TIME space

Ice Spotted on Mercury—Yes, We Know It Sounds Nuts

"This is making a lot of people happy"

At high noon on Mercury, the temperature can soar to 800°F—and no wonder. The Solar System’s smallest planet (as of 2006, anyway) averages only 36 million miles from the Sun, which is right next door compared with Earth’s 93 million. You’d be justified in thinking that ice couldn’t possibly exist on such a scorching world.

But you’d be wrong. Scientists using the MESSENGER space probe are reporting in the journal Geology that they’ve taken images of that reveal what they call “the morphology of frozen volatiles” in permanently shadowed crater floors near the planet’s north pole. That’s ice, in plain English. “This is making a lot of people happy,” said Nancy Chabot of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, lead author of the report.

It’s good news because the discovery confirms circumstantial evidence for ice on Mercury that’s been mounting for decades—first from radar observations with powerful radio telescopes on Earth that showed high reflectivity from the polar region, then from MESSENGER’s neutron spectrometer, which picked up the atomic signal of hydrogen in the same area. That pointed to H2O, almost certainly in the form if ice, especially since the high precision topographic maps made by MESSENGER have shown planetary scientists just how deeply shadowed, and thus how perpetually frigid, some of the craters really are.

All of that made a strong case for ice, and the fact that the same thing occurs on the Moon is further confirmation that it’s possible

These are the first optical images, and nobody is entirely sure how the ice got there. One idea is that it was released from water-bearing rock in Mercury’s crust. But the leading theory suggests it arrived instead in the form of impacts from icy comets, which may well be the same way Earth got its oceans. “It’s a fair amount of ice,” Chabot said, “about equivalent to the water in Lake Ontario, so if it was one comet, it was a pretty sizable one.” More likely, she said, it would have been a series of smaller comets, falling over billions of years.

Either way, the comets would have disintegrated on impact, and while some of the resulting water vapor would have escaped into space, some would have found itself at the poles, where chilly temperatures in the craters’ shadows would have allowed it to freeze out and drop to the crater floors.

Another hint that comets may have been the source of Mercury’s ice: Some of the frozen stuff is partially covered with unusually dark material, which could be organic compounds, also found on comets in abundance. The dark, ice-concealing patches have sharp edges, suggesting that whatever created them happened relatively recently, just hundreds of millions of years ago at most. That supports the idea that comet impacts could be happening all the time (in the geologic sense, anyway).

Excited as the scientists are to see the presence of ice on Mercury confirmed, they’re even more excited by the prospect of what’s to come. Messenger’s orbit is bringing the probe to within about 120 miles above the planet’s surface on its closest approach, which is why it’s able to take such high-resolution images.

By next spring, however, the probe will be zipping just 12 miles above the surface, before the mission ends with a planned crash. At that distance, no one knows what surprises MESSENGER’s cameras are going to reveal. “It’s going to be interesting, to say the least,” Chabot said.

 

TIME astronomy

New Picture: The Universe as a Sulky Adolescent

Portrait of the universe as a young man
Portrait of the universe as a young man

An ingenious technique reveals data that's been lost for 11 billion years

Presidential tracking polls are famous for their speed—a gaffe at noon is reflected in the numbers by four. That’s because a poll is not a lengthy conversation with voters, but just a quick-hit piece of data-gathering repeated over and over. The same approach now appears able to give us answers about the universe, too.

Using just four hours of telescope observation time, astronomers have generated a new image of what part of the universe looked like in its adolescence, when it was less than a quarter of its current age. The three-dimensional map, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, measures millions of light years across and reveals regions of high-density matter representing galaxies as they were barely 3 billion years post-Big Bang.

“We’ve pulled this off a decade before anyone else thought it was possible,” said Max Planck postdoctoral researcher Khee-Gan Lee, the paper’s lead author.

Astronomers had previously believed they would need far more observation time and more-powerful telescopes than are currently available to collect sufficient starlight from distant galaxies with which to do a job like this. That’s partly because those light sources appear up to 15 billion times dimmer than the very faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

But four hours on the Keck I telescope at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii turned out to be enough. The scientists used a technique similar to a CT scan to create their map. But rather than taking cross-sectional x-rays through a body to generate a 3D image, they used light from background galaxies passing through hydrogen gas in the “cosmic web”—the tangle of macro-filaments in which the universe’s matter arranges itself—to do the same thing.

The reason they didn’t need the most sensitive equipment available to do this work was because they had a powerful algorithm instead, created by graduate student Casey Stark and physics and astronomy professor Martin White, both of the University of California, Berkeley. The data they gathered might have been noisy but the algorithm cleaned it right up. The resulting map, says Ohio State University professor of astronomy David Weinberg, is “fine enough that it’s revealing a lot of the interesting details.”

Adds Harvard astronomy professor Daniel Eisenstein, “For a lot of questions, this is a very useful scale of a map.”

The map’s elongated, plank-like shape reflects one admitted constraint of the study: because of bad weather and the short data collection time, the astronomers could map only a limited volume of space. The next order of business is for Keck I to cover a larger patch of sky, revealing huge swathes of the adolescent universe. From this map astronomers will not just be able to see the appearance of the cosmos a short while after the Big Bang, but also tease out a little bit of information about the clumping of matter that allowed galaxies to form in some regions while leaving others empty.

Next-generation super-telescopes will no doubt be useful for both these questions, able to quadruple the density of the data as well as help scientists figure out how the universe looked even closer to the Big Bang than 11 billion years ago. For now, though, telescopes like Keck I will tell us plenty. “Noisy data doesn’t scare me,” Lee said.

TIME behavior

‘Breaking Bad’ Action Figures? Really, Toys R Us?

No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.
No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a spectacularly bad bit of judgment, the big box store puts a meth manufacturer on its shelves.

Human history is often defined by its very worst pitch meetings. Take the one in 1812, when one of Napoleon’s generals told the Great Emperor, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s invade Russia—in the winter!” Or the one in 1985, when the anonymous product developer at Coca-Cola said, “How ’bout we take a product everyone loves, quit making it and replace it with a different formulation no one is asking for! What could go wrong?”

So too it must have gone in the executive suites of Toys R Us, when someone made the compelling case for stocking a brand-new line of action figures based on the wildly successful Breaking Bad series. After all, nothing quite says holiday shopping like a bendable, fully costumed figurine of Walter White—the murderous chemistry teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer—and Jesse Pinkman, his former student and current bag man. And you want accessories? We’ve got accessories—including a duffle bag stuffed with imaginary cash and a plastic bag of, yes, faux crystal meth for White. Pinkman comes with a gas mask, because the folks at Toys R Us are not the kind to forget about corporate responsibility. If your kids are going to grow up to run a meth lab, it’s never too early to teach them basic safety.

It might not surprise you to learn that Toys R Us has faced a teensy bit of blowback from this curious marketing decision. Florida mom Susan Schrivjer has posted a petition on Change.org that has just exceeded 2,000 signatures, demanding that the company pull the products. She also appeared on The Today Show to make her case more publicly.

“Anything to do with drugs is not doing the right thing,” she said. “I just think they need to look at their vision and values as they call them.”

The part that’s more surprising—but sadly only a little—is that even after being called on its appalling lack of judgment, Toys R Us has not responded with the quickest, loudest, most abject oops in corporate history. Instead, it is standing its ground. Why? Because the dolls are sold only in the “adult section” of the store, of course—the ones intended for shoppers 15 and up.

OK, let’s start with the fact that Toys R Us has an adult section at all—something I never knew and I suspect many other parents didn’t either. So what will they stock there next? A line of Toys R Us hard cider? Toys R Us adult literature? A Toys R Us edition of Fifty Shades of Gray—which is really OK because hey, it actually comes with a set of 50 gray crayons? If an adult section must exist at all, at what point does full disclosure require the company to rebrand itself “Toys as Well as Other Things Not Remotely Appropriate For Children But Don’t Worry Because We Keep Them in a Separate Section, R Us”?

More important, let’s look at above-15 as the dividing line for the adult section—a distinction that makes perfect sense because if there’s anything 15 year olds are known for, it’s their solid judgment, their awareness of consequences, their exceptional impulse control and their utter imperviousness to the siren song of drugs and alcohol. Oh, and they never, ever emulate bad role models they encounter on TV, in the movies or among their peers. What’s more, kids below the age of 15 never, ever run wild in a sensory theme park like a big box toy store, finding themselves in departments not meant for them and seeing products they shouldn’t see. Toys R Us, you’ve thought this one out to the last detail!

What the company’s consumer researchers probably know and if they don’t they ought to, is that the brain’s frontal lobes—where higher order executive functions live—aren’t even fully myelinated until we reach our late 20s, which is why young people can be so spectacularly reckless, why soldiers and political firebrands tend to be young and why judges, heads of state and clerical leaders tend to be old. The adult fan of Breaking Bad might actually enjoy the new toys as collectors items–something to be bought or given as a gift with a little twinkle of irony, a this-is-so-wrong-it’s-right sort of thing. But that kind of nuance isn’t remotely within a child’s visible spectrum.

Really, Toys R Us, there is absolutely no surviving this one. Back up the truck, pack up the toys and send them to a landfill. And if you’re even thinking about following this one up with a Boardwalk Empire board game complete with a Nucky Thompson plush toy, stop now. Or at the very least, invite me to the pitch meeting.

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 space

Watch a Giant, 4.6 Billion-Year-Old Comet Fly By Mars

Watch highlights of Comet Siding Spring zoom past Mars and get roughly within 87,000 miles of the red planet — the closest any comet has gotten to it in a long, long time.

The livestream from the Slooh Community Observatory was hosted by expert astrobiologist David Grinspoon and featured special guests.

“We’re going to observe an event that happens maybe once every million years,” Jim Green, planetary science division director at NASA, said this month at a press conference. “This is an absolutely spectacular event.”

Siding Spring is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old with a core somewhere between half a mile and 5 miles wide. Looking the comet’s close brush with Mars could teach scientists a lot about the planet’s atmosphere, writes Mike Wall at Space.com. Studying the comet could also provide insight into how planets are formed: Siding Spring is believed to have been created in an area of our solar system between Jupiter and Neptune, but unlike most objects in that part of space at the time, it never was incorporated into a planet.

TIME weather

This Is What Hurricane Gonzalo Looks Like From Space

Tropical Weather
Hurricane Gonzalo seen from the International Space Station as it moves toward Bermuda on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. Alexander Gerst—ESA/NASA/AP

The Category 2 storm is headed north this weekend

Hurricane Gonzalo smashed into Bermuda Friday, with winds reaching 110mph and waves approaching heights of 40 feet as the Category 2 storm swept northward, according to USA Today. Approximately 30,600 customers of Bermuda’s power company were without power as of late Friday night, while the National Hurricane Center warned of “a life-threatening storm surge.”

The storm is headed for the North Atlantic this weekend.

From space, Gonzalo is a massive, white vortex—but despite its size, it really looks quite serene. This photo comes care of Alexander Gerst, a European astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station.

 

 

TIME

Pictures of the Week: Oct. 10 – Oct. 17

From Malala Yousafzai winning a Nobel Peace Prize and the return of Kim Jong Un to Ebola diagnoses in Dallas and Angelina Jolie becoming a Dame, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

Read next: The Most Beautiful Wildfire Photos You’ll Ever See

TIME vaccines

Very Good and Very Bad News in the Vaccine Wars

Just say yes.—but too many Americans say no to vaccines
Just say yes.—but too many Americans say no to vaccines Steve Debenport; Getty Images

Like any trench war, the fight to protect America's kids against disease is proceeding only inch by inch. A new report shows why there's reason for hope—and reason for worry

It’s just as well that no one knows the names of the 17,253 sets of parents in California who have opted not to have their children vaccinated, citing “philosophic” reasons for declining the shots. The same is true of the anonymous 3,097 in Colorado who have made the same choice—giving their far smaller state the dubious distinction of being dead last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the simple business of protecting their children against disease.

On the other hand, kudos to you, Mississippi, for finishing number one—with an overall kindergartener vaccination rate in the past school year of 99.7%—and to you, Louisiana, Texas and Utah, for finishing not far behind. Your children, by this measure at least, are the safest and healthiest in the country.

These and other findings were part of the alternately reassuring and deeply disturbing survey from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), looking at vaccination coverage for more than 4.25 million kindergarteners and the opt-out rates for more than 3.9 million in the 2013-2014 school year

The report’s top line number seems encouraging. The national compliance rate for the three major vaccines covered in the survey ranged from 93.3% (for chicken pox) to 94.7% (measles, mumps, rubella, or MMR) to 95% (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis).

But even those numbers don’t mean America has aced the test. Vaccination rates need to reach or exceed 95%, depending on the disease, to maintain herd immunity—the protection afforded by vaccinated people to those few who can’t be vaccinated, by giving the virus too few ways to body-surf its way across a population until it finds someone who’s vulnerable. So while a 90% vaccination rate might look like an A, it in fact may be no better than a middling C.

And in some parts of the country, the numbers are much, much worse. As I reported in TIME’s Oct. 6 issue, vaccination refusal tends to be a phenomenon of the wealthier, better educated, politically bluer parts of the country—the northeast, the Pacific coast and pockets around major universities. Those are communities in which folks know just enough to convince themselves that they know it all—which means they know better than the doctors, scientists and other members of medical community at large, who have overwhelmingly shown that vaccines are safe and effective.

That’s part of the reason New York City’s elite private schools have vaccination rates far lower than the city’s public schools, and why, according to a shocking story by the Hollywood Reporter, some schools in the wealthier neighborhoods of Los Angeles have a lower vaccination rate than in South Sudan.

Digging deeper into the MMWR report, there are other, broader causes for worry. There are the 26 states plus the District of Columbia that don’t meet the Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines of 95% coverage for the MMR vaccine. There are the 37 states that don’t even meet the CDC’s standards for properly gathering data on vaccination rates in the first place. And there are the 11 states with opt-out rates of 4% or higher.

The anti-vaccine crowd frames the refusers as part of a brave vanguard of parents who won’t be hectored into getting their children protections that they, the parents, have decided are useless or dangerous. But it’s worth remembering what the world looked like in the era before vaccines. And you don’t have to work too hard to do that, because you know what it looked like? It looked like West Africa today, where people are being infected with the Ebola virus at a rate of 1,000 new cases per week—on target to be 10,000 by December—where entire families and indeed entire villages are dying agonizing deaths, and where whole populations would line up by the millions for the protection a vaccine would offer.

Vaccine refusal is increasingly the indulgence of the privileged. And it is, as the Ebola crisis shows, the indulgence of the foolish, too.

TIME space

Spacecraft Provides NASA With Data That Teaches Us About The Sun

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory provided the outer image of a coronal mass ejection on the surface of the sun on May 9, 2014. Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory/NASA

Hot off the presses

A detailed new image of the sun is providing NASA with information about the sun’s atmosphere.

The photos, taken by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectograph (IRIS), help explain how the sun’s atmosphere is hotter than its surface, what causes solar wind, and what mechanisms accelerate particles that power solar flares, NASA said in a release.

Some of the more noteworthy findings identified heat pockets of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit that exist in the solar atmosphere, which scientists refer to as “heat bombs.”

TIME space

When You’ve Been To Pluto, What Do You Do for an Encore?

Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun
Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun NASA

Just because you've reached the edge of the solar system doesn't mean you've run out of worlds to visit. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to make that point

When it blasted off for Pluto back in 2006, NASA’s New Horizons probe was poised to achieve several major milestones at once. It would be visiting the last planet still unexplored at close quarters (and yes, Pluto was still a planet when the mission began). It would also be the first mission to explore a class of planet vastly different from the Solar System’s rocky inner worlds, and also from the gas giants further out. Even after it was demoted to “dwarf planet,” Pluto represented the nearest of the ice worlds that lurk at the edges of the Sun’s influence. Understanding their true nature called for a close encounter—and New Horizons was designed to provide it.

But once the probe whips past Pluto and its moon Charon next July, it will still have functioning instruments and fuel to burn. And now, says NASA, it may have someplace to go and another scientific milestone to achieve. An intensive search with the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed three icy bodies more or less along New Horizons’ post-Pluto path and a billion miles (1.6 billion km) further out. Sometime in 2018 or 2019 the probe could be getting a close look at one of these so-called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO)—a primordial remnant left from the very earliest days of the Solar System.

“The objects Hubble has identified are much smaller than Pluto,” says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, CO, and New Horizons’ Principal Investigator. “They’re the building blocks Pluto was made of.”

Hubble got this discovery in just under the wire. The rocket burn that will readjust New Horizons trajectory to intercept one of the KBO’s won’t happen until after the Pluto encounter. But in order to calculate that complicated maneuver, ground controllers need to know precisely how the KBO’s themselves are moving. “We need to make a series of observations,” says Stern, “to connect the dots.” And if they didn’t have a first set of observations by now, they wouldn’t have enough dots to connect.

In one sense, researchers have already gotten a close look at a KBO: Europe’s Rosetta probe went into orbit around a comet in August, with plans to set down a lander on its surface on November 9—and a comet is essentially a KBO that has wandered into the inner Solar System.

But that means it’s been exposed to the Sun’s heat, so unlike its cousins further out, it’s not truly primordial. Beyond that, these three new objects are between 15 and 35 miles (24 and 56 km) across. That’s about ten times bigger and a thousand times more massive than Rosetta’s comet, while still a thousand times less massive than Pluto. Whichever KBO New Horizons visits will therefore fill in a huge gap, helping scientists understand how Pluto itself formed.

It will, that is, if NASA approves the extended mission, funding the probe for longer than was originally planned. That kind of second act is not unusual—Hubble itself has had its mission extended several times, and so did the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. It’s not guaranteed, though. “We have to make a proposal,” says Stern, “but at least we now have something concrete to propose.”

Even if the mission is green-lit and that second encounter comes off, New Horizons still might not be done. “We’re going to keep looking for other KBO’s even farther out,” says Stern. If they’re close enough to New Horizons’ path, and if there’s enough fuel left for another trajectory adjustment, next July’s Pluto flyby could be just the start of an extraordinary series of close encounters with the most remote colonies in the Sun’s cosmic empire.

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