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‘Strawberry Moon’ lunar eclipse treats skywatchers around the world (photos)

The Full Strawberry Moon is seen during the penumbral lunar eclipse over the sky of Bekasi, Indonesia, on June 6, 2020. (Image credit: Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto/Getty)

Photographers around the world captured stunning images of the recent Full Strawberry Moon eclipse, showing the subtle darkening as the moon barely grazed the shadow of the Earth.

The penumbral eclipse took place Friday (June 5) out of the range of North American view, but was visible for more than three hours over central and east Africa, Eastern Europe, western and central Asia, and parts of Indonesia and Australia. (If the moon passes more fully into the Earth’s shadow, it experiences either a partial or total lunar eclipse, depending on how much of the moon is darkened.)

Related: Eclipse season 2020 has arrived! Catch 2 lunar eclipses and a ‘ring of fire’ this summer

The Full Strawberry Moon rises over Ponte da Ajuda, a historic bridge near the border between Portugal and Spain, during the penumbral lunar eclipse on Friday (June 5). (Image credit: Courtesy of Sérgio Conceição)

In Portugal, photographer Sérgio Conceiçao caught the eclipse on the Ajuda Bridge in Elvas, which is on a historically disputed border with Spain’s Olivença. He used a Canon EOS R digital camera and 92-millimeter lens at f/6.3, with ISO 400. 

The photographic sequence shows 23 moon exposures. The moon starts the sequence in a more “intense reddish pink color,” Conceição told Space.com, “and starting to whiten as it rises.” Two women are also visible on the bridge.

This view of the rising Strawberry Moon eclipse over Ponta da Ajuda combines 242 still images captured over the course of 75 minutes (Image credit: Courtesy of Sérgio Conceição)

Conceiçao also imaged a continuous shot of the moon in motion, using 242 still photographs taken with Canon 5d MKIII and 14-mm lenses at f/16. With the eclipse deepening during the 1 hour, 15-minute long set of exposures, Conceiçao said the image shows “the various shades that the moon has been passing through” over the timespan.

The Full Strawberry Moon of June 5, 2020, partially obscured by clouds, rises over the horizon during a penumbral lunar eclipse as spectators enjoy the good weather at La Malagueta beach in Málaga, Spain.  (Image credit: Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty)

A five-hour drive away, on the coastal town of Malaga, Spain, photographer Jesus Merida captured the lunar eclipse at its darkest phase. The moon rose as people on La Malagueta beach carefully enjoyed the good weather that evening, while respecting physical distancing protocols due to novel coronavirus restrictions, Merida wrote in a description on Getty Images.

Astrophysicist Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project captured this photo of the penumbral lunar eclipse over Rome, Italy, on June 5, 2020. Masi took this photo at the moment of greatest eclipse, at 3: 25 p.m. EDT (1925 GMT), when about 57% of the moon’s surface was covered by Earth’s outer shadow, called the penumbra. (Image credit: Gianluca Masi/The Virtual Telescope Project)

Astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, who runs the The Virtual Telescope Project from Rome, captured a dramatic moment of the eclipse using a Canon 5D mark IV attached to an 8″ f/6.3 telescope. 

The moon was just seven degrees above the southeast horizon at the time, Masi said. “I’m pleased to share with you an image of the eclipse we covered earlier tonight,” Masi wrote in an email to followers of the project, “grabbed at the maximum of the eclipse. On the bottom right, you can see a hint of darkening.”

The penumbral eclipse is only the first event of this year’s “eclipse season.” Viewers in other areas of the world may have the chance to catch a “ring of fire” annual solar eclipse, or another lunar eclipse, later in the summer.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Sunlight cracking rocks on Bennu

Examples of disaggregation (top) and linear fractures (bottom) in boulders on asteroid Bennu from images taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REX spacecraft. In the bottom row, fracture orientations are (d) west-northwest to east-southeast and (e, f) north to south. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Asteroids don’t just sit there doing nothing as they orbit the Sun. They get bombarded by meteoroids, blasted by space radiation, and now, for the first time, scientists are seeing evidence that even a little sunshine can wear them down.

Rocks on asteroid Bennu appear to be cracking as sunlight heats them up during the day and they cool down at night, according to images from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security—Regolith Explorer) spacecraft.

“This is the first time evidence for this process, called thermal fracturing, has been definitively observed on an object without an atmosphere,” said Jamie Molaro of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, lead author of a paper appearing in Nature Communications June 9. “It is one piece of a puzzle that tells us what the surface used to be like, and what it will be like millions of years from now.”

“Like any weathering process, thermal fracturing causes the evolution of boulders and planetary surfaces over time—from changing the shape and size of individual boulders, to producing pebbles or fine-grained regolith, to breaking down crater walls,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “How quickly this occurs relative to other weathering processes tells us how and how quickly the surface has changed.”

Exfoliation features on a cliff face (a) and on boulders (b-f) with varying size and location on asteroid Bennu from images taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REX spacecraft. The bright dome on the horizon of panel (a) is a boulder behind the exfoliating cliff. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Rocks expand when sunlight heats them during the day and contract as they cool down at night, causing stress that forms cracks that grow slowly over time. Scientists have thought for a while that thermal fracturing could be an important weathering process on airless objects like asteroids because many experience extreme temperature differences between day and night, compounding the stress. For example, daytime highs on Bennu can reach almost 127 degrees Celsius or about 260 degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows plummet to about minus 73 degrees Celsius or nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, many of the telltale features of thermal fracturing are small, and before OSIRIS-REx got close to Bennu, the high-resolution imagery required to confirm thermal fracturing on asteroids didn’t exist.

The mission team found features consistent with thermal fracturing using the spacecraft’s OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), which can see features on Bennu smaller than one centimeter (almost 0.4 inches). It found evidence of exfoliation, where thermal fracturing likely caused small, thin layers (1—10 centimeters) to flake off of boulder surfaces. The spacecraft also produced images of cracks running through boulders in a north-south direction, along the line of stress that would be produced by thermal fracturing on Bennu.

Other weathering processes can produce similar features, but the team’s analysis ruled them out. For example, rain and chemical activity can produce exfoliation, but Bennu has no atmosphere to produce rain. Rocks squeezed by tectonic activity can also exfoliate, but Bennu is too small for such activity. Meteoroid impacts do occur on Bennu and can certainly crack rocks, but they would not cause the even erosion of layers from boulder surfaces that were seen. Also, there’s no sign of impact craters where the exfoliation is occurring.

Additional studies of Bennu could help determine how rapidly thermal fracturing is wearing down the asteroid, and how it compares to other weathering processes. “We don’t have good constraints yet on breakdown rates from thermal fracturing, but we can get them now that we can actually observe it for the first time in situ,” said OSIRIS-REx project scientist Jason Dworkin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Laboratory measurements on the properties of the samples returned by the spacecraft in 2023 will help us learn more about how this process works.”

Another area of research is how thermal fracturing affects our ability to estimate the age of surfaces. In general, the more weathered a surface is, the older it is. For example, a region with a lot of craters is likely to be older than an area with few craters, assuming impacts happen at a relatively constant rate across an object. However, additional weathering from thermal fracturing could complicate an age estimate, because thermal fracturing is going to happen at a different rate on different bodies, depending on things like their distance from the Sun, the length of their day, and the composition, structure and strength of their rocks. On bodies where thermal fracturing is efficient, then it may cause crater walls to break down and erode faster. This would make the look older according the cratering record, when in fact it is actually younger. Or the opposite could occur. More research on thermal fracturing on different bodies is needed to start to get a handle on this, according to Molaro.



More information:
J. L. Molaro et al. In situ evidence of thermally induced rock breakdown widespread on Bennu’s surface, Nature Communications (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16528-7

Citation:
Sunlight cracking rocks on Bennu (2020, June 9)
retrieved 9 June 2020
from https://phys.org/news/2020-06-sunlight-bennu.html

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SpaceX’s next Starlink launch will help improve satellite imagery of the Earth

That might not sound like a lot, but it means that previously indistinct vehicles on roadways can now be identified as being a car or a truck, and it’s this sort of development that’s needed to help bolster infrastructure for the eventual arrival of autonomous vehicles — and even to improve the way we use GPS right now.

But the clarity of satellite images is not the only thing Planet is looking to improve — frequency of imaging is also big on its agenda. As Planet says, “Shorter intervals between image captures help customers understand and characterize changes driven by human activity or unanticipated events. It also increases the likelihood that customers can get a cloud-free image, or an image of specific shadow angles that could be important for analysis.” 

This is where SpaceX comes in. Back in May, Planet announced that it would be launching six more SkySat satellites into low Earth orbit with the help of a Falcon 9 rocket. Three satellites — each the size of a washing machine and weighing about 110kg — will launch in the coming weeks, with the next three sent up in July.

With a total of 21 SkySat satellites in orbit, Planet will be able to take images of some global locations up to 12 times a day, with a global average of seven times a day. As Planet’s senior vice president of product Martin Van Ryswyk says in a blog post, “This unprecedented capability will provide more rapid response to global events and enable imaging at times of the day previously unseen by satellites.” Planet’s already quick response times were highlighted last week when it was the first to provide a satellite image of the “Black Lives Matter” message on the street leading up to the White House, painted by protesters just hours earlier – the additional SkySats will reduce this already short lag even more.

But getting satellites into orbit is not cheap — or at least, it wasn’t until SpaceX launched its small satellite rideshare program. Planet has previously launched its SkySats using a Falcon 9 as part of the SSO-A mission back in December 2018 — a major rideshare initiative that sent up around 64 satellites on a single rocket. But that run involved a middleman — Spaceflight. Now, SpaceX is working directly with satellite operators, giving them the opportunity to hitch their gear to the many Falcon 9 launches SpaceX is making in order to complete its 12,000 satellite-strong Starlink constellation. Starlink — which is being assembled in batches of 60 satellites at a time — will eventually provide satellite-based internet across the globe.

At $500 per kilogram, its rideshare rates are pretty good. In fact, speaking to Ars Technica, Planet’s vice president of launch, Mike Safyan, said that the company’s plan to add these extra SkySats only came about as a result of SpaceX “dramatically” cutting the cost of access to launch. “They cut the price so much we could not believe what we were looking at,” he said.

Planet’s system already provides a critical blueprint for those designing smarter cities, tracking natural disasters and monitoring natural habitats, but greater clarity and frequency of imaging could open up a whole new way for satellite imaging to be leveraged in everyday life. Until now, a major obstacle to this has been cost, but if the likes of SpaceX is happy to let the smaller guys piggyback on its rockets, then orbit just became a lot more accessible to everyone.

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Yellowstone volcano: Geologist estimates ‘five billion’ death toll if Yellowstone blows

is not expected to erupt now or in the foreseeable future but many people still worry about the potential fallout from a major blast. The ancient supervolcano, which sits in the northwest US, had its last big eruption some 640,000 years ago. The so-called Lava Creek eruption sculpted the ‘s present features and blanketed some 2,900 square miles with ash and debris.

Dr Jerzy Żaba, a geologist at the University of Silesia in Poland, believes another caldera-forming eruption would have dire global consequences.

In his estimate, Yellowstone has the potential power to trigger global climate change and starvation.

Speaking to WP.pl in 2018, the geologist said: “I predict that an eruption similar to the one from 640,000 years ago would destroy most of the United States’ territories.

“The erupted materials would cover everything within a 500km (310 miles) radius with a metre-thick layer.

READ MORE: Yellowstone: New supereruption discovery one of ‘top 5 eruptions EVER’

Yellowstone volcano: An eruption could kill 5 billion people an expert has claimed (Image: GETTY)

Yellowstone volcano: The supervolcano is among the most dangerous volcanoes (Image: EXPRESS)

“And as a result of the massive emissions of dust, gases or sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, there would be a temporary cooling of the climate.”

According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), it is probable another caldera-forming blast could alter global weather patterns.

Even smaller volcanoes, such as Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines, have shown some ability to alter the weather.

When the volcano erupted in 1991, sulphur dioxide emissions from the blast caused the planet’s surface to slightly cool for about three years.

The USGS said: “At the height of the impact, global temperatures dropped by 1.3F (0.7C).”

As a result of climate change about five billion would die from starvation

Dr Jerzy Żaba, Univertsity of Silesia

However, scientists do not have the ability to predict with any certainty what the specific consequences of an eruption might be.

Dr Żaba said: “The sulphur dioxide would create a thin veil of sulphuric acid around the planet that would reflect light from the Sun. It would hang around for many years.

“I estimate that as a result of climate change about five billion would die from starvation.

“You can see this scenario unfold in the documentary Supervolcano.

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Yellowstone volcano: The last major blast went off about 640,000 years ago (Image: GETTY)

Yellowstone volcano: Yellowstone volcano is not expected to erupt any time soon (Image: GETTY)

“It is, of course, a disaster film but there is a lot of scientific truth in it.”

The good news, however, is the USGS does not believe it likely this scenario will ever unfold.

Recent studies of the Yellowstone caldera have even shown the .

Research led by a volcanologist at the University of Leicester has found Yellowstone’s hotspot has seen a three-fold decrease in capacity due to past eruptions.

Dr Thomas Knott from the University of Leicester branded this “a very significant decline”.

USGS scientists also believe another super-volcanic eruption is the least likely disaster to strike Yellowstone.

Instead, a hydrothermal blast caused by shallow pools of water and steam is the most probable scenario.

The USGS said: “Hydrothermal explosions are very small; they occur in Yellowstone National Park every few years and form a crater a few meters across.

“Every few thousand years, a hydrothermal explosion will form a crater as much as a few hundred meters across.”

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Business light Researchers

Researchers shed light on new enzymatic reaction

Huang, CABBI postdoc at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led a study which blended bio- & photocatalysis to expand an enzyme’s synthetic repertoire. Credit: CABBI Communications Staff

Researchers have identified key ingredients for producing high-value chemical compounds in an environmentally friendly fashion: repurposed enzymes, curiosity, and a little bit of light.

A paper published in Nature describes a study led by Xiaoqiang Huang (pictured), a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). Huang works in the lab of ChBE Professor Huimin Zhao, Conversion Theme Leader at the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), a U.S. Department of Energy-funded Bioenergy Research Center (BRC).

Catalysts are substances used to speed up ; in living organisms, protein molecules called enzymes catalyze reactions in a process called biocatalysis.

Biocatalysis is rapidly emerging as a nuanced, agile way to synthesize valuable compounds. Scientists are investigating the ability of enzymes to catalyze diverse reactions, and for good reason: biocatalytic reactions are highly selective, meaning that scientists can use enzymes to act on specific substrates and create target products.

Enzymatic reactions are also highly sustainable as they are relatively inexpensive, consume low levels of energy, and do minimal damage to the environment: while chemical catalysts typically require organic solvents, heat, and to function, biocatalysts work in , operating at room-temperature and normal-pressure conditions.

Despite their value to science and sustainability, enzymes can be complicated to work with. Reactions enzymes can catalyze are limited to those found in nature; this means that scientists often struggle to track down the perfect biocatalyst to meet their need.

The process is similar to mixing paint: How can an artist creatively combine the colors already on a palette to produce the right shade? In the language of a chemical reaction: How can scientists leverage enzymes already existing in nature to create the products they need?

The research team developed a solution: a visible-light-induced reaction that uses the family ene-reductase (ER) as a biocatalyst and can produce high yields of valuable chiral carbonyl compounds.

“Our solution might be considered ‘repurposing.’ We take known enzymes that occur in nature, and repurpose them for a novel reaction,” Zhao said.

In other words, the researchers didn’t need to add a new kind of paint to the palette—they discovered an artful way to combine what was already there.

These “repurposed” enzymatic reactions are not only economically and environmentally efficient, but highly desirable: chiral carbonyl compounds have potential applications in the pharmaceutical industry to be used for drug production.

The team’s solution is particularly unique in that it merges biocatalysis with photocatalysis—wherein light is used as a renewable source of activation energy—in a novel, photoenzymatic reaction.

Over the course of the study, researchers tested a variety of substrates (i.e., the substance on which the catalyst acts), documenting the ER enzymes’ reactivity in response to each. This process is comparable to baking a chemical chocolate-chip cookie: by keeping light levels constant and tweaking the “ingredients” (i.e. ERs and substrates), the team was able to gradually circle in on a desired reaction.

Using chemical insights and clever design to synthesize value-added products is characteristic of CABBI’s Conversion theme.

“Creating novel enzyme function is one of CABBI’s major scientific challenges,” Zhao said. “This study addresses that challenge by uncovering novel uses for enzymes and showing what they’re capable of.”

The substrates used in this study (hydrocarbon compounds known as alkenes) also align with CABBI’s mission to investigate applications of plant biomass. In principle, fatty acids from crops like miscanthus, sorghum, and sugarcane can be converted into alkenes, which can then be used in place of petroleum-based substrates to produce valuable compounds.

By blending bio- and photocatalysis and experimenting with various reactionary “ingredients,” this study expanded the ER enzyme’s repertoire to synthesize high-value, high-quantity compounds.

But merging light with enzymes is just the beginning.

“We are by no means limited to creating chiral carbonyl compounds,” Huang said. “Hopefully, this research will inspire scientists to combine several types of enzymes and explore new options for reactivity.”

In the future, researchers can build on this study to create an even more diverse portfolio of products—and further expand upon the economic and environmental benefits of enzymes.



More information:
Xiaoqiang Huang et al, Photoenzymatic enantioselective intermolecular radical hydroalkylation, Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2406-6

Citation:
Researchers shed light on new enzymatic reaction (2020, June 8)
retrieved 9 June 2020
from https://phys.org/news/2020-06-enzymatic-reaction.html

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Snake eels stage stomach-bursting escape after being eaten (and then things get really nasty)

Ophichthidae is a family of sinuous fishes that are also known as snake eels. The species pictured here, Aprognathodon platyventris, is found in the western Atlantic Ocean.

(Image: © Photo: Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.; Van Tassell, J. L.; Hoetjes, P.; Toller, W.; Etnoyer, P.; Smith, M. (2010). “Biodiversity Assessment of the Fishes of Saba Bank Atoll, Netherlands Antilles”. PLoS ONE 5 (5): e10676. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010676. PMID 20505760. PMC: 2873961., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27506026)

Snake eels, a group of slender, sinuous fish, can perform a gruesome escape after they are swallowed by a bigger fish: They burst out of their predators’ stomachs. But that desperate and grisly bid for freedom may leave them worse off than before, new research reveals.

Most snake eel species’ tails end in a sharp, bony tip that they use for swiftly burrowing into the sandy sea bottom. When a predatory fish swallows a live snake eel, that tip can punch an escape hole in the predator’s stomach wall, which the eel then wriggles through tail-first. 

However, this stomach-perforating maneuver doesn’t exactly land the snake eel in a better place. While the eel is not digested alive, it’s still trapped inside the predator’s body, and it soon dies in the gut cavity where it is eventually mummified, researchers reported in a new study describing this bizarre process.

Related: Extreme life on Earth: 8 bizarre creatures

The 351 species of snake eels that belong to the family Ophichthidae have long, tapering, snakelike bodies and live in tropical and temperate ocean waters around the world. Species vary greatly in size, with the smallest measuring under 2 feet (0.5 meters) long and the biggest measuring more than 8 feet (2.5 m) long, according to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

As early as 1934, scientific studies have described mummified corpses of individual dead snake eels preserved inside the body cavities of carnivorous fishes. For the new study, scientists conducted the first analysis of how widespread this peculiar outcome is, in waters around Australia. 

Previously, researchers exploring parasites in a type of coastal fish called the black jewfish (Protonibea diacanthus), also found snake eels inside the fishes’ bodies, so the new study’s authors started there. They examined 335 P. diacanthus specimens collected from northern Australia, and found four species of preserved snake eels inside the body cavities of 19 P. diacanthus fish. 

“Presence of these eels was high in comparison to previous reports,” the study authors reported.

In some cases, the snake eels’ preserved bodies were significantly degraded and hard to classify. The scientists confirmed finding at least three more species of snake eels inside 10 species of predatory fishes from Australian waters, in addition to P. diacanthus. Biodiversity of snake eels in northern Australia is “inadequately documented,” and investigations such as this could offer researchers the opportunity to discover new snake eel species, according to the study. 

Some of these predatory fish also had partly-digested snake eels in their bellies that had not managed to escape, which told the scientists that the eels were a part of the fishes’ normal diet.

Snake eels are burrowing fish that frequently hide in seafloor sediments, so they likely have a higher tolerance for low-oxygen environments than some fish do. They therefore “could feasibly stay alive for longer inside the gut cavities of species that predate upon them, once ingested,” the scientists wrote in the study, though they did not specify how much longer a snake eel could survive such conditions. 

Regardless, that ability doesn’t give snake eels much of an advantage, considering that the eels still slowly suffocate to death after their so-called escape, the study authors reported.

The findings were published online June 4 in the journal Memoirs of the Queensland Museum.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Oldest known animal: 425 million-years-old Millipede fossil discovered in Scotland

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Millipede Fossil is oldest bug specimen in history of paleontology is a category of arthropods which includes land-dwelling insects, arachnids, and centipedes.

Researchers at The University of Texas, Austin have dug out a 425-million-year-old fossilized millipede from the Scottish island of Kerrera.  The oldest bug specimen in the history of paleontology is a category of arthropods which includes land-dwelling insects, arachnids, and centipedes. The researchers published the study of the fossil and its implications in the journal Historical Biology that helps them discover the compressed evolutionary timeline for both plants and bugs, as per the study.  

Led by the co-author Stephanie Suarez, a doctoral student at the University of Houston, the study points at the earliest direct evidence of an alive bug, which was a genus of myriapod, a relative of modern millipedes. Although the fossils of the myriapod Kampecaris Obanensis were discovered for the first time in 1899 on a Scottish isle, the new discovered 425 million years ago fossil would help establish that these bugs were the oldest terrestrial creatures. Further, the study indicates that 20 million years after the millipede arrived, spiders and insects came into existence.  

The University of Texas wrote in the statement, The findings offer new evidence about the origin and evolution of bugs and plants, suggesting that they evolved much more rapidly than some scientists believe, going from lake-hugging communities to complex forest ecosystems in just 40 million years.

Read: Scientists Name World’s Deepest Octopus ‘Dumbo’ After Disney Character

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Geoscientist Michael Brookfield from the University of Texas and the University of Massachusetts in Boston said in the study, “It’s a big jump from these tiny guys to very complex forest communities, and in the scheme of things, it didn’t take that long.” It seems to be rapid radiation of evolution, he added. The findings in the study pose interesting questions about insect evolution as per the scientists that answer that the bugs were widespread on Earth 407 million years ago, as per the published study.  

Among “the oldest bugs”

However, the researchers claimed that the fossil’s date reveals that millipede might not be the oldest bugs discovered so far – yet they’re among “the oldest bugs.” If the researchers traced back the rate of DNA mutations, millipedes should be about 500 million years old as per the molecular clock, according to the observations, as published in the journal.  

Read:  Did Mars Have Rings Like Saturn? Scientists Reveal Big Secret About Its Moons

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Explained: Asteroid that will make a close approach to Earth this month

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |

Updated: June 9, 2020 9: 33: 44 am


This asteroid is classified as a PHA, which means the asteroid has the potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth. (Representational Image)

Earlier this week, NASA announced that a giant asteroid is expected to pass Earth (at a safe distance) on June 6. The asteroid is estimated to be between 250-570 meters in diameter, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A Near-Earth Object (NEO), the asteroid is called 163348 (2002 NN4) and is classified as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).

What are Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), why are they studied?

NEOs occasionally approach close to the Earth as they orbit the Sun, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Study (CNEOS) determines the times and distances of these objects as and when their approach to the Earth is close.

NASA defines NEOs as comets and asteroids nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits which allows them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood. These objects are composed mostly of water ice with embedded dust particles.

The scientific interest in comets and asteroids is largely due to their status as relatively unchanged remnant debris from the solar system formation process over 4.6 billion years ago. Therefore, these NEOs offer scientists clues about the chemical mixture from the planets formed.

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Significantly, among all the causes that will eventually cause the extinction of life on Earth, an asteroid hit is widely acknowledged as one of the likeliest. Over the years, scientists have suggested different ways to ward off such a hit, such as blowing up the asteroid before it reaches Earth, or deflecting it off its Earth-bound course by hitting it with a spacecraft. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program finds, tracks and characterises over 90 per cent of the predicted number of NEOs that are 140 metre or larger in size (larger than a small football stadium).

NASA maintains that objects of this size and larger pose a risk to Earth of “the greatest concern” due to the level of devastation that the impact is capable of causing. Further, no asteroid larger than 140 metre has a “significant” chance of hitting the Earth for the next 100 years, less than half of the estimated 25,000 NEOs that are 140 metres or larger in size have been found to date.

What is 163348 (2002 NN4)?

This asteroid is classified as a PHA, which means the asteroid has the potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth. Asteroids with a minimum orbit intersection distance (MOID) of about 0.05 (AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun and is roughly 150 million km), which is about 7,480,000 km or less and an absolute magnitude (H) of 22 (smaller than about 150 m or 500 feet in diameter) or less are considered PHAs.

Even so, it is not necessary that asteroids classified as PHAs will impact the Earth. “It only means there is a possibility for such a threat. By monitoring these PHAs and updating their orbits as new observations become available, we can better predict the close-approach statistics and thus their Earth-impact threat,” NASA says.

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2002 NN4 was discovered in July 2002 and is expected to approach the Earth on June 6.

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