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Update April 2019


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Science & Nature
 

Science fact: Astronomers reveal first image of a black hole

 

This image released Wednesday, April 10, 2019, by Event Horizon Telescope shows a black hole. Scientists revealed the first image ever made of a black hole after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the world. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Humanity got its first glimpse last week of the cosmic place of no return: a black hole.

And it’s as hot, as violent and as beautiful as science fiction imagined.

In a breakthrough that thrilled the world of astrophysics and stirred talk of a Nobel Prize, scientists released the first image ever made of a black hole, revealing a fiery doughnut-shaped object in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth.

“Science fiction has become science fact,” University of Waterloo theoretical physicist Avery Broderick, one of the leaders of the research team of about 200 scientists from 20 countries, declared as the colorized orange-and-black picture was unveiled.

The image, assembled from data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, shows light and gas swirling around the lip of a supermassive black hole, a monster of the universe whose existence was theorized by Einstein more than a century ago but confirmed only indirectly over the decades.

Supermassive black holes are situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, and are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull. Light gets bent and twisted around by gravity in a bizarre funhouse effect as it gets sucked into the abyss along with superheated gas and dust.

The new image confirmed yet another piece of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein even predicted the object’s neatly symmetrical shape.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” announced Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard, leader of the project.

Jessica Dempsey, another co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery circle reminded her of the flaming Eye of Sauron from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Three years ago, scientists using an extraordinarily sensitive observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Einstein predicted. The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world, adds light to that sound.

Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel, just like the gravitational wave discovery.

“I think it looks very convincing,” said Andrea Ghez, director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, who wasn’t part of the discovery team.

The picture was made with equipment that detects wavelengths invisible to the human eye, so astronomers added color to convey the ferocious heat of the gas and dust, glowing at a temperature of perhaps millions of degrees. But if a person were to somehow get close to this black hole, it might not look quite like that, astronomers said.

The black hole is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun and is in a galaxy called M87. Its “event horizon” - the precipice, or point of no return where light and matter get sucked inexorably into the hole - is as big as our entire solar system.

Black holes are the “most extreme environment in the known universe,” Broderick said, a violent, churning place of “gravity run amok.” Unlike smaller black holes, which come from collapsed stars, supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin.

Despite decades of study, there are a few holdouts who deny black holes exist, and this work shows that they do, said Boston University astronomer professor Alan Marscher, a co-discoverer.

The project cost $50 million to $60 million, with $28 million of that coming from the National Science Foundation. The same team has gathered even more data on a black hole in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, but scientists said the object is so jumpy they don’t have a good picture yet.

Myth says a black hole would rip a person apart, but scientists said that because of the particular forces exerted by an object as big as the one in M87, someone could fall into it and not be torn to pieces. But the person would never be heard from or seen again.

Black holes are “like the walls of a prison. Once you cross it, you will never be able to get out and you will never be able to communicate,” said astronomer Avi Loeb, who is director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard but was not involved in the discovery.

The telescope data was gathered two years ago, over four days when the weather had to be just right all around the world. Completing the image was an enormous undertaking, involving an international team of scientists, supercomputers and hundreds of terabytes of data.

When scientists initially put all that data into the first picture, what they saw looked so much like what they expected they didn’t believe it at first.

“We’ve been hunting this for a long time,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been getting closer and closer with better technology.”


Japan spacecraft drops explosive on asteroid to make crater

This Feb. 22, 2019, file image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows the shadow, center above, of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft after its successful touchdown on the asteroid Ryugu. (JAXA via AP, File)

Mari Yamaguchi

Tokyo (AP) - Japan’s space agency said an explosive dropped from its Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully blasted the surface of an asteroid for the first time to form a crater and pave the way for the collection of underground samples for possible clues to the origin of the solar system.

Last Friday’s mission was the riskiest for Hayabusa2 because it had to immediately move away so it wouldn’t get hit by flying shards from the blast.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said Hayabusa2 dropped a small explosive box which sent a copper ball the size of a baseball slamming into the asteroid, and that data confirmed the spacecraft had safely evacuated and remained intact. JAXA later confirmed the impact from images transmitted from a camera left behind by the spacecraft which showed the impactor being released and fine particles later spraying dozens of meters out from a spot on the asteroid.

“The mission was a success,” JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda said, beaming. “It is highly likely to have made a crater.”

JAXA plans to send Haya­busa2, which was moved to the other side of the asteroid, back to the site after dust and debris settle for observations and to collect samples of material from the new crater that was unexposed to the sun or space rays. Scientists hope the samples will help them understand the history of the solar system, since asteroids are left over material from its formation.

No such samples have been recovered. In a 2005 “deep impact” mission to a comet, NASA observed fragments after blasting the surface but did not collect them.

Last month, JAXA announced that a group of scientists participating in the Hayabusa2 mission had detected hydroxyl-bearing minerals on the asteroid by analyzing near-infrared spectrometer readings by the spacecraft. It said that could help explain where the Earth’s water came from. The results were published in the online edition of Science magazine.

“So far, Hayabusa2 has done everything as planned, and we are delighted,” mission leader Makoto Yoshikawa said earlier Friday. “But we still have more missions to achieve and it’s too early for us to celebrate.”

Hayabusa2 successfully touched down on a small level area on the boulder-strewn asteroid in February, when it also collected some surface dust and small debris. The craft is scheduled to leave the asteroid at the end of 2019 and bring the surface fragments and underground samples back to Earth in late 2020.

The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth.


School lessons targeted by climate change doubters

In this June, 3, 2017, file photo, the sun sets behind Georgia Power’s coal-fired Plant Scherer, one of the nation’s top carbon dioxide emitters, in Juliette, Ga. As climate change becomes a hotter topic in American classrooms in 2019, some politicians are pushing back against the scientific consensus that global warming is real and man-made. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)

Michael Melia

Hartford, Conn. (AP) - A Connecticut lawmaker wants to strike climate change from state science standards. A Virginia legislator worries teachers are indoctrinating students with their personal views on global warming. And an Oklahoma state senator wants educators to be able to introduce alternative viewpoints without fear of losing their jobs.

As climate change becomes a hotter topic in American classrooms, politicians around the country are pushing back against the near-universal scientific consensus that global warming is real, dire and man-made.

Of the more than a dozen such measures proposed so far this year, some already have failed. But they have emerged this year in growing numbers, many of them inspired or directly encouraged by a pair of advocacy groups, the Discovery Institute and the Heartland Institute.

“You have to present two sides of the argument and allow the kids to deliberate,” said Republican state Sen. David Bullard of Oklahoma, a former high school geography teacher whose bill, based on model legislation from the Discovery Institute, ran into opposition from science teachers and went nowhere.

Scientists and science education organizations have blasted such proposals for sowing confusion and doubt on a topic of global urgency. They reject the notion that there are “two sides” to the issue.

“You can’t talk about two sides when the other side doesn’t have a foot in reality,” said University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles.

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, said these legislative proposals are dangerous, bad-faith efforts to undermine scientific findings that the fossil-fuel industry or fundamentalist religious groups don’t want to hear.

In the mainstream scientific community, there is little disagreement about the basics that greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, oil and gas are causing the world to warm in a dangerous manner. More than 90 percent of the peer-reviewed studies and scientists who write them say climate change is a human-caused problem.

A Nobel Prize-winning international panel of scientists has repeatedly published reports detailing the science behind climate change and how the world is likely to pass a level of warming that an international agreement calls dangerous. The U.S. government last year issued a detailed report saying that “climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social and economic well-being are rising.”

The battle over global warming resembles the fight that began decades ago over the teaching of evolution, in which opponents led by conservative Christians have long called for schools to present what they consider both sides of the issue.

Some of those who reject mainstream climate science have cast the debate as a matter of academic freedom.

James Taylor, a senior fellow at Heartland, an Illinois-based group that dismisses climate change, said it is encouraging well-rounded classroom discussions on the topic. The group, which in 2017 sent thousands of science teachers copies of a book titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,” is now taking its message directly to students. A reference book it is planning for publication this year will rebut arguments linking climate change to hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather.

“We’re very concerned the global warming propaganda efforts have encouraged students to not engage in research and critical thinking,” Taylor said, referring to news reports and scientific warnings.

Neither Discovery nor Heartland discloses the identities of its donors.

Instruction on the topic varies widely from place to place, but climate change and how humans are altering the planet are core topics emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards, developed by a group of states. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, and 21 others have embraced some of the material with modifications.

Still, a survey released in 2016 found that of public middle- and high-school science teachers who taught something about climate change, about a quarter gave equal time to perspectives that “raise doubt about the scientific consensus.”

By early February, the Oakland, California-based nonprofit National Center for Science Education flagged over a dozen bills this year as threats to the integrity of science education, more than the organization typically sees in an entire year.

Several of them - including proposals in Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota - had language echoing model legislation of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which says teachers should not be prohibited from addressing strengths and weaknesses of concepts such as evolution and global warming.

Similar measures became law in Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012. In states where they may not be feasible politically, Discovery has urged legislators to consider nonbinding resolutions in support of giving teachers latitude to “show support for critical thinking” on controversial topics. Lawmakers in Alabama and Indiana passed such resolutions in 2017.

Discovery officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Florida state Sen. Dennis Baxley is pressing legislation that would allow schools to teach alternatives to controversial theories.

“There is really no established science on most things, you’ll find,” the GOP legislator said.

Elsewhere, lawmakers in Connecticut and Iowa, which both adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, have proposed rolling them back. Connecticut state Rep. John Piscopo, a Republican who is a Heartland Institute member, said he wants to eliminate the section on climate change, calling it “totally one-sided.”

Other bills introduced this year in such states as Virginia, Arizona and Maine call for teachers to avoid political or ideological indoctrination of their students.

“If they’re teaching about a subject, such as climate change, and they present both sides, that’s fine. That’s as it should be. A teacher who presents a skewed extension of their political beliefs, that’s closer to indoctrinating. That’s not good to kids,” said Virginia state Rep. Dave LaRock, a Republican.

While there are many details about climate science hotly debated among scientists, it is well-established that global warming is real, human-caused and a problem, said scientist Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

“When people say we ought to present two sides, they’re saying we ought to present a side that’s totally been disproven along with a side that has been fundamentally supported by the evidence,” Field said.


EU leaders postpone decision on 2050 climate goal

Young people protest for climate action with a sign reading ‘Save the World Now” during a ‘Friday for Future’ demonstration in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 22, 2019. (Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP)

Frank Jordans & Samuel Petrequin

Brussels (AP) - European Union leaders have pushed back a decision on the bloc’s long-term efforts to fight climate change, with some countries opposing a pledge to end most emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

Leaders meeting in Brussels agreed to discuss the issue again at their next gathering in June, ahead of a U.N. summit on climate change in the fall. The delay frustrated environmental campaigners, who argue that the EU should lead global efforts to meet the 2015 Paris accord’s most ambitious target of keeping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

“European governments are kicking the can down the road on climate change,” said Sebastian Mang, a policy adviser with Greenpeace.

Mang cited warnings from scientists that sharp cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are needed in the coming decades to prevent potentially catastrophic levels of warming by the end of the century.

“Young people get this,” he said, referring to recent rallies in cities around the world that drew hundreds of thousands of students calling for leaders to tackle climate change.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who two years ago launched the “One Planet Summit” aimed at speeding up the implementation of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, said Friday that the bloc’s efforts at fighting climate change “were eminently insufficient.”

“Today, we are not giving a clear answer to the commitments we made in Paris in 2015, to the scientific challenges pointed out by the best experts, and to the legitimate impatience that youngsters are expressing in demonstrations every week in our capitals,” Macron said. “We will need to wake up, but we have not really seen that yet.”

Much of the two-day EU meeting in Brussels was taken up with haggling over the bloc’s future relationship with Britain. But on the second day, leaders were able to address a number of other issues, including the EU’s ties with China, industrial policy and global warming.

Some countries, including France, Spain and the Netherlands, had proposed that leaders agree “an ambitious long-term strategy by 2020 striving for climate neutrality by 2050” in line with the Paris accord’s climate warming goal. Climate neutrality would require countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to the level that can be absorbed again and is sometimes referred to as “net zero.”

Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic were among those EU nations reluctant to explicitly cite the year 2050 for curbing emissions, according to position papers obtained by The Associated Press.

Still, a lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report on limiting global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial times said that while the EU declaration was vague, it addressed important points.

“They sharpened the commitment to 1.5 (Celsius),” said Daniela Jacob, director of the Climate Services Center in Hamburg, Germany.

The European Parliament recently voted in favor of raising the targeted emissions cuts to 55 percent by 2030, but leaders of the bloc’s 28 members have so far refrained from following suit.

In Norway, which is not an EU member but cooperates closely with the bloc, local media said at least 36,000 people across the country took part in climate protests Friday. Oslo city council expressed its support for the approximately 10,000 young people who had gathered outside the Norwegian Parliament, Stortinget, as part of the global climate protests by students.

“The school strikes for the climate are a clear signal from the younger generation that we have to act now,” city council member Raymond Johansen said. “We are the first generation that can see the climate changes with our eyes and are probably the last generation that has the possibility to do something about it.”


UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Science fact: Astronomers reveal first image of a black hole

Japan spacecraft drops explosive on asteroid to make crater


School lessons targeted by climate change doubters


EU leaders postpone decision on 2050 climate goal