Remains of oldest horned dinosaur in North America found

December 11, 2014 Leave a comment
This artist's conception shows Aquilops americanus in its early Cretaceous period ecosystem. Image courtesy Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, copyright Brian Engh.

This artist’s conception shows Aquilops americanus in its early Cretaceous period ecosystem. Image courtesy Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, copyright Brian Engh.

Paleontologists have identified a species of horned dinosaur that lived in Montana more than 100 million years ago, the oldest known ceratopsian in North America.

The two foot-long animal – about as long as a crow or a raven – was an ancestor much larger horned and frilled creatures that roamed Cretaceous period landscapes on the continent.

Known as Aquilops americanus, the animal is a clue to a pattern of dinosaur migration from Asia to North America.

“Aquilops lived nearly 20 million years before the next oldest horned dinosaur named from North America,” Andrew A. Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond A. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, Calif. and lead author of a paper documenting the discovery. “Even so, we were surprised that it was more closely related to Asian animals than those from North America.”

Those relatives included Liaoceratops yanzigouensis, another tiny predecessor of Triceratops, Styracosaurus, and other ceratopsian dinosaurs whose fossils were discovered in China and described in 2002.

Researchers found only the remnants of one, probably adolescent, Aquilops’ skull, about 84 millimeters long. But those bones are distinctive enough to set the fossils apart as a holotype. Among the most distinctive features of the skull is a downward-curving, bumped beak.

The Aquilops americanus fossils were found in 1997. The name means “American eagle face.”

The paper documenting the discovery was published in the Dec. 10 edition of PLOS One.

European Space Agency decides Philae’s landing spot on comet

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

The site for humanity’s first-ever attempt to land a spacecraft on a comet has been chosen.

Philae, the tiny lander being carried by the Rosetta probe, will attempt on Nov. 12 to anchor itself to an area on the smaller of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The location is known as Site J.

This image, obtained by Rosetta from 30 kilometers away, shows Site J. Courtesy European Space Agency.

This image, obtained by Rosetta from 30 kilometers away, shows Site J. Courtesy European Space Agency.

“Now that we know where we are definitely aiming for, we are an important step closer to carrying out this exciting – but high-risk – operation,” Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager, said in a statement released Oct. 15.

Rosetta itself is now about 10 kilometers away from the comet. It will launch Philae, if all goes according to plan, when it is about 22.5 kilometers from the comet’s center.

Philae’s journey to the comet will take about seven hours. Communication confirming a successful landing on the comet can be expected to arrive at Earth during the early- to mid-morning hours in North America.

Rosetta’s mission team will confirm that the probe is on the correct trajectory and that Philae is ready to receive computer commands before the final authorization to send the tiny lander to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is transmitted.

Philae will not be idle during its movement from Rosetta to the comet. It will study the comet’s dust, gas, and plasma while moving slowly through the short distance in space.

This graphic details the steps in Philae's process of moving from the Rosetta probe to a landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Courtesy European Space Agency.

This graphic details the steps in Philae’s process of moving from the Rosetta probe to a landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Courtesy European Space Agency.

Mission planners are not sure how much time Philae will have, once anchored on the comet, to study its nucleus and other features. The lander has a solar-powered battery, which will provide more or less energy depending on the degree to which the solar power receiver is covered by dust from the comet.

ESA said in a press release that Philae is not expected to be able to conduct scientific observations of the comet past March 2015.

NOAA: West, New England will have warm winter

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Residents of the western states and New England may face a relatively mild winter this year, according to a new prediction by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

The agency’s U.S. Winter Outlook, released today, indicates that the coastal and inter-mountain west will likely experience average winter temperatures that are above normal.

“The temperature outlook for November-December-January (NDJ) 2014-15 indicates elevated probabilities of above-normal mean temperatures for Alaska, the far west, along the northern tier of the continental U.S. eastward to include parts of the northeast and mid-Atlantic,” the document said. “Below-normal mean temperatures are most likely over areas from eastern New Mexico to the western Gulf coast states.”

Graphic courtesy NOAA

Graphic courtesy NOAA

Warmer does not mean drier, though. NOAA said that higher-than-average precipitation can be expected in southern California, the desert southwest, the southern Great Plains, across the deep south, and up the Atlantic coast to southern New England.

Graphic courtesy NOAA

Graphic courtesy NOAA

That may be good news for water-starved California, though the drought there is not likely to end.

“While we’re predicting at least a two-in-three chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal throughout the state, with such widespread, extreme deficits, recovery will be slow,” Mike Halpert, acting director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said.

An El Nino event could well happen this winter, but if it does, it is expected to be a weak one. NOAA estimated on Oct. 9 that there is a 67 percent chance of an El Nino event in the coming months.

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NASA picks New Horizons targets in Kuiper Belt

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

NASA has chosen three possible small objects in the region of space beyond Neptune that could serve as destinations for the New Horizons probe after it visits the dwarf planet Pluto.

The agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to select three Kuiper Belt objects, each only a tiny fraction the size of Pluto and ranging in size from 25-55 kilometers. All three KBOs are about one billion miles beyond Pluto.

The New Horizons probe is shown visiting a Kuiper Belt Object in this artist's impression. KBOs have never been visited by spacecraft; they are remnants of the earliest days of the solar system and are found in a region full of icy debris billions of miles from the Sun. Courtesy NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute.

The New Horizons probe is shown visiting a Kuiper Belt Object in this artist’s impression. KBOs have never been visited by spacecraft; they are remnants of the earliest days of the solar system and are found in a region full of icy debris billions of miles from the Sun. Courtesy NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizons will visit the Pluto system next summer. After doing so, the spacecraft will continue to travel deeper into the farthest reaches of the solar system, where objects have remained frozen since the formation of the planets and dwarf planets billions of years ago.

New Horizons was launched on Jan. 19, 2006. By the time it reaches the three potential KBOs found by the Hubble Space Telescope, it will have traveled about four billion miles from the sun.

NASA image of the day: Spooky Sun

This photo, obtained by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows active regions on the Sun. The image looks like a jack-o-lantern! Our star's active regions, located in the corona, are those that emit more light and energy than other areas.  The image is a blend of two images captured in the ultraviolet wavelength at a range that is typically orange or yellow in color. Courtesy NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.

This photo, obtained by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows active regions on the Sun. The image looks like a jack-o-lantern! Our star’s active regions, located in the corona, are those that emit more light and energy than other areas. The image is a blend of two images captured in the ultraviolet wavelength at a range that is typically orange or yellow in color. Courtesy NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Global Carbon Project report: worldwide carbon dioxide emissions up 2.3% in 2013, 61 percent since 1990

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment

A new report indicates that carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere continued to rise in 2013, reaching a record level of concentration.

Discharges of the most common greenhouse gas grew by 2.3 percent worldwide last year, with China and India exhibiting the largest year-over-year increase. The report concluded that planetary carbon dioxide emissions have now risen 61 percent since 1990, the base year for the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Given the trend, emissions will likely reach a record 40 billion metric tons this year.

Photo copyright Martin Muransky, courtesy Shutterstock

Photo copyright Martin Muransky, courtesy Shutterstock

“We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below two degrees C[elsius] of climate change, a level that will be already challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations,” Dr. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain, said. “Politicians meeting in New York need to think very carefully about their diminishing choices exposed by climate science.”

China and India, which have maintained a national commitment to reliance on coal as a primary source of electricity, saw carbon dioxide emission increases of 4.2 percent and 5.1 percent last year, while emissions of the heat-trapping gas rose by 2.9 percent in the United States after falling for several years.

Emissions in the European Union declined in 2013 by 1.8 percent.

The report, which was released by The Global Carbon Project, concludes that total future carbon dioxide emissions will need to be limited to 1,200 metric tons if an increase in average worldwide temperatures is to be limited to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution era level, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“If we carry on at the current rate we will reach our limit in as little as 30 years’ time and that is without any continued growth in emission levels,” Dr. Pierre Friedlingstein, a professor of mathematics at the University of Exeter who specializes in the modeling of the planet’s climate system and the lead author of the report, said. “The implication of no immediate action is worryingly clear – either we take a collective responsibility to make a difference, and soon, or it will be too late.”
The report was published Sunday in Nature Geoscience.
It follows the release earlier in September of another report from the World Meteorological Organization that that found that the total concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached historically high levels.

Darwin first saw the H.M.S. Beagle 183 years ago today

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Charles Darwin gained his fame as the man who, along with Alfred Russel Wallace, hypothesized that Earth’s biodiversity is the result of evolution by natural selection. In the century and a half since Darwin’s pioneering publication of “The Origin of Species,” scientists have found that his ideas about how and why species change were essentially correct. Evolution by natural selection is as much a part of the fabric of science and just as important an explanation of how nature works as Copernicus’ contribution that Earth revolves around the sun and Newton’s insights on gravity.

Today is the 183rd anniversary of the date on which Darwin first saw the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship that took him on the journey that changed biology.

This drawing is a reproduction of R. T. Pritchett's frontispiece from the 1890 illustrated edition of The Voyage of the Beagle. Courtesy Wikimedia.

This drawing is a reproduction of R. T. Pritchett’s frontispiece from the 1890 illustrated edition of The Voyage of the Beagle. Courtesy Wikimedia.

You can watch a wonderful short film about Darwin’s life and work here.

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