If Earth Collided with a Black Hole

 

Worlds Collide

A new online tool calculates just how much cosmic destruction a run-in between the Earth and a black hole would cause.
The aptly-named Black Hole Collision Calculator determines how much a black hole would expand and the amount of energy it would release if it absorbed the Earth — or any other object, since the calculator is totally customizable, Space.com reports.
 

Big Kaboom

Particle physicist Álvaro Díez created the tool, which is hosted on the calculator database project Omni Calculator. Based on his calculations, a black hole swallowing the Earth would release some 55 quintillion times the planet’s annual energy consumption.
But even that destructive event would be a light snack for a supermassive black hole — its event horizon would only expand by a hundredth of a trillionth of a percent, per the calculator.
The main flaw with the calculator? The artistic rendering of a black hole obliterating the Earth that pops up next to the results doesn’t change to match any increasingly goofy collisions.
 

READ MORE: See What a Black Hole Would Do to Earth with Online ‘Collision Calculator’ [Space.com]
More on cosmic annihilation:Two Supermassive Black Holes Are on a Devastating Crash Course
 

Smallest Dwarf Planet in Solar System

 

Moving On Up

The asteroid Hygiea just got a promotion.

Using European Southern Observatory’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers were able to get their most detailed look yet at Hygiea, an object in the asteroid belt.

And based on what they saw, they think the asteroid deserves reclassification as a dwarf planet — making it the smallest one yet identified in the entire solar system.

Four For Four

To be classified as a dwarf planet, an object must meet four requirements: it must be spherical, it must orbit the Sun, it can’t be a moon — and it must not have cleared the neighborhood around itself, which would make it a proper planet.

Astronomers already knew that Hygiea met the latter three requirements, and the new VLT data allowed them to confirm the first.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” lead researcher Pierre Vernazza said in a news release. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

READ MORE: ESO Telescope Reveals What Could be the Smallest Dwarf Planet Yet in the Solar System [European Southern Observatory]
More on dwarf planets: Astronomers Just Found a Dwarf Planet Three Times As Far Away As Pluto

Crops in Martian Soil

 

Astronaut Farmer

Martian and Moon soil is surprisingly fertile, and new research suggests it may someday be possible to harvest crops grown at off-world colonies.

When Wageningen University scientists tried to grow ten different crops in soils developed by NASA to mimic that found on Mars and the Moon, nine of them grew edible parts and viable seeds, according to research published this month in the journal Open Agriculture.

While future off-world farmers will have to grapple with countless other problems — like, uh, the lack of an atmosphere — the experiment is still a tentative good sign for the future of off-world settlements.

First Steps

The plants grown in simulated Martian or lunar soil weren’t as successful as those grown in normal Earth conditions, and in most cases the mock Martian crops fared better than the Moon plants. Still, vegetables like tomatoes, radishes, rye, and quinoa grew in both types of space soil, with spinach as the lone casualty.

“We were thrilled when we saw the first tomatoes ever grown on Mars soil simulant turning red,” project leader Wieger Wamelink said in a press release. “It meant that the next step towards a sustainable closed agricultural ecosystem had been taken.”

READ MORE: Soil on moon and Mars likely to support crops [De Gruyter via Phys.org]
More on Mars farming: Contaminating Mars With Microbes Could Kickstart Colonization
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Super-Smart Designer Babies

 

In November, a company called Genomic Prediction announced that it had  developed a multi-gene screening technique for embryos. This method, the company claimed, allowed it to scan an embryo for conditions or traits impacted by numerous genes, including intelligence, and give it a “polygenic score.”

The company said this was so parents could avoid using an embryo with an abnormally low score for in-vitro fertilization. However, it quickly raised concerns about parents using the tech to have super-smart designer babies.

But now it seems that fear was premature: A new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics debunks the accuracy of the technique.

Today, having fertilized embryos undergo genetic testing prior to implantation is a fairly common option for people using in-vitro fertilization. This can allow them to avoid using an embryo that likely wouldn’t lead to a successful pregnancy, or one that would produce a child with birth defects or certain single-gene disorders, such as cystic fibrosis.

The key to that type of testing is that it focuses on individual genes — in the case of cystic fibrosis, for example, the doctor would look for mutations in the CFTR gene.

To test the viability of Genomic Prediction’s multi-gene screening technique, a research team led by Hebrew University of Jerusalem statistical geneticist Shai Carmi created computer models of five hypothetical embryos by combining the DNA profiles of two people. In some cases, the researchers knew the heights of both parents and, in others, their IQs.

They then created “virtual genomes” for the embryos and gave each embryo a polygenic score predicting the height or IQ of the person that would theoretically be born from it.

The researchers found that the technique produced only slight gains — hypothetical children produced by the highest scoring embryos were approximately 2.5 centimeters taller and 2.5 IQ points smarter.

They then put the technique to the test again, this time giving polygenic height scores to all of the offspring in 28 families with an average of 10 children.

In just seven of the families was the child with the highest height score the tallest. And in five families, that child was actually the shortest of the siblings — meaning had their parents used the polygenic screening technique, they may well have ended up with a shorter child than if they’d left height up to chance.

So, while Genomic Prediction’s technique could still allow parents to identify embryos likely to produce children with intellectual disabilities, it doesn’t appear poised to lead to the creation of super-smart designer babies any time soon.

5G Might Actually cause Cancer

 

As 5G cellular network tech looms, conventional wisdom dictates that cell phone radiation is more or less safe for humans.

But writing for the widely respected magazine Scientific American, University of California, Berkeley, public health researcher Joel Moskowitz argues that we don’t yet understand the risks — and that more study is necessary before we roll out 5G infrastructure.

Moskowitz’s main concern: there just isn’t any research on the health effects of 5G. But he also points to a swathe of studies that suggest that the existing standards 2G and 3G are more dangerous than generally believed.

“Meanwhile, we are seeing increases in certain types of head and neck tumors in tumor registries, which may be at least partially attributable to the proliferation of cell phone radiation,” he wrote in SciAm. “These increases are consistent with results from case-control studies of tumor risk in heavy cell phone users.”

It’s hard enough to quantify the health effects of things that have already been deployed, nevermind an upcoming technology. But in SciAm, Moskowitz argues that regulators should listen to the 250 doctors and scientists who recently signed the 5G Appeal, a petition for a moratorium on public rollout of the tech until the health implications are better understood.

“As a society, should we invest hundreds of billions of dollars deploying 5G, a cellular technology that requires the installation of 800,000 or more new cell antenna sites in the U.S. close to where we live, work and play?” he asked. “Instead, we should support the recommendations of the 250 scientists and medical doctors who signed the 5G Appeal that calls for an immediate moratorium on the deployment of 5G and demand that our government fund the research needed to adopt biologically based exposure limits that protect our health and safety.”

Inhaled Poison

 

A strange vaping-related respiratory illness is sweeping the United States, afflicting more than 800 patients and killing at least 16. Officials still aren’t sure what’s causing “vape lung,” but theories range from the oils in vaping cartridges to fumes from the vaping devices themselves.

In an attempt to solve the mystery, a team of researchers from the Mayo Clinic analyzed samples of lung tissue taken from 17 vape lung sufferers, publishing the results of their analysis in The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.

What they saw when they looked at those samples is downright disturbing: injuries that looked like the ones suffered by people exposed to mustard gas and other poisons.

“All 17 of our cases show a pattern of injury in the lung that looks like a toxic chemical exposure, a toxic chemical fume exposure, or a chemical burn injury,” surgical pathologist Brandon T. Larsen told The New York Times.

“To be honest,” he continued, “they look like the kind of change you would expect to see in an unfortunate worker in an industrial accident where a big barrel of toxic chemicals spills, and that person is exposed to toxic fumes and there is a chemical burn in the airways.”

Larsen told the NYT that the researchers didn’t notice any oil buildup in the samples, meaning suspicions that vaping oils themselves cause vape lung might be unfounded.

Two of the patients whose lung samples the Mayo team analyzed have already died as a result of their lung damage. But according to Larsen, even patients who don’t succumb to the respiratory illness may face a lifetime of issues because of it.

“Based on the severity of injury we see, at least in some of these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up with people down the road having chronic respiratory problems from this,” he told the NYT. “Some seem to recover. I don’t think we know what the long-term consequences will be.”

White House Cybersecurity Director

 

See Ya

The White House’s cybersecurity team is in a state of turmoil.

In an internal memo obtained by Axios, senior White House cybersecurity director Dimitrios Vastakis detailed his frustration with how the Trump administration has managed a mission established to protect the White House from digital security threats — and then submitted his resignation.

Real Subtle

The Obama administration established the Office of the Chief Information Security Officer (OCISO) in 2014 after it discovered evidence that Russia had breached White House computers. In July, the Trump administration folded OCISO into the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Since then, leadership has attempted to remove the remaining OCISO staff by “reducing the scope of duties, reducing access to programs, revoking access to buildings, and revoking positions with strategic and tactical decision making authorities,” Vastakis wrote in his memo.

Chaos Reigns

To date, at least a dozen OCISO officials have either resigned from or been pushed out, and all that chaos has Vastakis concerned about the future security of White House data.

“Unfortunately, given all of the changes I’ve seen in the past three months,” he wrote, “I foresee the White House is posturing itself to be electronically compromised once again.”

And Vastakis isn’t going to be around to watch it happen.

READ MORE: Scoop: Cyber memo warns of new risks to White House network [Axios]
More on cybersecurity: Congressman: The 2020 Election Is Not Safe From Hackers

Black Holes Dark Energy

 

Well Actually

Some of the black holes floating around our universe might actually be something else entirely.

It’s possible that some may be blobs of dark energy, the mysterious theoretical force thought to be pushing the universe’s outward expansion, according to Live Science. A pair of University of Hawaii scientists arrived at the unexpected conclusion when they were trying to make sense of that expansion — and if their work holds up it could rewrite our understanding of the cosmos.

Space Blobs

Conventional physics holds that a black hole’s singularity is an infinitely dense point that exerts a gravitational pull so strong that it absorbs anything that ventures too close. But some black holes may actually be dense masses of dark energy that grow larger as the universe expands, whether or not they feed on anything nearby, according to research published in The Astrophysical Journal in August.

In a second study posted on the preprint server ArXiv last month, the team found that the interactions of these theoretical objects could have caused some of the more bizarre and difficult to explain gravitational waves that were detected a few years back, Live Science reports.

Measure Twice

In essence, replacing black holes with these so-called Generic Objects of Dark Energy would help explain several mysteries of the cosmos. But theoretical calculations aside, their work hasn’t yet been confirmed.

And other experts are far from convinced. Vitor Cardoso, a physicist at Portugal’s Instituto Superior Técnico told Live Science that the new models are “counterintuitive and hard to digest.”

READ MORE: Black Holes As We Know Them May Not Exist [Live Science]
More on black holes: New “Chameleon Theory” Could Explain Dark Energy, How Galaxies Formed

Considering an Interstellar Mission

 

Going Interstellar

A group of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory are eager to send a probe into interstellar space, Wired reports. Pending NASA’s approval, they claim the project could launch as soon as 2030.

It could represent “humanity’s first explicit step into interstellar space,” as team member at the Applied Physics Laboratory Pontus Brandt told Wired, years after Voyager 1 became the first-ever human-built spacecraft to reach interstellar space.

Rocket Plan

The basic outline of their proposal, which arose out of a NASA supported interstellar probe study last year, is to launch a spacecraft that weighs less than 1,700 pounds on NASA’s upcoming — but much delayed and over budget — Space Launch System rocket.

It would then use gravity assist to sling it to speeds over 100,000 miles per hour — fast enough to leave the Solar System. The goal is to travel 92 billion miles from Earth in less than 15 years. In comparison, it took almost 40 years for Voyager 1 and 2 to get to just 13 billion miles.

Leaving the Heliosphere

While Voyager 1 and 2 were only outfitted with basic instruments, the proposed spacecraft will be have a host of sensors that could gain a better understanding of interstellar space — which remains largely mysterious to today’s scientists.

And leaving the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space around the Sun, could provide additional opportunities.

“We’re sitting inside a bubble trying to figure out what shape it is, which is extremely hard,” Brandt told Wired. “The uniqueness of an interstellar probe is that we can go out and take a picture of our habitable little bubble in space.”

READ MORE: NASA Is Getting Serious About an Interstellar Mission [Wired]
More on interstellar space: After the Moon and Mars, NASA Wants to Head to Alpha Centauri in 2069

3 supermassive black holes collide

 

Three’s A Crowd

A team of NASA scientists have caught three supermassive black holes in the act of merging together, a billion light-years away from Earth.

“Dual and triple black holes are exceedingly rare,” said researcher Shobita Satyapal, from George Mason University, in a statement. “But such systems are actually a natural consequence of galaxy mergers, which we think is how galaxies grow and evolve.”

Exceedingly Rare

Satyapal’s team made the rare discovery using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope, as well as NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft and the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

It’s an exceedingly rare sight that is unusually hard to spot thanks to giant shrouds of gas and dust surrounding the black holes. But by combining data from the two space telescopes and the Arizona-based telescope back on Earth, the scientists were able to make the discovery.

Galactic Wealth

The team published its findings in the latest issue of The Astrophysical Journal. They used optical light data from the three telescopes.

“Optical spectra contain a wealth of information about a galaxy,” said co-author Christina Manzano-King from the University of California in the statement. “They are commonly used to identify actively accreting supermassive black holes and can reflect the impact they have on the galaxies they inhabit.”

READ MORE: Rare Discovery! 3 Monster Black Holes Are About to Collide [Space.com]
More on black holes: NASA’s New Black Hole Simulation Will Completely Melt Your Brain

Human Extinction Is Extremely Likely

 

Forget nuclear weaponsbiological warfare, and the slew of other ways humanity could cause its own destruction for a moment.

If you take into account only naturally occurring phenomena — supervolcanic eruptionsasteroid impacts, and the like — researchers from the University of Oxford recently determined that the probability of our entire species going extinct in any given year is as high as one in 14,000.

Now consider this: In October, a separate team from Oxford published its own paper on human extinction in the journal Scientific Reports — and it found that people don’t seem to see the loss of humanity as uniquely tragic.

The second group of researchers asked more than 2,500 people in the United States and the United Kingdom to rank three possible scenarios from best to worst: no major catastrophe, a catastrophe that wipes out 80 percent of the human population, and a catastrophe that causes complete human extinction.

As you might expect, most people ranked no catastrophe as the best possibility and complete human extinction as the worst. But when asked to think about the difference in “badness” between the possibilities, most people were more bothered by the possibility of losing 80 percent of humanity than losing all of it.

“Thus, when asked in the most straightforward and unqualified way,” the researchers wrote, “participants do not find human extinction uniquely bad.”

When the researchers switched the whole scenario to focus on an animal species, though, survey respondents saw the loss of all zebras as worse than the loss of 80 percent of zebras.

The issue, it seems, is that survey respondents focused a lot on the individual human lives lost in scenario two — and how the deaths might affect those left behind — rather than on the loss of humanity as a whole.

In other words, we tend to think of a world without any zebras as more tragic than a world in which most zebras die. But for humankind, most people believe the reverse.

There was a way to get survey respondents to consider the loss of our entire species as uniquely bad, though: the researchers just had to tell them humanity would be missing out on a long future existence that was “better than today in every conceivable way.”

While there’s seemingly little we could do to prevent an asteroid impact or a volcanic eruption, humanity does have a say in whether we fall victim to nuclear war and the like — and knowing that people are more likely to care about our species’ potential downfall if they’re feeling optimistic about our future could play a role in making sure we don’t go down one of those self-destructive paths.

“People are going to have a lot of influence over what we’re going to do [about the threats of human extinction in our near future],” Stefan Schubert, co-author of the survey paper, recently told Vox. “So it’s important to find out how people think about them.”

READ MORE: Human extinction would be a uniquely awful tragedy. Why don’t we act like it? [Vox]
More on extinction:This Awful Tabloid Predicts a Killer Asteroid Almost Every Day

USA Spending $750K To UFO Research

 

Military Money

On Thursday, To the Stars Academy (TTSA) — an alien and UFO research group founded by former Blink-182 member Tom DeLonge — announced that it had entered into a partnership with the U.S. Army.

Now, new details on the partnership have emerged — including that the Army is planning to spend at least $750,000 on the partnership.

Square Deal

As noted in a new Motherboard story, government document archivist John Greenewald has posted the entire Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between TTSA and the Army online.

The document reveals that the partnership will expire in five years unless the parties choose to renew it, and the government will not directly pay TTSA any money under the terms of the deal.

Instead, it will spend an estimated $750,000 on personnel, facilities, equipment, and other resources that TTSA’s COO Kari DeLonge told Motherboard would be “cost-prohibitive to a small startup-like TTSA.”

Alien Tech

The contract also makes clear what the Army hopes to get out of the partnership: to see if it can use TTSA’s materials and technologies to advance its ground vehicles.

What the document doesn’t mention, however, is TTSA’s claim that some of the materials in its possession are extraterrestrial. Now that the group is getting the resources it needs to study those materials, maybe it’ll have a better chance of figuring out just what exactly it’s gotten its hands on.

READ MORE: Tom DeLonge’s UFO Research Group Signs Contract With U.S. Army to Develop Far-Future Tech
More on the partnership: Tom DeLonge’s UFO Research Group Partners With US Army