The Sun’s activity, known as “space weather”, has a significant effect on Earth and the other planets of the Solar System. Periodic eruptions, also known as solar flares, release considerable amounts of electromagnetic radiation, which can interfere with everything from satellites and air travel to electrical grids. For this reason, astrophysicists are trying to get a better look at the Sun so they can predict its weather patterns.
This is the purpose behind the NSF’s 4-meter (13-ft) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) – formerly known as the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope – which is located at the Haleakala Observatory on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Recently, this facility released its first images of the Sun’s surface, which reveal an unprecedented level of detail and offer a preview of what this telescope will reveal in the coming years.
These images provide a close-up view of the Sun’s surface that shows turbulent plasma arranged in a pattern of cell-like structures. These cells are an indication of violent motions that transport hot solar plasma from the interior of the Sun to the surface. This process, known as convection, sees this bright plasma rise to the surface in cells, where it then cools and sinks below the surface in dark lanes.
By obtaining these kinds of precise and clear images of the Sun, astronomers hope to be able to improve their understanding of this process so they can predict sudden changes in space weather. As France Córdova, the NSF director, explained:
“Since NSF began work on this ground-based telescope, we have eagerly awaited the first images. We can now share these images and videos, which are the most detailed of our sun to date. NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope will be able to map the magnetic fields within the sun’s corona, where solar eruptions occur that can impact life on Earth. This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms.”
To put it plainly, the Sun is a G-type (yellow dwarf) main-sequence star that has existed for about 4.6 billion years. This puts it about halfway through its life cycle, which will last for about another 5 billion years. The process of self-sustained nuclear fusion which powers the Sun (and provides all of our light, heat, and energy) consumes about 5 million tons of hydrogen fuel every second.
All of the energy created by this process radiates into space in all directions and reaches to the very edge of the Solar System. Since the 1950s, scientists have understood that Earth resides within the Sun’s atmosphere and that changes in its weather have a profound impact on Earth. Even now, decades later, there is much about the Sun’s most vital processes that remain unknown.
Matt Mountain is the president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the Inouye Solar Telescope. As he explained the goal of solar astronomy:
“On Earth, we can predict if it is going to rain pretty much anywhere in the world very accurately, and space weather just isn’t there yet. Our predictions lag behind terrestrial weather by 50 years, if not more. What we need is to grasp the underlying physics behind space weather, and this starts at the sun, which is what the Inouye Solar Telescope will study over the next decades.”
Astronomers have determined that the motion of the Sun’s plasma is related to solar storms because of the way that they cause the Sun’s magnetic field lines to become twisted and tangled. Measuring and characterizing the Sun’s magnetic field is crucial to determining the causes of potentially harmful solar activity – something for which the Inouye Solar Telescope is uniquely qualified.
According to Thomas Rimmele, director of the Inouye Solar Telescope, it all comes down to the Sun’s magnetic field. “To unravel the sun’s biggest mysteries, we have to not only be able to clearly see these tiny structures from 93 million miles away but very precisely measure their magnetic field strength and direction near the surface and trace the field as it extends out into the million-degree corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun.”
One of the biggest benefits to come from a better understanding of solar dynamics is the ability to predict major weather events. At present, governments and space agencies are able to anticipate events about 48 minutes ahead of time. But thanks to the research being conducted by the Inouye Solar Telescope and other solar observatories, astronomers expect to get this up to 48 hours.
This would give us more time to ensure that these events don’t knock out power grids, critical infrastructure, satellites, and space stations. Naturally, the business of monitoring the Sun is no easy task and comes with its fair share of hazards. For this reason, the Inouye Solar Telescope leverages many recent developments in terms of construction, engineering, and astronomy.
This includes its 4 m (13 ft) mirror (the largest of any solar telescope), adaptive optics to compensate for the distortion caused by Earth’s atmosphere, and the pristine viewing conditions atop Haleakala’s over 3000 m (10,000 ft) summit. The telescope also relies on several safeguards to ensure that it does not become overheated from focusing 13 kilowatts of solar power from the Sun.
This is done via a high-tech, liquid-cooled metal torus (the “heat-stop”) that keeps most of the sunlight away from the main mirror and cooling plates that cover the dome and keep temperatures stable around the telescope. The interior of the observatory is also kept cool using 11.25 km (7 mi) of coolant pipes, which are partially chilled by ice that accumulates during the night, and interior shutters that provide air circulation and shade.
“With the largest aperture of any solar telescope, its unique design, and state-of-the-art instrumentation, the Inouye Solar Telescope – for the first time – will be able to perform the most challenging measurements of the sun,” said Rimmele. “After more than 20 years of work by a large team devoted to designing and building a premier solar research observatory, we are close to the finish line. I’m extremely excited to be positioned to observe the first sunspots of the new solar cycle just now ramping up with this incredible telescope.”
David Boboltz, a program director in NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, is also responsible for overseeing the facility’s construction and operations. As he indicated, these images are just the tip of the iceberg for the Inouye Solar Telescope:
“Over the next six months, the Inouye telescope’s team of scientists, engineers and technicians will continue testing and commissioning the telescope to make it ready for use by the international solar scientific community. The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our sun during the first 5 years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sun in 1612.”
The Inouye Solar Telescope is part of a trio of instruments that are poised to revolutionize solar astronomy in the coming years. It is joined by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (which is currently orbiting the Sun) and the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter (which is soon to be launched). As Valentin Pillet summarized (the director of the NSF’s National Solar Observatory), it’s an exciting time to be a solar physicist:
“The Inouye Solar Telescope will provide remote sensing of the outer layers of the sun and the magnetic processes that occur in them. These processes propagate into the solar system where the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter missions will measure their consequences. Altogether, they constitute a genuinely multi-messenger undertaking to understand how stars and their planets are magnetically connected.”
Further Reading: NSF
Discovery Of World's Oldest DNA Breaks Record By One Million Years – Forbes
Microscopic fragments of DNA were found in Ice Age sediment in northern Greenland. Using cutting-edge technology, researchers discovered the fragments are one million years older than the previous record for DNA sampled from a Siberian mammoth bone.
The discovery was made by a team of scientists led by Professor Eske Willerslev and Professor Kurt H. Kjær. Professor Willerslev is a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and Director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Center at the University of Copenhagen where Professor Kjær, a geology expert, is also based.
“A new chapter spanning one million extra years of history has finally been opened and for the first time we can look directly at the DNA of a past ecosystem that far back in time,” so Professor Willerslev commenting the discovery.
“DNA can degrade quickly but we’ve shown that under the right circumstances, we can now go back further in time than anyone could have dared imagine.”
Professor Kjær adds that “the ancient DNA samples were found buried deep in sediment that had built-up over 20,000 years. The sediment was eventually preserved in ice or permafrost and, crucially, not disturbed by humans for two million years.”
The incomplete samples, a few millionths of a millimeter long DNA strings, were taken from the København Formation, a sediment formation almost 100 meters thick deposited in the shallow area of a fjord in Greenland’s northernmost point. The climate in Greenland at the time of sedimentation was between 10 to 17 degrees warmer than today, sustaining an ecosystem with no present-day equivalent, resembling a mix of temperate forest and mixed-grass prairie.
Detective work by 40 researchers from Denmark, the UK, France, Sweden, Norway, the U.S. and Germany, unlocked the secrets of the fragments of DNA. The process was painstaking – first they needed to establish whether there was DNA hidden in the sediment, and if there was, could they successfully detach the DNA from the mineral grains – like clay particles and quartz crystals – to examine it? The answer, eventually, was yes. The researchers compared every single DNA fragment with extensive libraries of DNA collected from present-day animals, plants and microorganisms.
The scientists discovered evidence of animals, plants and microorganisms including reindeer, hares, lemmings, birch and poplar trees. They even found that Mastodon, an Ice Age elephant, roamed as far as Greenland before later becoming extinct. Previously it was thought the range of the species did not extend from its known origins of North and Central America.
Some of the DNA fragments were easy to classify as predecessors to present-day species, others could only be linked at genus level, and some originated from species impossible to place in the DNA libraries of animals, plants and microorganisms still living today.
The findings have opened up a whole new period in DNA detection. Thanks to a new generation of extraction and sequencing equipment, researchers will be able to locate and identify extremely small and damaged fragments of genetic information in sediments considered previously unfit for DNA preservation.
“DNA generally survives best in cold, dry conditions such as those that prevailed during most of the period since the material was deposited at Kap København. Now that we have successfully extracted ancient DNA from clay and quartz, it may be possible that clay may have preserved ancient DNA in warm, humid environments in sites found in Africa,” Professor Willerslev concludes.
The paper “A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNA” is published in Nature. Material provided by the by University of Cambridge.
NASA posts high-resolution images of Orion’s final lunar flyby
Orion just made its final pass around the moon on its way to Earth, and NASA has released some of the spacecraft’s best photos so far. Taken by a high-resolution camera (actually a heavily modified GoPro Hero 4) mounted on the tip of Orion’s solar arrays, they show the spacecraft rounding the Moon then getting a closeup shot of the far side.
The photos Orion snapped on its first near pass to the Moon were rather grainy and blown out, likely because they were captured with Orion’s Optical Navigation Camera rather than the solar array-mounted GoPros. Other GoPro shots were a touch overexposed, but NASA appears to have nailed the settings with its latest series of shots.
Space photos were obviously not the primary goal of the Artemis I mission, but they’re important for public relations, as NASA learned many moons ago. It was a bit surprising that NASA didn’t show some high-resolution closeups of the Moon’s surface when it passed by the first time, but better late than never.
Orion’s performance so far has been “outstanding,” program manager Howard Hu told reporters last week. It launched on November 15th as part of the Artemis 1 mission atop NASA’s mighty Space Launch System. Days ago, the craft completed a three and a half minute engine burn (the longest on the trip so far) to set it on course for a splashdown on December 11th.
The next mission, Artemis II, is scheduled in 2024 to carry astronauts on a similar path to Artemis I without landing on the moon. Then, humans will finally set foot on the lunar surface again with Artemis III, slated for launch in 2025.
Biosignatures: Discovery Of Earth’s Oldest DNA Breaks Record By One Million Years
Two-million-year-old DNA has been identified for the first time – opening a ‘game-changing’ new chapter in the history of evolution.
Microscopic fragments of environmental DNA were found in Ice Age sediment in northern Greenland. Using cutting-edge technology, researchers discovered the fragments are one million years older than the previous record for DNA sampled from a Siberian mammoth bone.
The ancient DNA has been used to map a two-million-year-old ecosystem which weathered extreme climate change. Researchers hope the results could help to predict the long-term environmental toll of today’s global warming.
The discovery was made by a team of scientists led by Professor Eske Willerslev and Professor Kurt H. Kjær. Professor Willerslev is a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and Director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen where Professor Kjær, a geology expert, is also based.
The results of the 41 usable samples found hidden in clay and quartz are published today (7 DECEMBER 2022) in Nature.
Professor Willerslev said: “A new chapter spanning one million extra years of history has finally been opened and for the first time we can look directly at the DNA of a past ecosystem that far back in time..
“DNA can degrade quickly but we’ve shown that under the right circumstances, we can now go back further in time than anyone could have dared imagine.”
Professor Kjær said: “The ancient DNA samples were found buried deep in sediment that had built-up over 20,000 years. The sediment was eventually preserved in ice or permafrost and, crucially, not disturbed by humans for two million years.”
The incomplete samples, a few millionths of a millimetre long, were taken from the København Formation, a sediment deposit almost 100 metres thick tucked in the mouth of a fjord in the Arctic Ocean in Greenland’s northernmost point. The climate in Greenland at the time varied between Arctic and temperate and was between 10-17C warmer than Greenland is today. The sediment built up metre by metre in a shallow bay.
Scientists discovered evidence of animals, plants and microorganisms including reindeer, hares, lemmings, birch and poplar trees. Researchers even found that Mastodon, an Ice Age mammal, roamed as far as Greenland before later becoming extinct. Previously it was thought the range of the elephant-like animals did not extend as far as Greenland from its known origins of North and Central America.
Detective work by 40 researchers from Denmark, the UK, France, Sweden, Norway, the USA and Germany, unlocked the secrets of the fragments of DNA. The process was painstaking – first they needed to establish whether there was DNA hidden in the clay and quartz, and if there was, could they successfully detach the DNA from the sediment to examine it? The answer, eventually, was yes. The researchers compared every single DNA fragment with extensive libraries of DNA collected from present-day animals, plants and microorganisms. A picture began to emerge of the DNA from trees, bushes, birds, animals and microorganisms.
Some of the DNA fragments were easy to classify as predecessors to present-day species, others could only be linked at genus level, and some originated from species impossible to place in the DNA libraries of animals, plants and microorganisms still living in the 21st century.
The two-million-year-old samples also help academics build a picture of a previously unknown stage in the evolution of the DNA of a range of species still in existence today.
Professor Kjær said: “Expeditions are expensive and many of the samples were taken back in 2006 when the team were in Greenland for another project, they have been stored ever since.
“It wasn’t until a new generation of DNA extraction and sequencing equipment was developed that we’ve been able to locate and identify extremely small and damaged fragments of DNA in the sediment samples. It meant we were finally able to map a two-million-year-old ecosystem.”
Assistant Professor Mikkel W. Pedersen, co-first author on the paper and also based at the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, said: “The Kap København ecosystem, which has no present-day equivalent, existed at considerably higher temperatures than we have today – and because, on the face of it, the climate seems to have been similar to the climate we expect on our planet in the future due to global warming.
“One of the key factors here is to what degree species will be able to adapt to the change in conditions arising from a significant increase in temperature. The data suggests that more species can evolve and adapt to wildly varying temperatures than previously thought. But, crucially, these results show they need time to do this. The speed of today’s global warming means organisms and species do not have that time so the climate emergency remains a huge threat to biodiversity and the world – extinction is on the horizon for some species including plants and trees.”
While reviewing the ancient DNA from the Kap København Formation, the researchers also found DNA from a wide range of microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, which they are continuing to map. A detailed description of how the interaction – between animals, plants and single-cell organisms – within the former ecosystem at Greenland’s northernmost point worked biologically will be presented in a future research paper.
It is now hoped that some of the ‘tricks’ of the two-million-year-old plant DNA discovered may be used to help make some endangered species more resistant to a warming climate.
Professor Kjær said: “It is possible that genetic engineering could mimic the strategy developed by plants and trees two million years ago to survive in a climate characterised by rising temperatures and prevent the extinction of some species, plants and trees. This is one of the reasons this scientific advance is so significant because it could reveal how to attempt to counteract the devastating impact of global warming.”
The findings from the Kap København Formation in Greenland have opened up a whole new period in DNA detection.
Professor Willerslev explained: “DNA generally survives best in cold, dry conditions such as those that prevailed during most of the period since the material was deposited at Kap København. Now that we have successfully extracted ancient DNA from clay and quartz, it may be possible that clay may have preserved ancient DNA in warm, humid environments in sites found in Africa.
“If we can begin to explore ancient DNA in clay grains from Africa, we may be able to gather ground-breaking information about the origin of many different species – perhaps even new knowledge about the first humans and their ancestors – the possibilities are endless.”
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