‘Ghost dunes’ spotted on Mars

Newly spotted croissant-shape impressions (denoted with arrows, above) on Mars are giving scientists clues to the history of the Red Planet.

The shapes, known as “ghost dunes,” are the hardened casts of ancient sand dunes, created when lava or sediments seeped and solidified around the lower contours of the dunes. As winds eventually dispersed the sand on top, the negative space where the dune once stood was preserved as a pit on the martian surface. While giant sand dunes have been documented in many images of the Red Planet, these new geologic features were first discovered on Earth in 2016 and only observed on Mars earlier this year.

Using satellite images, researchers spotted fields of ghost dunes pitting the surface of two different regions on Mars: 480 potential dune molds at Noctis Labyrinthus, a maze-like region of plateaus and canyons, and 300 in the Hellas Planitia, a smooth 4-billion-year-old crater. Analyzing the size, shape, and age of the ghost dunes could shed some light on Mars’ climate throughout history, the team reports in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

The team also says that pockets at the pits’ edges might still contain sand that has been sheltered from the elements for millions of years. According to the researchers, this ancient sand would be an excellent place to search for the molecular evidence of life on Mars, as sand dunes on Earth have been shown to support microbial life.

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Mercury’s ‘snakes’ Get Formal Names

When NASA’s Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft made its first flyby of Mercury in 2008, astronomers spotted strange deposits: blankets of material ranging from tens to thousands of kilometers wide whose color led researchers to informally dub them “red spots.” To date, scientists have cataloged more than 150 of these objects—and now, the International Astronomical Union has given them formal names.

All of the new monikers contain “facula,” which means “bright spot,” because they are brighter than the background terrain, as well as the word “snake” in one of Earth’s various languages. They take their serpentine name not from their appearance, but because the Roman god Mercury often appears with snakes on his staff.

Four of the seven newly named features lie in the Caloris basin, shown above, where faculae take names from African languages of the Somalian, Igbo (of southeastern Nigeria), Arabic, and Afrikaans. The remaining features—announced Friday—contain the Irish, Welsh, and Basque words for snakes. Spread across the planet, the faculae have been linked to billions of years of explosive volcanism in Mercury’s past. Back then, rising, volatile-rich magma caused a more violent explosion than molten rock alone would have experienced, suggesting that Mercury’s interior wasn’t as dry as once thought.

Planetary Science Wins Big In NASA’s New Spending Plan

NASA’s science programs get a big boost in the 2018 spending bill approved by Congress this week, allowing researchers to continue developing an orbiter and lander to study Jupiter’s moon Europa and robot probes to return soil samples from Mars.

Scientists were giddy over the 7.9% boost, to $6.2 billion, given to NASA’s science account. Within that total, the agency’s planetary science coffers get an even bigger raise, a 20.7% increase to $2.2 billion, the highest level ever after adjusting for inflation and programmatic changes over the years.

The agency’s earth science programs will receive flat funding at $1.9 million, while heliophysics gets an increase of 1.5%, to $688 million. Astrophysics is a big winner, with a surge of 13.3%, to $850 million. Lawmakers also saved NASA’s education programs, which the White House sought to begin closing down.

“It’s hard to be happier,” says Casey Dreier, director of space policy for The Planetary Society, an advocacy group in Pasadena, California. “We have to appreciate these rare moments of agreement to invest in the U.S. scientific capacity.”

Lawmakers also backed projects that scientists had named as high priorities, but that President Donald Trump’s administration had marked to terminate in 2018. These include four climate-oriented earth science missions: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem satellite; the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3; the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder; and an Earth-facing camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory.

In addition, Congress increased spending for the troubled Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) space telescope, which the White House last month proposed terminating in its 2019 budget proposal.

The astronomy community had recommended all five projects as top priorities in so-called decadal surveys for earth science and astronomy, conducted periodically by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the consensus statements are meant to advise the government about which big-ticket science projects it should fund. Lawmakers unequivocally praised the importance of the decadal surveys in the 2018 spending bill. But their support for the earth science missions will be tested again next year, as the White House’s 2019 spending request again proposes cutting four projects.

WFIRST will be NASA’s next big orbiting telescope after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled for launch in 2019 and would be used to study exoplanets and dark energy. But, like the JWST, WFIRST faces cost overruns, an independent panel said last October. In the 2018 appropriations bill, Congress signaled its intention to keep a closer eye on the project, ordering NASA to develop new estimates of WFIRST’s total and annual development costs.

In backing the Europa orbiter and Mars sample return missions for planetary science, Congress endorsed the top choices in a decadal survey released in 2011. But lawmakers also continued to push for the Europa lander, which the Trump administration did not request and was not a priority in the survey. The mission is a favorite of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who leads the House of Representatives spending panel that oversees NASA’s budget.

Dreier notes that although this administration has declined to include the Europa mission in its budget requests, Congress since 2013 has routinely given NASA’s planetary science program more than the White House has requested. As a result, its budget has grown by about 50% over the past 5 years. The growth has allowed NASA to fund development of the Europa mission without greatly squeezing other projects, something that the research community fears. Cost overruns on the JWST, for example, notoriously ate up most of the agency’s astronomy budget for years, making it difficult to start or sustain other projects. Ultimately, the Trump administration will have to approve constructing the Europa lander before it can move out of the planning phase.

Teaching Quantum Physics To A Computer


Physics students spend many years learning to master the often counterintuitive laws and effects of quantum mechanics. For instance, the quantum state of a physical system may be undetermined until a measurement is made, and a measurement on one part of the system can influence the state of a distant part without any exchange of information. It is enough to make the mind boggle. Once the students graduate and start doing research, the problems continue: to exactly determine the state of some quantum system in an experiment, one has to carefully prepare it and make lots of measurements, over and over again.

Very often, what one is actually interested in cannot even be measured directly. An international team of researchers led by Giuseppe Carleo, a lecturer at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of ETH Zurich, has now developed machine learning software that enables a computer to “learn” the quantum state of a complex physical system based on experimental observations and to predict the outcomes of hypothetical measurements. In the future, their software could be used to test the accuracy of quantum computers.

Quantum physics and handwriting

The principle of his approach, Carleo explains, is rather simple. He uses an intuitive analogy that avoids the complications of quantum physics: “What we do, in a nutshell, is like teaching the computer to imitate my handwriting. We will show it a bunch of written samples, and step by step it then learns to replicate all my a’s, l’s and so forth.”

The way the computer does this is by looking at the ways, for instance, in which an “l” is written when it follows an “a.” These may not always be the same, so the computer will calculate a probability distribution that expresses mathematically how often a letter is written in a certain way when it is preceded by some other letter. “Once the computer has figured out that distribution, it could then reproduce something that looks very much like my handwriting,” Carleo says.

Quantum physics is, of course, much more complicated than a person’s handwriting. Still, the principle that Carleo (who recently moved to the Flatiron Institute in New York), together with Matthias Troyer, Guglielmo Mazzola (both at ETH) and Giacomo Torlai from the University of Waterloo as well as colleagues at the Perimeter Institute and the company D-Wave in Canada have used for their machine learning algorithm is quite similar.

The quantum state of the physical system is encoded in a so-called neural network, and learning is achieved in small steps by translating the current state of the network into predicted measurement probabilities. Those probabilities are then compared to the actually measured data, and adjustments are made to the network in order to make them match better in the next round. Once this training period is finished, one can then use the quantum state stored in the neural network for “virtual” experiments without actually performing them in the laboratory.

Faster tomography for quantum states

“Using machine learning to extract a quantum state from measurements has a number of advantages,” Carleo explains. He cites one striking example, in which the quantum state of a collection of just eight quantum objects (trapped ions) had to be experimentally determined. Using a standard approached called quantum tomography, around one million measurements were needed to achieve the desired accuracy. With the new method, a much smaller number of measurements could do the same job, and substantially larger systems, previously inaccessible, could be studied.

This is encouraging, since common wisdom has it that the number of calculations necessary to simulate a complex quantum system on a classical computer grows exponentially with the number of quantum objects in the system. This is mainly because of a phenomenon called entanglement, which causes distant parts of the quantum system to be intimately connected although they do not exchange information. The approach used by Carleo and his collaborators takes this into account by using a layer of “hidden” neurons, which allow the computer to encode the correct quantum state in a much more compact fashion.

Testing quantum computers

Being able to study quantum systems with a large number of components — or “qubits,” as they are often called — also has important implications for future quantum technologies, as Carleo points out: “If we want to test quantum computers with more than a handful of qubits, that won’t be possible with conventional means because of the exponential scaling. Our machine learning approach, however, should put us in a position to test quantum computers with as many as 100 qubits.”

Also, the machine learning software can help experimental physicists by allowing them to perform virtual measurements that would be hard to do in the laboratory, such as measuring the degree of entanglement of a system composed of many interacting qubits. So far, the method has only been tested on artificially generated data, but the researchers plan to use it for analysing real quantum experiments very soon.

For The First Time Ever, Astronomers Have Detected Planets Outside Our Galaxy

In an incredible world first, astrophysicists have detected multiple planets in another galaxy, ranging from masses as small as the Moon to ones as great as Jupiter.

Given how difficult it is to find exoplanets even within our Milky Way galaxy, this is no mean feat. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma achieved this thanks to clever use of gravitational microlensing.

The technique, first predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, has been used to find exoplanets within Milky Way, and it’s the only known way of finding the smallest and most distant planets, thousands of light-years from Earth.

As a planet orbits a star, the gravitational field of the system can bend the light of a distant star behind it.

We know what this looks like when it’s just two stars, so when a planet enters the mix, it creates a further disturbance in the light that reaches us – a recognisable signature for the planet.

So far, 53 exoplanets within the Milky Way have been detected using this method. To find planets farther afield, though, something a little bit more powerful than a single star was required.

Oklahoma University astronomers Xinyu Dai and Eduardo Guerras studied a quasar 6 billion light-years away called RX J1131-1231, one of the best gravitationally lensed quasars in the sky.

The gravitational field of a galaxy 3.8 billion light-years away between us and the quasar bends light in such a way that it creates four images of the quasar, which is an active supermassive black hole that’s extremely bright in X-ray, thanks to the intense heat of its accretion disc.

Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, the researchers found that there were peculiar line energy shifts in the quasar’s light that could only be explained by planets in the galaxy lensing the quasar.

It turned out to be around 2,000 unbound planets with masses ranging between the Moon and Jupiter, between the galaxy’s stars.

“We are very excited about this discovery. This is the first time anyone has discovered planets outside our galaxy,” Dai said.

Of course, we haven’t seen the planets directly, and are unlikely to in the lifetime of anyone alive today. But being able to detect them at all is an incredible testament to the power of microlensing, not to mention being evidence that there are planets in other galaxies.

Of course, common sense would dictate that planets are out there – but evidence is always nice.

“This is an example of how powerful the techniques of analysis of extragalactic microlensing can be,”said Guerras.

“This galaxy is located 3.8 billion light years away, and there is not the slightest chance of observing these planets directly, not even with the best telescope one can imagine in a science fiction scenario.

“However, we are able to study them, unveil their presence and even have an idea of their masses. This is very cool science.”

Canadian Climate Science Faces Crisis That May Be Felt Globally, Scientists Warn

Canadian climate science is facing a looming crisis whose repercussions could be felt far beyond the country’s borders, hundreds of scientists have warned, after the Canadian government failed to renew the country’s only dedicated funding program for climate and atmospheric research.

In an open letter addressed to Justin Trudeau, more than 250 scientists from 22 countries highlight their concern over the imminent end of the C$35m Climate Change and Atmospheric Research program.

Launched in 2012, the program funded seven research networks that explored issues such as the impact of aerosols, changing sea ice and snow cover, as well as atmospheric temperatures in the high Arctic.

Much of the research emerging from the program was focused on Canada’s Arctic, yielding data sets that were used around the world by scientists seeking to better understand climate change and its impacts.

The government’s decision came as a surprise to many in Canada, said Dan Weaver of Evidence For Democracy, the research advocacy group who published the letter on Monday.

“The government has taken great effort to engage with policies around climate and climate education, green energy and a lot of these great things,” he said. “But somehow along the way, the support for the atmospheric science – the underlying science of the issue – has been overlooked.”

Scientists in Canada first sounded the alarm last spring after noticing that the 2017 federal budget did not include funding for the program. Amid public outcry the government said it would extend funding for one of the program’s projects; a one-of-a-kind research lab located some 1,100 km from the North Pole.

While the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory now has funding until the fall of 2019, the six remaining projects are bracing for their funding to dry up in March.

The loss of these projects will be felt globally, says the letter. Canada’s scientists are uniquely positioned to research the Arctic, arguably the world’s most critical region when it comes to quantifying how and why the climate is changing, said signatory Gloria Manney, a senior research scientist at the Northwest Research Associates in the US. “Continuous, stable funding support for Canadian atmospheric and climate science is thus crucial to advancing understanding of our planet.”

As the Trump administration seeks to devalue climate science, Canada’s commitment to climate research is needed now more than ever, said signatory Benjamin D Santer, a senior climate researcher at the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. “The world is looking to Canada for political leadership that the United States is currently unable to provide,” he said.

While Trudeau government’s stated support for climate science and the Paris climate agreement has been encouraging, “such support cannot be limited to fine-sounding words”, he said. “It must be backed by a real commitment to preserve and sustain the unique climate measurement, climate monitoring, and climate modeling capabilities that Canada possesses.”

In response to the letter, Canada’s minister of science pointed to the additional C$70m her government had set aside for climate research in the last budget, adding to the C$37m provided annually by federal research granting councils. “We are doing more to combat climate change than any Canadian federal government in history,” Kirsty Duncan said in a statement. “Our government will continue to support and invest in the actions necessary to address climate change.”

Weaver welcomed these efforts, but he said they should be paired with long term funding for research. “If Canada isn’t contributing this key piece of the puzzle, no one else can,” he said.

“The Trudeau government is taking concrete actions on climate and science in a variety of ways, but it’s missing a critical piece,” he said. “And that’s what this is all about – ensuring that this gap is filled in some way or another.”

Amazon Seeks Prime North American Spot For Second Headquarters

Amazon has launched a $5bn (£3.8bn) search for a site for a new headquarters, asking cities across the US and Canada to make their pitches.

The new HQ will be the world’s largest e-commerce company’s second in North America, and “will be a full equal” to its current headquarters in Seattle, Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos said.

“Amazon HQ2 will bring billions of dollars in upfront and ongoing investments, and tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. We’re excited to find a second home,” Bezos added.

The company is willing to look beyond the US for its new location, explicitly opening up to Canadian cities.

The pitch to cities from Amazon is simple: the company will bring highly skilled employment worth billions to the local area. Amazon says the second HQ will include “as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs”, and notes that the construction and economic impact of the building “is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community”.

Amazon estimates that in the last six years alone, it has brought an extra $38bn to Seattle’s economy. “Every dollar invested by Amazon in Seattle generated an additional $1.40 for the city’s economy overall,” the company says.

Eileen Burbidge, a partner at venture capital firm Passion Capital and the chair of Tech City UK, said any city would want to entice Amazon to its area. “The ‘prize’ is tremendous if any city/state is able to land Amazon, given its commitment to 50,000 new jobs and $5bn of investment in the HQ2,” she said. “I believe without question that it is beneficial for cities to attract large HQs such as Amazon’s.”

In exchange for all that economic growth, the company has a long list of requirements for any city which wants to bid for its presence. Amazon lists a number of “core preferences”, including a 45-minute drive to an international airport, mass transit (such as a tram or subway stop) connected directly to the site, and at least 500,000 square feet of office space available by 2019.

“It seems that Amazon will be looking at incentive packages to be offered by states/cities,” Burbidge said. “Whether those be tax/other financial incentives or other support and favourable conditions for its capital and operating expenditure forecast.”

In a seven-page document provided to cities interested in bidding, Amazon also lists a number of “decision drivers”, including “the presence and support of a diverse population”, “a strong university system” and “an overall high quality of life”.

But simply being a nice place to live is unlikely to be enough to win the company over. Amazon also lists financial incentives to “offset [its] initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs” as a “key preference”.

“The initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers,” the company warns interested governments when asking for a detailed list of all incentives available, including “land, site preparation, tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, workforce grants, utility incentives/grants, permitting, and fee reductions”.

The practice of offering hefty financial incentives to woo big employers to a specific location is widespread, but has come under increasing criticism in recent years. In July, the state of Wisconsin offered a reported $3bn in state subsidies to Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn to entice the firm to build an LCD manufacturing facility. But critics noted that the deal would only bring 3,000 jobs in the short term, potentially rising to 13,000 over the following six years.

Jennifer Shilling, a Democratic Wisconsin state senator, said in July of Foxconn: “The bottom line is this company has a concerning track record of big announcements with little follow-through. Given the lack of details, I’m skeptical about this announcement and we will have to see if there is a legislative appetite for a $1bn-to-$3bn corporate welfare package.”