TIME space

All That Glitters: 15 Breathtaking Photos of Meteor Showers

Geminids and Leonids and Perseids, oh my!

Not all meteor showers are created equal. Some are cosmic nor’easters; some are mere drizzles. This year’s edition of the Leonid meteor shower, beginning Nov. 17, will, alas, be more of the latter—and there’s a simple cosmic explanation for that.

The annual sky show is the work of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which makes a single loop through the solar system once every 33.5 years, leaving a trail of dust and other debris in its path. Once a year, Earth moves through that wake, and the cometary bits streaking through the atmosphere are what we see as a meteor shower. When the comet passed by recently, the debris trail is denser and the fireworks are greater.

That was the case in 1966, when tens of thousands of meteors rained down per hour. Things were a little spottier, but still still pretty exciting from 1999 to 2002, when there were thousands of flashes every hour. And now? Expect no more than 10 to 15, since Tempel-Tuttle is at its greatest distance from the sun—about 1.8 billion mi (2.9 billion km) away.

Still, if you’ll take whatever meteors you can get, peak viewing times in North America will be from midnight to dawn on the nights of Nov. 17 and Nov. 18. Look in the direction of the constellation Leo—which is how the shower got its name. A NASA livestream, beginning at 7:30 PM EST on the 17th will also be tracking things as they happen—or in this quiet year, kind of don’t happen.

TIME energy

A Brief Guide to the Keystone XL Pipeline Debate

Construction Along The Keystone XL Pipeline
Workers move a section of pipe during construction of the Gulf Coast Project pipeline, part of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, in Atoka, Okla. on March 11, 2013. Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A handy explainer

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

It is a proposed extension of a pipeline that transports oil from Alberta, Canada to a major petroleum exchange in Cushing, Okla., and from there to the Gulf of Mexico. The existing smaller pipeline takes a more circuitous route. The Canadian company TransCanada’s solution is to build a larger-capacity, more direct link from Alberta to the existing pipeline. That project is known as Keystone XL.

Why is Obama involved?

Because the Keystone XL link would cross an international boundary between the U.S. and Canada, the project requires presidential approval. Proponents say Keystone XL will reduce the need to move oil by freight train—which can lead to potentially dangerous accidents—and create perhaps tens of thousands of jobs. President Obama, who has not taken a public position on the project, has cited a State Department analysis that concludes the pipeline will create only about 2,000 jobs during construction and 50 around permanent jobs once it’s complete.

Why is it controversial?

Climate activists have rallied around the Keystone XL pipeline as an environmental litmus test. They worry that it will intrude on property rights—courts have allowed TransCanada to run sections of the pipeline over private land, despite objections from the property owners –and warn that it could be vulnerable to environmentally dangerous leaks along its proposed 1,700 mile route. But their primary objection is that the project will encourage the burning of fossil fuels and worsen climate change. The oil shipped through the new pipe would come from Canada’s so-called tar sands, which climate activists say is dirtier and worse for the environment than regular oil.

A State Department review released in January found that Keystone XL would have little effect on the planet’s environmental health because the oil in Canada’s tar sands will be extracted and sold through another avenue if the project is blocked.

What happens next?

The southern portion of the Keystone pipeline connecting Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico will open for business in 2015. The northern extension—the one everyone’s arguing about—has yet to be approved. But the Dec. 6 runoff for the Louisiana Senate seat of Democrat Mary Landrieu gave the project a jolt in Washington, as Landrieu and her Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, jockey to claim credit for getting it built. The House passed legislation sponsored by Cassidy allowing Keystone XL on Nov. 14 and the Senate votes on a similar measure backed by Landrieu on Nov. 18. President Obama has signaled that he may veto the legislation, but he has not taken a public stance. No matter what happens at the federal level, Keystone XL is likely to face court battles in states through which it passes.

TIME Research

Your State Bird Could Be Gone By 2080

birds
Getty Images

If our climate continues to change, many birds will lose significant portions of their habitat

WSF logo

By 2080, the skies over North America could be much emptier. A new report from the National Audubon Society, compiled from data collected over 30 years of bird counts and surveys, shows that more than half of North America’s most iconic birds are in serious danger. Of the 588 bird species surveyed, 314 are at risk for losing significant amounts of their habitat to a changing climate.

“Birds are a good barometer of the overall health and wellbeing of the natural systems we depend on for food, water, and clear air,” Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham wrote in an email. “If half the birds are at risk, the natural systems we depend upon are at risk too.”

Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, cautions that it can be hard to tie any one specific effect on bird populations directly to climate change—other factors like human development, pollution, and invasive species play big roles. However, both Rosenberg and Langham point to clear examples of climate change affecting the avian landscape. Many birds are shifting their ranges farther north; some migratory species are arriving in the northern areas and the endpoints of their spring migrations earlier and earlier. Higher tides and storm surges are wreaking havoc on the nesting grounds of birds like the Saltmarsh Sparrow and the albatross. And foraging birds that live in Arctic sea ice environments are in decline.

“Some land birds, like the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, are finding that the availability of food supplies no longer matches their migration cycles,” Langham says. “And some seabirds, like Atlantic Puffins, are starting to run out of food as ocean temperatures change, causing adults and young to starve.”

If our climate continues to change, many birds will lose significant portions of their habitat, especially those birds that live in marshes and beaches, low-lying islands and snowy mountaintops. Tropical forests could dry out, spoiling the wintering spots for migratory birds. Drought and fire could devastate the habitats of prairie birds like the sage grouse. Even tiny differences in temperature can have big impacts. The gray jay, for example, hoards perishable food to get it through the winter, relying on freezing temperatures to keep it from spoiling, but a warmer climate will short-circuit its natural refrigerator.

“Every bird species has a ‘tolerance zone’ for climate conditions,” Langham says. “If the climate gets too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, birds will be forced to leave their homes—but many will have nowhere else to go.”

These climate trends are set to impact birds big and small. By 2080, Audubon’s model predicts the summer range for bald eagles will shrink to 26 percent of the current extent. New areas could open up for them as areas get warmer, but it isn’t certain that food and nesting areas will be available to them in the new spots. Allen’s hummingbird could lose up to 90 percent of its summer range. The spotted owl, already a poster child for endangered birds, is expected to lose 98 percent of its wintering grounds. 10 states could lose their state birds—Maryland’s Baltimore Oriole, Vermont’s Hermit Thrush and the Mountain Bluebird (claimed by both Idaho and Nevada) are all among the imperiled.

But don’t count nature out of the game just yet. “A big ‘wild card’ is the ability of the birds themselves to adapt in ways we can’t predict,” Rosenberg told us. “For example, some Laysan Albatrosses have begun to nest in suburban yards and rooftops in Hawaii, as their usual nesting areas become more threatened.”

Rosenberg is also concerned about how humanity’s response to climate change will affect birds. In many areas, he says, sea walls are being built to protect coastal areas without taking into account how they will affect the ecosystem around them. The flow of water, nourishment of marches, and shaping of seaside habitats could all be negatively impacted by hastily built walls. And the rush to create alternative sources of energy has to be done in a smart way, he says. “Paving over fragile desert ecosystems for solar-panel fields, or placing wind farms in critical migration corridors and bottlenecks, or destroying natural habitats around the world to plant biofuels such as corn for ethanol, are NOT smart alternatives” to fossil fuels, Rosenberg says. “We will just be creating new environmental problems in an attempt to solve another.”

Langham urges bird lovers concerned about climate change to speak up.

“We can’t afford to sit quietly on the sidelines while a well-funded oil lobby gets a small number of people to intimidate the rest of us,” he says. “Decide what you want to say to your child or grandchild in 20 years. The day will come when that generation asks: What did you do to leave a better world when the science was clear? I think about my answer a lot and it motivates me to act boldly.”

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME Environment

Here Are 4 More Vulnerable Fish to Avoid Next Time You’re at the Sushi Bar

Blue-Fin Tuna Farm Operations At Kinki University Fisheries Laboratory As Seafood Proves Sweet Spot In Japanese Exports
A farmed blue-fin tuna on board a boat at a fish farm operated by the laboratory in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. Tomohiro Ohsumi—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Pacific bluefin tuna, Chinese pufferfish, American eels and Chinese cobras named by conservationists as risking extinction due to overfishing

A dwindling population of bluefin tuna is among the species of fish that could vanish from the Pacific ocean for good, conservationists warned on Tuesday, unless constraints are placed on commercial fisheries that target the highly sought after fish.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature added Pacific bluefin tuna to its “vulnerable” list of more than 22,000 species threatened with extinction, according to IUCN’s conservationists. The tuna was joined by American eels, Chinese pufferfish, and Chinese cobras.

“The Pacific Bluefin Tuna market value continues to rise,” said the organization’s tuna and billfish specialist Bruce Collette. Without curbing catches of juvenile fish, he added, “we cannot expect its status to improve in the short term.” The group estimates that the population has diminished by 19% — 33% over the past 22 years.

TIME space

Results From Comet Lander’s Experiments Expected

Before its batteries died, the Philae lander sent data on various experiments it executed on the comet

(BERLIN) — The German aeronautics and space research center says it will release a first evaluation of the data that comet lander Philae sent down to the European Space Center before its depleted batteries forced it to go silent.

Spokesman Andreas Schuetz says the scientists are getting together to discuss their data analyses Monday morning and following that meeting, the center will publish the scientists’ findings.

Philae landed Wednesday on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko about 311 million miles (500 million kilometers) from Earth. Before its batteries died, it sent data on various experiments it executed on the comet.

One of the things scientists are most excited about is the possibility that the mission might help confirm that comets brought the building blocks of life — organic matter and water — to Earth.

TIME space

Comet Probe Philae Runs Out Of Power

It had gotten through 80% of its scheduled observations

The first human probe to land on a comet went dark Friday night while sending data back to the European Space Agency.

In an online statement, the head of operations for the probe said, “this machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”

The probe lost power after bouncing into a shady area of the comet during its landing. Before losing power, the Philae accomplished about 80% of its scheduled observations.

Philae could soon regain power if its solar panels are able to pick up enough sunlight.

 

 

TIME Environment

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Three Stories to Help You Understand the Debate

Truth About Oil
The Apr. 9, 2012, cover of TIME PHOTOGRAPH BY KENJI AOKI FOR TIME

The House has approved a pipeline proposal; the Senate is expected to vote on the subject next week

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has become the single most important environmental issue in the U.S.—even though its environmental impact may not even be that great. The pipeline would move some 830,000 barrels of crude a day from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and then down to the Gulf of Mexico. Keystone would make it easier for Canadian producers to sell their landlocked crude to the rest of the world—which is exactly what environmentalists fear. Oil sands crude is dirtier and has a bigger carbon footprint than conventional oil.

Landowners in Nebraska worry that a spill could contaminate the state’s vital aquifer, while environmentalists fear that the pipeline will speed the development of the oil sands and help add huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But other experts argue that oil sands crude will come to the U.S. by another route—most likely through rail—or be sold elsewhere in the world if Keystone isn’t built, meaning the planet won’t be any better off.

Since it’s an international project, the President has to sign off on the Keystone pipeline before it can be built—and much to the consternation of the oil industry, President Obama has delayed his decision for years, claiming that he needs more time to study the pipeline. But with Republicans now firmly in charge of both houses of Congress—and many conservative Democrats in favor of the project—Obama may need to make a decision soon.

With a decision potentially on the horizon — the House passed legislation on Friday and the Senate is expected to vote on the topic next week — refresh your understanding of the debate with these three articles from the TIME archives:

Mar. 12, 2012: Cold Warrior

A profile of activist and author Bill McKibben explains why the pipeline extension drew environmentalists’ attention, and how they helped influence President Obama’s decision to reject a 2012 version of the application to build the pipeline:

Though Canada is already mining and selling oil-sands crude, McKibben saw the proposed Keystone XL pipeline–set to deliver up to 830,000 barrels a day to the U.S.–as a crucial accelerator. More practically, because the cross-border pipeline required State Department approval, he saw an opportunity to confront Obama, who dropped an early climate-change agenda in the face of stiff resistance. In late August, McKibben, along with major environmental groups, helped organize days of protest around the White House. Over 12,000 people showed up, and hundreds were arrested. In November, Obama said he would delay a decision until 2013. But Republicans tacked a provision onto a payroll-tax-cut bill mandating that the White House decide on the pipeline within 60 days. In response, Obama decided in January to reject Keystone XL altogether.

Apr. 9, 2012: The Truth About Oil

A broader look at new sources of oil explains why the crude that would travel through the pipeline is different from other oil:

Oil has never exactly been clean, but the new sources coming online tend to be more polluting and more dangerous than conventional crude. Producing oil from the sands in northern Alberta can be destructive to the local environment, requiring massive open-pit mines that strip forests and take years to recover from. The tailings from those mines are toxic. While some of the newer production methods eschew the open-pit mines and instead process the sands underground or in situ, which is much cleaner, they still require additional energy to turn oil sands into usable crude. As a result, a barrel of oil-sand crude usually has a 10% to 15% larger carbon footprint than conventional crude over its lifetime, from the well to the wheels of a car. Given the massive size of the oil-sand reserve–nearly 200 billion recoverable barrels–that’s potentially a lot of carbon. It’s not surprising that environmentalists have loudly opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would send 800,000 barrels of oil-sand crude a day to the U.S. “There’s enough carbon there to create a totally different planet,” says James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and activist.

Jan. 31, 2014: Report Raises No Major Climate Objections to Keystone Pipeline, But the Choice Is Obama’s

After the President’s initial rejection of the pipeline proposal due to insufficient information, the State Department spent the next few years putting together an assessment of its potential environmental impact. The finding, released early this year, was disappointing to environmentalists: that whether or not the pipeline was built, about the same amount of oil would be produced.

A lot has changed since Keystone was first proposed back in 2005. U.S. domestic oil production has soared, last year hitting the highest level in two decades—a fact that has weakened the case for the international pipeline. At the same, the rapid—and not always safe—growth of oil being shipped by rail in lieu of pipelines has shown just how creative the oil industry can be when it comes to moving their product. Given the overwhelming demand for oil, it’s quite possible that the State Department is right that whether or not the pipeline is built, it will have little impact on the carbon footprint of the oil sands—though that hasn’t stopped the Canadian government from lobbying hard for the project.

Read more of TIME’s science coverage in the TIME Vault

TIME space

Since You Wondered, Here’s Why Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Isn’t White

NASA says it's likely "a sunburn, not a blush"

The giant cyclonic storm that swallowed Alaska last week has nothing on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The GRS is a cyclone, too, but one so immense it could gulp down the Earth in one shot and still have room for Mars. It’s been swirling for centuries, at the very least, and while it’s smaller than it used to be, nobody thinks it’s going away.

All of this is pretty well known to planetary scientists. What they don’t know is the answer to a very simple question: Why is the Red Spot, well, red? “There are some other places on Jupiter that are reddish,” says Kevin Baines of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), “although they’re more of a reddish-brown.” The spot’s color, however, is pretty much unique and thus pretty mysterious. In fact, Baines adds, “back in the 1970’s, when we were trying to sell the Galileo mission to Congress, it really resonated that we were going to try and answer that question.”

Now Baines and two JPL colleagues may have finally done it — not with data from Galileo, which orbited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003, but from the Cassini probe, which took a few snapshots en route to Saturn. Those images, supplemented by laboratory experiments, suggest that the red color is just a thin dusting on the very top of swirling clouds that are otherwise white. “I call it the creme brulee model,” Baines says, “or the strawberry frosting model.”

Cassini was essential to solving the mystery because its instruments were sensitive to a broader range of light wavelengths than Galileo’s, and could thus show that the very center of the Red Spot is redder than the rest. The center is also at the highest altitude of what’s already an unusually high-altitude feature. “It reaches something like 50,000 feet higher than the surrounding clouds,” says Baines.

That exposes the swirling clouds to more intense ultraviolet light from the sun than most of Jupiter’s clouds. And when the JPL scientists did lab experiments to test the effects of ultraviolet rays on chemicals such as ammonia, acetylene and various hydrocarbons, which are abundant in Jupiter’s atmosphere, they got the same red colors seen on the giant planet itself. (They did eventually, anyway. At first, they did their tests with ammonium hydrosulfide, another chemical abundant on Jupiter, and recreated what Baines calls the “Great Green Spot. We were faked out,” he says.)

This isn’t the only evidence that the Spot’s red is created from above rather than coming from reddish gases upwelling from below, which is the leading alternate theory: There actually are some other tiny spots of red dotted around Jupiter, and they also coincide with clouds of unusually high altitude.

The Red Spot, in short, as a JPL press release cutely puts it, represents “a sunburn, not a blush,” on the face of the Solar System’s largest planet.

TIME space

Comet Drill Data Could Be Lost

ESA Attempts To Land Probe On Comet
The surface of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet as seen from the Philae lander. European Space Agency

The robot Philae may not have the battery power needed to transmit data

The European Space Agency’s Philae robot may not have sufficient power to send data from its groundbreaking comet drill back to earth.

“We are not sure there is enough energy so that we can transmit,” said lander manager Stephan Ulamec at a press conference in Darmstadt, Germany, Agence-France Presse reports.

The unmanned robot landed on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comment, becoming the first ever human landing on a comet. The probe successfully transmitted images but may not have the battery power to send results from a drill. The probe’s solar powered battery is in the shade of a cliff, giving it just 1.5 hours of sunlight a day, which isn’t enough to replenish the battery.

[AFP]

TIME space

Comet Lander Philae’s Battery Might Die Soon

ESA Attempts To Land Probe On Comet
The surface of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet as seen from the Philae lander. European Space Agency

The probe isn't getting enough light to recharge its pack

After becoming the first spacecraft to successfully land on a comet, European robot probe Philae may be in danger of running out of battery power.

The unmanned probe is successfully transmitting images but is about a kilometer away from its intended location on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after some landing trouble saw it settle in the shadow of a cliff.

As a result, the probe is only receiving 1.5 hours of sunlight for every 12-hour rotation of the comet, which is not nearly enough to replenish its battery once the primary 60-hour charge is over.

“We have estimations right now that go between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon,” the European Space Agency’s Paolo Ferri told the BBC, referencing how long Philae is expected to remain operational in its current state. “The more activities we do with the lander, the more power we will consume, and the less time we will have,” he said.

Given the difficulty of moving the probe into sunlight in the time available, scientists are now focused on gathering as much data as they can from the comet’s surface.

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