TIME Outer Space

Look Up: There’s a Rare Partial Solar Eclipse Thursday

Sudan Solar Eclipse
A partial solar eclipse is seen over the Sudanese capital Khartoum on November 3, 2013. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Here's when to look up at the sky

As long as rainclouds aren’t obstructing the view, people across the United States will be able to look up Thursday afternoon to witness the moon cover part of the sun in a rare partial solar eclipse.

According to Weather.com, nearly all of North America, barring part of Canada and New England, will be able to see the display. Sky and Telescope has a list of when the eclipse will be visible in different major cities. The partial solar eclipse will be viewable in New York beginning at 5:49 p.m. and peaking at 6:03, though skywatchers on the west coast will get the best show — the eclipse begins in Los Angeles at 2:08 p.m. and hit its peak midway point at 3:28 p.m. local time.

Here’s a map that tracks eclipse visibility:

While there will be another partial solar eclipse Aug. 21, 2017, Business Insider reports there won’t be another that is visible to the entire country until 2023. So maybe step outside — but take precautions.

“Looking directly at the Sun is harmful to your eyes at any time, partial eclipse or no,” says Sky and Telescope’s Alan MacRobert. “The only reason a partial eclipse is dangerous is that it prompts people to gaze at the Sun, something they wouldn’t normally do. The result can be temporary or permanent blurred vision or blind spots at the center of your view.”

[Sky and Telescope]

TIME Paleontology

Newly Discovered Fossils Reveal Goofy-Looking Dinosaur

Odd Dinosaur
This undated handout image provided by Michael Skrepnick, Dinosaurs in Art, Nature Publishing Group, shows a deinocheirus Michael Skrepnick—AP

"This creature wasn’t built for speed. That’s pretty obvious”

Scientists in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert have unearthed fossils that have allowed them for the first time to build a complete picture of one of the more bizarre-looking dinosaurs.

Deinocheirus mirificus, which means “unusual horrible hand” in Latin, has stunned scientists with its strange combination of features, according to a study in the journal Nature.

The recently discovered 70 million-year-old fossils suggest deinocheirus was humpbacked, had a ”beer-belly,” tufts of feathers and wide hips and feet that caused it to waddle.

“This is an entirely new body plan,” said Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K.

The fossils add to bones that were discovered 50 years ago. Back then scientists thought deinocheirus was smaller and fiercer, now they believe it was about the size of Tyrannosaurus rex, Nature reports.

“This creature wasn’t built for speed,” says Brusatte. “That’s pretty obvious.”

Scientists used data gathered from the fossils to create a video of what the dinosaur may have looked like and how it may have walked.

[Nature]

TIME space

What’s Cooler Than One Comet? A Storm of Them

Nifty alright. Now imagine 500 of these babies.
Nifty alright. Now imagine 500 of these babies. Art Montes De Oca; Getty Images

A stunning sighting around a nearby star offers a glimpse of our own solar system billions of years ago

With some 2,000 planets now known to orbit stars beyond the Sun and thousands more in the can waiting for confirmation, the once-exotic term “exoplanet” is so commonplace it requires no definition for many people. The term “exocomet,” by contrast, is a bit more obscure. Astronomers have known for years that comets orbit other stars—in particular, the relatively nearby star β Pictoris, which lies about 63 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Pictor.

But a new paper in Nature is more than a little mindblowing nevertheless. A team of astronomers is reporting the detection of nearly 500 individual comets that passed in front of β Pictoris between 2003 and 2011. And that’s not even remotely a complete sample. “We had only a couple of nights of observing time per year,” says lead author Flavien Kiefer, now at the University of Tel Aviv. “If we’d been looking constantly, we would have seen many thousands.”

There are a lot of reasons all of this seems slightly crazy. To start with, there’s the notion that you can see something as relatively tiny as a comet from nearly 300 trillion miles away. And in fact, you can’t. But when comets approach the heat of a star, some of their substance boils off to form an enormous cloud of gas and dust, and sometimes a tail as well. And when that cloud moves in front of the star, it distorts the starlight in ways you can see with sufficiently powerful instruments.

In this case, the scientists used the High-Accuracy Radial-Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the European Southern Observatory, in Chile. As the name implies, it was designed to find planets—and it has. HARPS does so by looking for subtle changes in starlight created as the star wobbles in response to an orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. The distortions caused by an intervening comet are different, but HARPS can find those too.

The technique isn’t easy, says Aki Roberge, an astronomer with NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, in Maryland who has studied β Pictoris as well, and who wrote a commentary in Nature on the new results, but it clearly works. “We always knew this would be a powerful technique,” she says, “They’ve done a really amazing job.”

The sheer number of comets also seems unlikely at first, until you realize that β Pictoris is extremely young—about 22 million years old compared with the Sun’s 4.6 billion. If we could see our own Solar System at that age, it wouldn’t look all that much different: a thick disk of gas and dust surrounding the central star, with planets just assembling themselves out of chunks of rock and ice. In fact, β Pictoris has at least one young planet already, but there’s still an awful lot of debris flying around.

And that’s what makes this discovery so important, not just as a technical tour de force, but also scientifically. “We can now begin to study a newly forming solar system in detail,” says Kiefer, “and perhaps get an understanding of how our own Solar System was born.”

It probably won’t be the last chance to do so, either. Roberge has her eye on a star called 49 Ceti, which she says is very similar to β Pic in many ways. Kiefer, meanwhile, is conducting preliminary surveys of no fewer than 30 promising stars. With powerful instruments like HARPS on the case, the word “exocomet” could become a lot more familiar before long.

TIME space

Missed Tuesday Night’s Orionid Meteor Shower? Watch Here

A shower of 20 meteors-per-hour began Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET

The Orionid Meteor Shower, a spectacle that occurs each year as the earth moves through debris left behind by a comet, gave skywatchers quite a show Tuesday night.

“Earth is passing through a stream of debris from Halley’s Comet, the source of the Orionids,” said Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in a press release before the event. “Bits of comet dust hitting the atmosphere should give us a couple dozen of meteors per hour.”

While this shower may not be the strongest of the year, the position of nearby stars makes it one of the best to watch, Cooke added.

The show was livestreamed from the Slooh Community Observatory beginning at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT, hosted by expert astronomer Bob Berman. Miss the event? Watch it here.

TIME animals

Scientists Trace Back the First Sexual Act Ever, to Weird Ancient Fish

Ancient fish were the first to copulate. And according to a world renowned paleontologist, it looked a lot like square dancing

Scientists have discovered the origins of sex, and like anyone’s first time it sounds pretty awkward.

Now light some candles and let’s set the scene: The first act of copulation occurred in the nippy Scottish sea some 385 million years ago. The fornicators in question were a set of primitive jawed, bony fish aptly called Microbrachius dicki. The dirty details? Well, according to Australian paleontologist John Long, “With their arms interlocked, these fish looked more like they are square dancing the do-se-do rather than mating.”

Not only had scientists previously thought that the first sex act occurred on land at a later date, but Long says, “We didn’t expect these little suckers to have reproductive organs.”

But the M. Dicki were endowed, as is explained by Long and his colleagues in a paper that was published in Nature Monday. Although their genitalia are not described in romantic terms.

Long, a professor at Flinders University, explained to the BBC that the fish’s arms linked them together, “so the male can get this large L-shaped sexual organ into position to dock with the female’s genital plates, which are very rough like cheese graters. They act like Velcro, locking the male organ into position to transfer sperm.”

This is also the first species that displayed a different appearance between the male and female.

TIME Surgery

Paralyzed Man Walks Again After ‘Miracle’ Surgery

Polish doctors used cells from patient's nose to heal spinal injury

A man who was completely paralyzed from the waist down has learned to walk again after Polish doctors transplanted cells from the patient’s nose into the damaged part of his spine. This pioneering research offers hope for treatment to millions of people around the world with spinal cord injuries.

The patient, 38-year-old firefighter Darek Fidyka from Poland, was left with a completely severed spinal cord after being stabbed four years ago. His doctors had given him a less than 1% chance of recovery but thanks to revolutionary surgery carried out in 2012 Fidyka is now able to walk again with a frame. “It’s an incredible feeling, difficult to describe,” he recounts in a BBC documentary to be aired Tuesday “When it starts coming back, you feel as if you start living your life again, as if you are reborn.” Fidyka has been able to resume an independent life and is even able to drive a car.

The procedure was carried out by Polish surgeons in collaboration with British researchers at University College London. Professor Geoffrey Raisman, who led the U.K. research team, called the breakthrough “historic” and said what had been achieved was “more impressive than man walking on the moon.”

[BBC]

TIME climate change

2014 Could Be the Hottest Year on Record

A girl plays with the water curtains that have been installed by firemen to bring relief to local people suffering from scorching heat on Piotrowska Street in Lodz, Poland on May 24, 2014.
A girl plays with the water curtains that have been installed by firemen to bring relief to local people suffering from scorching heat on Piotrowska Street in Lodz, Poland on May 24, 2014. Grzegorz Michalowski—EPA

May, June, August and September have all been record-breaking months

The earth could be heading for its warmest year on record, meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced on Monday.

Last month was the warmest September in 135 years of record keeping, with the global average temperature 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit (15.72 degrees Celsius), the Associated Press reports. May, June and August were also record-breaking months.

NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden told AP it was “pretty likely” that 2014 would be the hottest year since measurements began.

The reason for the rise in temperature is partly due to a band of warm water that develops in the Pacific Ocean called El Niño. Other record-breaking years started off with El Niño, and meteorologists forecast one is likely to occur this year.

“This is one of many indicators that climate change has not stopped and that it continues to be one of the most important issues facing humanity,” University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles told AP.

[Associated Press]

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

Correction appended: Oct. 21, 2014.

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 million 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.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the strength of light sources in the distant galaxies. They are 15 million times dimmer than the faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

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.

Read next: Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

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