News Article | May 15, 2017
The mysterious flash of high-energy burst, called FRB 150215, was detected in February 2015 using the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. A study revealed last week a team of scientists discovered a Fast Radio Burst that is unusual even by the standards used to judge FRBs. This mysterious flash of high-energy burst, called FRB 150215, was detected in February 2015 using the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. The observations described in the study available on the preprint server arXiv. “The burst was followed-up with 11 telescopes to search for radio, optical, X-ray, gamma-ray and neutrino emission. Neither transient nor variable emission was found to be associated with the burst and no repeat pulses have been observed in 17.25 hours of observing,” the researchers wrote in the study. FRBs have baffled scientists ever since the first one was discovered in archived data in 2007. The longstanding mystery of their origin, which is further compounded by the fact only about two dozen such events have ever been detected, has spawned a plethora of scientific (and some that sound not so scientific) theories, including the occasional speculation that aliens are responsible for them. Scientists believe that understanding the origin and nature of FRBs could even provide invaluable information about the cosmic web — the swirling, diffuse and faint web of gases and magnetic fields that exists between galaxies, and which is completely invisible to optical and most radio telescopes. For some reason, FRBs never seem to repeat, and, as a result, most theories about the origin of these mysterious pulses involve invoking cataclysmic incidents that destroy their source, for instance, a star exploding in a supernova, or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. This changed in 2012 when the first and only known repeating burst, named FRB 121102, was discovered by scientists at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. And, in January, over four years and several recurring bursts of this FRB later, astronomers were able to directly trace the mysterious burst to its point of origin, a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth. So far, this is the only FRB whose source has been pinpointed — although even that hasn’t brought scientists any closer to understanding what birthed it. What makes the discovery of FRB 150215 even more fascinating is that scientists shouldn’t even have been able to detect it in the first place. This is because the region of the Milky Way scientists passed through on its way to Earth is thought to be incredibly dense — a region that should have thrown up a lot of magnetic interference and changed the polarization of its light. The researchers believe that the reason for this unexpectedly low interference is that the FRB passed through some kind of “hole” where the density was anomalously low. “I have to say this is a fantastic paper but it is a bummer of a paper,” Shami Chatterjee, senior research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, told Gizmodo. “They threw every resource that we have at this FRB. They followed up with TNT, ANTARES, The Australian Telescope, Swift, Chandra, Magellan, the Dark Energy Camera, GMRT, Lovell, the VLA, and they see nothing. It is incredibly important in the sense that even with relatively prompt follow-up there isn’t an afterglow or counterpart that is obvious.”
News Article | April 19, 2017
Astronomers on Wednesday night will be keeping a close eye on a big asteroid that's zooming past Earth. Telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory — a huge radio dish built inside of a Puerto Rican sinkhole — have already started filming the tumbling space rock, called 2014 JO25, by pinging it with radar and recording the echoes. Below is one of the first radar videos (made by Arecibo) that astronomers took of the asteroid, on April 17. NASA said the space rock will fly within about 1.1 million miles of Earth, or roughly 4.6 times the distance from our planet to the moon, on April 19. Because it will fly so close to Earth, it has earned the label of a "potentially hazardous asteroid," or PHA. However, NASA says 2014 JO25 "will fy safely past Earth" and isn't due to swing by again for more than 400 years. The rock is estimated to be about 2,030 feet across, NASA said in an April 6 press release. That's roughly between the height of the One World Trade Center in New York City and Shanghai Tower in China — two of the tallest skyscrapers on Earth. But Edgard Rivera-Valentín, a planetary scientist with the Universities Space Research Association who studies Arecibo data, said it may actually be much larger than that. "Arecibo revealed that this object ... is twice as big as originally estimated and is shaped like a peanut," Rivera-Valentín told Business Insider in an email, adding that Arecibo and other radar observatories will take their best photos on Wednesday night. "[A] little bit more time is needed to clearly get at the size of the object" and analyze that data, he said. NASA's Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, also recorded the asteroid on April 18. The 230-foot-wide dish photographed the 30 radar images of the space rock (above) as it hurled toward the vicinity of Earth from about 1.9 million miles away. The rock's "peanut" shape comes from the fact that it's a "contact binary," the term for when two rocks smoosh together in space. Rivera-Valentín previously told Business Insider that contact binaries make up about one in every six space rocks, which makes them very common leftovers of our solar system's formation.
News Article | March 17, 2017
FRBs are extremely bright flashes of radio waves that last for only a thousandth of a second and are detected by earthbound telescopes. Since the first one was observed 10 years ago, 17 have actually been reported, although scientists think there are thousands of them a day. But then “one of the FRBs was localized to reside in a small galaxy at a distance of about a billion light-years away,” Loeb told The Huffington Post. (One light-year is about 6 trillion miles.) Essentially, that means these FRBs are coming from the edge of the universe and must be brighter than anything else we know. “Since there are many more galaxies out there than the Milky Way, it makes sense statistically that one would detect such phenomena outside the Milky Way more often rather than inside it,” Lingam told HuffPost. While Loeb and Lingam don’t claim that FRBs definitely originate from aliens, they speculate that such phenomena could be the result of other civilizations using gigantic radio transmitters to hopscotch from one galaxy to another. An almost planet-sized, solar-powered radio transmitter could generate enough energy to propel an interstellar light sail (like the one illustrated above), they suggest. These sails, in turn, might be sufficient to push “about 20 times the largest cruise ships on Earth.” FRBs would be the leakage from such transmitters. “Our upper bound on the number of such civilizations is 10,000 in a typical galaxy,” Lingam said. “But I’d like to reiterate that this is the maximal value. In all probability, the real value is likely to be much lower.” Nobody on Earth has detected any interstellar light sails yet. What large radio telescopes, like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico or the Parkes Observatory in Australia, have picked up are very fast, bright flashes of energy. “So what we are considering in our scenario is a very narrow beam of radiation pushing on a sail, and that requires roughly the amount of energy intercepted by the Earth [from] sunlight. That’s the kind of power you need ― the energy falling on the Earth from the sun,” he said. Loeb chairs the advisory committee for the Starshot project, which seeks to send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri, a star system over four light-years from Earth. The idea would be to aim powerful laser beams from Earth at thin sails carrying more than 1,000 probes. It’s not the same as the radio waves possibly used by aliens, but then humans are still taking baby steps into space. “We shouldn’t be guided by prejudice when we think about what may be out there,” said Loeb. “Many people tend to think they know the truth. They think that we are special, that maybe there is nothing out there. “I think we should just observe and whenever we see something unusual, we should think, contemplate the possibility that it could be artificial. And there is nothing bad about that ― it’s a learning experience.”
News Article | January 7, 2016
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Old, crowded star clusters might be the best place for an advanced civilization to survive in a harsh galaxy, a new study suggests. Stable, long-lived stars in these clusters and the relative ease of hopping from one star system to the next could provide a safe space for any technologically savvy species that can leave its home and establish outposts around other stars. “The probability of a catastrophic event destroying such a civilization then becomes small,” said astronomer Rosanne Di Stefano. She presented the study January 7 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Globular star clusters pack hundreds of thousands of stars into balls just a few hundred light-years across. They’re also ancient; at over 10 billion years old, many have been around for as long as the galaxy. All of the cluster’s massive stars exploded long ago, leaving behind a population of low-mass, low-key stars. “It would be very serene to live in a globular cluster,” said Di Stefano, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. The stars are also jammed in next to each other. Whereas Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun, is 4.2 light-years away, the distance between stars in the core of a globular cluster can be roughly 0.01 light-years — comparable to the width of the solar system. That would make the night sky very bright, but it also makes interstellar travel easier. Planet hunters generally avoid searching star clusters for planets, much less star-trekking societies, because it’s difficult to distinguish one star from another. The old stars in the cluster also lack the heavy elements found in rocky planets and the crowded neighborhood makes it easy for one star to steal planets from another. But the Kepler space telescope has shown that planets can form around stars of any age. And for a planet around a lightweight star to be habitable, it must cozy up to its feeble sun to be warm enough for liquid water. Any planet hugging its star, notes Di Stefano, is harder for another star to steal. Di Stefano and Alak Ray, an astronomer at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, calculated how long a habitable planet could survive in different regions of a cluster. They found a sweet spot where there are enough nearby stars to make it easier for a civilization to spread out but not so many that planet-pilfering from neighboring stars is common. Clusters are definitely a good place to look, agrees Joseph Glaser, a graduate student at Drexel University in Philadelphia who is starting to run supercomputer simulations of how stars interact with one another in crowded environments. In the dense cores of these clusters, planets could get tossed from star to star, especially as binary stars temporarily pair up and split apart. But a bit farther out, the environment is less hectic, he says. Globular clusters are typically tens of thousands of light-years away, so we probably won’t be engaged in witty banter with residents of one any time soon. But astronomers did use the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in 1974 to beam a cryptic greeting toward the Hercules Cluster, about 25,000 light-years away in the Hercules constellation. Some researchers scoffed at the idea of saying hello to an assumed barren environment. If we hear a reply 49,958 years from now — when the round-trip communication time to Hercules is up — we’ll know who was right.
News Article | January 6, 2016
A Swiss company is set to become the first firm to capture carbon dioxide from the air and sell it on a commercial scale, a stepping stone to larger facilities that could one day help to combat global warming. Around July, Climeworks will start capturing some 75 tonnes of CO per month at its plant near Zurich, then selling the gas to nearby greenhouses to boost crop growth. Another company — Carbon Engineering in Calgary, Canada, which has been capturing CO since October but is yet to bring it to market — hopes to show that it can convert the gas into liquid fuel. Facilities worldwide already capture the gas from power-plant exhausts, but until 2015 only small demonstration projects sucked it up from air. Human trials will get under way for treatments that use DNA-editing technologies. Sangamo Biosciences in Richmond, California, will test the use of enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases to correct a gene defect that causes haemophilia. Working with Biogen of Cambridge, Massachusetts, it will also start a trial to look at whether the technique can boost a functional form of haemo-globin in people with the blood disorder β-thalassaemia. Scientists and ethicists hope to agree on broad safety and ethical guidelines for gene editing in humans in late 2016. And this year could see the birth of the first gene-edited monkeys that show symptoms of the human disorders they are designed to model. Physicists think there is a good chance that they will see the first evidence of gravitational waves — ripples in space-time caused by dense, moving objects such as spiralling neutron stars — thanks to the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO). And Japan will launch Astro-H, a next-generation X-ray satellite observatory that, among other things, could confirm or refute the claim that heavy neutrinos give off dark-matter signals known as bulbulons. Hints of a potential new particle from the supercharged Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has been running at record energies since last June, could become clearer as the machine rapidly accumulates data. Even if the particle is not confirmed, the LHC could still unearth other exotic phenomena, such as glueballs: particles made entirely of the carriers of the strong nuclear force. Scientists will soon hear whether funding for research that makes viruses more dangerous can resume. In October 2014, the US government abruptly suspended financial support for ‘gain-of-function’ studies. These experiments could increase understanding of how certain pathogens evolve and how they can be destroyed, but critics say that the work also boosts the risk of, for example, accidental release of deadly viruses. A risk–benefit analysis was completed in December 2015, and the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will issue recommendations in the next few months on whether to resume funding — potentially with tightened restrictions on the research. One lucky research group will win a $50-million grant for heart-disease research from Internet giant Google and the American Heart Association. Google’s disease-research portfolio is growing, and neuroscientists are eager to see what Thomas Insel, former director of the US National Institute of Mental Health, will do at the firm, where he has been leading a mental-health effort since November. Private funding could also make its mark in space: the non-profit Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, plans to launch a US$4.5-million mission in April to test its light-driven spacecraft, LightSail. The orbits of Earth and Mars will bring the planets close to each other this year, creating the perfect opportunity for a trip to the red planet. A joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos will capitalize on that chance. Launching in March, ExoMars 2016 will analyse gases in Mars’s atmosphere and test landing technology. Farther afield, NASA’s Juno mission will arrive at Jupiter in July. In September, ESA’s craft Rosetta will make a death dive into the comet it orbits; mourners can console themselves with the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, a mission to bring back samples from the asteroid Bennu. Hot on the heels of the launch of the US$100-million Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) last December, China’s National Space Science Center will launch the second and third space-science probes in its planned series of five. The world’s first quantum communications test satellite will blast off in June, and the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope — which will scour the sky for energetic sources of radiation, such as black holes and neutron stars — will fly by the end of the year. September will see China complete construction of the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), which will supersede Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory as the world’s largest radio telescope. In Hawaii, the team behind the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope, which had its construction permit revoked in December, will try to work out whether and how it can move the project forward. The first results from an ambitious project to analyse the world’s microbial communities are expected this year. The Earth Microbiome Project, which launched in 2010, aims to sequence and characterize at least 200,000 samples of microbial DNA taken from everything from Komodo dragon tongues to soil in the Siberian tundra. The project promises to uncover unprecedented levels of biological diversity. In November, the United States will elect a new president. If a Republican takes the White House, long-debated plans to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada may well resurface, and federal funding for climate and social science could face the chop. And if Canada’s Liberal government lives up to its pre-election promises, the country will get a chief science officer, who researchers trust will arrive with a drive to rebuild the depleted ranks of government scientists. Neuroscientists hope to finally identify genes that are crucial to regulating the timing and duration of sleep but have been difficult to tease out, possibly because they also have other functions in the brain. Pinpointing these genes could shed light on sleep disorders and some psychiatric illnesses, which scientists now realize are linked to highly disrupted sleep patterns. The SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) facility will switch on in Jordan towards the end of 2016. The ring-shaped particle accelerator will generate intense light to probe materials and biological structures down to the atomic level. It is the region’s first major international research facility, and a rare collaboration between governments including Iran, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Support to build a similar facility in Africa is likely to gather pace. And in June, scientists will get to use bright X-ray beams at the world’s first fourth-generation synchrotron, MAX IV in Lund, Sweden.
News Article | October 26, 2016
Time to power up the largest radio telescope in the world. China’s Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, began spying on outer space on 25 September. FAST will measure radio waves in space, allowing us to study the rotation of galaxies, monitor the behaviour of pulsars and keep an eye out for signals sent by aliens. It is situated in a remote, mountainous area of Guizhou Province in south-western China, which will help protect it from radio-wave interference, like signals sent by cell phones and Wi-Fi. Construction began in 2011, spurring the relocation of a small village. The telescope will go through a testing and debugging phase before full operation begins, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The telescope, named for the size of its dish – 500 metres across – is about 200 metres wider than its closest rival, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, built in the early 1960s. That means that it will be able to see dimmer objects than the Arecibo telescope can detect, says Michael Nolan at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Being bigger means it collects more light,” Nolan says. “So if you’re looking at a faint signal, it’ll be brighter in the bigger telescope.” The curved bowl of a radio telescope directs the light it catches into a detection device, usually suspended above the dish. A parabola-shaped disc focuses light into a single point, but can cause distortion as the telescope targets different parts of the sky. Smaller telescopes can move their dishes to observe different regions of space, but FAST is too big to steer. To avoid that problem, FAST’s mirrored panels and its receiver are designed to move in conjunction, allowing scientists to create a parabola-shaped bowl pointed at whatever part of the sky is under observation. “They’re going to have that be a flexible mirror that they can deform to point at the right place,” Nolan says. “Instead of turning it, they’re just going to squash it to be the right shape.” The construction of the telescope shows that observatories like Arecibo aren’t a relic of the past, says Robert Minchin at the Arecibo Observatory. “That they put the money into building FAST is a vote of confidence that telescopes of the Arecibo pattern, these large single-dish telescopes, do have a future,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned, imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” says Christopher Salter, also at the Arecibo Observatory. “It’s very nice to have another sibling very much like ourselves.”
News Article | November 30, 2016
Floating back under parachute from outer space to Inner Mongolia on November 17, China’s Shenzhou-11 astronauts brought to a close the nation’s longest piloted space trek, which lasted 33 days. The mission capped off a year that saw a series of noteworthy successes in China’s blossoming space program, including the country’s sixth manned space mission, the launch of a new space lab module and the inaugural use of a new spaceport. China also opened a world-class radio telescope this year, signaling the country’s growing involvement in space science. These advances, experts say, establish China as one of the top-tier spacefaring nations on Earth and the one with perhaps more momentum than anyone—a status that excites scientists and could inspire other nations to step up their own plans. Most of the Shenzhou-11 mission had the two crew members, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, safely tucked inside the live-in space lab Tiangong-2, which just launched in September. The duo’s work was dedicated in large part to honing expertise required to develop China’s own large space station. That station is due to come online by the mid 2020s—around when the International Space Station is due for retirement—a fact that Chinese space planners have emphasized. The year’s Chinese checklist also included the first use of a new Kennedy Space Center-like spaceport, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast. The sprawling facility saw the maiden liftoffs of two rockets this year: the Long March-7 and a heavy-lifter, the Long March-5. Both boosters are essential to an expansive space agenda, with the latter dedicated to lofting the nation’s multi-modular space station and possibly, quite literally, shooting for the moon. China is building upon earlier robotic lunar exploits, including unmanned orbiters and a lander that dispatched the nation’s Yutu moon rover in December 2013. Now their multi-pronged plan calls for the robotic spacecraft Chang’e 5 to launch in the second half of 2017 atop a Long March-5 rocket, land on the moon and collect several pounds of lunar samples, then hurl the specimens back to Earth. And on tap in 2018 is the launch of a lander headed for the far side of the moon, which would be a space first for any country. Looking beyond the lunar landscape, China is also busy at work on a Mars rover that is slated for a 2020 liftoff. Most of this year’s space activity seems targeted toward a goal China has long hinted at, if not officially stated: a human mission to the moon. “China is clearly moving closer and closer to being able to achieve the long-planned culmination of ‘Project 921,’ a large, permanently crewed space station,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “Once that is achieved, I would not be at all surprised by an official announcement of a human mission to the moon.” Planting Chinese footprints on lunar soil is now in China’s target sights, Johnson-Freese says, after the nation has carefully developed all the necessary capabilities through its Shenzhou and Chang’e programs. “It is also noteworthy that China now has the world’s largest radio telescope,” Johnson-Freese says, referring to the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) that began operations in September. According to China, FAST has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and five to 10 times the surveying speed. “With that, China appears poised to do the kind of science that can get their country a long coveted Nobel Prize,” she says. And China’s robotic moon ambitions are similarly thrilling to scientists. The prospect of samples being returned by Chang’e-5 next year—more than four decades since the last ones were snagged by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976—is tremendously exciting for lunar science, says Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College in London. “It will be especially interesting if, as seems likely, the new samples are collected from an as yet unsampled region,” Crawford notes. Moreover, if China is successful in making the first landing on the moon’s far side in 2018, that “will be another major technical achievement and scientifically very informative.” Experts speculate that China is in part pursuing these activities for geopolitical reasons as well as scientific ones, as did the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the early space age. “But I do think it is highly desirable to try to integrate China’s activities into global space exploration activities,” Crawford says. One avenue for doing this, he adds, is via the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a voluntary, non-binding forum of 14 space agencies that seeks to bolster countries’ individual exploration agendas for the collective good—a group in which the China National Space Administration is a member. China’s recent actions could spark another “Sputnik moment,” some say, spurring other nations to accelerate their space ambitions. In particular, its pursuit of the moon could inspire the U.S. to revisit a seemingly forgotten destination. Our celestial satellite is a strategic asset, says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and one that has been missing-in-action in current NASA exploration plans. If China’s interest in the moon rejuvenates our own, the U.S. has the opportunity to stimulate private sector jobs while expanding humanity beyond the Earth, he adds. “Next year China will attempt something only the former Soviet Union has done and the United States has not yet managed to do, and that is robotically returning samples from a planetary surface.” Such samples, from an unexplored part of the lunar surface, says Neal, “will have a huge impact on lunar science … but will U.S. scientists be allowed to study these?” Furthermore, executing a rover mission on the far side of the moon, he suggests, “will put China in a class of its own regarding space exploration.” Neal says it is apparent that China has major space ambitions, as indicated by its development of capabilities for low-Earth orbit, the lunar surface, and Mars. “The Chinese commitment to space is impressive through development of capabilities in a short period of time,” Neal concludes. “Is this their ‘Apollo’ moment?”
News Article | February 16, 2017
Gif composed of thirteen delay-Doppler images of Comet 45P/HMP after 2 hours of observation. Credit: Universities Space Research Association Though not visible to the naked eye or even with binoculars, the green-tailed Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova (HMP) did not escape the gaze of the world-renowned Arecibo Observatory. Scientists from the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) at Arecibo Observatory have been studying the comet with radar to better understand its solid nucleus and the dusty coma that surrounds it. "Comets are remnants of the planet forming process and are part of a group of objects made of water ice and rocky material that formed beyond Neptune," noted Dr. Ellen Howell, Scientist at LPL and the leader of the observing campaign at Arecibo. "Studying these objects gives us an idea of how the outer reaches of our Solar System formed and evolved over time." Studying the comet with radar not only very precisely determines its orbit, allowing scientists to better predict its location in the future, but also gives a glimpse of the typically unseen part, the comet's nucleus, which is usually hidden behind the cloud of gas and dust that makes up the its coma and tail. "The Arecibo Observatory planetary radar system can pierce through the comet's coma and allows us to study the surface properties, size, shape, rotation, and geology of the comet nucleus," said Dr. Patrick Taylor, USRA Scientist and Group Lead for Planetary Radar at Arecibo. "We gain roughly the same amount of knowledge from a radar observation as a spacecraft flyby of the same object, but at considerably less cost." In fact, the new radar observations have revealed Comet 45P/HMP to be somewhat larger than previously estimated. The radar images suggest a size of about 1.3 km (0.8 mi) and that it rotates about once every 7.6 hours. "We see complex structures and bright regions on the comet and have been able to investigate the coma with radar," indicated Cassandra Lejoly, graduate student at the University of Arizona. This comet is only the seventh imaged using radar because comets rarely come close enough to the Earth to get such detailed radar images. In fact, though 45P/HMP has an orbital period of about 5.3 years, it rarely passes close to Earth, as it is doing now. Comet 45P is one of a group of comets called Jupiter family comets (JFCs), whose orbits are controlled by Jupiter's gravity and typically orbit the sun about every 6 years. Comet 45P/HMP, which is passing by Earth at a speed of about 23 km/s (relative to Earth) and a close approach of about 32 Earth-Moon distances, will be observed widely at different wavelengths to characterize the gas and dust emanating from the nucleus that forms the coma. As comets orbit the sun, the ices sublime from solids to gases and escape the nucleus. The nucleus gradually shrinks and will disappear completely within in less than a million years. Radar observations at Arecibo of Comet 45P/HMP began on February 9, 2017 and will continue through February 17, 2017. Explore further: Comet's trip past Earth offers first in a trio of opportunities
News Article | October 25, 2016
Two former researchers at the troubled Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have filed a lawsuit claiming that illegal discrimination and retaliation led to their dismissal. James Richardson and Elizabeth Sternke are suing the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), which oversees radio astronomy and planetary science at Arecibo, and the observatory’s deputy director, Joan Schmelz — a prominent advocate for women in astronomy. Richardson and Sternke, a married couple in their mid-50s, allege that Schmelz discriminated against them because of their age and because Richardson is legally blind. Soon after Sternke revealed in November 2015 that she planned to file a complaint with the US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates workplace bias, USRA announced that her contract job with Arecibo’s education programme would end early. Richardson filed his own EEOC complaint, and in April 2016, USRA terminated his employment as a staff scientist. The EEOC ultimately found evidence of discrimination and that Sternke and Richardson were terminated in retaliation for their complaints, according to documents provided by the researchers' lawyer. In their lawsuit, filed on 4 October in the US District Court in Puerto Rico, Richardson and Sternke are seeking more than US$20 million in back pay and damages. Schmelz says that she cannot comment on the lawsuit, and declined to answer Nature's questions. But USRA, her co-defendant and employer, “firmly denies these allegations and plans to vigorously defend this matter”, it said in a statement to Nature. The legal challenge comes as the 53-year-old observatory battles to survive. Its single-dish radio telescope, one of the world’s biggest, is still in high demand. But the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which provides roughly two-thirds of the observatory’s $12 million funding, is facing a budget crunch. The agency is now conducting an environmental review of major changes to the site, a possible prelude to mothballing or even demolishing the facility. The NSF’s decision on Arecibo’s fate is expected in 2017. Some Arecibo supporters worry that the lawsuit could nudge the observatory closer to the edge. “With all those budget difficulties they’re having now, getting bad press is not going to be good for them,” says Alan Harris of the planetary-science consulting firm MoreData! in La Cañada, California. USRA hired Richardson in 2014 as a scientist with Arecibo’s planetary radar group, which observes potentially dangerous asteroids and other Solar-System bodies. He did not follow the typical academic path: according to Richardson’s website, he worked as a nuclear engineer — including a stint on a US Navy submarine — before being blinded in a chemical accident and re-training as a planetary scientist. In 2014, Sternke, a sociologist who was Richardson’s fiancée at the time, joined him at Arecibo and later began working at the observatory on a short-term contract in 2015. According to EEOC determinations issued in June, Sternke and Richardson’s work initially drew no complaints from management. After Richardson’s boss, the head of planetary radar, announced his resignation in early 2015, Richardson sought the job. Several months later, Schmelz took up her post at Arecibo. From the start, the lawsuit says, Schmelz “ignored and/or chose to avoid all contact” with Richardson, assigned duties to younger colleagues rather than to him, and “marginalized and ostracized” Richardson and Sternke. The EEOC report also says that USRA altered the description of the job Richardson wanted “to make it more suitable for another internal candidate to qualify”. USRA subsequently promoted an Arecibo staffer in his 30s. Sternke submitted her resignation in November, the EEOC says. She later told USRA that she planned to file a complaint with the EEOC, the agency’s report says, and was terminated on 4 December, eight days before her scheduled last day. The lawsuit alleges that in December of 2015, officials from the USRA human-resources department accused Richardson of “angry behavior, bullying, and prejudices”. He was terminated in April 2016 after USRA determined that he failed to meet the terms of its 'Performance Improvement Plan'. (Richardson disagrees with that assessment.) In its report on Richardson’s case, the EEOC said Schmelz “made direct discriminatory age based comments”, writing in her own performance evaluation that she had recruited “a set of effective young leaders”. The EEOC also found that Richardson was “disciplined and terminated from his employment” on the basis of his age and disability, and in retaliation for his association with Sternke and for filing an EEOC charge. In a separate report, the agency found that USRA terminated Sternke’s employment “due to her age (over 50) and in retaliation for complaining about illegal discrimination”. The EEOC suggested that USRA pay Richardson $400,000 in damages, plus back pay, and give Sternke $200,000. But settlement talks with the EEOC failed, and in late July the agency notified Richardson and Sternke that they had 90 days to file suit. Richardson’s former colleagues say that he is not a bully. “I never heard him raise his voice, let alone get angry,” says Phillip Nicholson, an astronomer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where Richardson did research. His postdoctoral supervisor at Cornell, astronomer Joseph Veverka, describes Richardson as courteous and kind, if demanding. “If anyone asked Jim to do something which he did not consider completely scientifically proper, he would strongly object.” Meanwhile, former Arecibo director Robert Kerr says that his USRA colleagues — including Schmelz — displayed “the utmost professionalism”. “Joan was no different from the rest,” he adds. Meg Urry, an astrophysicist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, notes that Schmelz is a tireless advocate for the right of female astronomers to work without harassment. “She's devoted a lot of time to justice,” says Urry, the past president of the American Astronomical Society. In one notable case, Schmelz helped to bring harassment complaints against astronomer Geoff Marcy; after the University of California, Berkeley, found that Marcy violated its policies on harassment, he retired in late 2015. The district court in Puerto Rico has not yet scheduled a hearing on Richardson and Sternke’s lawsuit. In the meantime, Nicholson is struggling to make sense of the situation, given what he knows of the parties on both sides. “Nothing seems to ring true to the character of the people,” he says.
News Article | March 3, 2016
For years, scientists have tried to understand the nature of brief flashes of radio waves called fast radio bursts (FRBs) that are seemingly sent across the universe from an unknown source. While there have been many theories about the potential origin of FRBs, none of them have established a plausible explanation. This is because researchers have had a hard time knowing where to point their telescopes to observe these radio waves as they happen. A new study featured in the journal Nature, however, describes an area of the sky near the Auriga constellation where scientists at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have been detected at least 11 instances of fast radio bursts over the past four years. These FRBs seem to come from the same astrophysical source in space. James Cordes, a researcher from Cornell University and one of the authors of the study, said that since the FRBs they examined tended to occur repeatedly, they can eliminate the possibility that these radio waves are simply one-offs formed as a result of evaporating black holes or any other potential sources described before. He said that it is more likely that fast radio bursts are created by massive energy releases from a neutron star. A fast radio burst is a phenomenon in space believed to be made of high energy, which often appears in the form of a transient radio pulse that lasts for only a few milliseconds. Some of the FRBs that have been detected in the past were bright, millisecond flashes that seemed to have come from areas of the sky beyond the Milky Way galaxy. The duration of an FRB depends on its wavelength, which results in a delay of the burst referred to by scientists as a dispersion measure. FRBs often have dispersion measures that are significantly larger than what researchers expect from a source within the Milky Way. They are also believed to be spread through the help of plasma. The first fast radio burst to be recorded was the Lorimer Burst. It was named after West Virginia University astrophysicist Duncan Lorimer, who led a team of researchers in studying the phenomenon in 2007. The researchers believe that the burst, which only lasted for about 5 milliseconds, could have originated from a part of the universe some 3 billion light-years away from Earth. It was discovered through data gathered by a radio survey of a dwarf galaxy known as the Small Magellanic Cloud in 2001. As for its possible source, Lorimer and his colleagues speculate that the Lorimer Burst could have been caused by either a collision between two neutron stars, the throes of a dying black hole, or something else they have yet to discover. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 fast radio bursts flash across the sky every day. However, the briefness of these flashes as well as their unpredictable arrival has made it difficult for scientists to study them. Almost all of the FRBs detected have also been single-flash events only. In 2012, researchers working at the Arecibo Observatory detected a multi-flash FRB event during a radio survey of the sky. While the repeating burst they found did not show any further activity following the initial observation, it had manifested 10 times in the past based on a review of archived surveys. Jason W. T. Hessels, an ASTRON scientist from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and co-author of the study published in Nature, said that the repeating FRBs detected by Arecibo did not occur regularly. In one particular case, the researchers observed six successive bright pulses that occurred over 15-minute period. Hessels refers to this event as a "fantastic observation". The team also saw instances when they weren't able to detect any FRB activity for hours. Hessels and his colleagues believe that the nature of the repeating FRBs points to the possibility that some of the radio waves could originate from sources that can produce the bursts more than once. This contradicts the earlier notion that FRBs occur as a result of a cosmic collision between massive objects in space, which would leave them both destroyed in the aftermath.