “filaments” in the cosmic web played an important role in this evolution.

“We think the cosmic web, dominated by dark matter, formed very early in the history of the universe, starting with small initial fluctuations in the primordial universe,” said Behnam Darvish, a Ph.D. graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Riverside, who led the research project and is the first author on the paper. “Such a ‘skeletal’ universe must have played, in principle, a role in galaxy formation and evolution, but this was incredibly hard to study and understand until recently.”

The distribution of galaxies and matter in the universe is non-random. Galaxies are organized, even today, in a manner resembling an enormous network – the cosmic web. This web has dense regions made up of galaxy clusters and groups, sparsely populated regions devoid of galaxies, as well as the filaments that link overdense regions.

“The filaments are like bridges connecting the denser regions in the cosmic web,” Darvish explained. “Imagine threads woven into the web.”

Videos showing structures in the cosmic web:

It is well known in astronomy that galaxies residing in less dense regions have higher probability of actively forming stars (much like our Milky Way), while galaxies in denser regions form stars at a much lower rate.

“But the role of intermediate environments and, in particular, the role of filaments and the cosmic web in the early universe remained, until very recently, a mystery,” said coauthor Bahram Mobasher, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCR and Darvish’s adviser.

Behnam Darvish (left) and Bahram Mobasher are astronomers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Riverside. Credit: University of California, Riverside.

Behnam Darvish (left) and Bahram Mobasher are astronomers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Riverside. Credit: University of California, Riverside.

What greatly assisted the researchers is a giant section of the cosmic web first revealed in two big cosmological surveys (COSMOS and HiZELS). They proceeded to explore data also from several telescopes (HubbleVLTUKIRT and Subaru). They then applied a new computational method to identify the filaments, which, in turn, helped them study the role of the cosmic web.

They found that galaxies residing in the cosmic web/filaments have a much higher chance of actively forming stars. In other words, in the distant universe, galaxy evolution seems to have been accelerated in the filaments.

“It is possible that such filaments ‘pre-process’ galaxies, accelerating their evolution while also funneling them towards clusters, where they are fully processed by the dense environment of clusters and likely end up as dead galaxies,” Darvish said. “Our results also show that such enhancement/acceleration is likely due to galaxy-galaxy interactions in the filaments.”

Because of the complexities involved in quantifying the cosmic web, astronomers usually limit the study of the cosmic web to numerical simulations and observations in our local universe. However, in this new study, the researchers focused their work on the distant universe – when the universe was approximately half its present age.

“We were surprised by the crucial role the filaments play in galaxy formation and evolution,” Mobasher said. “Star formation is enhanced in them. The filaments likely increase the chance of gravitational interaction between galaxies, which, in turn, results in this star-formation enhancement. There is evidence in our local universe that this process in filaments also continues to occur at the present time.”

Darvish and Mobasher were joined in this research by L. V. Sales at UCR; David Sobral at the Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal; N. Z. Scoville at the California Institute of Technology; P. Best at the Royal Observatory of Ediburgh, United Kingdom; and I. Smail at Durham University, United Kingdom.

Next, the team plans to extend this study to other epochs in the age of the universe to study the role of the cosmic web/filaments in galaxy formation and evolution across cosmic time.

“This will be a fundamental piece of the puzzle in order to understand how galaxies form and evolve as a whole,” Sobral said.

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Extreme Shrimp May Hold Clues to Alien Life

Shrimp called Rimicaris hybisae at deep hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean seem to have different dietary habits depending on the proximity of other shrimp. Those who live in dense clusters like this one live off bacteria primarily, but in areas where the shrimp are distributed more sparsely, the shrimp are more likely to turn carnivorous, and even eat each other. Credit: Courtesy Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason ©2012 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Shrimp called Rimicaris hybisae at deep hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean seem to have different dietary habits depending on the proximity of other shrimp. Those who live in dense clusters like this one live off bacteria primarily, but in areas where the shrimp are distributed more sparsely, the shrimp are more likely to turn carnivorous, and even eat each other. Credit: Courtesy Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason ©2012 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

At one of the world’s deepest undersea hydrothermal vents, tiny shrimp are piled on top of each other, layer upon layer, crawling on rock chimneys that spew hot water. Bacteria, inside the shrimps’ mouths and in specially evolved gill covers, produce organic matter that feed the crustaceans.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are studying this mysterious ecosystem in the Caribbean to get clues about what life could be like on other planetary bodies, such as Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which has a subsurface ocean.

“For two-thirds of the Earth’s history, life has existed only as microbial life,” said Max Coleman, senior research scientist at JPL. “On Europa, the best chance for life would be microbial.”

The particular bacteria in the vents are able to survive in extreme environments because of chemosynthesis, a process that works in the absence of sunlight and involves organisms getting energy from chemical reactions.

In this case, the bacteria use hydrogen sulfide, a chemical abundant at the vents, to make organic matter. The temperatures at the vents can climb up to a scorching 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius), but waters just an inch away are cool enough to support the shrimp. The shrimp are blind, but have thermal receptors in the backs of their heads.

Shrimp called Rimicaris hybisae crawl on the Von Damm Spire, located 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) underwater in the Caribbean. The shrimp live in symbiosis with bacteria. This fascinating ecosystem gives scientists insights into what kind of life could thrive in extreme environments elsewhere, such as Jupiter's moon Europa. Credit: Courtesy Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason © 2012 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Shrimp called Rimicaris hybisae crawl on the Von Damm Spire, located 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) underwater in the Caribbean. The shrimp live in symbiosis with bacteria. This fascinating ecosystem gives scientists insights into what kind of life could thrive in extreme environments elsewhere, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa. Credit: Courtesy Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason © 2012 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“The overall objective of our research is to see how much life or biomass can be supported by the chemical energy of the hot submarine springs,” Coleman said.

Hydrogen sulfide is toxic to organisms in high concentrations, but the bacteria feeding the shrimp need a certain amount of this chemical to survive. Nature has worked out a solution: The shrimp position themselves on the very border between normal, oxygenated ocean water and sulfide-rich water so that they and the bacteria can coexist in harmony.

“It’s a remarkable symbiotic system,” Coleman said.

Coleman was part of a team led by Chris German at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that discovered these vents in 2009, off the west coast of Cuba. This research, funded under NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program, detected the vents by picking up the chemical signals of their plumes of water in the ocean.

The researchers returned in 2012 on the RV Atlantis with a robotic vehicle called Jason, supported by the National Science Foundation. Scientists collected extensive specimens from two hydrothermal vent fields: The Von Damm field at 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) and Piccard at more than 16,000 feet (4,900 meters), which is the world’s deepest.

Coleman and collaborator Cindy Van Dover, marine biologist at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, examined the shrimp for the first time when the same team returned in 2013 on the RV Falkor, provided by the Schmidt Ocean Institute in Palo Alto, California. Van Dover returned soon after using the robotic vehicle Hercules aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, and did more collections and studies.

These shrimp, called Rimicaris hybisae, live in symbiosis with bacteria at the world's deepest hydrothermal vents, located in the Caribbean. The particular bacteria in the vents are able to survive in extreme environments because of chemosynthesis, a process that works in the absence of sunlight and involves organisms getting energy from chemical reactions. Credit: Courtesy Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason ©2012 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

These shrimp, called Rimicaris hybisae, live in symbiosis with bacteria at the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents, located in the Caribbean. The particular bacteria in the vents are able to survive in extreme environments because of chemosynthesis, a process that works in the absence of sunlight and involves organisms getting energy from chemical reactions. Credit: Courtesy Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason ©2012 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

A bonus finding from studying this extreme oasis of life is that some of the shrimp, called Rimicaris hybisae, appear to be cannibalistic. The researchers discovered that when the shrimp arrange themselves in dense groups, bacteria seem to be the main food supplier, as the shrimp likely absorb the carbohydrates that the bacteria produce. But in areas where the shrimp are distributed more sparsely, the shrimp are more likely to turn carnivorous, eating snails, other crustaceans, and even each other.

Although the researchers did not directly observe Rimicaris hybisae practicing cannibalism, scientists did find bits of crustaceans in the shrimps’ guts. And Rimicaris hybisae is the most abundant crustacean species in the area by far.

“Whether an animal like this could exist on Europa heavily depends on the actual amount of energy that’s released there, through hydrothermal vents,” said Emma Versteegh, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL.

The group received funding for shrimp-collecting expeditions from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program, through a project called “Oases for Life.” That name is especially appropriate for this investigation, Coleman said.

“You go along the ocean bottom and there’s nothing, effectively,” Coleman said. “And then suddenly we get these hydrothermal vents and a massive ecosystem. It’s just literally teeming with life.”

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Deep-Earth Carbon Offers Clues About Origin of Life on Earth

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

New findings by a Johns Hopkins University-led team reveal long unknown details about carbon deep beneath the Earth’s surface and suggest ways this subterranean carbon might have influenced the history of life on the planet.

The team also developed a new, related theory about how diamonds form in the Earth’s mantle.

For decades scientists had little understanding of how carbon behaved deep below the Earth’s surface even as they learned more and more about the element’s vital role at the planet’s crust. Using a model created by Johns Hopkins geochemist Dimitri Sverjensky, Sverjensky, Vincenzo Stagno of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Fang Huang, a Johns Hopkins graduate student, became the first to calculate how much carbon and what types of carbon exist in fluids at 100 miles below the Earth’s surface at temperatures up to 2,100 degrees F.

In an article published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, Sverjensky and his team demonstrate that in addition to the carbon dioxide and methane already documented deep in subduction zones, there exists a rich variety of organic carbon species that could spark the formation of diamonds and perhaps even become food for microbial life.

“It is a very exciting possibility that these deep fluids might transport building blocks for life into the shallow Earth,” said Sverjensky, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “This may be a key to the origin of life itself.”

Sverjensky’s theoretical model, called the Deep Earth Water model, allowed the team to determine the chemical makeup of fluids in the Earth’s mantle, expelled from descending tectonic plates. Some of the fluids, those in equilibrium with mantle peridotite minerals, contained the expected carbon dioxide and methane. But others, those in equilibrium with diamonds and eclogitic minerals, contained dissolved organic carbon species including a vinegar-like acetic acid.

These high concentrations of dissolved carbon species, previously unknown at great depth in the Earth, suggest they are helping to ferry large amounts of carbon from the subduction zone into the overlying mantle wedge where they are likely to alter the mantle and affect the cycling of elements back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The team also suggested that these mantle fluids with dissolved organic carbon species could be creating diamonds in a previously unknown way. Scientists have long believed diamond formation resulted through chemical reactions starting with either carbon dioxide or methane. The organic species offer a range of different starting materials, and an entirely new take on the creation of the gemstones.

The research is part of a 10-year global project to further understanding of carbon on Earth called the Deep Carbon Observatory. The work is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

An artist's rendering of a Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) molecule.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Jumping Hurdles in the RNA World

An artist's rendering of a Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) molecule.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

An artist’s rendering of a Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) molecule.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Astrobiologists have shown that the formation of RNA from prebiotic reactions may not be as problematic as scientists once thought.

One hypotheses for the origin of life on Earth includes a period known as the ‘RNA World.’ In this scenario, ribonucleic acid (RNA) formed from non-biological reactions before being incorporated into life’s first cells.

The study presents a proof-of-concept system that could overcome previously sited challenges to the RNA World hypothesis, and was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

Information and Motivation

Today, RNA in cells is best known for its role in transferring information in cells, ultimately effecting how genes from DNA are expressed. However, studies have shown that RNA can also play an important role in catalyzing reactions in cells that are necessary for life – in a way similar to proteins that are known as enzymes.

A cell's DNA carries the instructions, or genes, to make the proteins that are needed to build cell structures and to perform necssary functions. To make a protein, the instructions in the DNA are transcribed, or copies to a molecule of messenger RNA (mRNA). Other molecules in the cell then help translate those instructions to assemble the protein by stringing together more than 20 different kinds of amino acids in a specific sequence. Messenger RNA provides vital clues about hte processes a cell uses to survive, because it shows which genes are being used at a given time. Credit: Illustration by Katherine Joyce, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

A cell’s DNA carries the instructions, or genes, to make the proteins that are needed to build cell structures and to perform necessary functions. To make a protein, the instructions in the DNA are transcribed, or copied to a molecule of messenger RNA (mRNA). Other molecules in the cell then help translate those instructions to assemble the protein by stringing together more than 20 different kinds of amino acids in a specific sequence. Messenger RNA provides vital clues about the processes a cell uses to survive, because it shows which genes are being used at a given time. Credit: Illustration by Katherine Joyce, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The multiple talents of the RNA molecule make it a prime candidate for use in Earth’s first cells. RNA may have provided early life with a means for storing genetic information, and it also could have pushed important reactions along before enzymes were readily available.

Life relies on a complex dance of chemical reactions inside cells. These reactions require a variety of different molecules. A molecule that can perform multiple functions (like RNA) could have been extremely useful in the early stages of life’s development, and at a time when the huge variety of biological molecules we see today had yet to evolve.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NASA Astrobiology Program under the NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution.

For more on the RNA World:
Study of Ribosome Evolution Challenges ‘RNA World’ Hypothesis
A Small Step in the RNA World
DNA May have had Humble Beginnings as a Nutrient Carrier
Biology’s Theme Park: RNA World

For Educators:

Visit Public Broadcasting for some interesting educational resources on RNA, including games, videos and classroom activities: NOVA Labs: RNA Lab Guide for Educators (PBS)
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/labs/educators/rna-guide/

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Celebrating 15 Years Since the Sunrise

360 degree virtual reality panorama of the Building 30 Flight Control Room 1 in honor of the International Space Station's 15th Anniversary. Image Credit: NASA

360 degree virtual reality panorama of the Building 30 Flight Control Room 1 in honor of the International Space Station’s 15th Anniversary. Image Credit: NASA

(View virtual reality panorama)

Nov. 20, 1998, was a day to mark in history. The Russian Space Agency , now known as Roscosmos, launched a Proton rocket that lifted the pressurized module called Zarya, or “sunrise,” into orbit. This launch would truly be the dawn of the largest international cooperation effort in space to ever come to light.

Zarya was the first piece of the International Space Station. Also known as the Functional Cargo Block (FGB), it would provide a nucleus of orientation control, communications and electrical power while the station waited for its other elements, including the Zvezda service module and Unity.

“We were in the control center in Houston that night to watch Zarya launch, along with a good number of people from the program,” said Bill Bastedo, who is currently senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton. At the time, Bastedo had the technically demanding task of launch package manager for Unity, also known as Node 1. “It was actually, for us, exciting to have Zarya on orbit so we could get our chance to execute our mission.”

› Read more about Zarya

Zarya, the first component of the International Space Station, launches flawlessly at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998, from Kazahkstan. Image Credit: NASA

Zarya, the first component of the International Space Station, launches flawlessly at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998, from Kazahkstan. Image Credit: NASA

Two weeks later, on Dec. 4, 1998, NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour launched Unity,  the first U.S. piece of the complex, during the STS-88 mission. The two space modules built on opposite sides of the planet were about to be joined together in space, making the space station truly international.

STS-88 carries the distinction of being the first space station assembly mission, and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana was its commander.

“We definitely knew there was no margin for error on that first mission—we had to be successful,” Cabana said. “We also knew that it wasn’t all on the crew. This was a team effort, and everyone was giving it all they had to ensure success. We had the privilege of following Node 1 from an aluminum shell…to a fully functioning spacecraft on orbit.”

› Read more about Unity

Three years before Unity’s launch, Bastedo was leading the teams that developed Unity and its two pressurized mating adaptors.

“We had to work closely with the Kennedy Space Center, the Space Shuttle Program Office and the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) to plan the launch, on-orbit operations for the 14-day mission and define every detail of how we would assemble it on orbit,” Bastedo said.

With Unity being the first U.S. component of the space station, Bastedo’s teams and Cabana’s crew set the standard for future space station assembly missions.

“I was very confident in our ability to dock the two,” Bastedo said. “I was most worried about making sure we could verify that Unity, the mating adaptors and Zarya all worked as a system together and we could safely leave it on orbit, because it was going to be about a six-month gap until the next flight. It turns out it was a lot of worry about nothing, because it almost went flawlessly.”

Members of the STS-88 crew examine the Node 1 of the International Space Station in the high bay of the Space Station Processing Facility. Image Credit: NASA

Members of the STS-88 crew examine the Node 1 of the International Space Station in the high bay of the Space Station Processing Facility. Image Credit: NASA

Since that first meeting of Zarya and Unity, the space station grew piece by piece with additions from each of the international partners built across three continents and leading to the largest and most complex spacecraft ever constructed.

The space station, now four times larger than Mir and five times larger than Skylab, represents a collaboration between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, representing 15 countries in all.

The first crew to inhabit the space station launched on a Soyuz spacecraft on Oct. 31, 2000, as Expedition 1 and consisted of one NASA astronaut, Commander Bill Shepherd, and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko. Their arrival on board the station Nov. 2 marked the start of a permanent human presence in space.

The crew of Expedition 1 set the framework for international cooperation and attitude in space, displaying mutual respect and teamwork. Since the Expedition 1 crew’s example aboard the space station, there have been 37 expeditions following the same solidarity in space, working toward common goals. This makes the International Space Station home to the longest continuous human presence in space of all time.

Blanketing clouds form the backdrop for this 70mm scene of the connected Zarya and Unity modules after having been released from Endeavour's cargo bay a bit earlier. Image Credit: NASA

Blanketing clouds form the backdrop for this 70mm scene of the connected Zarya and Unity modules after having been released from Endeavour’s cargo bay a bit earlier. Image Credit: NASA

In support of station assembly and maintenance, station and shuttle crews have conducted 174 spacewalks totaling almost 1,100 hours – the equivalent to nearly 46 days of spacewalks to build and maintain the complex. The station, with a mass of almost a million pounds and the size of a football field, is second only to the moon as the brightest object in the night sky.

› Sign up to “Spot the Station”

Over the years, a great deal of research has been done on the space laboratory, which has already yielded tremendous results toward various fields. The science of the space station has provided benefits to humankind in areas such as human health, Earth observation and education. Many more results and benefits for both space exploration and life on Earth are expected in the coming years.

› Read more about the benefits of the International Space Station

The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-133 crew member on space shuttle Discovery. Image Credit: NASA

The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-133 crew member on space shuttle Discovery. Image Credit: NASA

More than 69 countries have put research on the orbiting laboratory that advances space exploration and provides a multitude of benefits to humans on Earth. A few examples of the benefits provided by research performed on the space station are highlighted in NASA’s new feature “Benefits for Humanity.” These highlights include neurosurgical medical technology in Canada; water purification technology in rural Mexico; agricultural monitoring in the northern Great Plains of the United States; student amateur radio interaction with the space station in the U.S. midwest; and, remote telemedicine in rural Brazil.

› View “Benefits for Humanity” videos

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since we joined Unity and Zarya in orbit and laid the cornerstone for the International Space Station,” Cabana said. “Station is truly an engineering marvel and a testament to what we can accomplish when we all work together. I think one of the most enduring legacies will be the international cooperation we have achieved in building and operating it. It has provided us the framework for how we will move forward as we explore beyond our home planet, not as explorers from any one country, but as explorers from planet Earth.”

“We have seen great results in areas such as biotechnology, Earth and space sciences, human research, the physical sciences and technology being accomplished in this remarkable laboratory in space. It takes time, but I truly believe there will be even greater amazing breakthroughs that come from it, especially in the field of medicine.”

“The ISS is the engineering test bed that enables us to prove the systems we need and deal with the crew health issues that must be solved for us to actually go beyond Earth for extended periods of time, when we eventually go to Mars and beyond.”

› Access video b-roll and other media resources for the International Space Station

Station Facts and Figures

  • The ISS has 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume and weighs more than 900,000 pounds providing more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house.
  • The U.S. solar array surface area is 38,400 square feet (.88 acre) – large enough to cover eight basketball courts (94 ft x 50 ft x 8 = 37,600 sq ft).
  • Crews have eaten about 25,000 meals since the first Expedition in 2000. Approximately seven tons of supplies are required to support a crew of three for about six months.
  • The ISS travels an equivalent distance to the moon and back in about a day.
  • The ISS solar array surface area could cover the U.S. Senate Chamber three times over.
  • ISS has an internal pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet, or equal to that of a Boeing 747.
  • Four pair of US solar arrays each have a wingspan of 240 ft – longer than that of a Boeing 777 200/300 model, which is 212 ft.
  • Fifty-two computers control the systems on the ISS.

› View infographic