TIME space

Rings Like Saturn’s, but Supersized

Living large: Artist's conception of the giant ring system
Living large: Artist's conception of the giant ring system Ron Miller

Think you've seen big rings in our own solar system? Not even close.

When the University of Rochester’s Eric Mamajek tells other astronomers about the object he and his colleagues discovered about 430 light-years from Earth, they tend to be skeptical—very skeptical. And no wonder: What he’s found is a giant ring system, sort of like Saturn’s, but some 200 times bigger, circling what may be an exoplanet between ten and 40 times the size of Jupiter. If you put these rings in our own Solar System, they’d stretch all the way from the Earth to the Sun, a distance of 93 million miles (150 km). And what’s more, there’s evidence that the rings are sculpted by at least one exomoon—something that also happens at Saturn, but not remotely on this scale.

“It took us a year even to convince ourselves of what we were seeing,” says Mamajek, whose paper is based on a new analysis of observations taken back in 2007 by the SuperWASP planet search project. At the time, the observations seemed to make no sense: when a planet passes in front of a star, you usually see a dip in starlight that lasts for up to a few hours. In this case, the starlight dimmed for two months.

It wasn’t a steady dip, either. The star would fade, then brighten, then fade again, in a way that made no sense at all. When Mamajek and his group stumbled on the data in 2010, he says, “I took a printout of the light curve, put it on the wall, and stared at it for a week.” Crazy as it seemed, the most plausible explanation was a giant ring system with gaps like Saturn’s that let more or less light through at different times during the passage. “It’s the same indirect way the rings of Uranus were discovered in 1977,” he says.

The planet itself doesn’t show up in the observations, but that could be explained if the ring system is slightly off-center as it moves in front of the star. You can see how this works in an animation put together by Mamajek’s collaborator Matthew Kenworthy, of the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands.

The star which the new planet orbits is thought to be very young—about 16 million years, compared with our own Solar System’s 4.6 billion. If the scientists are right about what they’re seeing, the mammoth ring system will get smaller over time as the outer bands condense into moons. “That’s what you see in [our] Solar System,” says Kenworthy. “You have rings tucked in close to the planets and moons further out. So presumably we’re seeing the intermediate step.”

It all seems familiar, except for the ring system’s size, which is unprecedented—and which is the reason other astronomers are waiting to be convinced. “I agree with the authors that it’s appropriate to consider an interpretation based on rings,” says Eric Ford, an expert on exoplanets at Penn State. The idea that the outer parts would condense into moons relatively quickly, however, means that we’re seeing the rings at their full extent during a very narrow window of existence—the sort of coincidence that scientists don’t love to see. “Whenever your explanation involves catching something during a phase that won’t last very long,” Ford says, “it’s a little concerning.”

Much of the doubt could be erased if astronomers could see the rings pass by again on another orbit around the star. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened: they’ve got only the single passage back in 2007, meaning the exoplanet is on a relatively long orbit. “We think it’s at least ten or 15 years,” says Kenworthy.

They don’t know for sure, though, and since it’s tough to keep big telescopes aimed at this one star hoping for another passage, the astronomers have recruited members of the high-end amateur group, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, to monitor the situation. They’re also going back through digitized versions of old images from observatories around the world, looking for evidence of other stars that faded mysteriously for a while without explanation. “Now that we know what we’re looking for,” Mamajek says, “we might find that there are lots of them out there.”

They might, that is, if they’re really seeing rings. “I keep telling people, ‘if you can think of a better explanation, please let me know,'” Mamajek says, and he means it. So far, he has no takers. “The signal is very strong,” says Harvard’s David Kipping, who is doing his own search for exomoons, “and its difficult to believe the instrument could misbehave on such a huge scale. I think many of us find the signal interesting,” he says. That, by itself, is enough to keep the astronomy community looking.

TIME weather

10 Questions About the Blizzard

Jack Nicholson In 'The Shining'
Don't go there; it will all be over soon Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Hint: All of them can be answered 'No'

1. Does this storm prove global warming is really just a hoax cooked up by degenerate scientists like my Twitter feed keeps saying? No. Again: no. Absolutely, positively no. This is weather, not climate. Just like a collie isn’t a species, a crouton isn’t a salad and the aglet on your shoelace ain’t the whole shoe, so too is a single meteorological event in your town (or state or region) not the same as climate. All the same, you’ll hear a lot of self-satisfied huffing from climate change deniers this week. Please feel free to laugh at them.

2. Then is the blizzard a result of climate change—the much discussed “global weirding”? If we’re going to smack down the anti-science kooks on question one, let’s resist the urge for a touchdown dance on question two. It’s true that climate change means a growing number of extreme weather events, and the spike in storms like 2012’s Sandy that do a billion dollars of damage or more do fit with climate change models. But again, any one storm is proof only of that storm. And hey, when you’re getting three feet of snow, that should be trouble enough.

3. Speaking of Sandy, do I have to call the blizzard Juno? No. Indeed, please don’t. Unlike hurricanes, which are named by the World Meteorological Organization as part of a longstanding global tradition, Juno was named by the Weather Channel, as part of a somewhat newer tradition of thinking up scary names that sound good on TV. You are free to give this blizzard any name you want. I’m calling it Larry.

4. What about “nor’easter?” Can I call the blizzard that? Are you a lobster fisherman? From Maine? If not, no.

5. Is “blizzard” just a synonym, for “lots o’ snow”? Nope, there’s actually a technical definition: There must be falling snow (or blowing snow already on the ground), with winds of at least 35 mph (56 k/h) reducing visibility to no more than 0.25 mile (0.4 km) for at least three hours.

6. Do I really need 12 tins of powdered milk, a case of canned tuna and five dozen double-A batteries to get through this? Yes, if it’s 1952 and you’re packing a fallout shelter. Otherwise, we’re talking a couple of snow days at the most—followed by the risk of way too many tuna casseroles for the rest of the year if you don’t get ahold of yourself.

7. Does it have to be so flipping cold for a blizzard to happen? This may not be much comfort to you, Concord, NH, where it’s 14°F (-10°C) in the run-up to the big blast, but no, as long as the atmospheric temperature is 32°F (0°C) or below, snow can form. It can even be a few degrees warmer on the ground, but the snow that falls will quickly become slush or, as it’s known on the sidewalks of New York City, goo.

8. I’ve heard this storm is a result of meteorological “bombogenesis.” Surely the people at weather service are smoking something? Alas no. Bombogenesis is a real word and it occurs when the barometric pressure in the most intense part of a storm drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours. Lower pressure then causes cold air to rush toward the ground and warmer air to rise. This isn’t to say the weather service doesn’t have fun saying “bombogenesis” over and over and over again. They’re meteorologists, but hey, they’re people too.

9. Once the blizzard’s over, we’re cool, right? Nope. Arctic air is going to continue to barrel through the northeast into February, keeping temperatures well below normal. As for the upper Midwest, where it’s usually only slightly more comfortable than the planet Neptune (-378°F, with a likelihood of graphite hailstones) around this time of year: Nice and mild.

10. If I have kids, is there any chance at all that I won’t hear them singing the score from Frozen while we’re all trapped in the house together for the next 48 hours? No. None at all. Deal with it—and don’t watch The Shining. It will only give you ideas.

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 animals

Millions of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could Be Released in Florida

Jason Garcia
Jason Garcia, a field inspector with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, tests a sprayer that could be used in the future to spray pesticides to control mosquitos in Key West, Fla., on Oct. 4, 2012 Wilfredo Lee—AP

"This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease"

Scientists could release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys in an attempt to kill off insects that spread the diseases dengue and chikungunya — if their proposal wins regulatory approval.

The male mosquitoes, created by British biotech firm Oxitec, are engineered to keep their partners from producing offspring when they mate in the wild, the Sun Sentinel reports. The number of mosquitoes capable of spreading the diseases would be reduced if enough wild mosquitoes mate with the genetically modified population.

“This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease,” Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told the Sun Sentinel.

Despite the benefits of reducing incidences of dengue and chikungunya, two viral diseases that cause a number of uncomfortable conditions, many are wary about releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild. More than 130,000 people have signed a Change.org petition opposing the release of the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

[Sun Sentinel]

TIME White House

Obama Moves to Protect 12 Million Acres of Alaskan Wildlife

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Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Getty Images

It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years

The Obama Administration will ask Congress to protect millions of acres of land in Alaska from a range of human activity including drilling and road construction, officials said Sunday.

If approved by Congress, the move would designate more than 12 million acres as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection, and protect native wildlife including caribou, polar bears and wolves. It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The proposal will undoubtedly meet opposition in Congress. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski condemned the move immediately as an act of federal overreach.

“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” she said in a statement. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them.”

TIME NFL

Watch Bill Nye the Science Guy Debunk Belichick’s ‘Deflategate’ Theory

"What he said didn't make any sense"

 

Wondering who would be the first prominent scientist to come out against New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s explanation for the under-inflated balls his team was accused using during the NFL playoffs last Sunday?

No? Well, we were. And since Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t step up to the plate, it had to be Bill Nye.

Belichick’s “internal review” offered a variety of reasons why the team’s footballs wound up under-inflated – everything from “atmospheric conditions” to “air pressure.” He added that the team’s process of breaking in footballs by rubbing them altered the pressure in the ball.

Nye was not impressed. “What he said didn’t make any sense,” Nye told ABC News on Sunday. “Rubbing the football – I don’t think you can change the pressure [that way].”

Nye does close his segment by saying, “Go Seahawks,” so he’s an admittedly impartial judge.

Tyson, do you want to weigh in?

This article originally appeared on People.com.

Read next: How to Get to the Bottom of ‘Deflategate’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME discoveries

Bizarre Creatures Found Living Under Half a Mile of Ice

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The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica Getty Images

A National Science Foundation-funded expedition to the Antarctic has unearthed a surprising result: There are fish who live without sunlight under almost half a mile of ice in 28-degree water.

Scientists had never before sampled the Whillans Ice Stream, a river of ice between the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Ross Ice Shelf. The drilling mission, which began on Jan. 8, aimed to better understand climate change by recovering sediment and seawater samples for examination. A small, remotely operated vehicle would peruse the ocean floor and photograph rocks and whatever microbial life might be there. They expected little, because of the water’s extreme distance from sunlight (a major nutrient for underwater environments) and its clarity, which suggests an absence of food sources.

But the vehicle wound up attracting 20 to 30 fish, with other crustaceans as well. Researchers don’t yet know how the ecosystem functions, but they’re hopeful that the fish’s survival under such harsh conditions holds broader clues.

[Scientific American]

TIME Environment

The Senate Discovers Climate Change!

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Never noticed that before: Welcome to the conversation, Senators Image Source RF/Ditto; Getty

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A landslide vote brings Congress's upper chamber into the 21st century—a little

Correction appended, January 24

Surely by now you’ve heard the big news: On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate—The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body Except For the Fact That it Never Really Deliberates Anything—passed a landmark resolution declaring that “climate change is real and is not a hoax.” The proposal passed by a nail-bitingly close vote of 98-1. Only Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, who heads the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, voted no.

The landslide victory thrilled the green community, especially since it included such anti-science paleoliths as Oklahoma’s James Inhofe and Florida’s Marco (“I’m not a scientist, man”) Rubio. But let’s not get carried away. For one thing, voting to acknowledge a fact that virtually every other sentient human on the planet long ago accepted is a little like passing a bill that declares, “Gravity is real” or “Fire make man hurt.” Not exactly groundbreaking.

What’s more, there was only so far the newly enlightened GOP was willing to go. Votes on two other measures—one that declared “climate change is real and human activity contributes significantly to climate change,” and one that made essentially the same point but without the word “significantly”—were blocked by Republican maneuvering. What’s more, the weak tea version of the resolution that did pass—sponsored by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse—made it through only because it was a rider to the Keystone XL pipeline legislation. At this point, Republicans would likely approve a Puppies For Lunch rider if it would get Keystone passed.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, among the greenest of the greenies, responded to the GOP’s grudging concession with something less than unalloyed enthusiasm. “From Know-Nothingism to Do-Nothingism in the U.S. Senate,” it declared in a news release. And indeed, the 98 brave men and women who stepped forward to go on record with a statement of the patently obvious have given absolutely no indication that they are actually prepared to do anything about that obvious thing.

The GOP’s big wins in November certainly don’t make them more inclined to yield on what has become a central pillar of party dogma. But if science—to say nothing of the health of the planet—can’t move them, they should at least consider the unsavory company their fringe position is increasingly causing them to keep. Writing in The New York Times, Paul Krugman addressed climate deniers, supply-siders and foes of the Affordable Care Act as one counterfactual whole—people who are fixed in their positions no matter what the objective evidence shows. That may or may not be too wide a net to cast, but Krugman is right on one score:

If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

Krugman offers any number of explanations for this, with which reasonable people can agree or disagree, but his larger point—of an ideological cohort animated by rage as much as anything else—certainly feels right. I see it regularly in that least scientific but most pointed place of all, my Twitter feed. I’ve crossed swords with the anti-vaccine crowd more than once, and while some of them have found a way to be savagely nasty in the 140 characters they’re allowed, most of the anger is civil. They’re fretful and, I believe, foolish to have been duped by anti-scientific rubbish, but they’re at least fit for inclusion in the public square.

Not so the climate-deniers, who hurl spluttery insults, fill their feeds with the usual swill about President Barack Obama’s suspicious birthplace and the conspiratorial doings across the border in Mexico, and link to risible idiocy about how the global warming “conspiracy” is a “ploy to make us poorer,” whose real purpose is “to redistribute wealth from the first world to the third, an explicit goal of UN climate policy.”

Yes. Of course. Because it’s harder to believe in science than it is to believe that there’s a four-decade plot afoot that virtually every country in the world has signed onto, dragging virtually every scientist in the world along with them—none of whom have ever had a crisis of conscience or spilled the beans in a bar or simply decided to sell the whole sordid story to the press—and that only a rump faction in the U.S. knows the truth. Makes perfect sense.

If the Senate, even reluctantly, has made the tiniest baby step toward rational thought, that’s undeniably a good thing. “It starts by admitting you have a problem, just like many other areas of human life,” Whitehouse told The Hill. Outside the Senate chamber, however, in the country that is second only to coal-soiled China in CO2 emissions, the ugly, vein-in-the-temple anger remains. The GOP can continue to make common cause with this nasty crowd or, if it chooses, can finally, clear-headedly rejoin the ranks of reason.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council

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 astronomy

An Asteroid Will Fly Close to Earth on Monday

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere.
This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rock will hurtle through space at just three times the distance between the Earth and the moon.

It doesn’t sound like a close shave, but in astronomical terms, it is.

An asteroid will fly within 745,000 miles of Earth on Monday, NASA said, the closest a space rock will fly to Earth until 2027. It won’t be a danger to the planet, but it’s not every day that an asteroid passes by us at just three times the distance from the Earth to the moon.

While the asteroid “poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, “it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.”

The asteroid, labeled 2004 BL86, is about a third-of-a-mile in size, based on its brightness. Scientists will use microwaves to study the asteroid.

There’s a reason to be enthusiastic, said Yeomans, who is retiring from his position.

“Asteroids are something special,” Yeomans said. “Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”

TIME Global Security

Doomsday Clock Puts Us 3 Minutes Away from Apocalypse

Climate scientist Richard Somerville, a member, Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, unveils the new Doomsday Clock in Washington on Jan. 22, 2015.
Climate scientist Richard Somerville, a member, Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, unveils the new Doomsday Clock in Washington on Jan. 22, 2015. Cliff Owen—AP

Climate change and nuclear proliferation make global catastrophe highly probable, scientists say

The Doomsday Clock is now two minutes closer to midnight, thanks to the specter of climate change and unchecked nuclear proliferation.

The hands of the symbolic clock, managed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, were moved forward to 11.57 earlier this week, which means the board thinks “the probability of global catastrophe is very high.” 12.00 signifies the apocalypse.

Originally constructed in 1945 as a predictor of nuclear catastrophe, the clock’s keepers now consider factors like climate change and other scientific or technological threats to humanity as well. The Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board is managed by a board of sponsors that includes 17 Nobel Laureates.

“Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity,” Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said.

Founded by University of Chicago scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, The Doomsday Clock has been long considered a metaphor for the vulnerability of the human race.

But the hands of the clock can move forward and backward in time. It was previously set at 3 minutes to midnight in 1984, during a particularly scary moment during the Cold War where communication between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had gone dark. And in 1949, the clock was set at 3 minutes to midnight when the Soviet Union tested their first nuclear device.

The safest point in history seems to have been in 1991, when the clock was at 17 minutes to midnight after the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. The closest the Doomsday Clock has ever been to midnight was in 1953, when it reached 2 minutes to midnight after the U.S. tested a H-Bomb for the first time.

To read the entire statement about why the Doomsday Clock stewards believe the world is as close to total catastrophe today as it was at the worst point in the Cold War, click here.

Read next: 5 Things You Need to Know About Obama’s Visit to India

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

Official Wants Frozen to Teach Kids About Climate Change

FROZEN
Arendelle Disney

Apparently Disney didn't go for it

The U.S. special representative to the Arctic said this week that he told a Disney executive educators should use Frozen to teach kids about climate change—but the idea didn’t go over so well.

Admiral Robert Papp told an audience at this week’s Arctic Frontiers conference that after realizing his granddaughters were obsessed with Frozen, he approached Disney executives about making PSAs about climate change starring Anna and Elsa to raise awareness about the disappearing ice. “I said you’ve taught an entire generation about the Arctic,” Papp said he told the executive. “Unfortunately the Arctic that you’ve taught them about is a fantasy kingdom in Norway where everything is nice. What we really need to do is educate the American youth about the plight of the polar bear, about the thawing tundra, about Alaskan villages that run the risk of falling into the sea because of the lack of sea ice protecting their shores.”

Papp said the executive was receptive, but skeptical. “‘Admiral you might not understand, here at Disney it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings,'” he told him.

But who knows what’s in store for the rumored Frozen sequel that may or may-not be happening.

[h/t National Journal]

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