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Live in Idaho? Look Up at the Nation's First Dark Sky Reserve

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Nighttime light pollution touches nearly 80 percent of the globe, according to researchers. But thanks to a group of concerned astronomers, the evening sky in central Idaho will stay starry for years to come. As the Associated Press reports, a roughly 1400-square-mile section of the Gem State will be protected as America’s very first “dark sky reserve,” with locals committed to combating artificial light use.

The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve—now the third largest in the world, and the twelfth of its kind across the world—will include the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Sun Valley, and Blaine, Custer and Elmore counties, according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the group responsible for naming the protected area.

The IDA is an astronomer-founded nonprofit “that works to help stop light pollution and protect the night skies for present and future generations,” according to their website. In addition to advocacy and education work, the nonprofit works with everyone from legislators to lighting manufacturers to reduce urban light and protect swaths of sky.

To be named a Dark Sky Reserve by the IDA, an area must possess “an exceptional or distinguished quality of night sky, view of the stars, and nocturnal environment.” Committed local officials, landowners, and residents collaborate to regulate light levels and keep the night sky clear.

The night skies of rural Idaho are famously pristine, offering clear views of the Milky Way. In 1999, long before the region was officially named a Dark Sky Reserve, residents of the town of Ketchum, near Sun Valley, passed an ordinance to keep them that way, NPR reports. These kinds of rules don't simply benefit Idaho residents—they're for everyone who wants to enjoy one of the world's dwindling natural wonders, officials now say.

In a news release, Steve Botti, mayor of the Custer County town of Stanley, Idaho, said, "The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve was created not just for locals, but for all Idahoans and visitors from across the world who can come here and experience the primeval wonder of the starry night sky."

[h/t Associated Press]

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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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The Ozone Layer Is Healing, Thanks to an International Ban on Harmful Man-Made Chemicals
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The ozone layer is on the mend, thanks to a decrease in human-produced chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in the atmosphere. Using data from NASA's Aura satellite, scientists were able to measure the chemical composition of the thinned gas layer above the Antarctic and found about 20 percent less ozone depletion than there was in 2005. They published their findings on January 4 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

In 1985, UK scientists published a landmark study in the journal Nature announcing their discovery of an annually recurring hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. (Each September, as the Southern Hemisphere's winter arrives, the Sun's UV rays trigger a reaction between the ozone and chemical elements from CFCs, chlorine and bromine, which destroys the ozone molecules.) The finding led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an international treaty that gradually banned the production and use of CFCs in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, solvents, and air conditioners.

In July 2016, Antarctic researchers published a study in the journal Science reporting that the ozone layer appeared to be healing (although it wasn't projected to completely patch up for decades). They tracked this progress by monitoring the Antarctic ozone hole's area, height, and chemical profile. Still, they didn't know whether this progress could be attributed to the Montreal Protocol's mandate.

NASA itself has used Aura to monitor the hole since the mid-2000s. After analyzing data produced by the Microwave Limb Sounder, a satellite instrument aboard Aura that measures trace gases, the space agency has confirmed that the CFC ban has led to the big decrease in ozone depletion during the Antarctic winter.

By winter, ozone-busting chlorine compounds have converted into hydrochloric acid, a process that occurs after it's destroyed ozone particles and reacts with methane. "By around mid-October, all the chlorine compounds are conveniently converted into one gas, so by measuring hydrochloric acid, we have a good measurement of the total chlorine," researcher Susan Strahan said in a NASA statement. Scientists compared these hydrochloric acid levels with nitrous oxide, which is similar in nature to CFCs but isn't diminishing in the atmosphere.

Their study is billed as "the first to use measurements of the chemical composition inside the ozone hole to confirm that not only is ozone depletion decreasing, but that the decrease is caused by the decline in CFCs," according to NASA. But while these initial results are promising, scientists say that the ozone layer's full recovery is still a long way off.

"As far as the ozone hole being gone, we're looking at 2060 or 2080,” study co-author Anne Douglass said. “And even then there might still be a small hole."

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