TIME space

Voyager 1 Surfs a Cosmic Tsunami

Wow, Voyager: 12 billion miles from home and still very much in the game
Wow, Voyager: 12 billion miles from home and still very much in the game NASA/JPL

Earth's only Interstellar spacecraft is rocked by a storm from the sun

Planetary scientists have pretty much stopped haggling over whether Voyager 1, the space probe launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn, has finally entered interstellar space. The tough little ship is still going strong, but there isn’t exactly a signpost that marks the heliopause—the place where particles streaming from the Sun bang into the thin gas that lies between the stars. As a result, there’s been some confusion about when the spacecraft actually crossed that invisible boundary—though there’s no confusion over the fact that it did. (There’s no confusion either about whether it’s left the Solar System: despite last year’s breathless headlines, it hasn’t. Comets in the Oort Cloud, which are definitely under the Sun’s gravitational influence, are much farther out than the heliopause.)

But the fact that Voyager 1 is now firmly in interstellar space is evident just by the change in its surroundings, says Don Gurnett, of the University of Iowa, whose plasma wave instrument aboard the probe is the final arbiter. “It’s extremely quiet out there,” Gurnett says. “The magnetic fields are constant, the flux of cosmic rays is constant”—a sharp contrast to the turmoil of the so-called termination shock, where particles racing outward at a million m.p.h. (1.6 million k/h) slam into the relatively stationary particles that make up the interstellar medium.

But the comparative quiet of distant space does not mean there’s nothing going on out there. At this very moment, in fact, as Gurnett explained at a talk at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco this week, the sparse interstellar gas is reeling from a powerful blast of solar particles that smashed into it last February. The eruption began its life as a coronal mass ejection or CME, a huge burst of hot plasma fired into space during a solar storm. When they hit the Earth, CMEs can disrupt electronic communications and even cause blackouts.

Their impact further away is much greater, causing a kind of cosmic tsunami—huge pressure waves that make the interstellar gas vibrate like a ringing bell. Indeed, a recording the spacecraft made and NASA released reveals that the phenomenon even sounds like a bell. “This shows us how much influence the Sun can have on the surrounding area,” says Caltech physicist Ed Stone, who has been the Voyager project scientist since 1972, “and it’s very likely to be the same with other stars.”

Voyager detected its first cosmic tsunami back in the 1990’s when the impact of a CME colliding with the heliopause created a blast of radio waves. They’re too faint to be picked up from Earth, says Stone. “You need to be out by Saturn, at least, to detect them.” By 2012, the spacecraft was close enough to the heliopause to experience a later tsunami directly, recording a steep increase in the density of the gas it was flying through. It felt another in 2013, and the probe is now in the midst of its third, which was still going nine months later—a period during which Voyager 1 traveled a quarter of a billion miles (.4 billion km). No one knows how far into space the tsunami will travel before it fades out, says Gurnett. “I’m guessing it could be another hundred astronomical units or more.”

That, by the way, is a whole lot. An astronomical unit is the equivalent of the distance between the Earth and the sun—or 93 million mi. (150 million km). A hundred of those is 9.3 billion miles—or 15 billion km. Voyager 1 is currently at 130 A.U., or about 12 billion miles; it will have to reach 21.3 billion just to catch up with the outer reach of the tsunami—a journey that will take decades.

Stone, Gurnett and the other Voyager scientists won’t have to wait that long for another big event, however. The Voyager 2 probe, which lagged behind its sister ship so it could take a look at Uranus and Neptune, is currently at 109 A.U. from the Sun, and approaching its own rendezvous with the heliopause. “We’re hoping it will happen in the next couple of years,” says Stone.

If it’s hard to imagine what it’s like for Stone to watch the Voyager probes continue to make discoveries more than four decades after he took over the project, he offers a single, simple word of explanation: “Wonderful.”

TIME holiday

Have a Very Marie Curie Christmas With These Nobel Physicist Snowflake Decorations

Because every scientist is unique in their own special way

Do you love the holidays? Do you love science? Are you a nerd?

If you answered yes all of the above, or even just the last one, Symmetry magazine has a holiday decoration just for you: Nobel prize-winning scientist snowflakes.

“Energy and mass may be equivalent, but this Albert Einstein snowflake is beyond compare,” writes Kathryn Jepson of Symmetry a particle physics journal, alongside a downloadable PDF template for cutting out the snowflakes yourself.

Other templates include the Marie Curie snowflake—which “radiates charm”—and the Erwin Schrödinger snowflake: “Is it an Erwin Schrödinger snowflake with cats on it, or is it a cat snowflake with Erwin Schrödinger on it?”

Read more and get your snowflake templates now at Symmetry

TIME portfolio

TIME Picks the Top 100 Photos of 2014

TIME's photo editors present an unranked selection of the best 100 images of the year

2014 was heart wrenching year that brought with it a litany of terror, turbulence and tragedy — from the escalating conflict in Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists to an reignited war in Gaza that led to the death of more than 2000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis; and from Ebola’s deadly outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone t0 the renewed debate about race in America after the killing of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Gardner.

On a lighter note, though, 2014 also saw New York bid farewell to Yankees captain Derek Jeter who signed off with a walk-off hit, and Germany’s footballers won the FIFA World Cup by famously beating hosts Brazil 7-1 in a one-sided semi-final and defeating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final.

TIME’s photo editors present an unranked selection of the best 100 images of the year.

Read next: The Most Surprising Photos of 2014

TIME Environment

This Is How Much Water California Needs to Recover From Its Drought

California Drought NASA
NASA GRACE satellite data reveal the severity of California’s drought on water resources across the state. This map shows the trend in water storage between September 2011 and September 2014. NASA JPL

According to a new analysis on the impact of the three-year drought

California needs about 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from its three-year drought, according to a new NASA analysis, providing the first-ever calculation of this kind.

The figure, equivalent to about 1.5 times the maximum volume of the biggest U.S. reservoir, was determined by using NASA climate satellites to measure the water storage in the region’s river basins, which is one index for measuring drought severity, the agency said in a statement released Tuesday. The data reveals that since 2011, the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins decreased by 4 trillion gallons of water each year — more water than the state’s 38 million residents use annually.

Scientists said that while recent storms in California have helped the state replenish its water supply, a full recovery will take much longer. “It takes years to get into a drought of this severity,” said Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it.”

TIME space

NASA Can See Holiday Lights From Space

NASA Holiday Lights
City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the U.S. when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December. NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

Cities are brighter during the holidays than any other time in the year

The holiday lights on your roof are so bright they’re visible from space.

NASA said Tuesday that data from a polar-orbiting satellite, in partnership with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, shows how cities’ nighttime lights change during the holiday season. From Black Friday until New Year’s, city lights are about 20 to 50% brighter than other times of the year.

“It’s a near ubiquitous signal. Despite being ethnically and religiously diverse, we found that the U.S. experiences a holiday increase that is present across most urban communities,” said Miguel Román, a research physical scientists at NASA Goddard who co-led the research. “These lighting patterns are tracking a national shared tradition.”

Researchers also took a look at holiday lights during the holy month of Ramadan in the Middle East, where nighttime lights shine up to 50% brighter. Scientists discovered some cities were lit more heavily throughout the region, which they attributed to political or cultural differences.

“Even within majority Muslim populations, there are a lot of variations,” said Eleanor Stokes, a graduate fellow at NASA. “What we’ve seen is that these lighting patterns track cultural variation within the Middle East.”

TIME Science

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain

music class
Getty Images

Actively learning to play an instrument can help a child's academic achievement

There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.

Science has shown that when children learn to play music, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This helps them develop “neurophysiological distinction” between certain sounds that can aid in literacy, which can translate into improved academic results for kids.

Many parents probably read the above sentence and started mentally Google-ing child music classes in their local area. But if your kid doesn’t like learning an instrument or doesn’t actively engage in the class–opting to stare at the wall or doodle in a notebook instead of participating–he or she may not be getting all the benefits of those classes anyway.

A new study from Northwestern University revealed that in order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them. They have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class. “Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email to TIME. She co-authored the study with Jane Hornickel, Dana L. Strait, Jessica Slater and Elaine Thompson of Northwestern University.

Additionally, the study showed that students who played instruments in class had more improved neural processing than the children who attended the music appreciation group. “We like to say that ‘making music matters,'” said Kraus. “Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”

Kraus, whose research appeared today in Frontiers in Psychology, continued: “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.” Active participation and meaningful engagement translate into children being highly involved in their musical training–these are the kids who had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, “and were the most on-task during their lesson,” said Kraus.

To find these results, Kraus’s team went straight to the source, hooking up strategically placed electrode wires on the students’ heads to capture the brain’s responses.

Kraus’s team at Northwestern has teamed up with The Harmony Project, a community music program serving low-income children in Los Angeles, after Harmony’s founder approached Kraus to provide scientific evidence behind the program’s success with students.

According to The Harmony Project’s website, since 2008, 93 percent of Harmony Project seniors have gone on to college, despite a dropout rate of 50 percent or more in their neighborhoods. It’s a pretty impressive achievement and the Northwestern team designed a study to explore those striking numbers. That research, published in September in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

As a follow up, the team decided to test whether the level of engagement in that music training actually matters. Turns out, it really does. Researchers found that after two years, children who not only regularly attended music classes, but also actively participated in the class, showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers.

“It turns out that playing a musical instrument is important,” Kraus said, differentiating her group’s findings from the now- debunked myth that just listening to certain types of music improves intelligence, the so-called “Mozart effect.” “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument,” said Kraus. “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.” It’s important to engage with the sound in order to reap the benefits and see changes in the central nervous system.

As to how to keep children interested in playing instruments, that’s up to the parents. “I think parents should follow their intuitions with respect to keeping their children engaged,” said Kraus. “Find the kind of music they love, good teachers, an instrument they’ll like. Making music should be something that children enjoy and will want to keep doing for many years!”

With that in mind, it’s not too late to trade in those Minecraft Legos, Frozen paraphernalia, XBox games, and GoldieBlox presents that you may have purchased, and swap them out for music lessons for the kids in your life.

For exclusive parenting content, check out our TIME for Family subscription. And to receive parenting news each week, sign up for our parenting newsletter.

TIME space

Odds For Life on Mars Tick Up—a Little

High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water
High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water NASA/JPL

New findings about both methane and water boost the chances for biology

September of 2013 was a bad time for those who hope there’s life on Mars. We’ve had evidence for decades that water flowed freely across the surface of the Red Planet billions of years ago, and that evidence has only gotten stronger and stronger the closer we look. Not only was there potentially life-giving water back then: Mars also had the right kind of geology to support mineral-eating microbes. And while all of that was in the distant past, the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters raised hopes that bacteria might still be thriving below the surface—not unreasonable, both because all manner of Earthly critters do perfectly well below-ground and because the vast majority of methane in our own atmosphere results from biological activity. Mars’s methane might come from a similar source.

But when the Curiosity rover sniffed the Martian air directly last year, it smelled…nothing. At most, there were just three parts per billion (ppb) of methane wafting around, and possibly much less than that. “We kind of thought we’d closed that chapter,” says Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the instrument that did the sniffing. “A lot of people were very disappointed.”

Not any more, though. Just weeks after that dismal reading, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) picked up a whiff of methane at a concentration of 5.5 parts per billion. “It took us by surprise,” says Webster, and over the next two months, he says, “every time we looked there was methane. Indeed, the concentrations even rose, to an average of 7.2 ppb over that period, he and his colleagues report in a new paper in Science.

And then, six weeks later, the methane was gone, and hasn’t been sniffed since. “It’s a fascinating episodic increase,” Webster says.

What he and his colleagues can’t say is where the methane is coming from. Because it’s transient, they think it’s probably from a fairly local source. But whether it’s biological or geological in origin, they don’t know. It’s wise to be cautious, however, says Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton. “Hopes for biology on Mars have had a way of disappearing once Martian chemistry has been better understood. But figuring out what’s responsible for the methane is clearly a key astrobiological objective—whatever the answer turns out to be.”

That’s not the only important Mars-related paper in Science this week, either. Another, also based on Curiosity observations, concerns Mars’s long-lost surface water, and one of the most important points is that there’s a lot more of it left than most people realize—”enough,” says Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Paul Mahaffy, lead author of the paper, “to cover the surface to a depth of 50 meters [about 165 ft].” That doesn’t mean it’s accessible: it’s nearly all locked up in ice at the planet’s poles, but some is also entrained in the clay Curiosity dug into when it was prowling the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater.

Some of that water, says Mahaffy, is tightly chemically bound to the clay and is not a big player in Mars’s modern environment. Some is not quite so locked down and has been interacting with the tenuous Martian atmosphere for the past three billion years. The hydrogen in Martian water, as in Earthly water, may contain both a single proton and a single electron, or a proton and electron plus a neutron—so-called heavy hydrogen, or deuterium. As the Martian atmosphere has thinned over the eons, the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the water has gradually been dropping, as the lighter version escapes more easily into space. Since the modern water is twice as rich in deuterium as the water from billions of years ago, that suggests that there was about twice as much surface water in total at the earlier time, but its hydrogen residue has vanished.

“That’s a fair bit of water,” says Mahaffy, “but it’s a lower limit. There could be much more beneath the surface today that we haven’t seen. It was a really interesting time. There were a lot of aqueous processes going on, and a lot of flowing water.”

Where there is (or was) water, there could be (or could have been) life. For Mars enthusiasts, that’s why December of 2014 is a lot better than September of 2013.

TIME Research

30 Images Of Life Under A Microscope

Some of the world’s most stunning beauties can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Every year, scientists and microscope devotees submit their images and movies of life science objects shot under a microscope to the Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. Artists from 70 countries send in about 2,500 images to the competition every year to be judged by a panel of experts in the field. Here are this year’s honorees.
TIME health

For Once the Anti-Vaxxers Aren’t (Entirely) to Blame

Face of the enemy: A molecular model of the whooping cough toxin
Face of the enemy: A molecular model of the whooping cough toxin LAGUNA DESIGN; Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

California's whooping cough outbreak is largely the fault of a harmless but imperfect vaccine

Anti-vaxxers are epidemiology’s repeat offenders—the first and sometimes only suspects you need to call in for questioning whenever there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. So on those occasions when their prints aren’t all over the crime scene, it’s worth giving them a nod. That’s the case—sort of, kind of—when it comes to the current whooping cough (or pertussis) epidemic that’s burning its way through California, with nearly 10,000 cases since the first of the year, making it the worst outbreak of the disease since the 1940s. So far, one infant has died.

Before we start giving out any laurels, let’s be clear on one point: the anti-vaxxers continue to be risibly wrong when they say that vaccines are dangerous (they aren’t), that they lead to autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and more (they don’t), and that you should take your public-health advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy, Rob Schneider, and Donald Trump instead of virtually every medical and scientific authority on the planet (you shouldn’t). But a safe vaccine is not always the same as an entirely effective vaccine, and here the whooping cough shot is coming up a little short—with emphasis on the “little.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the pertussis vaccine starts off perfectly effectively, with 90% of kids developing full immunity from the disease in their first year after inoculation. But that protection starts to fade in year two, and by the five-year point, only 70% of kids are still protected. Until the 1990s, a more effective formulation was available, but it was replaced due to side effects (pain, swelling and perhaps some fever—not autism, thank you very much). The newer version eliminates those problems, but at a cost to effectiveness.

The waning protection the vaccine affords helps explain the cyclical nature of whooping cough outbreaks, with cases usually beginning to rise every three to five years. Certainly, the anti-vax crowd has not helped matters any. When a vaccine offers only imperfect protection, it’s especially important that as many people as possible get it since this maximizes what’s known as herd immunity—the protection a community that’s largely immune can offer to the minority of people who aren’t.

Last spring’s mumps outbreak in Columbus, Ohio was due in part to a combination of the relatively low 80-90% effectiveness rate of that vaccine and the poor level of vaccine compliance. As I reported in Time’s Oct. 6, 2014 issue, 80% of people who contracted the disease said they had been vaccinated in childhood, but only 42% of those cases could be confirmed. In the current whooping cough epidemic, California health authorities estimate that only 10% of all people who have come down with the disease were never vaccinated. That’s up to 10% more people than needed to get sick, but a lot fewer than the total in Columbus.

The heart of the anti-vaxxers’ argument is not, of course, that some vaccines offer incomplete protection. If it were, they wouldn’t find so many willing believers. For one thing, the large majority of vaccines achieve at least a 90% effectiveness level—and often much higher. For another, it’s hard to make the case that even if they didn’t, imperfect protection would be better than none at all.

Seat belts, after all, aren’t 100% effective at preventing highway deaths either, and condoms don’t entirely eliminate the risk of pregnancy or STDs. But that doesn’t mean you stop using them, because your brain makes a rational risk calculation about the wisdom of taking cost-free precautions. You might not make such smart choices, however, if somebody muddied the equation by introducing the faux variable of imaginary risk—seat belts and condoms cause autism, say.

Persuading people to run that flawed calculus is where the the anti-vaccine crowd does its real damage. A new—and scary—interactive map from the Council on Foreign Relations tracks the global rise or fall of vaccine-preventable diseases from 2008 to 2014. In the same period, during which most of the world saw a 57% decline in cases, North America—driven mostly by the U.S.—showed a stunning 600% increase.

It’s fitting somehow that the locations of the outbreaks show up on the map as a sort of pox—with the once-clear U.S. slowly becoming blighted from one coast to the other. Misinformation is its own kind of blight—one that’s every bit as deadly as the bacteria and viruses the vaccines were invented to prevent. And it’s the anti-vaxxers themselves who are the carriers of this particular epidemic.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME climate change

The Unexpected Animal Group Dying from Climate Change

tree-frog
Getty Images

It's affecting more than mammals

WSF logo small

The canary in the coal mine of climate change may actually be something a little less feathery and a lot more slimy: Amphibians. Many of these creatures have already been in decline due to disease, and climate changes appear to be accelerating the problem.

Jason Rohr, a University of South Florida biologist, says that some amphibians are already being forced to shift the timing of their breeding in response to climate change. Salamanders in the Appalachian mountains are shrinking. As climate trends continue, Rohr says we can expect to see amphibians further altering their behavior, moving to new grounds, and expect more overall declines in species.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: What Will The Humans Do About Climate Change?

In the Western U.S., climate change is adding to the problems of amphibians already threatened by introduced predators. Starting in the late 1800s, wildlife officials have been stocking previously fish-free ponds and lakes across the western U.S with predatory trout. For a time, native frogs and salamanders were able to retreat to shallower ponds and waterways, but now a warming climate threatens to dry up these shelters—which are vital for both amphibian breeding and the survival of young tadpoles. To mitigate the damage, a group of researchers writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment recently recommended making use of hydrological models to evaluate the way climate change will affect amphibian habitats, and selectively removing fish from ponds.

“Amphibians in the West’s high-mountain areas find themselves in a vise, caught between climate-induced habitat loss and predation from introduced fish,” University of Washington researcher Maureen Ryan, a coauthor on the paper, said in a statement.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: How Climate Change Is Already Dooming Some Mammals

The problem is even more dire in South America and Latin America. Frogs in the genus Atelopus have been decimated—71 out of about 113 species have gone extinct. Many of these extinctions are thought to be driven by interactions between climatic conditions and other factors, primarily the deadly chytrid fungus. Some scientists have argued that the the frogs’ tropical mountain habitats have been made more welcoming to the fungus by climate change, which has promoted the formation of clouds that lower daytime temperatures and raise nighttime temperatures, removing the extreme temperatures that may have previously kept the fungus in check.

“Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” J. Alan Pounds, a scientist at Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, told National Geographic.

Not all scientists are convinced that the spread of chytrid fungus is hastened by climate change—one 2008 study in particular suggested there was little link between the two, and some researchers have argued that the periodic warming cycle known as El Nino is more to blame for high-profile frog extinctions, like that of the golden toad.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: Your State Bird Could Be Extinct By 2080

But some of Rohr’s experiments looking directly at how frogs fight the fungus suggest that the temperature fluctuations linked to climate change shouldn’t be counted out just yet. In 2012, Rohr and colleagues found that the chytrid fungus thrives and kills more frogs in cooler environments—but that when frogs are suddenly switched from one temperature-controlled environment to the other, they fare even worse than frogs kept in a consistently hot or consistently cooler incubator. Frog extinctions are more complex than any one cause can explain.

As the climate changes in the future, the unique biology of amphibians may also make them less able to adapt to drier, hotter conditions than other groups of animals. “I think they are potentially at greater risk from desiccation than many organisms without permeable skin,” Rohr says. “Additionally, they are the most threatened vertebrate taxon on the planet, and thus they are already experiencing extremely high threats. Climate change could worsen this scenario.”

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

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