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Ice in the Air Makes Earth Sparkle From Space

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NASA

A satellite orbiting Earth has captured images of our planet seemingly studded with flecks of gold glitter—the result, scientists say, of sunlight reflecting off ice particles in our atmosphere. They published their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Alexander Marshak helps direct the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a joint venture between NASA and NOAA. Tucked aboard that observatory is an instrument called EPIC, or the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera. As DSCOVR passes between Earth and the Sun, EPIC takes photo after photo, like a proud parent on prom night.

And just like an eager teen dressed for the dance, our planet is apparently just decked out in sparkles.

Astronomers have known about the little gold flashes of light for decades; legendary cosmos-gazer Carl Sagan even described them in a journal article three years before his death. In reviewing images from the Galileo telescope, Sagan and his colleagues developed a reasonable theory: The flashes were the ordinary reflections of sunlight bouncing off flat stretches of the ocean. After all, they said, there were no flashes over land.

But there were. Marshak and his colleagues first noticed a few tiny glints over landmasses in EPIC’s images. Then they went back to Galileo’s snapshots and found even more.


An image from the EPIC instrument aboard DSCOVR, taken on Dec. 3, 2015, shows a glint over central South America (circled in red).
NASA/NOAA/U.S. Air Force.

“When I first saw [a small flash] I thought maybe there was some water there,” Marshak said in a statement, “or a lake the sun reflects off of. But the glint is pretty big, so it wasn’t that.”

The flashes are also too big, and too significantly positioned relative to the Sun, to be the result of electric storms. “Lightning doesn’t care about the sun and EPIC’s location,” Marshak said, and “The source of the flashes is definitely not on the ground.”

That leaves only our atmosphere, which is sprinkled with a layer of fine ice particles. When the ice particles are floating horizontally and the Sun hits them just right, those particles coruscate better than a tiara under a disco ball.

And while Earth will always be the prom queen of our hearts, Marshak says we may not be the only bedazzled planet out there; in the future, researchers may be able to use these flashes to study exoplanets.

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Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System
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In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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Ocean Waves Are Powerful Enough to Toss Enormous Boulders Onto Land, Study Finds
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During the winter of 2013-2014, the UK and Ireland were buffeted by a number of unusually powerful storms, causing widespread floods, landslides, and coastal evacuations. But the impact of the storm season stretched far beyond its effect on urban areas, as a new study in Earth-Science Reviews details. As we spotted on Boing Boing, geoscientists from Williams College in Massachusetts found that the storms had an enormous influence on the remote, uninhabited coast of western Ireland—one that shows the sheer power of ocean waves in a whole new light.

The rugged terrain of Ireland’s western coast includes gigantic ocean boulders located just off a coastline protected by high, steep cliffs. These massive rocks can weigh hundreds of tons, but a strong-enough wave can dislodge them, hurling them out of the ocean entirely. In some cases, these boulders are now located more than 950 feet inland. Though previous research has hypothesized that it often takes tsunami-strength waves to move such heavy rocks onto land, this study finds that the severe storms of the 2013-2014 season were more than capable.

Studying boulder deposits in Ireland’s County Mayo and County Clare, the Williams College team recorded two massive boulders—one weighing around 680 tons and one weighing about 520 tons—moving significantly during that winter, shifting more than 11 and 13 feet, respectively. That may not sound like a significant distance at first glance, but for some perspective, consider that a blue whale weighs about 150 tons. The larger of these two boulders weighs more than four blue whales.

Smaller boulders (relatively speaking) traveled much farther. The biggest boulder movement they observed was more than 310 feet—for a boulder that weighed more than 44 tons.

These boulder deposits "represent the inland transfer of extraordinary wave energies," the researchers write. "[Because they] record the highest energy coastal processes, they are key elements in trying to model and forecast interactions between waves and coasts." Those models are becoming more important as climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms.

[h/t Boing Boing]

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