TIME space

This Moon’s Volcanoes Spew ‘Lava Fountains’

Jupiter’S Moon, Io, Erupting Volcano.
Education Images/UIG/Getty Images Jupiter’S Moon, Io, Erupting Volcano.

Jupiter's moon Io is more volcanically active than once thought

It’s got to be the biggest coincidence in the history of science: just a few days before the Voyager 1 space probe began taking the first closeup images of Jupiter’s moon Io in 1979, three astronomers predicted that this distant orb, about the size of Earth’s moon, wouldn’t be dead and cold, as most believed. Instead, they said it would be hot and volcanically active – and sure enough, when Voyager began snapping pictures, Io proved to be loaded with active volcanoes.

More than three decades later, scientists are still trying to figure out just how active Io really is—and they just got an important new clue. In two papers just accepted for publication in the journal Icarus, planetary scientists and volcano experts are describing three massive eruptions that took place within a period of just two weeks last summer on the distant moon.

“I’m really excited by this,” says Ashley Davies, a volcanologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of one of the papers. “It could be a game-changer.”

The reason: Io isn’t continuously monitored, so scientists had to deduce the rate of major eruptions from a limited set of observations from the Voyager and Galileo probes, along with occasional telescopic surveys from Earth. Based on this spotty record, said lead observer Imke de Pater, Davies’ co-author, in a statement, “We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they’re usually not this bright.” It may be, she said, that the conventional wisdom badly underestimates just how active Io really is.

Based on the eruptions’ brightness levels and the speed at which their light faded, Davies was able to model what they would have looked like close up. “We think they were ‘lava fountain’ events,” he says, in which cracks opened up on Io’s surface, spewing sheets of lava from their entire lengths at once. “We’re talking about an opening many miles long,” he says, and in Io’s low gravity, the curtain of lava could shoot up to a half-mile in the air. “These eruptions dwarf their terrestrial counterparts,” he added.

The lava was evidently extremely hot as well—3000°F or more—suggesting that more of Io’s interior is melted than planetary scientists have previously thought. It’s also a sign that Io’s rock may be high in magnesium. “This really has profound implications for Io’s interior structure,” he says, “which the next mission will have to answer.” So far, that next mission is purely hypothetical.

Io’s volcanoes also have implications for understanding volcanism on Earth, where massive outflows of lava have burst from underground in the distant past. “Large lava flows have shaped the surfaces of Venus, Mars and the Moon,” he says, “but no one has ever seen them erupt, so there’s a lot of uncertainty about the mechanism. Now we’re getting some vivid insight into a process that once shaped the surface of the Earth.”

The one mystery Io’s volcanoes can’t solve is why the moon is volcanic in the first place rather than frozen solid. That’s because the solution came more than 30 years ago in that original paper, just days before Io’s volcanic nature was discovered. The heat comes from what Davies calls a “cosmic ballet,”—the tidal flexing of the moon’s interior caused by Io’s complicated gravitational interactions with its sister moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, as well as with Jupiter itself.

The same kind of squeezing has created an ocean of liquid water beneath Europa’s thick, icy crust, a place where life may plausibly have gotten a foothold—and in fact, NASA is contemplating a return mission to study Europa in more detail. With this latest volcanic revelation, however, it might be worth taking a closer look at Io as well.

TIME space travel

NASA’s Hubble Finds Supernova Star System Linked to Potential ‘Zombie Star’

NASA The two inset images show before-and-after images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope of Supernova 2012Z in the spiral galaxy NGC 1309. The white X at the top of the main image marks the location of the supernova in the galaxy.

Thankfully, there are no brains anywhere around this particular zombie

Less like The Walking Dead and more like The Floating Dead: Astronomers believe they have identified the remnants left from an exploded white dwarf, otherwise known as a “zombie star,” about 110 million light-years from Earth.

Images like this one, shot with NASA’s Hubble Telescope, reveal the onset and aftermath of a “weaker” supernova, which happens when something changes in the core of a star and sets off a nuclear reaction.

The discovery of one of these less robust supernovas is a rare find in the world of interstellar study, and can help “to measure vast cosmic distances and the expansion of the universe,” said Rutgers University scientist Saurabh Jha, who’s part of the team that put together findings on the zombie star for Thursday’s edition of Nature.

TIME space

European Spacecraft Finally Hooks Up With Comet After Ten-Year Pursuit

SPACE-EUROPE-COMET-ROSETTA
ESA/AFP/Getty Images Picture taken on August 3, 2014 by ESA's space probe Rosettas OSIRIS narrow-angle camera shows the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Rosetta will accompany the comet for over a year of its 6.5-year orbit round the sun

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has entered the orbit of the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, ending a decade-long hunt to become the first vehicle to rendezvous with one.

Rosetta and comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko are halfway between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, about 405 million kilometers from Earth, and are traveling at the speed of nearly 55,000 kilometers per hour, the ESA said Wednesday. Rosetta will accompany the comet for over a year of its 6.5-year orbit of the sun.

Rosetta, launched in 2004, had to make three complex gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it towards the comet.

Rosetta will seek to understand the nature of the comet through an in situ study. Comets are one of the primitive building blocks of the Solar System and may have helped “seed” Earth with water, ESA said.

During its approach, Rosetta already discovered indications that the comet was emitting water vapor into space at about 300 milliliters per second.

TIME

Martian Vistas: A Look at the Curiosity Rover’s Strange Home

Two years ago, NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, transforming an engineering team’s high-risk brainstorming into reality. See the planet's topography, captured by Curiosity's HiRise cameras

TIME space travel

Photos from the Curiosity Rover’s First 2 Incredible Years on Mars

On Aug. 5, 2012, NASA's Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars. Here are pictures from its exploration thus far

TIME Japan

Top Japanese Scientist Who Co-Authored Discredited Stem-Cell Study Commits Suicide

Yoshiki Sasai
AP Yoshiki Sasai, deputy chief of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on April 16, 2014. Police said Sasai, 52, was found dead on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.

Death is mourned as huge loss to scientific community

A top Japanese scientist who oversaw and co-authored a controversial stem-cell study has committed suicide by hanging, authorities said on Tuesday.

Yoshiki Sasai, 52, was found in a research institution next to his workplace by a security guard on Tuesday morning and was pronounced dead at a hospital two hours later.

Sasai was deputy director of the prestigious RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, and supervised a study by lead author Haruko Obokata that was published in the journal Nature earlier this year.

Obokata claimed to have found a highly innovative new method for creating stem cells, but when the method could not be replicated, a probe was launched and it was found that parts of the study had been plagiarized. The paper was withdrawn from Nature in July, following months of dispute about its veracity.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Sasai maintained that he was brought into the project at a late stage. He consistently expressed remorse for not keeping a closer eye on the research, while continuing to argue that parts of the study held evidence of a genuine breakthrough.

Phil Campbell, editor in chief of Nature, issued a statement calling Sasai’s death a great loss to the scientific community. “Yoshiki Sasai was an exceptional scientist, and he has left an extraordinary legacy of pioneering work across many fields within stem cell and developmental biology,” Campbell said.

TIME Archaeology

Museum Finds Misplaced 6,500-Year-Old Human Skeleton in the Cellar

Ancient Skeleton
Matt Rourke—AP 6,500-year-old human remains are displayed at the The Penn Museum, part of the University of Pennsylvania,, Aug. 5, 2014, in Philadelphia. The museum announced Tuesday that it had rediscovered in its own storage rooms a 6,500-year-old human skeleton believed to have been a man at least 50 who stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

But it had only been missing for 85 years, so

An archaeology museum in Philadelphia said Tuesday it found a 6,500-year-old human skeleton in its own basement.

Yes. Its own basement.

Researchers at the Penn Museum, which is associated with the University of Pennsylvania, said they found documentation for the human skeleton while digitizing old records. The remains are extremely rare and date to 4,500 BCE. They were unearthed by archaeologists around 1930 during an excavation of the ancient city of Ur in modern day Iraq beneath the city’s cemetery, itself dating back to 2,500 BCE, Reuters reports.

The skeleton, which scientists have named Noah, is roughly 2,000 years older than any other remains found at the excavation site. The find could give scholars a new depth of understanding into everyday life during the little-understood time period.

Noah’s remains indicate he was muscular, about five feet-ten-inches tall and died at 50 years old.

[Reuters]

TIME mental health

How Do You Spot a Narcissist? Just Ask

Like the view? The original Narcissus and his BFF
John William Waterhouse; Getty Images/The Bridgeman Art Library Like the view? The original Narcissus and his BFF

It's not easy to diagnose most personality disorders. But narcissism is a snap—since the narcissists themselves know who they are

Narcissus got a bad rap. Sure, the guy was self-absorbed—what with all that staring at his own reflection in a stream. But once he fell in and drowned, well, lesson learned, and he wasn’t around to cause anyone else any grief. But the modern-day people who suffer from the disorder named after him? They’re a whole different matter.

Narcissists are alternately preening, entitled, aggressive, greedy, insensitive, vain, unfaithful, dishonest, lethally charming (a charm you buy at your peril) and sexually exploitative. They may represent merely 1% to 3% of the general population—but that’s only full-blown, capital-N narcissism, the kind formally known as narcissistic personality disorder. There are plenty of other people with lowercase, sub-clinical cases of the condition who can do all kinds of damage—and the odds are very, very good there are at least a few in your life.

How can you learn to recognize a narcissist at a glance? Easy, suggests a new study published in PLOS ONE: Just ask them.

Narcissism is typically diagnosed with a 40-item questionnaire known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, or NPI. (Take it here.) The NPI is a so-called forced choice test, one that asks people to choose between two generally contradictory statements such as “I prefer to blend in with the crowd” and “I like to be the center of attention,” or “I like to have authority over other people” and “I don’t mind following orders.” In many cases, both qualities may apply—it’s entirely possible to like to be the boss and to accept another person’s authority as well. But the “forced” part of “forced choice” means you must pick the quality that more closely describes you.

The lowest you can score on the NPI is a zero, the highest is a 40. Average in the U.S. is between 15 and 16, depending on age, gender and other variables.

The problem with the NPI is it’s time-consuming and inconvenient—hardly the kind of thing you can administer on a first date to find out if you’re getting mixed up with a charming louse before you accept a second date. But a team headed by psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan suspected that in some cases it might be possible to go at things more directly, asking people one carefully phrased written question:

“To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I am a narcissist.’ (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, and vain.)” The parenthetical was included to ensure that all participants in the study were working from the same definition. They were then asked to rate themselves on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 meaning “Not very true of me” and 7 meaning “very true of me.”

To a remarkable, statistically significant extent, the scores on this Single Item Narcissism Scale (SINS) correlated with the subjects’ scores on the more-complex NPI. Even with those results in hand, the researchers wanted to probe further, so they also tested their subjects on ten other personality metrics such as extraversion, agreeableness, aggression, sexual adventurousness, entitlement and more—all of which are either direct or inverse indicators of the narcissistic personality. Here too, the results lined up tidily.

The reason narcissists are so honest—a lot more honest than you’d be if someone asked you, say, “Are you a sociopath?”—is because they just don’t think their narcissism is a problem, which is perfectly consistent with people who think so highly of themselves. “Narcissists have these great mental health outcomes,” Konrath told me when I was researching my upcoming book The Narcissist Next Door. “If you’re trying to think of a group of people who are low in depression and anxiety, high in creativity and accomplishment, that’s narcissists.”

That, by itself, doesn’t sound bad at all. But narcissists often possess those good qualities to the general exclusion of others—especially social and relationship skills, a shortcoming that can hurt both them and those around them. Indeed, one of the metrics Konrath’s group looked at was whether the subjects rated primal rewards—such as a favorite food—higher than social rewards, such as seeing a friend. The friendship thing just doesn’t mean much to someone in the grip of narcissism.

“If you told a narcissist he’s not good in interpersonal relationships, he wouldn’t be any more upset than anyone else,” said Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman, another participant in the study, whom I also interviewed for my book. “But if you tell them they’re not smart, they get angry.”

All of this—the fragile ego, the tenuous human ties, the overweening self-regard–inevitably comes crashing down, even if less calamitously than it did for the proto-Narcissus. It’s for the narcissists themselves to recognize the dangers in the condition to which they admit so readily. And it’s for everyone else to get out of the way while they’re figuring it out.

TIME Environment

California Catastrophes: Why is the Golden State Always a Mess?

First it's droughts, then wildfires, then mudslides. But despite how it seems, the coast isn't really cursed

California is burning. In several places. Of course, this is news, especially since lives and property are at risk—but in a sense, it isn’t news at all. California burns every year at around this time. California is also sliding downhill. That isn’t really a headline either, since mudslides are annual events too, as a result of torrential rains in the non-burning part of the state. So far this year the slides have caused one death.

California’s Central Valley, meanwhile, is dangerously parched, as a drought that’s already lasted three years shows no signs of letting up. The only hope for desperate farmers is that a long-awaited El Niño weather pattern kicks in later in the year, bringing heavy rains (at which point, see above under “mudslides”). And then there’s the next major earthquake, which is sure to come sooner or later—probably sooner given California’s luck.

In fact, it almost seems as though the state is a disaster magnet. That, however, is something of an illusion. Much of the American West is more or less starved for rainfall, with the exception of the immediate Pacific Coast. It’s hardly a surprise that the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts; all it takes is a ridge of heat and high pressure to park itself off the Pacific coast and most rainfall will veer northward into Canada before dipping bock down into the inland U.S. The dried-out forests and grasslands that result are then ready fuel for fires caused by lightning or human carelessness. When rains do start, steep hillsides that have been logged or burned or overdeveloped are prone to mudslides.

These are by no means problems unique to California. But the state is so huge, and the population so large, that natural disasters there simply affect more people than they do elsewhere in the U.S. Still, for those of us watching from the other side of the continent, it sometimes seems like you’d have to be a little bit crazy to live in California. But then you consider Mt. Whitney or Yosemite Valley or the Coast Range or the redwood forests—never mind the southern California warmth and the Pacific Ocean as your swimming pool.

So maybe it’s not entirely crazy to live in California. What is entirely crazy is the need to push the envelope—to build houses on hillsides and in forests which may be the most gorgeous locations in the nation’s most gorgeous state, but which are often the most dangerous in terms of natural hazards. If you lived on an airport runway and got hit by a plane, it would be a tragedy—but an entirely predictable and preventable one.

We’re not immune to this sort of craziness out East: we keep putting houses on beaches, for example, when we know perfectly well that they could wash away with the next storm. Once you get away from the shore, though, you’re relatively safe. On this last point, the East may have the edge: Move inland in California, and you could end up next to an active volcano.

TIME space

SpaceX Is Building a New Launch Site In Texas

The next launch site for billionaire Elon Musk's space company will be built in one of the poorest cities in America

Texas Governor Rick Perry announced Monday that private space company SpaceX will build the first-ever exclusively commercial launch site near Brownsville, Texas. SpaceX, owned and operated by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, received a $2.3 million investment from the state to build its site in Texas.

Brownsville has a median income of $30,000, and nearly 40% of Brownsville’s population lives below the poverty line — the highest percentage in the country. Perry said in his announcement that the SpaceX site will bring 300 new jobs and inject $85 million into the local economy.

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