TIME space

See The 10 Best Space Selfies Ever Taken

The space selfie phenomenon is not new, astronauts have been turning the camera on themselves since 1966

TIME astronomy

Scientists Find a Black Hole 12 Billion Times More Massive Than the Sun

An artist's illustration shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun at the center released by NASA on February 27, 2013.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout/Reuters An artist's illustration shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun at the center released by NASA on February 27, 2013.

It's discovery appears to confound current theories about how black holes are created

A team of international astronomers has discovered a black hole of almost unimaginable proportions.

At 12 billion times more massive than the sun, it challenges current cosmological thinking, reports Reuters.

“Our discovery presents a serious challenge to theories about the black hole growth in the early universe,” lead researcher Xue-Bing Wu for Peking University, China told the news agency.

The enormous object was formed 900 million years after the Big Bang, and scientists are stumped as to how a black hole of that size could have grown in such a relatively short time.

“Current theory is for a limit to how fast a black hole can grow, but this black hole is too large for that theory,” said fellow researcher Dr. Fuyan Bian, of Australian National University.

Not only is the black hole the biggest ever seen but also it’s at the center of the largest quasar ever discovered. (Quasars are the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe, with this one emitting huge amounts of energy and light as matter is ripped apart by the black hole at its core.)

For comparison, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, has only about four to five million times the mass of the Sun.

The black hole was discovered by a team of global scientists at Peking University, China, tasked with mapping the northern sky, and their findings were published in the journal Nature.

[Reuters]

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TIME Video Games

This Computer Learned How to Totally Devastate You at Pong

Iowa Town Plans To Launch Video Game Hall of Fame And Museum
David Greedy—Getty Images A version of Pong is played on the orignial Magnovox Odyssey 200 during the launch party for the International Video Game Hall of Fame and Museum on August 13, 2009 in Ottumwa, Iowa.

And that's a huge development for artificial intelligence

Need a new gaming buddy? Just call DeepMind.

The artificial intelligence company, owned by Google, has developed an algorithm that can learn how to play almost 50 classic arcade games nearly from scratch, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The system can learn titles from Pong to Space Invaders after getting the same instructions no matter which game it’s about to learn, a big improvement from computers programmed from the get-go to master single games like chess.

While this research sounds like it’s all fun and games, it has big implications for artificial intelligence. According to Nature, DeepMind uses a combination of AI technologies based on the human brain that let it learn from experience as well as respond to rewards—in this case, high scores in video games—much like people respond to a jolt of dopamine. That means DeepMind could give researchers new insight in how to replicate human brain functions in digital code.

Still, DeepMind’s software isn’t about to destroy all your high scores. Nature points out it has trouble with maze games because it “struggles to link actions with distant consequences,” not unlike most of your buddies in high school. And for now, it can’t take what it learns from one game and apply it to another similar title.

Google bought DeepMind in January of last year for a reported $650 million.

[Nature]

TIME space

This Is How Incredible (and Terrifying) Space Looks in Virtual Reality

New first-person space exploration game takes you far above the Earth

Soon you’ll be able to float around in space…in virtual reality. Design studio Opaque Multimedia unveiled on Tuesday a trailer for Earthlight, an upcoming first-person space exploration game. Using Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that is expected to debut this year, and Microsoft Kinect 2, a motion sensor, Earthlight lets you play an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, 268 miles (431 km) above the Earth you’re actually standing on. It looks like a startling, if slightly disorienting, experience.

TIME Environment

Watch How NASA Monitors Sand Flying From the Sahara to the Amazon

Millions of tons of Saharan dust land in the Amazon each year

A NASA satellite has been monitoring the movement of sand from the Sahara Desert in Africa to the Amazon rainforest in South America.

The space agency’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) is tracking the massive plumes of dust particles that make the Atlantic crossing from the great African desert to the largest rainforest in the world, where the particles settle and aid plant growth. The phosphorus content of the African dust is an important nutrient in the Amazon.

On average, 182 million tons of dust leave Africa each year, of which 27 million tons is deposited in the Amazon basin, according to data collected since CALIPSO launched in 2006. The amount varies each year, however.

“Using satellites to get a clear picture of dust is important for understanding and eventually using computers to model where that dust will go now and in future climate scenarios,” NASA research scientist Hongbin Yu says.

Read next: This Is How Incredible (and Terrifying) Space Looks in Virtual Reality

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TIME World

Eerie, Giant Holes Still Appearing in Northern Russia

Satellite imagery shows 20 new craters around holes discovered last year in Siberia

Less than a year after three massive craters as large as 250 feet wide were discovered in Siberia, experts say as many as 20 smaller craters may be dotting the north Russian landscape.

Satellite imagery shows that one of the large craters on the Yamal peninsula is actually now surrounded by about 20 smaller craters filled with water, according to the Siberian Times. The mysterious holes are thought to be related to climate change, as unusually warm temperatures in the area lead to explosive releases of a large amount of gas hydrates.

The discovery around the Yamal peninsula crater could indicate that there are more holes around the other large craters as well. “I would compare this with mushrooms,” Russian scientist Vasily Bogoyavlensky told the newspaper. “When you find one mushroom, be sure there are few more around. I suppose there could be 20 to 30 craters more.”

[Siberian Times]

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TIME Environment

UN Climate Panel’s Chief Steps Down Over Sexual Harassment Claims

R.K. Pachauri in 2010.
Manan Vatsyayana—AFP/Getty Images R.K. Pachauri in 2010.

R.K. Pachauri, 75, had chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 2002

The leader of the U.N.’s expert panel on climate change stepped down on Tuesday amid an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment in his native India.

R.K. Pachauri, 75, had chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 2002 and accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf.

The IPCC “needs strong leadership and dedication of time and full attention by the chair in the immediate future, which under the current circumstances I may be unable to provide,” Pachauri wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

He did not elaborate but pointed to his withdrawal from a meeting in Nairobi this week to attend to what the IPCC called “issues demanding his attention in India.”

Pachauri is being investigated in India after a 29-year-old woman accused him of sexually harassing her while they worked together at the New Delhi lobbying and research organization he heads, The Energy Resources Institute.

Pachauri denies the allegations and has said he is “committed to provide all assistance and cooperation to the authorities.”

The IPCC said vice chairman Ismail El Gizouli will serve as the panel’s acting chairman, and a vote on a new chairperson was already scheduled for October. Pachauri’s second term as chairman was due to end then, and he had said that he wouldn’t run for a third term.

Pachauri said in his resignation letter that he “would be available for help, support and advice to the entire IPCC in its future work in whatever manner I may be called on to provide.”

TIME space

Loving Earth Can Sometimes Require Leaving It

See the borders? That's because there aren't any.
NASA; Getty Images See the borders? That's because there aren't any.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a new book, astronaut Ron Garan calls for a better approach to making the world a healthier, more peaceable place

It’s a good thing you can’t see human suffering in infrared wavelengths. That kind of pain is something seen in the visible, felt in the viscera. If it showed up in the infrared it would mean that with the right instruments, you could see it from space, and that would change everything. There’s not a person who’s ever left the planet who hasn’t commented on the transcendent beauty of the blue, green, white Earth hanging in what otherwise appears to be a void. But what if Syria glowed scarlet like the open wound it is? What if West Africa went dark and cold to reflect the Ebola deaths that are still happening there?

Astronauts are spared such sights—or at least most of them are. But Ron Garan saw them anyway. Garan spent two weeks aboard the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station in 2008, then returned to space for a five-and-a-half-month stay aboard the station in 2011. That last tour of duty included the month of August—most significantly August 24, the day Tripoli fell during the Libyan civil war. Garan happened to look out the window that day and snapped a picture that included Libya—a place that was beautiful from orbit but bleeding up close.

The experience, along with many others others like it during the collective 179 days Garan spent in space, changed a great many things for him. Life on Earth, he came to realize, is experienced two-dimensionally—with all of the distortion that that implies. The people and things close to you obscure the ones farther away; objects shrink as they approach the horizon—dwindling in both size and significance. One Ebola death in the U.S. galvanizes our attention. Ten thousand in Africa barely move us.

Such a blinkered view is impossible from orbit, where you take in whole sweeps of the borderless globe in a glance. Garan, accordingly, returned home to write a book, The Orbital Perspective, that movingly explains the impact of such a perspective shift—one that by no means occurs for every astronaut.

The late Jack Swigert, command module pilot of Apollo 13, once observed that the very things that qualify astronauts to go to space—a mission-first, get-it-done pragmatism that doesn’t allow for a lot of rhapsodic silliness—often disqualifies them to feel or describe their experiences terribly deeply. Garan was the rare exception and is now devoting himself to working for a world that functions the way it appears to function from space—as an organic whole, not a fragmented collection of continents, nations, communities and sects. The book’s foreword is written by Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace prize for pioneering the concept of microloans—making very small amounts of money available to people who would otherwise not qualify for credit so that they can start businesses or otherwise become self-sufficient.

A fair bit of the book is devoted to exploring similar kinds of work done by similar kinds of social entrepreneurs. There is Amanda Lindhout, the Canadian journalist who spent 460 days in captivity after being kidnaped by Somali extremists in 2008 and then, after being released, went home to found the Global Enrichment Foundation, in support of education in Somalia. There is Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a group dedicated to bringing solar power, food-preservation systems and other technological essentials to underserved parts of the world.

Garan, in fairness, had an inclination toward good works even before he first flew in space—founding the Manna Energy Foundation to help address the developing world’s need for fresh water, renewable energy, access to communications and other basics. He has since worked with EWB and NASA’s Johnson Space Center to further the group’s work. But his trips to space provided him a certain authority—and urgency—he lacked before.

There’s an undeniable wonk appeal to Garan’s approach to the business of saving and improving lives. He finds metaphorical power in a hunk of hardware most people have surely never heard of: the Apollo-Soyuz docking module, an ugly 4,400 lb. (2,000 kg) piece of metal that made the first joint U.S.-Soviet spaceflight possible, in 1975, allowing two incompatible spacecraft—from two incompatible cultures—to link-up in orbit. He describes the Apollo 13 rescue less as the gripping tale of survival it surely was than as the world’s “first hackathon.”

He sees, similarly, more than a feel-good story in the successful international effort to save 33 trapped Chilean miners in 2010. Instead, he sees it as a template for global cooperation, one that came complete with group cheers and team shirts to foster a feeling of mission and camaraderie among the rescuers. “There have been disasters of similar or greater scale where countries decided to go it alone,” Garan writes, “leading to less desirable outcomes.”

Astronauts have a long tradition of going to space and then coming home to write about their adventures. But in those cases, the books generally explore what the astronauts themselves saw and felt and did and how they put those lessons to use later in life. In Garan’s case—and perhaps Garan’s alone—the message is how the rest of us can put his lessons to use. The Orbital Perspective may not be the most cinematic tale ever told from space, but it could wind up being the most important.

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

NASA Thinks There May Be Life on Jupiter’s Moon

Scientists may soon head to the icy surface of Europa to search for evidence

David Bowie once speculated about life on Mars, and now NASA scientists are wondering the same thing about Jupiter’s moon Europa.

A potential mission may soon be sending NASA scientists to the small, icy moon to search for signs of alien life, Space.com reports. NASA officials held a workshop Wednesday at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley to discuss the matter.

“This is our chance,” said NASA science chief John Grunsfeld. “I just hope we don’t miss this opportunity for lack of ideas.”

Specifically, scientists plan to search the plumes of water vapor, first spotted by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, that blast from the moon’s south polar region. This will allow researchers to sample the liquid hidden beneath Europa’s icy surface.

Plans for a Europa mission have been in the works for years, but NASA got closer to making it a reality when the White House allocated $30 million for a Europa mission in its 2016 budget request.

[Space.com]

TIME weather

7 Reasons to Love This Freezing Weather

Because there's always a bright side

It was 1º F in New York City on Friday—one frigging degree. That’s a keep-the-penny, why-bother, rounding error on the Fahrenheit scale. Convert it to Centigrade and it gets even worse, a brisk -17.22º, which may help explain why America never went metric.

But cold weather isn’t so bad. OK, it is, but here are seven things to like about the current deep freeze:

Less crime!

Criminals may be fools but they’re not stupid. If you’re going to heist a flat-screen TV or knock over a convenience store, would you rather do it when it’s 7oº and clear or when it’s 12-below and the wind chill factor is freezing your eyeballs? Crime historically drops during winter, and when it’s a brutal winter, things get even more peaceful. New York just earned applause after setting an all-time record for consecutive days without a homicide—at 12. (We do get graded on a curve.) Boston—which is just one woolly mammoth away from the next Ice Age—saw a 32% drop in larcenies, 35% in burglaries and 70% in homicides from Jan. 1 to Feb. 8, compared to the same period last year. But cold weather can increase auto thefts, thanks to what are known as puffers, cars left running in driveways while owners wait inside for them to warm up.

More sex!

Maybe it’s the cuddling under blankets, or the body heat generated when you’re active, or the belief that one more day of this flipping cold and you’re going to die so you and your squeeze might as well go out happy. But whatever it is, when things freeze, humans steam. Last summer, the Pittsburgh area saw a spike in s0-called “polar vortex babies,” with increases in births of 27.8% and 15.9% at two area hospitals compared to the same period a year earlier, following a bitter stretch that occurred nine months earlier. Cold weather amorousness may also be attributable to the mere fact that it gets dark earlier in the winter—putting people in mind of nighttime activities—or that bundling up in the winter means we see less skin during the day so even a glimpse of a partner’s elbow or ankle might be enough to light the engines.

Lose Weight!

Snowmen may never be anything but round, but the rest of us can slim down naturally in cold weather. That’s mostly because of the simple business of shivering. The whole purpose of shivering is to keep you moving, which generates heat—and uses calories. The very good news is, it doesn’t even take active shivering to burn at least some fat. A phenomenon called non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) may raise your thermostat and lower your weight when it’s as warm as 64º F (17.8º C). Caveat: NST helps only so much. Waiting out winter by huddling under a blanket, binge-watching TV and hoovering up Doritos is still going to have the expected effect.

Fewer bugs!

Nothing like the buzz of flies, the bite of mosquitos and the sting of bees to make summer the idyll it is—not. One of the few advantages of winter is that it’s murder on insects. All of them make provisions before the freeze hits, of course—either burrowing underground and hunkering down until spring or leaving behind a fresh clutch of eggs that can turn into a fresh swarm of bugs next summer. But if the thermometer drops far enough, those eggs may be finished too. The gypsy moth, the emerald ash borer and the pests that feed on honey locust trees all leave fewer heirs when the thermometer falls below zero. That means an easier season for the trees, and far fewer things for you to swat with a rolled up newspaper.

Live longer!

Alright, this one might be a stretch. Studies have absolutely, positively shown that colder temperatures activate genes that increase longevity—provided you’re a worm. Which you’re probably not. But another study shows that reducing core body temperature can increase lifespans by as much as 20%—provided you’re a mouse. Or a mussel. Still, it’s breakthroughs in animal studies that often lead to breakthroughs in human studies, so there’s reason to hope. Meantime, go mussels!

Feel no pain!

Or at least feel less. All that stuff you hear about cold weather making arthritis and other joint pain worse is true enough. But in at least one study in Finland, a plunge into icy water was found to increase norepinephrine levels in the blood as much as two- or three-fold. One of the many jobs neuropinephrine does is reduce overall pain. That’s a good thing. But plunging into icy water to get that effect? Not so much. So this one too may need a little work.

Fewer wars!

Napoleon didn’t leave a whole lot of valuable lessons behind. But one thing history’s bad boy did teach us was that on the list of truly bad ideas, attacking Russia in the winter ranks pretty much No. 1. It’s not just that wars bog down in cold weather, it’s that we tend to be less moved to fight them. Part of this is the same phenomenon that keeps crime down in the cold. Part is something much newer that was revealed in a 2011 study, which showed that higher temperatures have historically meant higher levels of armed conflict. The Cold War, it turns out, may have been an oxymoron.

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