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Asteroid Bennu Could Shed Light on How Ingredients for Life Reached Earth | Smart News

A series of studies published last week in the journals Science and Science Advances offer a new, detailed look at the makeup of a small asteroid called Bennu. The studies come just before NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft plans to pick up a sample from the asteroid’s surface on October 20 and return with it to Earth in 2023.

Before the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft reached the asteroid in 2018, astronomers could only study it with telescopes that couldn’t make out details smaller than cities or states, Michael Greshko reports for National Geographic. OSIRIS-REx allows astronomers to map details the size of basketball courts, sheets of paper and postage stamps, depending on the imaging tool they used.

“The reason there’s so much interest in asteroids is a lot of them are very primitive, from when the Solar System formed, and they didn’t change with wind and water, or weather like on Earth,” planetary scientist Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center tells Passant Rabie at Inverse. “They’re still more pristine than anything you could find in the universe.”

Researchers chose Bennu for close study and a sample-return mission because it is a relatively rare type of asteroid that’s rich in carbon-containing molecules, or organics, and because it formed early in the history of our solar system, Neel Patel reports for the MIT Technology Review. It’s also relatively close to Earth.

Bennu is about a third of a mile wide, made of a pile of rubble that is loosely held together by its own gravity, per National Geographic. The rubble resulted from a collision with a 60-mile-wide object in the asteroid belt that destroyed Bennu’s parent body, a larger asteroid. Bennu probably formed between 700 million and two billion years ago somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, and has drifted closer to Earth since then.

Measurements of the way that infrared light reflects off of Bennu’s surface revealed that about 98 percent the asteroid’s surface is coated in carbon-containing, organic molecules. And bright veins, narrow but about three feet long, suggest that water flowed on Bennu’s parent body, per the Technology Review. However, the surface of an asteroid has a poor chance of hosting early life.

“You’re in the vacuum of space, there’s no atmosphere, you’re looking at a lot of irradiation, it’s cold – you wouldn’t want to sit on the surface,” says Goddard Space Flight Center planetary scientist Hannah Kaplan to Leah Crane at New Scientist. “It’s not a favorable environment per se, but it does have a lot of the factors that make a place technically habitable.”

The OSIRIS-REx mission is investigating whether fragments of an object like Bennu’s parent body may have carried organic molecules, the basic ingredients for life, to Earth. A meteorite carrying organic molecules could have ferried them through Earth’s atmosphere to the chemical soup where life eventually evolved.

“Every day we have stuff raining down that we don’t see,” Simon tells Inverse. “But early on in the Solar System, there would’ve been

Climate Change Could Make Yellowstone’s Famous Geyser Less Faithful | Smart News

Yellowstone National Park’s famous Old Faithful geyser is famously reliable, firing a jet of scalding water and steam high into the air some 17 times a day at 60 to 110-minute intervals.

But new research suggests that 800 years ago a severe drought caused this geyser, which was once somewhat hyperbolically known as “Eternity’s Timepiece,” to stop erupting altogether for many decades, reports Colin Barras for Science. When taken with climate model predictions of increasingly severe droughts, the findings could mean that America’s most dependable geyser will erupt less often or stop completely in the future.

Researchers arrived at the new findings, published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, by studying 13 chunks of petrified wood found on Old Faithful’s mound. Trees can’t survive the geyser’s blasts of super-heated, alkaline water, so finding trees growing on Old Faithful’s mound is a sign that its regularly scheduled eruptions were at one point on hiatus. When researchers tested the tree remnants, they dated back to around 1230-1360 A.D., reports Catherine Meyers for Inside Science.

“When I submitted the samples for radiocarbon dating I didn’t know whether they would be hundreds or thousands of years old,” Shaul Hurwitz, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and first author of the new paper, tells Science. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment when they all clustered within a hundred-year period in the 13th and 14th centuries.”

One specimen was large enough to allow Hurwitz and his team to estimate it grew for some 80 years, suggesting Old Faithful stopped erupting for nearly 100 years sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries.

That historical period coincided with what’s known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly, according to Inside Science, which was a period of prolonged warm, dry weather for many parts of the world.

“It’s the time when we have things like grapes growing in Northern England and a loss of sea ice that allowed people to discover Greenland,” Cathy Whitlock, a paleoclimatologist at Montana State University who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Inside Science. “We know in Yellowstone it was both warmer and drier. The upper tree line was higher up the slopes and there is evidence of more fires during that period.” The drier climate lowered stream flows and caused extreme drought conditions to persist for decades, she adds.

Jamie Farrel, a geologist at the University of Utah who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Science he also finds this explanation plausible. “If you have prolonged drought and there isn’t enough water to feed these systems, then features like Old Faithful might sometimes stop erupting,” he tells Science.

Today, human-caused climate change is exacerbating droughts in the Yellowstone region, per Inside Science. Hurwitz and other researchers published a paper in 2008 showing decreased precipitation in recent decades may have added a minute or two to the time between Old Faithful’s eruptions. If the climate continues to dry out, as climate models predict it will, the

A Smart, New Approach To Stop Foreign Interference In Elections

FBI Director Christopher Wray’s recent warning that Russia is seeking to disrupt and influence US elections underscores the vulnerability of our elections and political campaigns to foreign influence and hacking. 

As is increasingly the case, whistleblowers likely will be a vital first line of defense.  

Recognizing that, the State Department has launched a promising way to turn the tables on foreign hacking operations and disrupt the disrupters: It is offering whistleblower rewards of up to $10 million to those who can identify or provide the location of individuals who are working at the behest of foreign governments to interfere with a national, state or local election.

Incentivizing knowledgeable insiders to report wrongdoing by offering whistleblower rewards has long been successful in other areas of federal law enforcement. While whistleblowers cannot wholly replace traditional law enforcement measures, they are essential sources of information and expertise regarding operations that are opaque to US investigators and difficult to penetrate by conventional methods.

Enforcement actions prompted by whistleblower information under Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission whistleblower programs have recovered more than $50 billion in fines and restitution and have significantly deterred wrongdoing that has caused losses to the US Treasury or cheated investors. 

Under these existing programs, the US has paid whistleblower rewards of over $8 billion for whistleblowers’ role in exposing fraud against the government and securities fraud.

Financial incentives combined with a strong sense of ethics spur thousands of whistleblowers from all over the world every year to report significant wrongdoing to US law enforcement authorities and regulators. 

Now, the State Department is looking to whistleblowers to help preserve the integrity of US elections by extending rewards to individuals under its “Rewards for Justice” (RFJ) program.

The program, established in 1984, has garnered critical information from individuals that has led to the capture of many terrorists and others the US desperately wants to arrest. It has paid more than $150 million in rewards to over 100 whistleblowers.

An informant who reportedly provided assistance that helped the US locate Osama bin Laden was, if the story is true, the program’s biggest success so far.

According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a Pakistani military officer walked into the US embassy in Islamabad and provided the whereabouts of bin Laden. The State Department paid the officer the $25 million reward it had offered and relocated him to the United States, Hersh reported in 2015.

(The US government denied Hersh’s report and said that CIA analysts tracked down bin Laden, who had remained elusive for 10 years before US soldiers killed him in 2011 when they tried to capture him in Pakistan.)

The State Department says the RFJ program paid sizeable rewards for the location of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein. An informant who provided that information was

Three Scientists Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for Breakthrough Black Hole Discoveries | Smart News

Black holes are cosmic phenomena that never fail to capture the world’s attention and curiosity. Millions of these galactic beasts are peppered throughout the universe, and their gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape. This morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists for their research that illuminated details of black holes’ existence and function in the universe.

Roger Penrose, a cosmologist and professor emeritus at the University of Oxford in England, received half of the award for demonstrating that black holes exist—an idea that even Albert Einstein himself was skeptical of. The other half of the award was jointly awarded to Reinhard Genzel, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and Andrea Ghez, an astronomer professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, for discovering a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Ghez is the fourth woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in physics.

“The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research,” says David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, in a press release.

In 1905, Einstein outlined his theory of special relativity, which established that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe, the speed of light is constant and nothing travels fasters than light. A decade later, Einstein presented an added explanation for acceleration to the mix through his theory of general relativity, which indicates that massive objects can distort space-time through their gravitational pull. The theory implied the existence of black holes, objects so massive that their gravitational pull consumes all nearby matter into an inescapable void. But the suggestion was theoretical and even Einstein had his doubts.

But in 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Penrose calculated that when too much mass occupies too small a space, it would collapse, thus proving the existence of black holes. Further, he showed that if an object passes the black hole’s outermost boundary, or “event horizon,” it will not be able to escape without traveling faster than the speed of light, which is impossible, according to the special theory of relativity. Running contrary to Einstein’s theory, however, Penrose found that the law of physics do not apply inside a black hole and, in fact, time and space “switch roles,” report Dennis Overbye and Derrick Bryson Taylor for the New York Times.

In 2019, researchers released the first-ever photo of a black hole. The bright ring around the black hole is the red-hot plasma flowing into the black hole. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)

“Prior to this groundbreaking work, most physicists thought that black holes were merely mathematical curiosities which appear in general relativity but that they would not exist in reality,” Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany, tells Lee