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Airborne dust makes faraway planets more habitable

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June 9 (UPI) — The presence of airborne dust on alien planets increases the odds of habitability, according to new research. The findings could help planetary scientists hone in on exoplanets most likely to host alien life.

The habitability of a rocky planet depends on its ability to host liquid water. The planet can’t be too cold, or water will remain perpetually frozen. If the planet is too hot, all the water will boil away. The type of host star and how far away a planet is from it determines the range of temperatures on the planet’s surface.

New planetary models developed by scientists at the University of Exeter, the Met Office and the University of East Anglia showed that the presence of dust can also influence surface temperatures.

Scientists detailed their findings in a new paper, published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Dust cools the hot side of the planet, the side facing the sun, while warming the dark side of the planet, the side facing away from the sun. In effect, dust expands the planet’s habitable zone.

“On Earth and Mars, dust storms have both cooling and warming effects on the surface, with the cooling effect typically winning out. But these ‘synchronized orbit’ planets are very different,” lead study author Ian Boutle, researcher at both Exeter and the Met Office, said in a news release. “Here, the dark sides of these planets are in perpetual night, and the warming effect wins out, whereas on the dayside, the cooling effect wins out.”

“The effect is to moderate the temperature extremes, thus making the planet more habitable,” Boutle said.

The effect likely has the greatest effect on planets that exist quite close to their host stars.

Planets with intimate orbits often exist right on the inner edge of habitability. The new research suggests some that previously appeared too hot for liquid water, might actually be habitable — thanks to the cooling effect of airborne dust.

Even seemingly dust-free inner worlds could become friendlier to life over time. As their oceans bubble away, models suggest atmospheric dust concentrations rise, helping to moderate temperatures.

The new research also suggests the presence of dust could complicate efforts to spot biomarkers that might signify the presence of alien life.

For multiple reasons, planetary scientists must now consider the lack or presence of dust when gauging the habitability of distant planets.

“Airborne dust is something that might keep planets habitable, but also obscures our ability to find signs of life on these planets,” said study co-author Manoj Joshi, a professor at the University of East Anglia. “These effects need to be considered in future research.”



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SpaceX launches public beta test of Starlink Internet service

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — SpaceX has launched public beta testing of its Starlink communications satellite program that aims deliver high-speed Internet globally, particularly in underserved areas.

The Elon Musk-founded aerospace manufacturer sent out emails to invite people who signed up on its Starlink website to hear updates about the program.

The initial Starlink service is called “Better Than Nothing Beta,” according to multiple screenshots of an email, CNBC reported.

Joining the public beta test costs $99 a month on top of a $499 upfront cost for the ground equipment, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod and a Wi-Fi router.

SpaceX also has a Starlink app listed on the Google Play and Apple iOS app stores, which helps users set up their systems and allows them to search areas of the sky for unobstructed views.

“As you can tell from the title, we are trying to lower your initial expectations,” the Starlink Team signed email said. “Expect to see data speeds vary from 50 Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.”

SpaceX said that “nearly 700,000” individuals across the United States had expressed interest in potentially subscribing to the service.

“Under Starlink’s Better Than Nothing Beta program, initial service is targeted for the U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021,” SpaceX said in the description of its Starlink mobile app.

The company rolled out private beta testing over the summer for which users had to agree to keep their experience confidential.

“You may NOT discuss your participation in the Beta Program online or with those outside or your household, unless they are SpaceX employees,” the Starlink website said.

SpaceX said the network will cost about $10 billion or more to build, but the company’s leadership estimates that it could bring in up to $30 billion a year, which is more than 10 times the annual revenue of its rocket business.

On Saturday, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into space, carrying 60 Internet satellites into orbit to help establish connections to remote areas.

Earlier this month, Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation had grown large enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in the United States and southern Canada.

The company has launched nearly 900 Starlink satellites to date, which is only a fraction of what’s needed for global coverage, but enough to provide service in some areas.

Last week, SpaceX announced that it would offer Starlink’s broadband service free to families in Texas’ Ector County Independent School District, where more than one-third of the children and their families lack Internet access.



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Pristine extraterrestrial organic compounds recovered from fallen fireball

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — On a cold winter night in 2018, when a fireball streaked across the skies above Canada and the Midwest, a team of meteor hunters turned to weather radar to pinpoint its likely landing spot.

The fireball had come to rest on a frozen lake in Michigan. Researchers raced to find it and, amazingly, they were able to collect remnants of the meteorite before its contents were tainted by exposure to Earthbound water molecules.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science, scientists shared their analysis of pristine organic compounds recovered from the fallen space rock.

“We could see the minerals weren’t much altered and later found that it contained a rich inventory of extraterrestrial organic compounds,” lead study author Philipp Heck said in a news release.

“These kinds of organic compounds were likely delivered to the early Earth by meteorites and might have contributed to the ingredients of life,” said Heck, a curator at the Field Museum and an associate professor at the University of Chicago.

NASA’s weather radar typically helps meteorologists track precipitation, but because meteors fragment into rain- and snow-sized fragments as they travel through Earth’s atmosphere, the instruments can also be used to track pieces of meteorites.

With instructions from NASA scientists, meteorite hunter Robert Ward secured the first fragment from the frozen surface of Strawberry Lake, near Hamburg, Michigan.

Ward worked with fellow meteorite hunter Terry Boudreaux to get the space rock remnants to researchers at the Field Museum.

“When the meteorite arrived at the Field, I spent the entire weekend analyzing it, because I was so excited to find out what kind of meteorite it was and what was in it,” said study co-author Jennika Greer.

“With every meteorite that falls, there’s a chance that there’s something completely new and totally unexpected,” said Greer, a graduate student at the Field and the University of Chicago.

Researchers identified the meteorite as an H4 chondrite, a rarity. Just 4 percent of modern meteorites are H4 chondrites.

While most meteorite fragments are found weeks, months or — most often — years after they hit Earth, Ward collected the first remnants of the fireball just two days after it landed.

As a result, the meteorite pieces were largely uncontaminated.

“Scientists who study meteorites and space sometimes get asked, do you ever see signs of life? And I always answer, yes, every meteorite is full of life, but terrestrial, Earth life,” Heck said.

“As soon as the thing lands, it gets covered with microbes and life from Earth,” Heck said. “We have meteorites with lichens growing on them. So the fact that this meteorite was collected so quickly after it fell, and that it landed on ice rather than in the dirt, helped keep it cleaner.”

Researchers used a variety of analytical techniques to characterize the variety of pristine organic compounds found in the bits of freshly fallen space rock.

The authors of the new study suggest their discovery can help planetary scientists better understand how life-yielding compounds first arrived on primordial Earth.

“This study is a demonstration of how we can work with specialists around the world to get most out of the small piece of raw, precious piece of rock,” Heck said. “When a new meteorite falls onto a frozen lake, maybe even sometime this winter, we’ll be ready. And that next fall might be something we have never seen before.”



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Longer-lingering droplets are less efficient carriers of COVID-19 virus

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — New research — published Tuesday in the journal Physics of Fluids — suggests bigger, short-lived aerosol droplets pose a much greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than aerosol microdroplets, which are tiny particles that linger longest in the air.

To better understand the behavior and virus-carrying potential of different types of aerosol droplets, researchers had volunteers breathe, speak and cough into a laser beam, which recorded the size and distribution of the array of aerosolized particles.

Researchers used a Rayleigh jet nozzle chip to generate the same distribution of droplets.

The jet released aerosol droplets composed of 1 percent glycerol and 99 percent ethanol into a chamber. A sheet of laser light running across the middle of the chamber allowed researchers to track the movements of different sized droplets as they moved through the chamber.

Researchers relied on computer models to analyze the disease transmission risk posed by different droplet sizes.

“What we used are simple models for the evaporation and sedimentation, or falling down, of the droplets,” lead study author Daniel Bonn told UPI in an email.

“Together with the measured drop size distribution, this allows us to model the concentration of aerosols in a given room as a function of the time since for instance a patient coughed,” said Bonn, a physicist and the director of the University of Amsterdam’s Van der Waals-Zeeman Institute.

Though microdroplets produced by breathing and talking can remain airborne for longer, they carry much less virus than larger droplets produced by coughs.

“The large drops that are the reason for social distancing are roughly a hundred times larger in diameter than the aerosols, and so contain a million times more virus,” Bonn said.

The models developed by Bonn and his colleagues showed the smallest, longest-lingering particles are relatively inefficient carriers of COVID-19.

That doesn’t mean airborne transmission can’t happen — however, the findings suggest the vast majority of airborne transmission isn’t happening at grocery stores, airports, or larger, well-ventilated public spaces.

According to Bonn and his colleagues, microdroplet transmission is most likely happening in poorly ventilated spaces where groups of people are spending long periods of time in close proximity.

“Avoid small ill-ventilated spaces with too many people in it, take care of good building ventilation, open doors and windows and so on,” Bonn said. “Identify and possibly isolate super-shedders.”

Scientists continue to gain new insights into the behavior to virus-carrying aerosols, including the effects of air flow and humidity on droplet movements, but a comprehensive understanding of the role different droplets play in COVID-19 transmission remains elusive.

“What is needed is a detailed understanding of the reproduction number R, that virologists, aerosol scientists and all other agree with,” Bonn said. “This will help fighting the pandemic, and that is what we need. We have provided a potentially important step towards this goal here, but much experimental, modeling and virology work remains.”



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