An eery dark region is growing on the sun’s surface

An enormous black blotch known as a “coronal hole” has been spotted spreading across the sun. Coronal holes, according to Wikipedia, are “areas where the Sun’s corona is darker, and colder, and has lower-density plasma than average because there is lower energy and gas levels.” These holes can allow high-density plasma to escape to space, which can disrupt satellite communications here on Earth.

The size and number of coronal holes peak and wane with the solar cycle, which spans 11 years.

The most recent coronal hole of a similar size opened in 2012, and was the “precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years.” That storm was considered a near-miss for Earth: according to Daniel Baker, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”

We’ll see what happens with this one. You can read more at UniverseToday.com.

World’s deepest “blue hole” discovered

It’s located near the Xisha Islands (also known as the Paracel Islands) in the South China Sea.

(Blue holes are underwater caverns or sinkholes, typically formed in shallow seabeds made of carbonate rock such as limestone. They can be hundreds of feet deep, and much deeper than surrounding waters, leading to dramatic photographs as seen here.)

From CBS:Great_Blue_Hole

A new exploration of a legendary blue hole in the South China Sea has found that the underwater feature is the deepest known on Earth.

According to Xinhua News, Dragon Hole, or Longdong, is 987 feet (300.89 meters) deep, far deeper than the previous record holder, Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas.

Read more here!

Bizarre 307-million-year-old “monster” fossil identified

One of the weirdest-looking creatures ever to have existed has finally been analyzed and categorized. The “Tully Monster” (named after its discoverer Francis Tully, who found the fossils in Illinois nearly sixty years ago) has long puzzled scientists. But a team of researchers recently used scanning electronic microscopes to explore its internal structure, and their findings have allowed them to explain the animal’s lineage. From arstechnicabizarre-monster-fossil

The “Tully monster,” a mysterious animal that swam in the inland oceans of Illinois more than 300 million years ago, left behind a tantalizingly detailed map of its body in a well-preserved package of fossils. Unfortunately, nobody could figure out what the creature was for half a century—until now.

[W]here did Tullimonstrum fit into the history of life in the seas? A team of researchers has just […] analyzed the fossils using scanning electron microscopes, which allowed them to explore the anatomy of the Tully monster inside and out.
[…] “The buccal apparatus of Tullimonstrum suggests that it grasped food with its bifurcate anterior projection and rasped pieces off with the lingual apparatus,” the authors conclude. Which is to say, the Tully monster used that long, toothy protrusion from the front of its body to grab food, and then it ripped bites off using a long, powerful tongue. And it needed that weird-ass eye arrangement to see what it was doing at the end of its mouth proboscis.

Cool stuff! You can read more here.

What does space really look like?

We’ve all seen gorgeous, colorful images, often courtesy of the Hubble telescope, of faraway galaxies and fantastic nebulae. What most of us probably don’t realize, however, is that these aren’t true-color images — instead, they’ve typically been altered and enhanced for  scientific purposes. So what does space really look like? Check out this interesting and informative video to learn!

A Meteor Just Exploded Over The Atlantic With More Force Than The Hiroshima Bomb

On February 6, the largest meteor impact since the 2013 Chelyabinsk incident occurred over the southern Atlantic Ocean, yielding a fireball with an explosive force greater than 13,000 tons of TNT (13 kt) — a blast at least as energetic as the Hiroshima bomb. (By comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia with a force equal to 440,000 tons of TNT.)

Don’t worry too much, though — this headline is somewhat sensationalist. In fact, NASA keeps track of meteor impacts like this one, and it turns out that they occur on a fairly regular basis, with airbursts of this size happening every five to ten years or so, on average. To put this in a little more context, there have been six impact events during the past ten years equal or greater in size to the February 6 incident. Over this period, NASA has recorded a total of 292 meteor airbursts that have had an explosive force greater than 73 tons of TNT. (The median blast had a force equal to 230 tons of TNT.)

Unfortunately, since the February 6 event occurred in the middle of the ocean, no one was around to capture video footage of what was surely a visually-striking fireball. (Data on the February 6 event, iflscience.com reports, “were given to NASA by the U.S. government. Detecting atmospheric explosions is most likely a high priority of several branches of the U.S. military, so a fireball of such magnitude could have been easily picked up. Satellite imagery and infrasound atmospheric microphones could both be used to detect an impact like this.”)

The Chelyabinsk meteor, on the other hand, exploded over a fairly populated region and consequently was caught on film from multiple angles (you can check out some video footage of that event below). Because the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded so high in the atmosphere (at an altitude of 18.4 miles), it did little damage beyond shattering windows and scaring the bejeezus out of everyone in range.

The last meteor to inflict massive damage on the ground was the Tunguska impacter, which completely flattened 770 square miles of Siberian forest back in 1908. That meteor had a destructive force of at least 15 megatons — 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

Whenever these events happen, of course, the first question on everyone’s mind is something along the lines of, “would we be ready if a bigger one was headed our way?” The answer to this is “probably not.” However, don’t let it concern you too much — the chances of a life-threatening impact occurring during our lifetimes is infinitesimally small, and we’ve got plenty of eyes on the sky that would spot such an object well in advance.

Scientists discover a solid-black, bio-luminescent shark

As if the creature’s physical characteristics weren’t interesting enough on their own, researchers gave it one of the coolest names in the animal kingdom: the ninja lanternshark. This shark can be found in the deeps off the Pacific coast of Central America, and grows to about 1.5 feet in length.

The ninja lanternshark, or Etmopterus benchleyi.
The ninja lanternshark, or Etmopterus benchleyi.

Like other lanternsharks, it produces light with special organs in its body, which is likely used to communicate with other sharks, for camouflage and perhaps to attract prey. The scientists who first found the fish, from the Pacific Shark Research Center in California, gave the species the technical name Etmopterus benchleyi. It’s named after Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws. […] The animal lives in the waters off the continental slope, at depths of 0.5 to 0.9 miles deep, where it is very dark. It presumably eats small fish and crustaceans although scientists don’t yet know hardly anything about its diet or behavior.

You can read more about this intriguing creature here!

Apparently, Earth is sprouting dark matter “hairs”

The great thing about astrophysics is that… it’s all weird. And not much is weirder than dark matter (a “hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but accounts for most of the matter in the universe”; “one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics”). Should we be surprised that the Earth is growing a dark matter mullet? Well, maybe.

While dark matter is itself unobservable, scientists can track it based on the trail it leaves. And according to a recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal, “some of those trails might come in the form of “hairy” filaments draped around Earth.” The Washington Post goes on:

If Earth is indeed wearing a dark matter toupee, it could be great news for astrophysicists.

“If we could pinpoint the location of the root of these hairs, we could potentially send a probe there and get a bonanza of data about dark matter,” lead study author Gary Prézeau of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

Fine-grained streams of dark matter mixed up with matter matter are crisscrossing through our solar system as we speak. Earth’s gravity would bend these streams into dense filaments that Prézeau compares to strands of hair. The densest part of the filament — the “root,” if you will — would have a black matter density a billion times higher than the original stream.

According to the research, these roots might be as close as 600,000 miles away, with the fine tips of the filaments would reach out about twice as far.

Because these roots would boast such a dense trove of dark matter, locating and studying them could give us one of our best ever chances of detecting the mysterious stuff directly.

Strange stuff indeed.

Bizarre “spaghetti monster” discovered 4000 feet underwater

One never knows what sort of strange life forms the ocean will churn up next.

According to livescience, “workers at the oil and gas company BP videotaped this strange-looking animal while collecting video footage some 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) under the sea with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV).” Check out the footage below:

The creature, it turns out, is Bathyphysa conifer, a colonial animal similar to jellyfish and corals: “the spaghettilike B. conifer is made up of many different multicellular organisms known as zooids. These organisms are a lot like regular, solitary animals, except that they’re attached to other zooids, forming a more complex organism.”

Hitchhiking robot is trying to get to Millennium Park

DNAInfo|Chicago reports that HitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot, is en route to Chicago — if the kindness of strangers allows, of course. Yes, this is as fantastic as it sounds. The future has finally arrived, and it is one in which shiftless hobo-robots use their robo-thumbs to traverse our dusty highways.

From the article:

Chicagoans may soon have the chance to meet HitchBOT, a Canadian hitchhiking robot setting out on a journey across the U.S. with a stop in Chicago.

The robot, made out of a beer bucket and pool noodles, relies on the kindness of strangers to pick it up and has made several successful trips abroad. […] The robot has a GPS and a camera, microphone and speaker, and can access Wikipedia knowledge for its conversations. It posts to social media to track its progress and adventures, but won’t post a photo of a person without permission. HitchBOT also displays its “emotions” via an LED face. It charges by solar panel and car powerboutlet, and will let drivers know if it gets low on battery.

Check out this video explaining HitchBOT:

What’s the basic raison d’être behind HitchBOT? According to its creator, the project is an exploration of trust: between robots and humans. According to Dr. David Harris Smith, co-creator of HitchBOT (quoted in Boston Magazine), “trust is a very important part of this experiment […] There’s this issue of trust in popular media where we see a lot of dystopian visions of a future with robots that have gone rogue or out of control. In this case, we’ve designed something that actually needs human empathy to accomplish its goals.”

Monstrous black hole has outgrown its host galaxy, scientists say

(Water) vortexes may be frightening — easily enough to make your palms sweat, given the

proper set of circumsances — but they pale into insignificance next to the sheer cosmic horror of black holes. Rumor has it that there’s a giant black hole lurking at the center for every galaxy (or so astronomical observations would suggest). Typically, these black holes tend to account for about 0.5% of the total mass of their respective galaxies. However, scientists have located an aberration among these aberrations:

One of the largest black holes ever seen is believed to be nearly 11.7 billion years old, forming just two billion years after the Big Bang. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the black hole is massive too; it has a mass that is equivalent to about 7 billion suns. Lead author Benny Trakhtenbrot, an astrophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said that given the mass of the host galaxy, the black hole was unbelievably big[:][…] this black hole is nearly one-tenth [10%!] the mass of its host galaxy.
The findings can tell us a lot about the early universe – they suggest that the universe was smaller, denser, and much more hospitable to black holes.

Fascinating, in the same sort of way that sharks and viruses and whirlpools are fascinating. More here.