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Pentagon: Pirates seize two Americans off Nigerian coast

Pirates attacked and boarded a U.S.-flagged oil supply vessel off the coast of the western African nation of Nigeria Wednesday, seizing two American crew members and taking them off the ship. Once the armed attackers had stormed the 222-foot (67 meter) vessel, they separated the crew by nationality and abducted the captain and chief engineer, both U.S. citizens, a Pentagon official told ABC News.

The supply ship C-Retriever is owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, a Louisiana-based marine transport company. The company has not yet spoken publicly about yesterday’s pirate attack.

Although piracy worldwide was down last year, incidents in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria’s coast have increased. The International Marine Bureau reports that pirate attacks in that region have jumped by a third during the first nine months of 2013, with 40 separate incidents occurring. In most, if not all, cases, the attacks allegedly were carried out by criminal gangs targeting cargo ships for commodities and taking hostages for ransom.

According to London-based Chatham House, of the 1,434 piracy attacks in African waters between 2003 and 2011, 30 percent occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. The think tank also reported 62 pirate attacks in 2012, up from 39 in 2010.

The rise in pirate attacks off the Nigerian coast is due in part to increased anti-piracy measures undertaken by Western nations in east African waters off Somalia. CNN reports that navy forces from the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, and five African nations recently held exercises in that region aimed at beefing up maritime security there.

Kidnapping for ransom has become an ever-increasing problem for Nigeria. In addition to seeing an increase in piracy, the Gulf of Guinea has been the site of the only ship crew abductions worldwide this year, with 132 seafarers taken hostage.

U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus called the region a “hotspot” after visiting four Gulf nations in August. He told Defense News in September that the Navy was working in cooperation with Gabon, Senegal, Sao Tome, and Ghana to stem the rise in unlawful trafficking of people, arms, and drugs.

Oil production in the Gulf of Guinea amounts to some 5.4 million barrels a day, according to Chatham House. The International Crisis Group reports that about 30 percent of U.S. oil imports pass through the region.

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U.N. announces plans to defend against killer asteriods

On February 15, 2013, the residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia experienced a nasty shock as a previously undetected asteroid exploded over their town. It was a Twitter and YouTube senstation, and also came as an unpleasant surprise to the world’s astronomers. To prevent future, potentially more destructive impacts by other asteroids, the United Nations General Assemby has approved a set of recommendations on how to defend Earth against incoming asteroids.

The recommendations were proposed by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), which includes former NASA astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart. “There are 100 times more asteroids out there than we have found. There are about 1 million asteroids large enough to destroy New York City or larger. Our challenge is to find these asteroids first before they find us,” Lu said, according to Scientific American.

“No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” Schweickart added. “NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency.”

The ASE recommended that nations delegate responsibility for mitigating a possible impact to internal agencies. The UN will establish the International Asteroid Warning Group, in which member nations can share data about possibly dangerous asteroids. If a threatening asteroid is detected, the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraft to deflect the asteroid.

Lu founded the B612 Foundation to develop an infrared space telescope, Sentinel, to systematically comb the skies for dangerous near-Earth objects. Sentinal is expected to launch in 2017. Lu and his ASE colleagues also urge the UN to undertake a practice asteroid deflection mission to test the necessary technologies.

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Cassini reveals ‘Great Lakes’ on Titan

NASA’s Cassini probe has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and has provided a wealth of information about the ringed planet and its swarm of moons. Now, a combination of factors has allowed Cassini to get its first detailed look at the moon Titan’s north pole, revealing a series of hydrocarbon lakes.

Before now, Cassini had to use radar to map terrain underneath Titan’s thick veil of murky atmosphere, and the probe’s visual and infrared imaging systems had been able to capture only distant, oblique, or incomplete views of Titan’s north pole. However, two recent flybys gave Cassini much better vantage points. Furthermore, sunlight has dispelled the winter darkness that has obscured the area since Cassini’s arrival, as a thick haze has receded from the pole.

These favorable conditions allowed Cassini to capture false-color infrared images of a concentration of seas and lakes at the north pole, appearing as an assortment of dark green smears on Titan’s surface. The lakes include Neagh Lacus, Ladoga Lacus, Bolsena Lacus, and Jingpo Lacus, and the seas include Punga Mare, Kraken Mare, and Ligeia Mare. The Kraken Mare even has a large island in it, the Mayda Insula. Unlike Earth’s bodies of water, the lakes and seas of Titan are filled with liquid hydrocarbons, especially methane and ethane.

Differences in the composition of material surrounding the lakes and seas indicate that parts of the hydrocarbon bodies have evaporated, leaving behind a crust of material analogous to Earth’s salt flats. On Titan, however, the material left after evaporation is a mat of organic chemicals that were once dissolved in the liquid methane. This crust of material appears as orange smudges around the lakes and seas, and stands out from the light green of Titan’s typical surface composition – water ice.

The near-infrared images revealed a bright type of terrain in the polar area; this type of terrain has not been observed elsewhere on Titan and might suggest why the north pole is so rife with liquid hydrocarbon bodies, while the rest of the moon is almost devoid of seas and lakes. The unusual shapes of Titan’s lakes and seas – rounded silhouettes with steep sides – are, so far, difficult to explain. Possible causes include land subsidence after a volcanic eruption and karst terrain, in which liquids have dissolved soluble material, analogous to such spectacular Earth formations as Carlsbad Caverns.

“Titan’s northern lakes region is one of the most Earth-like and intriguing in the solar system,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a NASA press release. “We know lakes here change with the season, and Cassini’s long mission at Saturn gives us the opportunity to watch the seasons change at Titan, too. Now that the sun is shining in the north and we have these wonderful views, we can begin to compare the different data sets and tease out what Titan’s lakes are doing near the north pole.”

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Fragment of exploded meteor dredged from Russian lake

On February 15, 2013, a previously undetected meteor incinerated and shattered over the town of Chelyabinsk in central Russia. The explosion of the 17-meter-wide, 10,000 ton meteor shook buildings and smashed windows, injuring over 1,000 people. Now, divers have retrieved a half-ton block of the meteor from a nearby lake.

The fragment is the biggest of only four or five confirmed pieces of the meteor recovered from Lake Chebarkul since February 15. A team of divers discovered and hauled up the block from a depth of over 42 feet (13 meters). The block was five feet wide when first brought up to the surface, but then broke into three pieces as it was hefted onto a scale. When it reached 1,255 pounds (570 kilograms), the scale itself broke.

Experts later examined images of the fragment and confirmed that it was indeed a chunk of meteor. According to BBC News, Caroline Smith, curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum in London, has identified two telltale features on the block: fusion crust and regmaglypts.

Fusion crust is a glassy surface that forms on the outside of the meteor as it hurls through Earth’s atmosphere, becoming so hot that the surface rock of the meteor melts. The fusion crust is interrupted by numerous shallow depressions, known as regmaglypts, that are scoured out by heated gases during the meteor’s descent.

The identification of the block was also confirmed by Sergey Zamozdra, an associate professor at Chelyabinsk State University, who spoke to the Interfax news agency. “This chunk is most probably one of the top 10 biggest meteorite fragments ever found,” he said.

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Company to take customers into the stratosphere – by balloon

Space tourism is on the verge of becoming a fact of life, with companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace having sold hundreds of tickets for suborbital forays, beginning as early as 2014. These adventures will be fleeting ones, with customers lifted high aloft in rocket-propelled craft towards a few moments of microgravity at the top of the arc before descending.

In contrast, a new company, World View, has concocted a plan to give paying tourists the journey of a lifetime in a capsule suspended from an enormous balloon. The capsule would carry six passengers and two crew members to an altitude of approximately 18.5 miles at a more leisurely pace; it would take an hour and a half to reach maximum altitude, and then the capsule and ballooon would drift for a few hours before the capsule detaches and sails back to the ground under an inflated parasail. World View’s plan is also less expensive: $75,000 per ticket, compared to $95,000 at XCOR and $250,000 at Virgin Galactic.

The capsule/balloon’s maximum altitude of 18.5 miles is far less than the 62-mile height that is considered to be the start of outer space, but it is high enough that the Earth’s curvature will be visible and the sky will darken to black.

Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration will regulate World View’s plan as a commercial space venture because the capsule is designed to function in space conditions. In its application to the F.A.A., the company itself noted that water and blood boil at far lower temperatures and decompression would be fatal at an altitute of 20 miles.

Although launching sites have yet to be selected, World View will begin sending unmanned scientific payloads aloft in the very near future, with passengers to follow perhaps as soon as 2015. World View’s specialists include Chief Engineer Grant Anderson, who has designed massive solar arrays for the International Space Station, and Dr. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist who served as NASA’s chief for all space and Earth Science programs and has over 25 years of experience designing ultraviolet instruments.

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Light pattern of early universe holds clues to first moments after Big Bang

Light emitted by the universe in its earliest stages, billions of years ago, has taken a circuitous path to reach Earth’s location. The gravitational pull of matter distorted the ancient light on its long trek through the cosmos, twisting it into a distinctive pattern, known as B-modes. Until now, B-modes have been hypothetical, but a new study has detected them.

Only 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the cosmos were completely infused with remnant radiation, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The CMB is detectable 13.8 billion years later as radio waves at a temperature only a few degrees above absolute zero. Contained within the CMB are two types of polarized light: E-modes and B-modes. E-modes were first detected in 2002, but it is the B-modes that could hold much more information about the early universe.

There are two types of B-modes: those generated a few billion years after the birth of the universe, and those hypothesized to have been emitted when the universe was only a fraction of a second old. The B-modes that have been detected are of the first type.

The new research was led by Duncan Hanson of McGill University. Hanson and colleagues started with an infrared map of matter in the universe provided by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel space telescope to narrow down where to look for the faint B-modes. The scientists then employed the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope, and were rewarded with a series of signals indicating the first actual detection of B-modes.

The detection of this type of B-modes is a major leap forward for understanding how normal and dark matter were distributed throughout the young universe; such early normal matter includes the seeds that would eventually grow into the stars, solar systems, and galaxies of the current universe.

Even with this breakthrough, scientists now begin the search for the second type of B-modes: primordial B-modes generated only a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. The polarization signals of primordial B-modes would be writ on a far larger scale, necessitating a telescope capable of scanning the entire sky. Fortunately, such an instrument exists: the ESA’s Planck space telescope. In March 2013, Planck produced the most detailed map of the CMB ever. Planck is now tasked with detecting the first primordial B-mode signals.

“These beautiful measurements from the South Pole Telescope and Herschel strengthen our confidence in our current models of the universe,” explained Olivier Doré, a member of the United States Planck science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “However, this model does not tell us how big the primordial signal itself should be. We are thus really exploring with excitement a new territory here, and a potentially very, very old one.”

The new study was published online in the September 30 edition of the journal Physical Review Letters.

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Astronomers discover strange tilt-a-whirl planets

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered more than 900 confirmed exoplanets orbiting over 700 stars; just today, October 17, eight additional exoplanets were confirmed orbiting six different stars. Even so, Kepler’s field of view in the region of the constellations Cgynus and Lyra included approximately 150,000 stars, giving astronomers a mammoth quantity of data through which to sift.

Given that Kepler’s primary mission goal was to discover habitable planets analogous to Earth, most of those target stars are main sequence stars similar to our Sun. However, there are exceptions, one of which is the star Kepler-56. Kepler-56 is four times the size of the Sun and 30% more massive. Kepler-56 is also a more evolved star than the Sun, and has depleted its supply of hydrogen in its core. The core is now an inert mass of helium, surrounded by a shell in which fusion of hydrogen into helium is still occurring. In about 7 billion years, the Sun will swell into a red giant similar in size to Kepler-56.

In 2011, astronomers reported the detection of two planets orbiting Kepler-56; these planets orbit Kepler-56 in only 10.5 and 21.4 days, respectively. The two planets were detected as they passed in front of their host star. These two planets orbit in the same plane, just as the eight planets of our own solar system orbit the Sun in the same plane. So, at first glance, the Kepler-56 system is interesting, but not terribly bizarre.

Now, a new study led by Daniel Huber of NASA’s Ames Research Center, has discovered that the Kepler-56 system is strangely misaligned. By examining oscillations in Kepler-56’s brightness as it rotates, Huber and colleagues were able to determine the orientation of the star’s rotational axis. They found that Kepler-56’s axis has an inclination of about 45 degrees to the line of sight leading to the Kepler telescope. Because the two planets were detected when they passed between their host star and Kepler’s line of sight, this means that Kepler-56 is also inclined 45 degrees relative to its two orbiting planets. In contrast, in typical solar systems, such as ours, planets orbit in the equatorial plane of their star.

“When we found this system, it was a major surprise. They didn’t form this way,” Huber told Discovery News.

So far, all the other star systems in which stars and planets are out of alignment are those in which a star is orbited extremely closely by a single gas giant, a so-called “hot Jupiter”. Closer scrutiny of the Kepler-56 system revealed the probable cause for the unexpectant misalignment: a third body orbiting the star. This object is not in the same plane as the planets and never transits in front of the star; it was discovered because of the torque it exerts on the two smaller planets. This massive third object might be another planet or a small star, such as a brown dwarf. This hypothesis will be investigated further using ground-based telescopes.

The new research was published in the October 18 issue of the journal Science.

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Stunning video of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space [VIDEO]

A year ago, on October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner set a new record free fall descent during his Stratos skydive. The 44-year-old Austrian daredevil leapt from a capsule carried aloft by a helium ballon, and plummeted 127,850 feet (approximately 24 miles) before touching ground in eastern New Mexico. It took about nine minutes for Baumgartner to complete his descent, and for over four minutes of that he was in free fall, until his parachute deployed at an altitude of 8,200 feet.

Baumgartner’s leap broke the previous record set by Colonel Joseph Kittinger in 1960. Kittinger descended from 102,800 as part of the United States Air Force’s Project Excelsior. Kittinger actually spent about 17 seconds longer in free fall than Baumgartner did. This was simply because Baumgartner was traveling at a much higher velocity than Kittinger before deploying his parachute. Kittinger deployed his parachute at about 18,000 feet, and also used a smaller stabilizing drogue parachute during his descent, whereas Baumgartner did not. The 85-year-old Kittinger participated in Baumgartner’s feat by serving as capsule communicator for the Stratos project. Baumgartner described Kittinger as his “childhood hero”, accordingn to PCMag.com.

Now, Stratos sponsor Red Bull has released a video showing the descent from Baumgartner’s point of view. As of the afternoon of Wednesday, October 16, it had attracted nearly 2.3 million views. The video is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=raiFrxbHxV0

The first thirty seconds after Baumgartner stepped out of the capsule saw the skydiver become caught in a terrifying, dizzying spin. At last, Baumgartner was able to stabilize himself in the correct orientation for the rest of his descent. Baumgartner described those thirty harrowing seconds as like “swimming without feeling the water.”

Forty seconds into the free fall, Baumgartner attained his maximum velocity of slightly more than 843 miles per hour and traveled at Mach 1.25, becoming the first human to surpass the speed of sound without the aid of a vehicle. The YouTube video includes altitude, airspeed, biomedical data, and G-force readings taken by Baumgartner’s pressurized suit during the descent.

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Amazing video shows SpaceX Grasshopper filmed by dexacopter drone

The reusable Grasshopper rocket has attained its highest altitude so far, climbing to 2,440 feet (744 meters) before safely returning to its launchpad. The prototype rocket is the brainchild of Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. The latest successful ascent and landing of Grasshopper is part of SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s objective to develop reuseable rockets.

SpaceX has posted footage of the launch and landing on YouTube; the video was captured by a radio-controlled hexacopter hovering near the apex of the Grasshopper’s vertical test flight. The test flight took place on October 7 at a landing pad in McGregor, Texas.

In Grasshopper’s last airborne feat, the craft ascended to an altitude of 820 feet and accomplished the difficult maneuver of scooting laterally 330 feet while maintaining its verical orientation. Future Grasshopper testing will be carried out at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The Grasshopper is 10-stories tall and is categorized as a Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing vehicle; unlike most rockets, which incinerate in Earth’s atmosphere after only one use, Grasshopper is designed to safely return to its launch site. The craft consists of a single Merlin 1D engine, a Falcon 9 rocket first stage tank, four hydraulic landing legs made of steel and aluminum, and a steel support frame. A future larger version of Grasshopper will be equipped with nine engines.

Although Grasshopper is going from one success to the next, SpaceX’s efforts have not been without problems. In September, a test flight of a Falcon 9 rocket failed when the rocket attempted to restart its engines to slow its descent. However, this test has provided vital information that will be used to fix remaining engineering issues. “We now believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle,” Musk said to reporters, according to Discovery News.

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Senate Chaplain begs God’s forgiveness for shutdown 'shame'

Senate Chaplain Barry Black is taking a different approach to solving the nation’s largest and most difficult issues: asking for a little help from God.

“Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on faraway battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say, ”Enough is enough,” Black entreated. Going further, he cited the irascible Hebrew prophet Isaiah, praying, “Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness. Forgive us, reform us, and make us whole.”

Black was referring to the suspension of death benefits to families of fallen service members because of the partial shutdown. The House will vote on Wednesday to reinstate these benefits, but it’s unclear what the Senate will do, as its Democratic majority has rejected most of the piecemeal bits of funding legislation recently proposed by the GOP-controlled House.

Black, who served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy for 27 years, is the 62nd Chaplain of the Senate. The first Seventh Day Adventist and first African American to be elected to the office, Black has not been shy about using his special access to the heavenly ear to chide senators about their failure to cooperate and find a way to restart government.

Increasingly vocal in his criticism of the congressional deadlock, Black last week asked God to “Save us from the madness” and “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”

Last Friday, he implored the Lord to deliver the Senate from “that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism” and to “Forgive them the blunders they have committed.”

In addition to his recent daily public scoldings of lawmakers, Black told CNN that he meets privately with senators and their staff to talk about the moral import of legislative decisions.

“I don’t think there is ever a major vote where I don’t talk to a number of senators regarding the ethical dimensions of the issue they are debating,” Black told CNN in 2010.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was quick to agree with Chaplain Black’s entreaty Wednesday to end the government shutdown and reiterated his criticism of the House GOP for trying to fund government in drips and drabs.

“Why are we doing this?” Durbin asked. “Is this part of the Republican strategy? Sick babies, mothers unprepared to deliver? Is that part of their strategy? Is that their leverage for what they want to achieve? If it is, I have three words for them: Enough is enough.”