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Ice in the Air Makes Earth Sparkle From Space

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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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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Last Month Was the Second-Warmest October on Record
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After an unseasonably toasty October, the numbers are in: Temperatures exceeded averages across the globe last month, making it the second-hottest October ever recorded, according to NASA.

As Mashable reports, worldwide temperatures reached 1.62°F (or 0.90°C) above the average in October. It just edged out global temperatures in October 2016 and came short of the all-time October record set in 2015. But while El Niño contributed to temperature spikes in 2015, there's no weather event to explain the anomaly this time around.

Records of global mean surface temperature changes date back to 1880. Of the 136 years in NASA’s database, the past three years (2014, 2015, 2016) have produced the greatest temperature anomalies. With the end of the year approaching, it looks like 2017 will end up breaking into the top three, and will likely be the warmest non-El Niño year on record.

While alarming, the record-breaking statistics shouldn't be surprising to anyone who follows global climate trends. The Earth has been warming at a rapid rate in recent decades, and climate scientists blame the carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere by human activity.

Following a hot autumn, the next few months aren't looking to be any cooler: Like last winter and the winter before that, this season is expected to be unusually warm.

[h/t Mashable]


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