Black hole caught napping after meal

A black hole 11 million light-years away has gone dormant, a decade after being spotted consuming cosmic debris.

The black hole lies at the center of the Sculptor galaxy, a so-called starburst galaxy where stars are being born at a prodigious rate.

But the X-ray light corresponding to a black hole's snack has dimmed markedly.

The find, to appear in Astrophysical Journal, has mystified astronomers because star formation and black hole activity tend to go hand-in-hand.

The Sculptor galaxy - also known as NGC 253 - hosts a central black hole with a mass some five million times that of our Sun - a quarter again as plump as the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.

In 2003, researchers using the Chandra space telescope caught sight of the X-rays that correspond to matter spiraling down into the black hole and heating up to millions of degrees.

    Black holes are incredibly dense objects with gravity strong enough to trap even light

    A 'medium' black hole could have the mass of 1,000 Suns but be no bigger than Earth

    Supermassive black holes are thought to be at the center of most large galaxies - including ours

But as of mid-2012, the X-ray sky has a new observer: a space telescope called the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array or Nustar, already a successful black-hole hunter.

Nustar can spot even higher-energy X-rays than Chandra, and in late 2012, both telescopes were trained on NGC 253 - with the surprise finding that the X-ray emission seems to have stopped.

"Black holes feed off surrounding accretion disks of material. When they run out of this fuel, they go dormant," said Ann Hornschemeier of Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center, a co-author on the new study.

"NGC 253 is somewhat unusual because the giant black hole is asleep in the midst of tremendous star-forming activity all around it".

The subtle interplay between black hole activity and the birth rate of new stars remains somewhat mysterious, but Bret Lehmer of Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author on the paper, said that the Sculptor galaxy could shed new light on these dark galactic corners.

"Periodic observations with both Chandra and Nustar should tell us unambiguously if the black hole wakes up again. If this happens in the next few years, we hope to be watching," he said.

Source :BBC

N.H.Khider

Biological clocks 'beat quicker' in cities

City living could have a major impact on the biological clocks of humans and animals, a new study has found.

Researchers measured the circadian rhythms - the 24-hour cycle of biological activity - of urban and rural blackbirds in southern Germany.

German and Scottish researchers found the city birds woke up earlier and rested less than forest dwelling birds.

The team has raised the possibility the differences could be the result of micro-evolutionary changes.

The study, which has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was carried out by Glasgow University and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

A number of adult male European blackbirds were captured from Munich and a nearby rural forest.

Each bird was equipped with a lightweight radio-transmitter which monitored their daily levels of activity in the wild for 10 days before they were recaptured.

"Our work shows for the first time that that when sharing human habitats, a wild animal species has a different internal clock".

They were then kept in light-proofed, sound-insulated chambers and their circadian rhythms were measured under constant conditions

Once the tests were complete the birds were returned to the wild

Dr Barbara Helm, from Glasgow University's institute of biodiversity, animal health and comparative medicine, said: "We found that the rhythms of urban birds in the wild differ significantly from their forest counterparts.

"On average, they began their daily activities around 30 minutes before dawn, while forest birds began their day as the sun rose.

"The city birds ended their days around nine minutes later, meaning they were active for about 40 minutes longer each day".

Dr Helm said in "constant laboratory conditions" the circadian rhythms of urban birds were clearly altered".

"There seems to be a different beat to city life", she said. "City clocks were also less persistent, especially in the business district".

The team said its research added "to a growing consensus" that towns and cities "have a profound effect on the internal clocks" of humans and animals

It said further study was needed to determine whether these changes could lead to increased health problems or were related to better function in urban areas.

Dr Helm added: "Previous research undertaken by other researchers has suggested strong links in humans between disrupted sleep patterns and an increased incidence of depression and diseases including obesity and some types of cancers.

"Our work shows for the first time that when sharing human habitats, a wild animal species has a different internal clock.

"We'd be keen to find out the costs and benefits of modifying biological rhythms in blackbirds and other animals commonly found in our cities. This may help us to better understand the challenges of coping with urban life".

The researchers have raised the possibility the differences in the biological rhythms could be the result of micro-evolutionary changes in response to urban phenomena such as artificial light and increased noise levels.

Source:BBC

N.H.Khider

Even With Defects, Graphene Is Strongest Material in the World

In a new study, Columbia Engineering researchers demonstrate that graphene, even if stitched together from many small crystalline grains, is almost as strong as graphene in its perfect crystalline form. This work resolves a contradiction between theoretical simulations, which predicted that grain boundaries can be strong, and earlier experiments, which indicated that they were much weaker than the perfect lattice.

Graphene consists of a single atomic layer of carbon, arranged in a honeycomb lattice. "Our first Science paper, in 2008, studied the strength graphene can achieve if it has no defects -- its intrinsic strength," says James Hone, professor of mechanical engineering, who led the study with Jeffrey Kysar, professor of mechanical engineering. "But defect-free, pristine graphene exists only in very small areas. Large-area sheets required for applications must contain many small grains connected at grain boundaries, and it was unclear how strong those grain boundaries were. This, our second Science paper, reports on the strength of large-area graphene films grown using chemical vapor deposition (CVD), and we're excited to say that graphene is back and stronger than ever."

The study verifies that commonly used methods for post-processing CVD-grown graphene weaken grain boundaries, resulting in the extremely low strength seen in previous studies. The Columbia Engineering team developed a new process that prevents any damage of graphene during transfer. "We substituted a different etchant and were able to create test samples without harming the graphene," notes the paper's lead author, Gwan-Hyoung Lee, a postdoctoral fellow in the Hone lab. "Our findings clearly correct the mistaken consensus that grain boundaries of graphene are weak. This is great news because graphene offers such a plethora of opportunities both for fundamental scientific research and industrial applications."

In its perfect crystalline form, graphene (a one-atom-thick carbon layer) is the strongest material ever measured, as the Columbia Engineering team reported in Science in 2008 -- so strong that, as Hone observed, "it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap." For the first study, the team obtained small, structurally perfect flakes of graphene by mechanical exfoliation, or mechanical peeling, from a crystal of graphite. But exfoliation is a time-consuming process that will never be practical for any of the many potential applications of graphene that require industrial mass production.

Currently, scientists can grow sheets of graphene as large as a television screen by using chemical vapor deposition (CVD), in which single layers of graphene are grown on copper substrates in a high-temperature furnace. One of the first applications of graphene may be as a conducting layer in flexible displays.

"But CVD graphene is 'stitched' together from many small crystalline grains -- like a quilt -- at grain boundaries that contain defects in the atomic structure," Kysar explains. "These grain boundaries can severely limit the strength of large-area graphene if they break much more easily than the perfect crystal lattice, and so there has been intense interest in understanding how strong they can be."

The Columbia Engineering team wanted to discover what was making CVD graphene so weak. In studying the processing techniques used to create their samples for testing, they found that the chemical most commonly used to remove the copper substrate also causes damage to the graphene, severely degrading its strength.

Their experiments demonstrated that CVD graphene with large grains is exactly as strong as exfoliated graphene, showing that its crystal lattice is just as perfect. And, more surprisingly, their experiments also showed that CVD graphene with small grains, even when tested right at a grain boundary, is about 90% as strong as the ideal crystal.

"This is an exciting result for the future of graphene, because it provides experimental evidence that the exceptional strength it possesses at the atomic scale can persist all the way up to samples inches or more in size," says Hone. "This strength will be invaluable as scientists continue to develop new flexible electronics and ultrastrong composite materials."

 Strong, large-area graphene can be used for a wide variety of applications such as flexible electronics and strengthening components -- potentially, a television screen that rolls up like a poster or ultrastrong composites that could replace carbon fiber. Or, the researchers speculate, a science fiction idea of a space elevator that could connect an orbiting satellite to Earth by a long cord that might consist of sheets of CVD graphene, since graphene (and its cousin material, carbon nanotubes) is the only material with the high strength-to-weight ratio required for this kind of hypothetical application.

The team is also excited about studying 2D materials like graphene. "Very little is known about the effects of grain boundaries in 2D materials," Kysar adds. "Our work shows that grain boundaries in 2D materials can be much more sensitive to processing than in 3D materials. This is due to all the atoms in graphene being surface atoms, so surface damage that would normally not degrade the strength of 3D materials can completely destroy the strength of 2D materials. However with appropriate processing that avoids surface damage, grain boundaries in 2D materials, especially graphene, can be nearly as strong as the perfect, defect-free structure."

The study was supported by grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.

Source: Science Daily

R.Sawas

Water-Rock Reaction May Provide Enough Hydrogen 'Food' to Sustain Life in Ocean's Crust or On Mars

A chemical reaction between iron-containing minerals and water may produce enough hydrogen "food" to sustain microbial communities living in pores and cracks within the enormous volume of rock below the ocean floor and parts of the continents, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, also hint at the possibility that hydrogen-dependent life could have existed where iron-rich igneous rocks on Mars were once in contact with water.

Scientists have thoroughly investigated how rock-water reactions can produce hydrogen in places where the temperatures are far too hot for living things to survive, such as in the rocks that underlie hydrothermal vent systems on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The hydrogen gases produced in those rocks do eventually feed microbial life, but the communities are located only in small, cooler oases where the vent fluids mix with seawater.

The new study, led by CU-Boulder Research Associate Lisa Mayhew, set out to investigate whether hydrogen-producing reactions also could take place in the much more abundant rocks that are infiltrated with water at temperatures cool enough for life to survive.

"Water-rock reactions that produce hydrogen gas are thought to have been one of the earliest sources of energy for life on Earth," said Mayhew, who worked on the study as a doctoral student in CU-Boulder Associate Professor Alexis Templeton's lab in the Department of Geological Sciences.

"However, we know very little about the possibility that hydrogen will be produced from these reactions when the temperatures are low enough that life can survive. If these reactions could make enough hydrogen at these low temperatures, then microorganisms might be able to live in the rocks where this reaction occurs, which could potentially be a huge subsurface microbial habitat for hydrogen-utilizing life."

When igneous rocks, which form when magma slowly cools deep within Earth, are infiltrated by ocean water, some of the minerals release unstable atoms of iron into the water. At high temperatures -- warmer than 392 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) -- scientists know that the unstable atoms, known as reduced iron, can rapidly split water molecules and produce hydrogen gas, as well as new minerals containing iron in the more stable, oxidized form.

Mayhew and her co-authors, including Templeton, submerged rocks in water in the absence of oxygen to determine if a similar reaction would take place at much lower temperatures, between 122 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit (50 to 100 degrees Celsius). The researchers found that the rocks did create hydrogen -- potentially enough hydrogen to support life.

To understand in more detail the chemical reactions that produced the hydrogen in the lab experiments, the researchers used "synchrotron radiation" -- which is created by electrons orbiting in a humanmade storage ring -- to determine the type and location of iron in the rocks on a microscale.

The researchers expected to find that the reduced iron in minerals like olivine had converted to the more stable oxidized state, just as occurs at higher temperatures. But when they conducted their analyses at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource at Stanford University, they were surprised to find newly formed oxidized iron on "spinel" minerals found in the rocks. Spinels are minerals with a cubic structure that are highly conductive.

Finding oxidized iron on the spinels led the team to hypothesize that, at low temperatures, the conductive spinels were helping facilitate the exchange of electrons between reduced iron and water, a process that is necessary for the iron to split the water molecules and create the hydrogen gas.

"After observing the formation of oxidized iron on spinels, we realized there was a strong correlation between the amount of hydrogen produced and the volume percent of spinel phases in the reaction materials," Mayhew said. "Generally, the more spinels, the more hydrogen."

Not only is there a potentially large volume of rock on Earth that may undergo these low temperature reactions, but the same types of rocks also are prevalent on Mars, Mayhew said. Minerals that form as a result of the water-rock reactions on Earth have been detected on Mars as well, which means that the process described in the new study may have implications for potential Martian microbial habitats.

Mayhew and Templeton are already building on this study with their co-authors, including Thomas McCollom at CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, to see if the hydrogen-producing reactions can actually sustain microbes in the lab.

Source: Science Daily

R.Sawas

Small, Speedy Plant-Eater Extends Knowledge of Dinosaur Ecosystems

Dinosaurs are often thought of as large, fierce animals, but new research highlights a previously overlooked diversity of small dinosaurs. A team of paleontologists from the University of Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and University of Calgary have described a new dinosaur, the smallest plant-eating dinosaur species known from Canada. Albertadromeus syntarsus was identified from a partial hind leg, and other skeletal elements, that indicate it was a speedy runner. Approximately 1.6 m (5 ft) long, it weighed about 16 kg (30 lbs), comparable to a large turkey.

Albertadromeus lived in what is now southern Alberta in the Late Cretaceous, about 77 million years ago. Albertadromeus syntarsus means "Alberta runner with fused foot bones." Unlike its much larger ornithopod cousins, the duckbilled dinosaurs, its two fused lower leg bones would have made it a fast, agile two-legged runner. This animal is the smallest known plant-eating dinosaur in its ecosystem, and researchers hypothesize that it used its speed to avoid predation by the many species of meat-eating dinosaurs that lived at the same time.

Why are so few small-bodied dinosaurs known from North America some 77 million years ago? Smaller animals are less likely to be preserved than larger ones, because their bones are more delicate and are often destroyed before being fossilized. "We know from our previous research that there are preservational biases against the bones of these small dinosaurs," said Caleb Brown of the University of Toronto, lead author of the study. "We are now starting to uncover this hidden diversity, and although skeletons of these small ornithopods are both rare and fragmentary, our study shows that these dinosaurs were more abundant in their ecosystems than previously thought".

The reason for our relatively poor understanding of these small dinosaurs is a combination of the taphonomic processes described above, and biases in the way that material has been collected. Small skeletons are more prone to destruction by carnivores, scavengers and weathering processes, so fewer small animals are available to become fossils and smaller animals are often more difficult to find and identify than those of larger animals.

"Albertadromeus may have been close to the bottom of the dinosaur food chain but without dinosaurs like it you'd not have giants like T. rex," said Michael Ryan. "Our understanding of the structure of dinosaur ecosystems is dependent on the fossils that have been preserved. Fragmentary, but important, specimens like that of Albertadromeus suggest that we are only beginning to understand the shape of dinosaur diversity and the structure of their communities".

Source: Science Daily

N.H.Khider

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