Seven CU projects among '09's top science stories


A 2009 analysis involving CU-Boulder NASA indicates the Arctic sea ice extent continues a decade-long trend of shrinking in area and thinning. Photo courtesy James Maslanik, University of Colorado

Seven research efforts involving the University of Colorado at Boulder were among the top 100 science stories of the year selected by Discover Magazine — ideas and breakthroughs that are reshaping our understanding of the world, according to the publication.

CU-Boulder research was involved in the following top science stories cited by Discover for 2009:

No. 8 — New planet-hunting efforts

No. 28 — The MESSENGER mission to Mercury

No. 60 — Arctic warming

No. 67 — Water vapor jets on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn

No. 77 — Early bombardment of Earth by asteroids

No. 86 — The Large Hadron Collider

No. 100 — The Hubble Space Telescope repair mission

Two of the top stories published in this month’s issue were based entirely on CU-Boulder research.

The magazine highlighted work by CU-Boulder geography Professor Mark Serreze and his team on dwindling Arctic sea ice and its outlook for the future. The research by Serreze — also director of CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center — ranked as the 60th top science story by Discover for monitoring the loss of Arctic sea ice from 1979 to 2009, an area roughly equal in size to all of the U.S. states east of the Mississippi River.

The 77th ranked story featured the research effort by Research Associate Oleg Abramov and Professor Stephen Mojzsis of CU-Boulder’s geological sciences department on the massive bombardment of Earth nearly 4 billion years ago by asteroids as large as Kansas. The pair discovered that not only would the bombardment not have had the firepower to extinguish potential early life on the planet, it may even have given it a boost by providing subsurface habitats for microbes to survive.

Five other top stories featured contributions by CU-Boulder scientists.

The eighth top story in Discover cited new technologies being used to spot planets orbiting other stars. One new tool, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft that launched in 2009, is giving a huge boost to planetary scientists by scanning thousands of stars for evidence of periodic dips in starlight signaling transits of orbiting planets moving across star faces. Kepler already has discovered several new planets.

A team of students and professionals from CU-Boulder’s LASP led by Mission Operations and Data Systems Director Bill Possel are operating the Kepler spacecraft from campus, working with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder. As the main mission contractor for Kepler, Ball built the spacecraft and primary telescope.

The 28th top story chosen by Discover was a flyby of Mercury last September by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft that discovered evidence of past volcanism and provided new findings about the planet’s tenuous atmosphere. A team led by William McClintock of LASP, who led the development of an $8.7 million CU-Boulder instrument aboard MESSENGER, discovered widespread magnesium and imaged sodium and calcium, which also have been seen from Earth. The team found that atoms are blasted from the planet’s surface by solar winds and are constantly replenishing the planet’s atmosphere before drifting away into space.

The 67th top story by Discover involved three recent studies published in Nature on water vapor jets emanating from Saturn’s tiny, icy moon Enceladus, including one led by Professor Nicholas Schneider of CU’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics. One study detected ammonia that could keep water inside Enceladus in a liquid state, while another detected sodium in Enceladus ice grains, suggesting a liquid ocean. But using powerful ground-based telescopes, Schneider’s team detected no sodium, indicating water could be evaporating very slowly from deep caverns inside the moon or from ice warmed or melted by tidal friction.

The 86th ranked science story of the year by Discover was the restart of the Large Hadron Collider project. The LHC — the world’s brawniest particle accelerator — was designed to send protons and charged atoms whizzing around a 17-mile underground loop in Europe at 11,000 times per second in an attempt to recreate the conditions immediately following the Big Bang and to better understand mysterious dark matter, dark energy and fundamental physics.

Fifteen CU-Boulder researchers are involved with the LHC’s Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS, one of two massive particle detectors in the collider. CU-Boulder’s CMS team has been working on particle tracking and with devices known as forward pixel detectors, said Professor John Cumalat of the physics department. The forward pixels will help researchers measure the direction and momentum of subatomic particles following collisions as they penetrate roughly 25 million different silicon elements, providing clues to their origin and physical structure.

The 100th ranked story by Discover was the 2009 Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, including installation of the new Wide Field Camera 3 that has a higher resolution and a more expanded field of view than previous Hubble cameras. A second instrument installed on the orbiting observatory during the mission was the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, designed by a team led CU-Boulder’s James Green and built primarily by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder.

COS should help scientists better understand the cosmic web of material believed to permeate the universe. COS is gathering information from ultraviolet light emanating from distant objects, allowing scientists to look back several billion years and reconstruct the physical conditions and evolution of the early universe.

Discover Magazine’s top 2009 story is “vaccine phobia” in the United States by some parents who fear childhood vaccines may be linked to autism. Although the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in 2009 ruled such vaccinations do not cause autism, the reluctance of some parents to have children vaccinated for measles, for example, appears to have led to increases in the disease.

By Jim Scott
Office of News Services
This originally appeared on the news services site

Jan.11, 2010

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