Saturday, 31 May 2014


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Best Space Pictures: Saturn's Lights, a Rocket's Arc, and Canary Nights
By Jane J. Lee,
National Geographic News, 30 May 2014.

Auroras light up the dark, a rocket flies high, and Hubble reveals a flooded city in this week's best space pictures.

1. Soyuz Lift-Off

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A Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 29.

The ship carried a new crew bound for the International Space Station, including NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, and German astronaut Alexander Gerst.

2. Birds of a Feather

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Stars in the constellation Pavo (Latin for "peacock") flock together in a "globular cluster" in an image released May 25.

Located 13,000 light-years from Earth, the cluster harbours more than 100,000 stars and is about a hundred light-years across.

3. Underwater

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NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite captured an image of the city of Vidovice in Bosnia and Herzegovina covered by floodwaters on May 23.

The region, including the Sava River (light green ribbon at centre), was overwhelmed by three month's worth of rain in just three days. The river overflowed its banks, surrounding Vidovice (brown smudge in the upper part of the light green blob at centre) and submerging some of the city's buildings.

4. Extraterrestrial Aurora

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Auroras race around Saturn's north pole in an image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope on May 19. At times the bursts of light whipped around the pole three times as fast as the planet's rotation.

5. Icy Light Show

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Northern lights shimmer above Norway's Lofoten Islands (map), north of the Arctic Circle, in an image submitted to Your Shot on May 28.

6. Canary Nights

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The Milky Way galaxy drapes the night sky above La Palma (map) in the Canary Islands. Lights from a city on the island's southern shore paint distant clouds a brilliant amber.

Photographer Babak Tafreshi took the image - submitted this week to the World at Night - from the edge of the Caldera de Taburiente. The caldera, or crater, is the remnant of a volcano that collapsed in on itself one to two million years ago. The luminous purple spire is a flowering plant known as Tower of Jewels.

[Source: National Geographic News. Edited.]


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Top 10 Deadliest Attempts to Break a World Record
By Robert Grimminck,
Toptenz, 31 May 2014.

Some world records are harmless, while others are downright dangerous. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records doesn’t even encourage people to compete for dangerous records, out of fear of people killing themselves.

With that being said, beyond the beer manufacturers’ bar bet settling book, there are other records to be broken and as this list will prove, they can be deadly.

10. Lowell Bayles

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The most dangerous records of all involve speed. Due to the amount of things that could go wrong, they make them both exciting and incredibly deadly.

One of the earliest deaths in the race to be fastest person on Earth was Lowell Bayles. Bayles was originally a mine engineer before he started taking flight lessons from a former World War I pilot instructor. Eventually, Bayles became a stunt pilot with a team who performed across the country.

At the 1931 National Air Races, he tried to break the speed record by going 300 MPH (482 KPH), which would make him the fastest human in history. While flying 246 feet (75 m) above the ground, Bayles achieved just that. In a freak accident, the fuel cap came loose, flew through the windshield and struck Bayles in the head, knocking him out. After losing the control of the plane, it crashed into a flame ball and Bayles was thrown 300 feet from the plane. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

9. Bert Hinkler

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Bert “The Australian Lone Eagle” Hinkler was an aviator and inventor. During World War I, he worked as a gunner and observer for the Royal Naval Air Service. He invented many small gadgets that were used in planes up until the second World War. He was one of the pioneers in flight and manufactured his own planes. He was the first people to fly solo from Australia to England and the first person to fly solo across the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

On January 7, 1933, at the age of 40, Hinkler took off from the London Air Park, Hanworth, England, heading towards Australia to beat the current time of 8 days and 20 hours. Later that same day, Hinkler’s plane crashed in the Tuscon Mountains in Italy. After his body was recovered, he was given a full military burial on orders of Benito Mussolini.

8. Sailendra Nath Roy

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Sailendra Nath Roy was an Indian stuntman who held two bizarre Guinness World Records, both involving his hair. He managed to pull a locomotive with his pony tail for 8.2 ft (2.5 m), and he also rode a zip line 270.6 ft (82.5 m) by using his hair.

On April 28, 2013, Roy was attempting to break his own zip line record on a 595.5 ft (180 m) line. About 300 ft (91 m) into the stunt, his hair became stuck for 30 minutes, after which he stopped moving. After hanging for 45 minutes, he was finally taken down. Roy had a massive heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

7. Javad Palizbanian

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One of the most famous long-distance jumps on a motorcycle was Evel Knievel, jumping over 14 buses in 1975 for a distance of 133 feet (40 m). It set the record for longest distance jumped, and also for most buses jumped over. Bubba Blackwell broke the record jumping over 15 buses in 1999.

That brings us to 44-year-old Iranian, Javad Palizbanian, who was trying to break the record by jumping over 22 buses parked next to each other. The distance would have been about 209 feet (63 m). While being broadcast on live television from the Azadi Sports stadium in Tehran, on August 28, 2005, Palizbanian said “I am going to do something for my country to be proud of.” He then slammed into the 13th bus and died on impact.

6. Brigitte Lenoir

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A Rebreather is a piece of scuba equipment that recirculates air, removing the carbon dioxide, giving the wearer clean oxygen. In Rebreather deep diving, the idea is to dive as deeply as possible while wearing a Rebreather and surface without dying.

40-year-old Brigitte Lenoir from Valais, Switzerland was Rebreather diving in Dahab, Red Sea, Egypt. She was trying to beat her own record of 505 ft (154 m). Her goal for her dive on May 16, 2010 was 656 ft (200 m). Unfortunately, at 482 ft (147 m), something went wrong. This was despite the fact that there many safety precautions, including oxygen tanks on a cable which Lenoir could access, and a team of experts helping her. The most likely culprit was a faulty valve in the pure oxygen valve which causes pure oxygen poisoning. The good news is that deaths like hers are almost immediate.

5. Bill Warner

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44-year old, Bill Warner, was a tropical fish farmer from Wimauma, Florida, and he held the world land speed record on a conventional motorcycle at 1.5 miles, which was 311 MPH (500.49 KPH). He achieved this world record on July 17, 2011 at Loring Timing Association’s Land Speed Races, which is held annually in Limestone, Maine.

Warner came to the 2013 Loring Timing Association’s Land Speed Races to break the land speed record on a conventional motorcycle at a 1 mile distance. On July 13, Warner accomplished that record, hitting a speed of 296 MPH (476 KPH). The next day he tried to break his own brand-new record by reaching 300 MPH (482 KPH) but after hitting 285 MPH (459 KPH) he lost control of his bike, veered to the right, and slid for 100 feet. He was conscious and talking when he was taken to the hospital, where he died an hour later.

4. Jessica Dubroff

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Jessica Dubroff was a 7-year-old pilot trainee who, at the behest of her father, attempted to become the youngest person to pilot a plane across the United States. She called her coast-to-coast flight “Sea to Shining Sea.” The cute girl with big ambitions was an instant media sensation.

Since she was too young to officially hold a pilot’s license, a rated pilot had to be at the controls at all time while Dubroff flew the plane. On April 10, 1996, Dubroff, her flight instructor Joe Reid, and her father Lloyd Dubroff, took off in Reid’s Cessna 177B from Half Moon Bay, California. Their ultimate goal was to reach Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After 24 hours they landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a rest. The next morning, the trio tried to take off in bad weather. The plane flipped and veered to the right, landing on a residential street and killing all three passengers. An investigation into the crash showed that Reid was in control of the plane when it crashed.

3. Pyotr Dolgov

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In 1962, at the height of the Cold War and the start of the space race, two Russians were attempting to break the world record for longest free fall.  Their method was to use a Volga Balloon, which is a pressurized gondola that looks like a Christmas tree bulb with a hot air balloon attached to it.

Dolgov, a Colonel in the Soviet Union Air Force and Yevgeni Nikolayevich Andreyev, also a Colonel, boarded the balloon on November 1961. Andreyev jumped from 24,500 meters (80,380 feet). Dolgov stayed in the gondola a little bit longer because he was testing a new pressure suit. He jumped 28,640 meters (93,970 ft) but cracked his visor and his suit depressurized.

Angdreyev claimed the record of 24,500 meters, which wasn’t beaten until Felix Baumgartner on October 12, 2012 who fell from a height of 39 miles (62.76 KM) above the Earth.

2. Nick Piantanida

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Not to be outdone by the Commies, the Americans decided to step up the free-falling game. Nick Piantanida was selling pets when he discovered skydiving, which led to him going on hundreds of jumps. After learning the Soviets had the record for the longest free fall, Piantanida decided this was a record he had to beat.

While Piantanida was an experienced jumper, he was not a professional, nor was he in the Air Force (usually the people who perform such feats are members of the Air Force). Regardless, Piantanida was able to get funding from sponsors. He was even granted permission to use the Air Force’s training  facilities, and they lent him a pressurized suit.

On Piantanida’s first attempt, high winds tore the roof of his gondola, Strato Jump I, forcing him to jump at 16,000 ft (4,900 m) before parachuting into St. Paul, Minnesota city dump. On February 2, 1966, on his second attempt using the Strato Jump II, he reached 123,500 feet, flying higher than anyone prior to him. However, he could not detach his oxygen hose and had to detach the balloon from the gondola. According to Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, since he returned to Earth without the balloon, he didn’t get the official record. Also, since he didn’t jump he didn’t get a parachute record either.

On his third attempt on May 1, 1966, at the 57,000 ft (17373 m) mark his suit depressurized. The control room immediately released the parachute on the gondola. Piantanida was alive when the gondola reached the Earth, but the lack of oxygen caused him to go into a coma, and he died 4 months later.

1. Donald Campbell

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Donald Campbell was a British land speed and water speed record holder. In fact, he is the only person to ever break both records in one year.

Campbell’s father, Sir Malcolm Campbell. was famous for his water speed records. When Malcolm passed away from a series of strokes, he was still the fastest man on water. Campbell carried on the tradition, using his father’s boat the Bluebird. Campbell eventually reached a record speed of 276.33 mph (444.71 KPH) on December 31, 1964.

After conquering the water, Campbell wanted to get the land speed record, which was 394 MPH (634 KPH). To accomplish this, Campbell built Bluebird CN7, a car with a turbine engine. He then achieved the record, reaching a speed of 403.1 MPH (648.73 KMH).

Campbell decided that progress needed to move quickly, so he started designing a car that could break the Mach barrier. He designed the Bluebird Mach 1.1, which was supposed to go faster than the speed of sound -  767 MPH (1,234 KPH). Using a rocket, the Bluebird Mach 1.1 was supposed to reach 840 MPH (1,350 KPH).

In order to raise publicity for his Bluebird Mach 1.1 run, Campbell decided to break the water speed record. On January 4, 1967, Campbell took his first attempt to reach 300 MPH (483 KPH), but he fell short hitting an average speed of 297.6 mph (479 KPH). Instead of refuelling, Campbell decided to try it again. On his second attempt, he did a somersault in the air before crashing back into the water, which killed him.

After his death, Campbell’s design for the Bluebird Mach 1.1 was scrapped. No one reached the 300 MPH mark on water until 1978, and the sound barrier wasn’t broken on land until 1997.

Top image via Listverse.

[Source: Toptenz. Edited. Top image added.]


New NASA video shows a massive Sun explosion like never before
New NASA video shows a massive Sun explosion like never before
By Jesus Diaz,
Sploid, 30 May 2014.

For the first time ever, NASA has been able to capture a massive solar eruption with unprecedented detail using Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), a highly sensitive instrument that can only cover a relatively small zone of the Sun at any give time. Catching this involved "some educated guesses and a little bit of luck."

The video made by the IRIS is impressive. Keep in mind that the video is covering an area "five Earth's wide and about seven and a half Earth's tall."

[Source: Sploid. Links added.]


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Not Full of Hot Air: 7 Sustainable Buildings Fuelled by Wind Turbines
By Conor Skelding,
Architizer, 28 May 2014.

Environmentally conscious developers in New York City are getting with the program by placing wind turbines atop their buildings, according to The Real Deal. In just the past few weeks, urban wind farms have sprung up atop a luxury apartment building in Long Island City and 388 Bridge Street, Brooklyn’s tallest building. And more are in the works.

But, even with the best intentions, green energy in the city takes a little extra work. Normal wind turbines perform best with a constant, one-directional wind of about 10 mph and winds in New York City can fluctuate between 3 and 30 mph, changing direction often. But designers were up for the challenge, and responded with innovative, helical turbines that can produce power from any direction and perform better at wind speeds under 10 mph.

These types of green developments manage to both serve the greater good and compete in the marketplace. Here are a few gorgeous projects from the Architizer database that do just that, with wind power.

1. Three Glens by Mark Waghorn Architects - Moniaive, Scotland

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Set on a working farm in southwest Scotland, Three Glens by Mark Waghorn Architects is a self-sufficient farmhouse. It’s meant to function not only as a home, but as a place of education to increase sustainability in business and life. Its 110-foot wind turbine generates enough power for 25 homes; the excess is exported to the National Grid at a profit to the farm.

2. Sustainable Ranch by Studio NYL Structural Engineers - Sedalia, Colorado, USA

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Located on a land conservancy in rural Colorado, this house by Studio NYL Structural Engineers features views of the local, protected species of golden eagles, elk, coyotes, and mountain bears. The architects accomplished the feat of building a large house on a wide expanse and making it looks as though it belongs there. One of the greenest projects in the state, its sustainable systems include a 1.8 kW wind turbine.

3. 3716 Springfield by Studio 804, Inc. - Kansas City, Kansas, USA

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This house by Studio 804, Inc. is completely off-the-grid. The first LEED Platinum home in the Kansas City metro area, its wind power, solar panels, and rainwater reclamation systems, combined with sustainable materials and construction, were meant to serve as an example in an area in need of creative revitalization.

4. Cafe-Bar by Niall McLaughlin Architects - Kent, England

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Set on a pier, the Cafe-Bar by Niall McLaughlin Architects is meant to be a bare-bones place to have supper or a cup of tea. Exposed to the elements - and meant to withstand them - patrons of the cafe have a full, panoramic view of the water. A wind turbine powers the building and dumps extra energy into the benches, keeping the fishermen warm at night.

5. Cove House by Stanev Potts Architects - Massachusetts, USA

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Nestled on a slope among pine and oak, the Cove House by Stanev Potts Architects reimagines traditional New England forms and materials in a responsible, comfortable home. Shade, natural ventilation, geothermal hydro-AC, and local materials, plus a turbine, solar panels, and rainwater capture system make for a home in the hills that no one could feel bad about.

6. Straw Bale Cafe by Hewitt Studios LLP -  Herefordshire, United Kingdom

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Comprising a 100-person cafe, this project by Hewitt Studios LLP is meant as a proof-of-concept for low-impact construction. Local, recycled (and recyclable) materials that were prefabricated are meant to be demounted after 15 years. The cafe's solar cells and turbines produce 6 kW of electricity on-site.

7. Casa KM by Serrano Monjaraz Arquitectos - Mexico City, Mexico

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This house by Serrano Monjaraz Arquitectos is green, inside and out. Surrounded by gardens (which can be seen from all rooms), it is constructed to allow natural light and air to circulate freely through the interior. Sustainable sewage treatment, solar water heating, photovoltaic cells, and a turbine generator ensure a responsible living environment.

Top image: Casa KM. Credit: Serrano Monjaraz Arquitectos.

[Source: Architizer. Edited. Top image added.]

Friday, 30 May 2014


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Pollution-guzzling, Air-cleaning Buildings
By Janet Fang,
IFL Science, 23 May 2014.

Seven million premature deaths in a single year were the result of air pollution exposure, the World Health Organization reported recently. That’s one in eight of total global deaths in 2012. This new finding doubles previous estimates, confirming that air pollution is now the world’s single largest environmental health risk. Cities around the world are increasingly turning to technology for solutions, and here are some of the most innovative designs.

1. Palazzo Italia, Milan

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A façade for the Palazzo Italia pavilion will be built using air-purifying, “biodynamic” cement, which removes pollutants from the air and turns them into inert salts. Apparently, the material from Italcementi only adds 4-5 percent to the construction costs. Designed by architectural firm Nemesi & Partners, the jungle-inspired shell will cover 13,000 square meters across six floors, and it’s set to launch at the 2015 Milan Expo. Scientists in the Netherlands have adapted the photocatalytic material to roads, claiming it can reduce nitrous oxide concentrations by 45 percent.

2. Manuel Gea González Hospital, Mexico City

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Last year, the Manuel Gea González Hospital unveiled a "smog-eating" façade covering 2,500 square meters. The titanium dioxide coating reacts with ambient ultraviolet light to neutralize elements of air pollution, breaking them down to less noxious compounds like water. This was Berlin-based Elegant Embellishment’s first full-scale installation, and its designers claim the façade negates the effects of 1,000 vehicles each day. Funded by Mexico’s Ministry of Health, the project is part of a three-year, US$20 billion investment into the country’s health infrastructure.

3. In Praise of Air, United Kingdom

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This gigantic 10x20 meter poster with the poem In Praise of Air by Simon Armitage sucks up air pollution. Tony Ryan of University of Sheffield and colleagues created the poster, which contains microscopic titanium dioxide nanoparticles that can absorb about 20 cars’ worth of nitrogen oxide a day. It would add less than US$200 to the cost of a giant advertisement. The team envision billboards made of the same material posted along highways and congested roads.

4. Catalytic Clothing

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The poem is actually an offshoot of Catalytic Clothing, a collaboration between designer Helen Storey and Ryan. Their goal is to incorporate the titanium dioxide nanoparticles into laundry detergent to coat clothing. According to Ryan, one person wearing the nanoparticle-washed clothes could remove 5 to 6 grams of nitrogen dioxide from the air a day; two pairs of jeans could clean up the nitrogen dioxide from one car.

5. Synthesized spider web

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According to Oxford’s Fritz Vollrath, the thinness and electrical charge of spider silk fibres, in addition to the glue-like liquid coating, allows them to catch any particles that fly through the air. These synthesized silk webs could be used like a mesh to capture pollutants - including airborne particulates, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals - coming out of chimneys or even disaster zones.


These last two bonus items don’t help clean the air; instead, they are ways you can measure your personal air pollution risk.

Bonus 1: Float

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These pollution-sensing kites called Float take air quality readings - measuring volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter - and little LEDs attached will light green, yellow, or red depending on the pollutants’ levels. Their results are submitted to a database that can be shared among other citizen scientists. Created by Harvard and Carnegie Mellon researchers, these kites are taking flight over Beijing, and similar citizen alliances will be flying them in London and Philadelphia.

Bonus 2: MicroPEM

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Photos via Gizmodo

Developed by Research Triangle Institute, the MicroPEM, a personal pollution monitor picks up a range of exposure data that can help its users manage their risk of inhaling aerosols of specific sizes. Early trials for the sensor focused on indoor pollution (from wood stoves), though now the device can be worn by adults and children in a range of environments. So far, the mobile units cost around US$2,000, though the costs might go down as they head to market.

[Via CNN]

Top image: Palazzo Italia, via Padiglione Italia.

[Source: IFL Science. Edited. Some images added.]


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10 Unsolved Stellar Mysteries In Our Galaxy
By Alan Boyle,
Listverse, 30 May 2014.

There’s no doubt that we’ve figured out a lot about the cosmos, especially in the last century. But from black holes to pulsars, everything we find seems to bring just as many questions as answers. Astronomers don’t yet have all the answers, and every day heralds the arrival of a new discovery and a new cosmic mystery.

10. The Nebula Of Uncertain Parentage

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Photo credit: Hubblesite

Planetary nebulae were discovered in the 1780s. The astronomer William Herschel believed that they were newly forming planetary systems. He was wrong, but the name stuck. They’re actually glowing clouds of gas around a dying star, and they’re often quite beautiful.

The nebula Sharpless 2-71 was discovered in 1946 and was believed to have formed around a bright star in its centre. More recent photographs show that things aren’t that simple. Many planetary nebulae are bipolar, meaning that they have symmetrical clouds coming from opposite sides of their star - they’re often compared to an hour-glass or a butterfly. Sharpless 2-71 is made of multiple bipolar lobes in different orientations.

There are three stars in the middle of the nebula. The brightest star is right at the centre, so that was the original candidate for the nebula’s parent. Yet it doesn’t emit enough ultraviolet radiation to account for the nebula’s glow, whereas a smaller nearby star might. That star might also be part of a binary system, meaning that as many as four stars may be responsible for the structure.

9. The Neutron Stars That Look Too Old

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When a massive star goes supernova, it often leaves behind a massive cloud of debris. RCW103 is one such body, located around 10,000 light-years from Earth. At its centre is a neutron star - an extremely dense object that weighs more than the Sun, but is only tens of kilometres across. They’re quite common in the debris of a supernova, but RCW103’s neutron star is unusual.

The neutron star in the centre is spinning with a period of 6.7 hours per rotation. Since a star’s rotation speed slows down over time, this would normally put this particular neutron star’s age at several million years. However, the parent star went supernova around 2,000 years ago. The variation in the neutron star’s X-rays are also unusually large, so something is going on.

One theory is that another star that’s too dim for us to see is orbiting around RCW103. Its magnetic field could be slowing the neutron star. At the same time, gas may be flowing onto the neutron star and causing the changes in its X-rays.

The same puzzle exists for a pulsar known as SXP 1062. It rotates once every 1,062 seconds, which would normally require it to be much older than the 40,000-year-old debris around it. Astronomers don’t know if it was born slower than normal, or decelerated rapidly. Scientists hope a clue may be hidden in the data they already have.

8. Multiple Messier Mysteries

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Photo credit:

The stars of the Messier 15 globular cluster are unusually bunched in its centre. The first mystery of the cluster is what’s pulling them there. It could be a bunch of dark neutron stars, though the most likely candidate is an intermediate-mass black hole. Yet even if that’s confirmed, it just leads to more mysteries.

There are three ways a suitable black hole may have formed. There could’ve been several of them of around the mass of the Sun which collided to create a much larger object. Or massive stars could’ve collided before collapsing into a black hole. Alternatively, an intermediate-mass black hole could have been created during the Big Bang. If M15 has one, its origin is a very open question.

7. Crab Flares

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The Crab Nebula is a remnant of a supernova 11 light-years across that only looked like a crab to someone in 1840 whose telescope was too small to make it out properly and, as with the planetary nebulae, the name stuck. Until 2011, it was thought to be one of the most steady sources of light, radio, and gamma radiation in the sky.

But between 2007 and 2010, astronomers from different observatories detected three powerful gamma ray flares with no change in other wavelengths. This was described by one astronomer as a “big puzzle,” while another called it a “real mystery.” The unexpected flares were the first seen from a nebula and were five times more intense than any other yet observed.

The rays are caused by the nebula accelerating particles with 1,000 times more energy than the Large Hadron Collider. The mechanism behind the acceleration is the key to the mystery. Of course, solving that mystery is easier said than done. One theory is that it has to do with the sudden reorganization of magnetic fields around the Crab Pulsar, the neutron star at the centre of the nebula.

6. Aligned Bipolar Nebulae

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It’s not just the jumbled bipolar nebulae in Sharpless 2-71 that pose a mystery to astronomers. Scientists used the Hubble to examine 130 such objects in the central bulge of the Milky Way and found something weird. The nebulae were in different places, formed at different times, and have never interacted. Yet despite that, most of them appear to be aligned along the same axis.

The nebulae were found to have their long axis aligned with the plane of the galaxy. As the name implies, the lobes of the nebulae emerge from the north and south poles of the stars. The alignment observed would only occur if the parent stars were spinning perpendicularly to the rotation of the galaxy, a behaviour that was described as “very strange” by one of the astronomers behind the discovery.

The farther you get from the centre of the galaxy, the more the pattern breaks down. One theory is that the stars may have been oriented that way due to magnetic fields when the bulge formed. That would suggest that magnetism has played a bigger role in the structure of the galaxy than previously realized.

5. The Great Eruption

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In 1838, the glow of Eta Carinae increased until it became the second brightest star in Earth’s sky. It stayed that way for 10 years before dimming and falling outside the top 100. This event was called the Great Eruption. It was caused by Eta Carinae losing 14 percent of its mass - equivalent to 10 of our Suns.

For a long time, the leading theory was that the mass was blown away by stellar winds. An analysis of the starlight could help confirm the idea, but none was done since spectroscopy was still in its infancy in the 1840s. While the light that came straight to Earth was lost to history, astronomers this decade were able to find rays from the eruption that had bounced off dust clouds before getting here.

When they analyzed the light, they figured out that the Great Eruption had burned at around 4,725 degrees Celsius (8,540 °F), too cold for the stellar wind explanation. This suggests that Eta Carinae’s chart climb was a unique event. Possibilities include a collision between two binary stars or a thermonuclear explosion in the star’s core.

4. Mysterious Magnetars

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Magnetars are a type of neutron star with a magnetic field quadrillions of times stronger than Earth’s. They’re the most powerful magnets in the universe. They were only theorized in the 1990s and they’re filled with properties that we still haven’t figured out.

A common feature of magnetars is the “glitch,” an event that causes a sudden increase in spin. Scientists have seen hundreds of glitches and have a plausible model for how they occur based on the frictionless neutron superfluid believed to be at their centre. On April 28, 2012, astronomers witnessed the first sudden slowdown from a magnetar, 1E 2259+586. It’s been dubbed the anti-glitch. It was wholly unexpected and doesn’t fit into any current theories.

There are clues that may help. A week before its anti-glitch, the magnetar unleashed an intense burst of X-rays that is most likely connected to the slowdown. On top of that, all neutron stars are slowing in their spin over time at a constant rate. This is known as spin-down, and 1E 2259+586 has been slowing more rapidly since the anti-glitch.

One mystery that was recently solved was the existence of CXOU J164710.2-455216 in the cluster Westerlund 1. The supernova it came from was around 40 times the mass of the Sun, so it shouldn’t have left anything but a black hole. The leading theory was that there had been a binary system which interfered with the normal mechanisms. Scientists found a “runaway” star nearby that looked exactly as predicted.

3. The Sun’s Mysterious Cousins

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Around a third of Sun-like stars have year-long periods of varied brightness as they approach the ends of their lives. Christine Nicholls, an astronomer from Mount Stromlo Observatory in Australia, led a study into the decades-old question of why this happens. The conclusion was clear, and told us exactly what we already knew: “All the possible explanations for their unusual behaviour just fail.”

Nicholls’s team monitored 58 stars for 2.5 years. A leading theory for the variations was stellar pulsations, in which the stars grow and shrink. That option was discounted, along with the possibility that the stars were in binary systems. However, the team did discover a new clue - the changing stars eject clumps of mass during their transitions. Unfortunately, clues are useless without the right detective, and Nicholls said that “a Sherlock Holmes is needed to solve this very frustrating mystery.”

2. Epsilon Aurigae’s Disc

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Illustration credit: Brian Thieme, Aaron Price

A lot of questions have recently been answered about one of the oldest mysteries in astronomy - the eclipse of the star Epsilon Aurigae. Every 27 years, it dims for around 18 months. Since the 1820s, scientists have offered all sorts of suggestions, from black holes to huge stars. Observations from the most recent eclipse, which began in 2009, suggest a binary system made of a dying star and another star that’s surrounded by a giant disk of material.

Yet despite figuring out what’s there, it leaves the question of why. The disk in question is made of gravel-sized particles. It’s the sort of debris field normally found in much younger star systems. The recent observations were crowd-sourced as part of a citizen science project. There may be enough information in them to figure it out - or we may have to wait another few decades.

1. Polaris Is Awkward

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The North Star might be the most famous one in the Northern Hemisphere, but despite its great cultural significance, there’s a lot we don’t know about it. The most recent questions around the star were revealed in a paper with the wonderfully exciting title The North Star Mysteries: The Remarkable Brightness Increase of Polaris from Historical and Modern Observations.

The researchers behind the paper discovered that Polaris has been getting brighter over the last century. Today, it may be as much as 4.6 times brighter than it was when observed in ancient times.

Yet perhaps a more pressing unsolved question is how far away from us Polaris actually is. Measurements from the 1990s gave a figure of around 434 light-years. However, it’s been described as having “certain anomalies that have so far defied a straightforward interpretation.” More recent measurements by different methods have suggested that it may be more than 100 light-years closer than we’d initially thought.

Then again, by the year 3000, Polaris will no longer be the North Star. That title will go to Gamma Cephei. We know where that is. If we haven’t figured it out before the handover, scientists will have another 25,000 years to work out Polaris’s distance before it gets its job back.

Top image: Artistic rendering of the Epsilon Aurigae star system. Artwork by Nico Carmargo/Citizen Sky/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Listverse. Edited. Top image added.]