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NASA spacecraft is about to probe one of Earth's scariest threats – the sun

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The source of all light and life on Earth is also the source of one of its biggest natural threats: space weather. The sun’s atmosphere regularly erupts with fast-moving flashes of protons and explosions of energetic particles that can hit Earth within minutes and disrupt radio communication, interfere with GPS and fry the electric grid. A “worst case scenario” space weather event could cause more damage than Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Sandy combined.

“It sounds like science fiction,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist William Murtagh, who heads the Space Weather Forecasting Center. “But it’s something that’s not only possible but very likely to happen in the not-too-distant future.”

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Scientists have long struggled to understand and predict space weather events, because the ferocious environment around the sun makes them difficult to witness as they form.

But as early as Saturday morning – if all goes according to plan – Murtagh and scores of other researchers will watch as NASA’s newest spacecraft, the Parker Solar Probe, embarks on a mission to get closer to the sun than any human-made object has before.

It’s the culmination of a half-century effort to understand our star, Murtagh says, and it may help us prepare for the hazards the sun may throw at us in the future.

Part of the sun erupted on Sept. 1, 1859. English astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a brilliant white solar flare on the sun, brighter than the sunspots he usually observed. Roughly a day later, a blast of charged particles – known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME – arrived at Earth, jostling the planet’s magnetic bubble. People as far south as Cuba saw the sky light up with auroras. Geomagnetic currents sent surges of electricity through copper telegraph wires, zapping operators and setting telegraph paper aflame.

If a similar event happened today, it would bring life as we know it to a halt.

The energetic particles within a coronal mass ejection can penetrate the walls of spacecraft and pose a radiation risk to astronauts and the technology they depend on. They can interfere with satellites, disrupting radio communication and GPS. And a CME hits our planet’s magnetosphere at the right angle, it can generate powerful waves of electricity within the Earth. These may then infiltrate utility grids and blow out transformers that provide electricity – like tripping a circuit on a massive scale.

The sun exploded again in July 2012, spewing material toward Earth at nearly 6 million miles per hour. This time the coronal mass ejection hit a NASA spacecraft called STEREO-A at full-blast. The spacecraft’s sensors were stressed, but they still managed to measure the solar particles, gusts of solar wind and the strength of the interplanetary magnetic field.

A year after the explosion, in a paper published in the journal Space Weather, astrophysicists examined the STEREO-A data to answer a worst-case question. “What if that coronal mass ejection had occurred 10 days earlier,” said Daniel Baker, a professor of planetary and space physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and one of the authors of the study, “when the earth was in the line of fire?”

Their conclusion: If it had hit Earth, Baker and his colleagues wrote, there was a “very legitimate question of whether our society would still be ‘picking up the pieces.'”

In 2008, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report on the economic and societal impacts of space weather came up with a worst-case estimate for an extreme geomagnetic storm: It could cost North America up to $2 trillion in the first year, and recovery would take four to 10 years.

It’s said that space weather science lags about 50 years behind terrestrial weather forecasting. Meteorologists know what conditions cause hurricanes, and they can spot the seeds of a storm brewing over the ocean long before it makes landfall.

But warning times for space weather events are often measured in minutes, Murtagh said, and there’s too much we don’t know.

“There’s a lack of understanding,” Murtagh said. “It’s science. It’s knowledge of the sun and the physical processes that are likely to produce those energetic particles. We just don’t fully understand the science yet.”

Much of our modern understanding of the sun stems from 91-year-old Eugene Parker, for whom NASA’s new probe is named.

In the mid-1950s, Parker discovered a link between two seemingly unrelated space mysteries. First, bizarrely, the corona, or atmosphere of the sun, is hotter than its surface – scientists liken the sun to a campfire that feels hotter the further one stands from the flames. And second, the dusty tails of comets always point away from the sun, as if blasted by a powerful wind.

Parker realized that the corona isn’t a static halo, but a stream of material from the sun itself. It starts slow and dense and zooms up as it escapes the sun’s gravity, eventually exceeding the speed of sound. The pointed tails of comets behave like windsocks caught in the solar wind.

The acceleration of the particles in the solar wind remains one of the “fundamental mysteries of the sun,” said Nicola Fox, a heliophysicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the project scientist for Parker Solar Probe. And it’s one of the keys to understanding CMEs – the extra-destructive blasts that pose so much danger to life on Earth.

After the National Academies released its sobering 2008 report, “awareness, both at government and in the public, for this hazard really came to the fore,” said a Federal Emergency Management Agency official, who agreed to speak on the record on the condition of anonymity.

Trillion-dollar space storms are a rare issue that rallies Republicans and Democrats alike. The Obama administration’s executive order 13744 created a national space weather policy in 2016. FEMA recently finished drafting a federal operations plan for space weather, which was sent to the Trump administration for approval. Congress is also considering legislation directing funds toward developing a space weather plan.

The issue is particularly pressing for the East Coast of the United States between Washington and Maine, not only because of the extensive electric infrastructure in this region. The very ground beneath our feet makes us vulnerable, Murtagh said. The 300-million-year-old igneous rock on which the Eastern Seaboard is perched doesn’t conduct electricity well. If a current strikes this rock, it will seek an easier path – like metal pipes, telephone wires and electric cables.

Eventually, the current can hit high-voltage transformers, the spine of the power grid, and overwhelms their magnetic cores.

This isn’t idle speculation. It happened, on a relatively small scale, in Canada in 1989. The sun belched out a gas cloud in early March that cut off radio signals. (At first, some observers suspected Soviet, not solar, interference.)

Electrical currents buzzed through the ground and flooded into the Hydro-Québec power plant. Six million people in Québec were without power for nine hours. Glancing effects were felt as far away as New Jersey, where the electrical surge roasted a transformer at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant.

Industry reports suggest operators would have enough time to shut down the grid before it suffered permanent damage. But others are not as optimistic.

“We’re not going to know until a real event happens whether or not that’s a true statement,” said the FEMA official, who added that power utility engineers “won’t say this publicly,” but they have been stocking up on spare transformers where they can. Installing new transformers – which would have to be built overseas – might take one or two years.

That a future solar storm will blast Earth is not a question of if, but when. In 2012, Peter Riley, who studies the sun’s corona at Predictive Science Inc., a San Diego-based company that develops computer models of the sun, published an article in Space Weather that calculated the odds of a Carrington-scale repeat. Within the next decade, he concluded, it could be about 12 percent – on par with the risk of other 100-year hazards, like massive floods.

Over the next seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will embark on a series of 24-egg shaped orbits around the sun, repeatedly swinging past Venus to re-orient itself. Each close approach will shoot it through the corona at a breathtaking 450,000 miles per hour – fast enough to get from Washington to New York in about a second. With its dust detectors, particle counters, and a telescope that can take 3-D images of the corona, the probe will measure the sun’s electric and magnetic fields, scoop particles from the solar wind for sampling, and watch as shocks travel out from the sun’s surface, through the atmosphere and into space.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that measurements from probe and our understanding is going to have a huge impact on our ability to predict space weather,” said Christina Cohen, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology’s Space Radiation Lab who studies energetic particles.

It’s a project scientists have dreamed about for roughly as long as they’ve known about the solar wind. But it took half a century to develop the necessary technology. When the spacecraft makes its first close approach in November, a carbon-composite heat shield will be all that protects the minivan-sized Parker Solar Probe from the million-mile-wide ball of hot gas.

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Error in major climate study revealed – warming NOT higher than expected

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A major new climate study in the journal Nature got worldwide media coverage for finding that the oceans warmed dramatically faster than previously thought — but now the researchers have retracted that conclusion after a man in the United Kingdom blogged about flaws he discovered in the paper.

Just two weeks after publication, the study authors have revised their paper, and now conclude that the oceans are warming fast — but at the same rate as other measurements have found.

A study co-author took responsibility for the error. “I accept responsibility for these oversights because it was my role to ensure that details of the measurements were correctly understood and taken up by coauthors,” study co-author Ralph Keeling wrote in an explanation of the revision.

CATASTROPHIC GLOBAL WARMING LESS LIKELY, STUDY SAYS

The error was first discovered by Nic Lewis, a retired British man who holds a bachelors degree in math from the University of Cambridge and who reads science papers for fun. He has also written a couple of published papers of his own on climate science.

“I’ve always liked to understand the world and to check whether people’s research makes sense to me. Once I find something that seems wrong to me, I like to get to the bottom of it,” Lewis told Fox News.

Lewis said the incident should serve as a cautionary tale.

AL GORE WOULD HAVE LOST GLOBAL WARMING BET, ACADEMIC SAYS

“I think it shows that the fact that a study is peer-reviewed and published by a premier journal gives very little assurance that its findings are valid,” Lewis said.

“I was slightly surprised that neither the peer reviewers nor the editor had spotted what seemed to me an obvious red flag on page 1 of the paper,” he added.

Lewis said that the reviewers who approved that paper may have looked less closely for errors because the conclusion agreed with the typical belief that global warming is an extreme crisis.

‘ARBITRARY’ ADJUSTMENTS EXAGGERATE SEA LEVEL RISE, STUDY FINDS

But all involved, including Lewis, agree that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are warming the oceans.

“People shouldn’t be left with the impression that the errors in this paper put into doubt whether the ocean interior is warming. It clearly is wholly or mainly due to human greenhouse gas emissions,” Lewis said.

The study co-author who took responsibility for the error also made that point.

TERRIFYING CLIMATE CHANGE WARNING: 12 YEARS UNTIL WE’RE DOOMED

“The evidence for ocean warming continues to be supported by millions of temperature readings throughout the oceans made by the international Argo network of sensors,” Keeling told Fox News.

The Argo network of sensors consists of nearly 4,000 floats around the world that observe the ocean. The study done by Keeling and his coauthors attempted to estimate ocean temperatures a totally different way — “by using measurements of atmospheric oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) … which increase as the ocean warms and releases gases.”

Keeling said that such a study still had some value.

GLOBAL WARMING WILL RUIN BEER, SCIENTISTS WARN

“Our study still also provides independent evidence that the ocean is warming. We accept that our method doesn’t determine the amount of warming as precisely as we previously thought,” Keeling added.

Keeling also acknowledged Lewis for pointing out the error.

“The scientific process is self-correcting when errors are made or new evidence is discovered. Hats off to Nic Lewis for his role here,” Keeling said.

WORLD’S LARGEST SHIPPING COMPANY HEADS TO ARCTIC AS CLIMATE CHANGE MAY OPEN UP NEW ROUTES

While the Earth has warmed — government data show that the planet is nearly 2°F warmer than in the 1970s — researchers like Lewis make the case that climate models are not that great and may overpredict warming.

“Climate science suffers from being politicized,” Lewis told Fox News. “It’s too infected by the idea of consensus and models… warming is likely to be less severe than global climate models say.”

The author, Maxim Lott, is Executive Producer of Stossel TV and creator of ElectionBettingOdds.com. He can be reached on Twitter at @MaximLott

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Bizarre Microbes Represent a Major New Branch on the Evolutionary Family Tree

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[unable to retrieve full-text content]

  1. Bizarre Microbes Represent a Major New Branch on the Evolutionary Family Tree  Gizmodo
  2. Rare microbes lead scientists to discover new branch on the tree of life  Yahoo News Canada (blog)
  3. Canadian researchers have discovered a new kind of organism  Digital Journal
  4. Full coverage



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Cargo ship launch clears crewed mission to space station

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FILE – In this Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 file photo, the Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-10 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. A Russian Soyuz rocket has put a cargo ship en route to the International Space Station, clearing the way for the next crewed mission. The launch on Friday, Nov. 16 of the Progress MS-10 resupply ship from Baikonur in Kazakhstan marked the fourth successful liftoff of a Soyuz since an crew launch last month. A Soyuz-FG rocket carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos' Alexei Ovchinin failed two minutes into its flight on Oct. 11.


Dmitri Lovetsky / AP

MOSCOW — A Russian Soyuz rocket sent a cargo ship on its way to the International Space Station on Friday, a successful launch that cleared the way for the next crew to travel to the space outpost.

The launch of the Russian Progress MS-10 resupply ship from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan marked the fourth successful liftoff of a Soyuz since a launch with crew members had to be aborted last month.

A Soyuz-FG rocket carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin failed two minutes into its flight on Oct. 11, activating an automatic rescue system that allowed their capsule to land safely. A Russian investigation attributed the failure to a sensor that was damaged during the rocket’s final assembly.

The accident was the first aborted crew launch for the Russian space program since 1983, when two Soviet cosmonauts jettisoned after a launch pad explosion and also had a safe landing. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle that can ferry crews to the space station.

Since the October mishap, two Soyuz rockets were launched successfully from Plesetsk in northwestern Russia, while a third lifted off from French Guiana carrying satellites into orbit. They were of a different subtype than the rocket that failed in October, but the one that lifted off Friday was the same version.

The Progress ship is set to dock at the space station Sunday, delivering almost three tons of food, fuel, water and other supplies to the crew — NASA’s Serena Aunon-Chancellor, Russian Sergei Prokopyev and German Alexander Gerst.

In a separate supply mission, Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket with Cygnus cargo spacecraft is scheduled to lift off Saturday and dock at the station Monday.

The current crew is scheduled to return to Earth next month after the arrival of their replacements. American astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian David Saint-Jacques and Russian Oleg Kononenko are set to go up on Dec. 3.

Speaking Thursday at the Star City space training centre outside Moscow, McClain voiced confidence in the Soyuz despite October’s aborted launch.

“We trust our rocket. We’re ready to fly,” she said. “I think what we learned from the inside in October was how safe this rocket was. A lot of people called it an accident or an incident, or maybe want to use it as an example of not being safe. But for us it’s exactly the opposite because our friends came home, the systems worked and they worked exactly as they were designed.”

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