TIME space

New Mesmerizing Image of a Young Star

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri
This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The detail in the image is far greater than anything even the Hubble could achieve

If someone had been around to see it, this is what our Solar System probably looked like when it was only a million years old (for the record, it’s nearly 4.6 billion now, and counting). This image was taken by the giant ALMA telescope, located in the high desert of northern Chile, which sees in radio wavelengths. The detail here is far greater than anything even the Hubble could achieve.

The glowing disk is dust and gas whirling around the young star, known as HL Tauri, located about 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. The dark gaps are almost certainly places where the gravity of newly forming planets has swept the dust clean — exactly as Earth, Mars and the other planets in our mature Solar System did long ago. It’s a strong clue that our theories of how planets form are very much on the right track.


CEO: Virgin Galactic Looks to Resume Tests in 2015

(ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.) — The space tourism company that suffered a tragic setback when its experimental rocket-powered spaceship broke apart over the California desert could resume test flights as early as next summer if it can finish building a replacement craft, its CEO says.

The sleek composite shell and tail section of the new craft are sitting inside the company’s manufacturing facility in Mojave, California.

After more than two years of work, it’s beginning to look like a spaceship, but Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said there’s much more to be done, from relatively simple things such as installing windows to the more complex fitting of flight controls and other wiring.

The ship — dubbed SpaceShipTwo Serial No. 2 — will replace one that was destroyed last week after its feathering system that controls descent deployed prematurely and aerodynamic forces ripped it apart, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

In the wake of the accident, workers have focused on building the new ship.

“That’s provided some solace to all of us, and I think there’s sort of a therapeutic benefit to folks to be able to put their energies into constructive work,” Whitesides told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday.

He said the company will be able to continue flying its mother ship — the much larger jet-powered plane that launches the rocket ship at high altitudes — while federal investigators look into the cause of the deadly crash with the cooperation of the company.

It’s possible that test flights for the next spaceship could begin within six months, before the investigation is expected to conclude, Whitesides said.

Scaled Composites, which is developing the spacecraft for Virgin Galactic, has an experimental permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to test the crafts. Just last month, the company had received approval from the agency to resume rocket-powered flights.

When the new ship is ready next year, the FAA said it will conduct a more extensive review to ensure whatever caused last week’s mishap has been addressed before allowing test flights to resume.

Speculation continues about how far the accident will push back the day when Virgin Galactic’s paying customers can routinely rocket dozens of miles from a $219 million spaceport in the New Mexico desert toward the edge of space for a fleeting feeling of weightlessness and a breathtaking view.

Whitesides said the accident has been tough on many levels, but he refused to see it as a roadblock and said the company does not have to start from scratch.

“There was no question it was a tragic setback, but it’s one from which we can recover,” he said. “With Serial No. 2, we’ll be putting a stronger, even better ship into initial commercial service and I think we’ll be able to get back into test flights soon and carry forward.”

Virgin Galactic has hopes of one day being able to manufacture at least one new ship a year. It envisions flights with six passengers climbing more than 62 miles above Earth.

Seats sell for $250,000 and the company says it has booked passengers including Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand. A few more passengers signed on this week, Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic will be the anchor tenant at the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. Before the accident, the company planned to begin moving operations to New Mexico early next year.

Whitesides reiterated his commitment to New Mexico but acknowledged the company was still considering its new timeline.

TIME Research

Human Genitals May Have Formed In The Same Way As Limbs

Harvard researchers probe genetic connections between the two

There is a strong correlation between the formation of genitals and limbs, the Boston Globe reports, citing a study conducted by researchers from the Harvard Medical School and published in the journal Nature.

Researchers examined the genetic processes that take place during the development of embryos in various animals, and also performed complex cell-transplant surgeries to see if they could get genitals to grow elsewhere. They partially succeeded — causing genital-like buds to form in a chicken embryo — by using the cells that generally form hind limbs.

Patrick Tschopp, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, pointed out that babies born with poorly formed limbs often also possess poorly formed genitalia. “We knew there was some sort of genetic link between the two, and this could provide some information about where these genetic links are,” he said.

Read more at the Boston Globe.

TIME movies

How Stephen Hawking Went Hollywood

A theory of love: Eddie Redmayne, as a young Hawking, meets the future Mrs. Hawking
A theory of love: Eddie Redmayne, as a young Hawking, meets the future Mrs. Hawking

James Marsh, director of the poignant Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, talks about making a movie with—and about—a living legend

It’s a very good thing director James Marsh isn’t a defeatist. If he were, he would curse the Hollywood calendar that has his compelling biopic of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, opening in the same week as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Interstellar. Ordinarily, an arena-scale spectacle like Interstellar and a bit of cinematic chamber music like Theory wouldn’t have a lot to fear from each other, since their audiences would be decidedly different. But that’s not so this time.

Both movies, in their own ways, wrestle with the same head-spinning questions: the mysteries of the universe and the physics of, well, pretty much everything there is. And both, in their own ways, succeed splendidly. Nolan had the far heavier lift when it came to the sheer scale of the production he was undertaking. But Marsh had the tougher go when it came to making sure his audiences sat still for the tale he wanted to tell, since he didn’t have eye-popping special effects and a thumping score to make the science go down easier. But he plays to that minimalism as a strength, keeping things small, intimate and sometimes brilliantly metaphorical.

On occasion, the facts of Hawking’s own life supplied those metaphors. Even as the great physicist was descending into the black hole of an illness that would render him both immobile and mute, he discovered the phenomenon now known as Hawking radiation, a form of energy that allows information to escape from the gravitational grip of a black hole—a grip so great that it swallows even light. Hawking has spent most of his life finding his own way to get information and ideas out to the world.

And when did the young Hawking have the flash of insight that the eponymous radiation exists? While struggling to free himself from a tangled pajama top that his weakened muscles could no longer negotiate. When life throws a good director a fat, over-the-plate pitch like that, the good director hits it out of the park—and Marsh excels in that moment, as he does with the film as a whole.

Taking a break from both promoting Theory and directing a new project for HBO, Marsh spoke to TIME about getting to know Hawking, working to understand his physics, and turning what could have been a mawkish tale of sickness and survival into a movie that is equal parts drama, wit, love story and ingenious science lesson.

How difficult was it to weave hard cosmological science into a personal story about a man, his marriage and his illness?

I think of myself as a member of the general audience who comes to the movie not overly familiar with cosmology. I pitched the science at a level that I think I would understand, so audiences will too. The movie is really a story of the heart, about two people [Hawking and his wife Jane], and we give them equal screen time. There was a very interesting tension between Hawking’s scientific career on the one hand and his marriage and health on the other. They move in opposite directions, with one soaring as the other is declining. A drama wouldn’t ordinarily be the best way of exploring complex ideas like Hawking radiation, but that balance, that tension made it possible.

Cosmology is that rare science that almost no one understands but almost everyone finds fascinating. Why do you think that’s so?

These are the biggest questions imaginable. Stephen’s work is dealing with the nature of time and the boundaries of the universe. He approaches them through the lens of physics, but what he’s engaging with are the deepest mysteries we can contemplate.

How involved was Hawking in the production?

[Screenwriter] Anthony McCarten spent many years working on a screenplay and talking to Jane Hawking, whose memoir is the source of the movie. We then went to Stephen and he read the script. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic with the idea but he agreed to cooperate. He offered us some items from his personal collection, including the medal that [his character is seen] wearing at the end of the movie. At each step of the production we involved him, consulted with him. We had a physicist—a former student of his—on the set at all times to make sure all of the equations looked right.

Did Hawking himself ever visit?

During the May Ball shoot [a scene at an outdoor dance], he came to the set with his handlers and other assistants. He was very impressed by the scale of everything, but it raised the stakes a lot when he was there, especially because it was on the same night Jane showed up. Earlier, Jane took us to the house where they lived when they were first married. She showed us the spot where Stephen was saying “I have an idea” when he was struggling with his pajamas and came up with Hawking radiation. Scientists are like filmmakers: they have the oddest ideas at the oddest times.

Did you give Hawking any kind of final approval of the film before it was released?

When it was cut but not finalized, we took the film and showed it to him as a mark of respect. Had he not liked it we would have failed, so that was very nerve-wracking. It seemed to us that he had an emotional reaction while he was watching the movie. His response afterwards was very generous. He said the movie felt ‘broadly true,’ and then he sent the company an e-mail saying that when he watched Eddie [Redmayne, who plays Hawking] perform, it was like watching himself. He also offered us the use of the real electronic voice he uses to communicate to replace the one we were using. It has a weird emotional spectrum and it made the movie better. It felt like an endorsement.

TIME space

Watch 3D Videos of the International Space Station

Nasa is using more 3D video

Astronauts at the International Space Station have created a 3D video that shows a GoPro inside of a bubble floating in the space station.

Three astronauts–Steve Swanson, Reid Wiseman and Alexander Gerst–are seen studying water surface tension in microgravity. The first video below is of their bubble experiment, and the second video was shot by astronaut Don Pettit in 2012, also in 3D.

Nasa is using more 3D video to capture what their astronauts are seeing and experiencing in space.

TIME Environment

4 Ways the New Top Environment Senator Disagrees With Science

Jim Inhofe
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. gives a victory speech at the Republican watch party in Oklahoma City on Nov. 4, 2014. Sue Ogrocki—AP

Meet Jim Inhofe

Sen. Jim Inhofe is widely expected to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee now that Republicans have won control of the Senate, putting one of Washington’s most strident climate change deniers in charge of environmental policy.

In his 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, the Oklahoma Republican argued that climate change science has been manufactured by liberals to scare the American public, push through anti-business regulations and sell newspapers, and that humans should do nothing to regulate greenhouse gases.

Problem is, Inhofe’s opinions are deeply at odds with the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, both in the U.S. and abroad. Here’s just a few ways how.

Human activity

Inhofe: The Senator says hundreds of scientists dispute the idea that global warming is the result of human activity.

Science: 97% of international scientists working in fields related to the environmental sciences agree that current global warming trends are the result of human activity. No U.S. or international scientific institutions of any caliber dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change.


Inhofe: He says global warming, if it’s happening at all, could be beneficial for humanity. “Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists,” he said in a 2003 speech. “In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”

Science: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found unequivocally that climate change will have a catastrophically negative effect on humans. In its fifth report, released Sunday, the panel compiled and analyzed hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change from all over the world and found that the consequences of inaction will lead, and already are leading, to flooding, diminished crop yields, destructive weather, and mass extinction.


Inhofe: If global temperatures appear to be warming, that’s just because “[w]e go through these 30-year cycles,” he said on Mike Huckabee’s radio show in 2013.

Science: Dozens of peer-reviewed international studies, including the 2012 State of the Climate peer-reviewed report by the American Meteorological Society (AMS)—which was compiled by 384 scientists from 52 countries—underscored that current warming trends are happening much more rapidly than any natural warming process, and that it is unquestionably the result of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, released by humans burning fossil fuels.


Inhofe: Scientists can’t explain why, eight years ago, “we went into a leveling-out period” in which the earth did not continue to warm.

Science: No such “leveling out” occurred. While individual temperatures spike and plummet every year, climate change science asks a longer-term question: Is the earth warmer than it was fifty years ago? The answer is, again, unequivocally yes. Sea ice has reached a record low, the Arctic has continued to warm, sea temperatures have continued to increase, ocean heat has reached near record-levels and sea levels have reached an all-time high.

TIME animals

Male Hummingbirds Apparently Use Beaks to Stab Each Other in the Throat

New research shows their long, sharp beaks aren't just for reaching flower nectar

The long, sharp beaks of hummingbirds serve a purpose other than probing flowers for nectar, a new study found.

Male long-billed hermits, which are large hummingbirds native to Central and South America, use their beaks to stab each other in the throat in territorial disputes, according to a study published recently in Behavioral Ecology. The male-against-male battles are part of a type of mating ritual called ‘lekking,’ which occurs in order to have space to mate with females.

“Once a female is in a territory, the male will court her with elaborate displays and songs. So in these species the males are constantly fighting to maintain the best territories,” Alejandro Rico-Guevara, the report’s co-author, said in a press release. “We show here the first evidence that bills are also being shaped by sexual selection through male-male combat.”

The findings suggest an alternative to the accepted theory that hummingbird beaks evolved to be so long and sharp because it helped them access flower nectar, according to the report. Instead, scientists believe that the reverse may be true: that flowers evolved in response to sharper, thinner hummingbird beaks.


Explaining Your Thesis Topic the Hard Way

You’ll probably never have occasion to explain how tornadoes might disrupt the biological relationships between tree seedlings and soil organisms. But if you do, you almost certainly won’t do it by swinging from a trapeze as friends and acquaintances writhe around on the floor below.

But then, you’re not Uma Nagendra, a doctoral candidate in plant biology at the University of Georgia. By choreographing and performing a piece called “Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage,” Nagendra has just snagged first place in the seventh annual international Dance your Ph.D. contest, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science magazine and HighWire Press.

The curmudgeons among us might be tempted to smirk—especially when they find out one of the runners-up was honored for his interpretive dance titled “Reduced-fat mayonnaise: Can’t maintain its stability.”

A conversation with Nagendra, however, will nip that impulse in the bud. “Lots of people are looking for ways to communicate science better, since we haven’t done so well in the past,” she says. “For me, the value of incorporating dance into science communication is that it can help illustrate complex ideas.” For anyone who relies on photos, graphics or illustrations to help us understand scientific concepts—which is to say, just about everyone—this should make all sorts of sense.

Nagendra, first heard about the contest a few years ago. She has no formal training in dance (“I dabble in different social dance forms,” she says, which means she likes go dancing for fun) but she knew immediately that she wanted to enter someday. She had some friends who were exploring trapeze as a kind dance medium—think Cirque du Soleil—and when she began taking trapeze classes herself, she was hooked. “The choreography took a while,” Nagendra says. “I had to do it in bits and pieces, since I couldn’t exactly practice in my living room.”

The other trapeze performers who appear in the piece are from the class, but most of the people playing soil pathogens on the ground are “grad students or friends of friends who thought it would be fun to roll around on the floor and pretend to be a fungus.” (She recruited some of them on Facebook, with a post that urged interested parties to, “unleash your inner nematode.”)

For winning the contest, Nagendra will get a $1000 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Stanford University next may for a screening of all the winning entries (you can read about all 12 finalists here, and read the official announcement at the Science website).

TIME space

SpaceShipTwo Rocket Plane Debris Spread Over 35 Miles, Says NTSB

SpaceShipTwo NTSB
Acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart uses a model to demonstrate how the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was supposed to "feather" its wings during an interview with the a video crew, Nov. 3, 2014. NTSB

Lightweight debris from last week’s in-flight breakup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane has been found as far away as 30 to 35 miles from the main crash site, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night.

The dispersal of debris testifies to the thoroughness of the plane’s disintegration, after an anomaly that occurred on Friday during a flight test high above California’s Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo’s wing-feathering system — a mechanism that’s designed to slow the craft down during its descent — has emerged as a focus of the NTSB’s investigation.

Experts on human performance have been added to…

Read more from our partners at NBC News

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