Partnerships of Deep-Sea Methane Scavengers Revealed

PASADENA, Calif.--The sea floor off the coast of Eureka, California, is home to a diverse assemblage of microbes that scavenge methane from cold deep-sea vents. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed a technique to directly capture these cells, lending insight into the diverse symbiotic partnerships that evolved among different species in an extreme environment.

The community's interconnected metabolism sheds light on how the anaerobic microbes, which consume nearly 80 percent of the methane leaked from marine sediments, limit oceanic emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.

"Ninety-nine percent of what's out there we can't grow in the lab, including these methane-oxidizing organisms," says Victoria Orphan, an assistant professor of geobiology at Caltech in whose lab the cell sampling technique was developed.

"We know from ribosomal RNA studies that there is a lot of microbial diversity in nature, but we don't know what the vast majority of microbes are doing," Orphan adds. "We needed a method for separating specific organisms out of complex environments."

Metagenomic analysis, in which the genetic material of all microorganisms swept from their homes in a sample is sequenced wholesale, yields a plenitude of general information. Annelie Pernthaler, a former Caltech postdoc who is now a research scientist at the Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and Orphan devised a technique to tease out individuals from the diverse microbial community of the deep-sea sediment. Their aim: to simplify the genomic sequencing to target only the organisms they were interested in.

They began with descents in the manned submersible Alvin, collecting cores of sea-floor sediment from areas where methane migrates from below. Back in the lab, the team used enzyme-tagged short DNA probes to specifically bind the ribosomal RNA in the methane-consuming microbes of the sediment. A second reaction used the enzyme to deposit fluorescent molecules within and around the cell, a method known as CARD-FISH, for "catalyzed reporter deposition fluorescence in situ hybridization."

The fluorescing cells and attached microorganisms were captured using microbeads that are both paramagnetic--a form of magnetism occurring only in the presence of an externally applied magnetic field--and coated with an antibody to the fluorescent molecule. This Caltech-patented technique, called "magneto-FISH," bypasses the need to grow the microorganisms in culture because it targets the fluorescing molecules around the cell instead of a specific molecule within the cell.

The cells separated by magneto-FISHing reveal who's partnered up with whom, and provides a fresh look at microbial symbiosis in nature, Orphan says. The main player near the methane vents is a methane-metabolizing member of the Archaea, a prokaryotic domain of life distinct from both bacteria and eukaryotes. Piggybacked on the archaeal cells are some members from among four different species of bacteria--three more than were previously known to be associated with these particular archaea--whose exact roles in the system can now be addressed.

The methane-vent partnership between archaea that consume methane and bacteria that reduce sulfate is believed to be a form of cometabolism or syntrophy, meaning "feeding together," where one species lives off the metabolic products of others. Using the information obtained from the metagenome of these partnerships, says Orphan, biologists can develop specific experiments to directly test the physiological and nutritional relationships between these organisms, as well as the ecological strategies used to successfully colonize deep-sea environments.

One example of such an experiment is highlighted in the group's study, published May 8 in the early online edition of the journal PNAS. The researchers discovered that the organisms possess genes for nitrogen fixation, a process that converts nitrogen gas into nourishing compounds like ammonia. "We were surprised to see these genes in the captured cells," says Anne Dekas, a geobiology graduate student at Caltech, "because we thought these organisms were relatively energy-starved, and nitrogen fixation takes a lot of energy."

Orphan and Dekas were able to show that the organisms are not just equipped for the task, they are actually carrying it out. "Showing nitrogen fixation is a great finding in itself," Dekas comments, "but it is also just one example of the hypothesis testing that can follow magneto-FISH coupled to metagenomic analysis."

Other authors on the study are Caltech's C. Titus Brown, a postdoc in biology; Shana Goffredi, a senior research fellow in environmental science and engineering; and Tsegereda Embaye, a technician in the division of geological and planetary sciences.

Writer: 
Elisabeth Nadin
Writer: 

A Grand Canyon as Old as the Dinosaurs?

PASADENA, Calif.--How the Grand Canyon was carved has been a topic of scientific controversy for nearly 140 years. Now, with new geochronologic data from the canyon and surrounding plateaus, geologists from the California Institute of Technology present significant evidence that the canyon formed nearly 50 million years earlier than previously thought.

The results will be published in the May issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin in a paper by Rebecca Flowers, a former Caltech postdoctoral scholar now on the faculty of the University of Colorado; Chandler Family Professor of Geology Brian Wernicke; and Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry Kenneth Farley.

The team studied the sedimentary rock layers, or strata, of both the canyon and a large area of the surrounding plateaus. These strata were deposited near sea level sometime in the Paleozoic era (540-250 million years ago) and were subsequently uplifted and eroded to form the canyon. But questions like when and why the canyon itself formed have remained open.

The long-held interpretation sets canyon incision at about six million years ago, when the plateau that hosts it began to rise from near sea level to a current elevation of almost 7,000 feet. This view highlights the erosive power of the Colorado River, which cut into the plateau surface like a giant buzzsaw and progressively deepened the canyon at the same time the entire region was rising.

Now, using a radiometric dating method called uranium-thorium-helium [(U-Th)/He] dating, developed in Farley's lab, the researchers paint a different scenario. Uplift and carving of a deep canyon took place more than 55 million years ago, above the present position of the Grand Canyon's Upper Granite Gorge, within strata much younger than the Paleozoic rocks currently exposed in the canyon walls.

"When this canyon was formed, it looked like a much deeper version of present-day Zion Canyon, which cuts through strata of the Mesozoic era," Wernicke says. Then from 28 to 15 million years ago, a pulse of erosion deepened the already-formed canyon and also scoured the surrounding plateaus, stripping off the Mesozoic strata to reveal the Paleozoic rocks that we see today.

The key to the discovery lay in the ancient sandstones of the canyon walls, which contain scant grains of the phosphate mineral apatite that in turn host trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. These elements decay, spitting out helium atoms at well-constrained rates via alpha-particle emission. Although some of those atoms are lost through diffusion early in the grain's history, by measuring the abundances of all three elements, (U-Th)/He dating ultimately yields the time that an apatite crystal cooled below 70 degrees Celsius. Paired with information from boreholes about how Earth's temperature increases with depth, dates from apatite grains in rocks that are now at the surface communicate the last time those rocks were buried a mile deep.

A key finding of the Caltech team is that samples collected from the bottom of the Upper Granite Gorge region yield the same (U-Th)/He apatite dates as samples collected on the plateau surface nearby. "Because both canyon and plateau samples have resided near the same depth since 55 million years ago, a canyon of about the same dimensions as today must have existed at least that far back, and possibly as far back as the time of the last dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago," Wernicke states.

Wernicke says that the most surprising aspect of their new findings is that, since the Grand Canyon was originally cut, the adjacent plateaus have also eroded downward by about a mile, on average, every bit as fast as the bottom of the canyon. "And so the small, ephemeral streams that cover the arid plateau seem to be just as effective as the mighty Colorado at eroding away rock," he notes.

The erosional history proposed by the Caltech team jibes with other recent studies that also involve innovative radiometric dating techniques and speak to the early history of the canyon, Wernicke says. The first, undertaken by researchers led by Karl Karlstrom at the University of New Mexico and published last November in the same journal as the new Caltech study, demonstrated that the amount of downcutting of the Colorado in the Upper Granite Gorge was about 350 feet over the last 700,000 years. Extrapolated back in time, this rate is too slow to have carved the entire canyon in only six million years. Another University of New Mexico study, led by Carol Hill and Yemane Asmerom and published this March in the journal Science, demonstrated by dating cave deposits throughout the canyon that a water table, and therefore an erosion surface, lay somewhere near the canyon rim 17 million years ago, very close to the end of the pulse of erosion suggested by Caltech's (U-Th)/He dating.

The new work also echoes even earlier ideas of Richard Young of the State University of New York at Geneseo, Wernicke notes. In the 1980s, Young led a team that discovered that a group of ancient tributary canyons just south of the western Grand Canyon (Lower Granite Gorge region) were in fact originally formed between 63 and 50 million years ago, about the time the (U-Th)/He data suggest for initial cutting above the Upper Granite Gorge area. "The current wave of research thus strengthens the link between the formation of the tributary canyons and the evolution of the Grand Canyon proper, including the Upper Granite Gorge region," Wernicke says.

Wernicke credits much of the recent discoveries to cutting-edge dating techniques. "Although vigorous debate is sure to continue," he notes, "conventional wisdom about the history of the Grand Canyon in particular, and geology in general, is being challenged by these new, high-tech avenues of research."

Writer: 
Elisabeth Nadin
Writer: 

Water Vapor Detected in Protoplanetary Disks

PASADENA, Calif.--Water is an essential ingredient for forming planets, yet has remained hidden from scientists searching for it in protoplanetary systems, the spinning disks of particles surrounding newly formed stars where planets are born. Now the detection of water vapor in the inner part of two extrasolar protoplanetary disks brings scientists one step closer to understanding water's role during terrestrial planet formation.

By maximizing the spectroscopic capabilities of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and high-resolution measurements from the Keck II Telescope in Hawaii, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and other institutes found water molecules in disks of dust and gas around two young stars. DR Tau and AS 205A, respectively around 457 and 391 light-years away from Earth, are each at the center of a spinning disk of particles that may eventually coalesce to form planets.

"This is one of the very few times that water vapor has been detected in the inner part of a protoplanetary disk--the most likely place for terrestrial planets to form," says Colette Salyk, a graduate student in geological and planetary sciences at Caltech. She is the lead author of a group of scientists reporting their findings in the March 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Salyk and her colleagues first harnessed light-emission data captured by Spitzer to inspect dozens of young stars with protoplanetary disks. They honed in on DR Tau and AS 205A because these presented a large number of water emission lines--spikes of brightness at certain wavelengths that are a unique fingerprint for water vapor. "Only Spitzer is capable of observing these particular lines in a large number of disks because it operates above Earth's obscuring water-vapor–rich atmosphere," says Salyk.

To determine in what part of the disk the vapor resides, the team made high-resolution measurements at shorter wavelengths with NIRSPEC, the Near-InfraRed cross-dispersed echelle grating Spectrometer for the Keck II Telescope. Unlike Spitzer, which observed water lines blended together into clumps, NIRSPEC can resolve individual water lines in selected regions where the atmospheric transmission is good. The shape of each line relays information on the velocity of the molecules emitting the light. "They were moving at fast speeds," says Salyk, "indicating that they came from close to the stars, which is where Earthlike planets might be forming."

"While we don't detect nearly as much water as exists in the oceans on Earth, we see only a very small part of the disk--essentially only its surface--so the implication is that the water is quite abundant," remarks coauthor Geoffrey Blake, professor of cosmochemistry and planetary sciences and professor of chemistry at Caltech.

The presence of water in the inner disk may indicate its stage on the road to planet formation. A planet like Jupiter in our solar system grew as its gravitational field trapped icy solids spinning in the outer part of the sun's planetary disk. However, before Jupiter gained much mass, these same icy solids could have traveled towards the star and evaporated to produce water vapor such as that seen around DR Tau and AS 205A.

Although they have not detected icy solids in the extrasolar disks, says Salyk, "our observations are possible evidence for the migration of solids in the disk. This is an important prediction of planet-forming models."

These initial observations portend more to come, says coauthor Klaus Pontoppidan, a Caltech Hubble Postdoctoral Scholar in Planetary Science. "We were surprised at how easy it is to find water in planet-forming disks once we had learned where to look. It will take years of work to understand the details of what we see."

Indeed, adds Blake, "This is a much larger story than just one or two disks. With upcoming observations of tens of young stars and disks with both Spitzer and NIRSPEC, along with our data in hand, we can construct a story for how water concentrations evolve in disks, and hopefully answer questions like how Earth acquired its oceans."

Other authors on the paper are Fred Lahuis of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research; Ewine van Dishoeck, also of Leiden Observatory; and Neal Evans of the University of Texas at Austin. 

Writer: 
Elisabeth Nadin
Writer: 

Tracking Earth Changes with Satellite Images

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--For the past two decades, radar images from satellites have dominated the field of geophysical monitoring for natural hazards like earthquakes, volcanoes, or landslides. These images reveal small perturbations precisely, but large changes from events like big earthquake ruptures or fast-moving glaciers remained difficult to assess from afar, until now.

Sebastien Leprince, a graduate student in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, working under the supervision of geology professor and director of Caltech's Tectonics Observatory (TO), Jean-Philippe Avouac, wrote software that correlates any two optical images taken by satellite. It has proved extremely reliable in tracking large-scale changes on Earth's surface, like earthquake ruptures, the mechanics of "slow" landslides, or defining the fastest-moving sections of glaciers that, due to global warming, have recently increased their pace.

Leprince will describe his software and results of many of its applications on December 14 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. His research will also be featured in the January 1 issue of Eos, AGU's weekly newspaper.

When the technique called InSAR, which uses radar images to reveal details about ground displacement, was introduced, it was quickly embraced. No longer did geoscientists have to rely solely on measurements made by troupes of field geologists or by ground-based devices that might not have been optimally placed. But, says Leprince, "InSAR is physically limited: it's good for small displacements but not for large ones. The radar resolution isn't enough to look at deformation with a large gradient."

Using optical images to complement the radar-based InSAR technique seemed like a natural step. When Leprince began grappling with the idea in 2003, he found several baby steps had been taken. "Satellite image correlation was not a science yet, it was more like an art," he says. The first attempts, reported in 1991, were inconclusive but promising. Since then, several teams of scientists had worked on the problem independently. Some had even developed it well enough to monitor glacier flow.

The major obstacle Leprince faced in developing optical image correlation software was that there were several steps involved but no one knew in which order to take them. "Errors came from everywhere, but where exactly?" he noted. "And we found at least one major flaw in each step."

Three of the four main steps involve correcting geometric distortions innate to taking pictures from space and projecting them onto a surface. The first step matches coordinates of the satellite image with coordinates on the ground. "This is not new, but the approximations being made were not okay," says Leprince. The second step describes the satellite's position in its orbit at the time it took the photo. This is just like in everyday life--you need to know how your camera was oriented when you show off a photo you snapped. In the next step, which Leprince says people never knew they were doing wrong, the image is correctly wrapped onto topography. Finally, the images are precisely combined-or coregistered-in order to measure surface displacements accurately.

"What is important is that we identified the steps and took each one independently and did an error analysis for each step to see how errors propagated," says Leprince. His program, which he calls COSI-Corr and which was packaged by the TO's software engineer Francois Ayoub for official release this year, takes all of these steps automatically in just a few hours of processing time. "You start the program, you go home, you have a nice weekend on the beach, and it's done."

The paper describing the software Leprince developed appeared in the June 2007 issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing. COSI-Corr can now combine any images taken by different satellite imagers from different incidence views. For example, to analyze displacement from the 1999 Hector Mine earthquake near Twenty-Nine Palms in California, Leprince correlated a SPOT 4 image with an ASTER image. This had never been done before. It takes only a few hours to process.

Using his technique, Leprince has precisely measured offset from several notable recent earthquakes, including 2005 Kashmir, Pakistan; 2002 Denali, Alaska; 1999 Hector Mine and Chi Chi, Taiwan; and 1992 Landers, California. In the case of earthquakes, the image correlation technique can be used to map in detail all fault ruptures and to measure displacements both along and across the fault. Uncertainties, typically within centimeters for 10-15-meter-resolution images, are extremely low.

The day after Leprince released his software through the TO website, he was contacted by a geologist in Canada asking how the technique could be used to study glacier flow. Radar images cannot analyze glaciers because they move too fast and ice melting poses a problem. "The tectonic application was pretty well set up and we'd tested it thoroughly," says Leprince. "So we extended it to glaciology." And then to other studies as well.

What's tricky about studying glacier flow is that not only has their pace picked up in recent years due to climate change, but glaciers have a natural yearly cycle of ice gain and loss. The two signals can be discerned with cross-correlation of optical imagery. Leprince's method was used to study Mer de Glace glacier in the Alps, which flows at around 90 meters per year. The optical images provide a full view of the ice flow field, pinpointing exactly where the glacier is moving fastest. The same approach was taken with a landslide above the Alpine town of Barcelonnette in eastern France. Benchmarks had been planted to monitor the landslide's flow, and Leprince's correlation methods showed that all 38 of them missed the fastest-moving region. While the landslide is moving slow now, the town will be threatened when the landslide detaches and descends rapidly.

There are many more applications for correlating optical images to monitor Earth surface changes. Caltech geologists and their collaborators began to apply it to studying dunes, which radars cannot image, after they were contacted by labs in Egypt who need information on dune migration for urban planning.

"Radar interferometry is a huge technique, but you can only measure half of the world with it. Now we can measure the other half with this technique," comments Leprince. "The biggest thing is what's to come."

COSI-Corr and many of its applications will be presented by Leprince on Friday morning, December 14, in Moscone South Exhibit Hall B. To learn more about the technique, visit http://www.tectonics.caltech.edu/slip_history/spot_coseis/

Writer: 
Elisabeth Nadin
Writer: 

Earthquake Season in the Himalayan Front

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--Scientists have long searched for what triggers earthquakes, even suggesting that tides or weather play a role. Recent research spearheaded by Jean-Philippe Avouac, professor of geology and director of the Tectonics Observatory at the California Institute of Technology, shows that in the Himalayan mountains, at least, there is indeed an earthquake season. It's winter.

For decades, geologists studying earthquakes in the Himalayan range of Nepal had noted that there were far more quakes in the winter than in the summer, but it was difficult to assign a cause. "The seasonal variation in seismicity had been noticed years ago," says Avouac. Now, over a decade of data from GPS receivers and satellite measurements of land-water storage make it possible to connect the monsoon season with the frequency of earthquakes along the Himalaya front. The analysis also provides key insight into the timescale of earthquake nucleation in the region.

Avouac will present the results of the study on December 12 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. They are also available online through the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, and will appear in print early next year.

The world's tallest mountain range, the Himalaya continues to rise as plate tectonic activity drives India into Eurasia. The compression from this collision results in intense seismic activity along the front of the range. Stress builds continually along faults in the region, until it is released through earthquakes.

Avouac and two collaborators from France and Nepal--Laurent Bollinger and Sudhir Rajaure--began their earthquake seasonality investigation by analyzing a catalog of around 10,000 earthquakes in the Himalaya. They saw that, at all magnitudes above this detection limit, there were twice as many earthquakes during the winter months--December through February--as during the summer. That is, in winter there are up to 150 earthquakes of magnitude three per month, and in summer, around 75. For magnitude four, the winter average is 16 per month, while in summer the rate falls to eight per month. They ran the numbers through a statistical calculation and ruled out the possibility that the seasonal signal was due merely to chance.

"The signal in the seismicity is real; there is no discussion," Avouac says. "We see this seasonal cycle," he adds. "We didn't know where it came from but it is really strong. We're looking at something that is changing on a yearly basis-the timescale over which stress changes in this region is one year."

Earlier studies suggested that seasonal variations in atmospheric pressure set off earthquakes, and this had been proposed for seasonal seismicity following the 1992 Landers, California, quake.

The scientists turned to satellite measurements of water levels in the region. Using altimetry data from TOPEX/Poseidon, a satellite launched in 1992 by NASA and the French space agency CNES (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales), they evaluated the water level in major rivers of the Ganges basin to within a few tens of centimeters. They found that the water level over the whole basin begins its four-meter rise at the onset of the monsoon season in mid-May, reaching a maximum in September, followed by a slow decrease until the next monsoon season.

They combined river level measurements with data from NASA's GRACE--Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment--mission, which studies, among other things, groundwater storage on landmasses. The data revealed a strong signal of seasonal variation of water in the basin. Paired with the altimetry data, these measurements paint a complete picture of the hydrologic cycle in the region.

In the Himalaya, monsoon rains swell the rivers of the Ganges basin, increasing the pressure bearing down on the region. As the rains stop, the river water soaks through the ground and the built-up load eases outward, toward the front of the range. This outward redistribution of stress after the rains end leads to horizontal compression in the mountain range later in the year, triggering the wintertime earthquakes.

The final piece connecting winter earthquake frequency to season, and lending insight into the process by which earthquakes nucleate, lay in GPS data. Installation of GPS instruments across the Himalayan front began in 1994, and now they provide a decade's worth of measurements showing land movement across the region. Instead of looking at vertical motions, which are widely believed to be sensitive to weather and the same forces that cause tides on Earth, the scientists concentrated on horizontal displacements. The lengthy records, analyzed by Pierre Bettinelli during his graduate work at Caltech, show that horizontal motion is continuous in the range front. Stress constantly builds in the region. But just as water levels near their lowest in the adjacent Ganges basin and earthquakes begin their doubletime, horizontal motion reaches its maximum speed.

"We had been staring at [the seasonal signal] for years, and then the satellite data came in and we deployed the GPS network and suddenly it became crystal clear," says Avouac. "It's like something you dream of."

While many scientists have suggested that changing water levels can influence the earthquake cycle, a definitive mechanism had yet to be pinpointed. "There are two main avenues by which people have tried to understand the physics of earthquakes: Earth tides and aftershocks," says Avouac. With the water level data, he could show that the rate at which stress builds along the rangefront, rather than the absolute level of stress, triggers earthquakes.

Although Earth tides induce stress levels similar to what builds up during seasonal water storage, they only vary over a 12-hour period. The Himalayan signal shows that it is more likely that earthquakes are triggered after stress builds for weeks to months, which matches the timescale of seasonal stress variation in that region.

About other earthquake-prone regions Avouac says, "seasonal variation has been reported in other places, but I don't know any other place where it is so strong or where the cause of the signal is so obvious."

Other authors on the paper are Pierre Bettinelli, Mireille Flouzat, and Laurent Bollinger of the Commissariat a l'Énergie Atomique, France; Guillaume Ramillien of the Laboratoire d'Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales, France; and Sudhir Rajaure and Som Sapkota of the National Seismological Centre in Nepal.

Avouac will present details of the group's findings at AGU on Wednesday, December 12, at 2 p.m., Moscone West room 3018, in session T33F: Earthquake geology, active tectonics, and mountain building in south and east Asia.

Writer: 
Elisabeth Nadin
Writer: 

Tracing the Roots of the California Condor

Pasadena, Calif.--At the end of the Pleistocene epoch some 10,000 years ago, two species of condors in California competed for resources amidst the retreating ice of Earth's last major glacial age. The modern California condor triumphed, while its kin expired.

In the past century, paleontologists have been unsure whether the modern California condor is different enough from a larger, extinct condor that lived during Pleistocene time to classify the two as distinct species. Now, after the most extensive study of condor fossils and skeletal remains to date, Caltech senior undergraduate Valerie Syverson has documented evidence that confirms the two are different enough for the distinction.

Her findings will be presented on October 28 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver.

To solve the puzzle, Syverson teamed up with Donald Prothero, a paleontologist at Occidental College and a guest lecturer in geobiology at Caltech. They studied bones from recently dead condors and compared them with those found in the extensive bone pile of Los Angeles's Pleistocene-aged La Brea tar pits. What they found, Syverson says, is that "there's definitely one species distinction, and possibly two."

Syverson began her study by examining bones from condor skeletons housed at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. One interesting finding was that among these modern birds, Gymnogyps californianus, there was no distinction in bone size between males and females.

After looking at modern condors, Syverson turned to La Brea. She examined Pleistocene specimens from various tar pits, the oldest 35,000 and the youngest 9,000 years old. The record thus provides a glimpse into a long time variation within a species restricted to one location. Over the entire 26,000-year record, Syverson found no change in condor morphology. Although this had been previously discovered in a similar study of golden eagles from La Brea, Syverson says it's remarkable to see that the drastic climate change accompanying the end of the last ice age had no impact on the size of the species that lived through it.

When Syverson plotted her measurements of modern and Pleistocene condor bones, she found there was a definite size distinction between the two. "The ancients are decidedly bigger," she says, and the difference is especially notable in the femur, or thigh bone. These birds were heavier, with a longer, narrower skull and beak than the modern California condor. At first blush, they seem to belong to the species Gymnogyps amplus, first described in 1911 based on a broken tarsometatarsus, a bone found in the lower leg of birds.

In fact, that type specimen suggests that the Pleistocene condors at La Brea may be a third distinct condor species. The broken tarsometatarsus--housed in the Berkeley collection--is larger than any other condor bone Syverson studied. "It would've been an outlier from either species," she says. "Based on the fact that the type specimen is outside the range for both of the groups, I wonder if we need to define a third species for the extinct La Brea condor."

This study also documents evidence that ancient and modern condors coexisted for some time, and that the Pleistocene species may have lived at the same time as humans in western North America. Several tarsometatarsi of the older, bigger species were found in the youngest pit at La Brea. This pit also contains the remains of the La Brea woman, the only prehistoric human discovered in the tar pits. Another piece of evidence pointing to the same conclusion comes from the Berkeley museum collection. It is a bone from a Native American midden--a garbage heap--in Oregon, and it falls into the size range of the ancient group. Although its age is unknown, it must have lived at the same time as the people who disposed of it.

Syverson hopes to use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the Oregon specimen. She'd also like to apply the technique to date the G. amplus type specimen, to see if its age does indeed distinguish a third condor species.

Writer: 
Elisabeth Nadin
Tags: 
Writer: 

Caltech's Ingersoll Receives Achievement Award

PASADENA, Calif.-- Andrew P. Ingersoll of the California Institute of Technology has been awarded the 2007 Gerard P. Kuiper Prize by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society in honor of his outstanding contributions to planetary science. The award was presented this week during the annual DPS meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Ingersoll, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Planetary Science at Caltech, has been a leader in the investigation of planetary atmospheres for more than four decades. His research has included studies of the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, the occurrence of liquid water on Mars, the supersonic winds on Jupiter's moon Io, and the atmospheric dynamics of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. He participated on the instrument teams for many NASA/JPL missions including Pioneer Venus, Pioneer Saturn, Voyager, Mars Global Surveyor, Galileo, and Cassini.

Ingersoll is a recipient of NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Astronomical Society.

The Gerard P. Kuiper Prize has been given annually since 1984 to scientists "whose achievements have most advanced our understanding of the planetary system," among them Carl Sagan, James Van Allen and Eugene Shoemaker. The award is named after the pioneering Dutch-born astronomer, who is considered the father of modern planetary science. In 1951, Kuiper proposed the existence of a belt of minor planets at the edge of the solar system; after its discovery, the region was named the Kuiper Belt in his honor. He also discovered the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars, Uranus's satellite Miranda, and Neptune's moon Nereid.

Writer: 
Kathy Svitil
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
Yes

New Method of Studying Ancient Fossils Points to Carbon Dioxide As a Driver of Global Warming

PASADENA, Calif.—A team of American and Canadian scientists has devised a new way to study Earth's past climate by analyzing the chemical composition of ancient marine fossils. The first published tests with the method further support the view that atmospheric CO2 has contributed to dramatic climate variations in the past, and strengthen projections that human CO2 emissions could cause global warming.

In the current issue of the journal Nature, geologists and environmental scientists from the California Institute of Technology, the University of Ottawa, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Brock University, and the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve report the results of a new method for determining the growth temperatures of carbonate fossils such as shells and corals. This method looks at the percentage of rare isotopes of oxygen and carbon that bond with each other rather than being randomly distributed through their mineral lattices.

Because these bonds between oxygen-18 and carbon-13 form in greater abundance at low temperatures and lesser abundance at higher temperatures, a precise measurement of their concentration in a carbonate fossil can quantify the temperature of seawater in which the organisms lived. By comparing this record of temperature change with previous estimates of past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the study demonstrates a strong coupling of atmospheric temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations across one of Earth's major environmental shifts.

According to Rosemarie Came, a postdoctoral scholar in geochemistry at Caltech and lead author of the article, only about 60 parts per million of the carbonate molecular groups that make up the mineral structures of carbonate fossils are a combination of both oxygen-18 and carbon-13, but the amount varies predictably with temperature. Therefore, knowing the age of the sample and how much of these exotic carbonate groups are present allows one to create a record of the planet's temperature through time.

"This clumped-isotope method has an advantage over previous approaches because we're looking at the distribution of rare isotopes inside a single shell or coral," Came says. "All the information needed to study the surface temperature at the time the animal lived is stored in the fossil itself."

In this way, the method contrasts with previous approaches that require knowledge of the chemistry of seawater in the distant past--something that is poorly known.

The study contrasts the growth temperatures of fossils from two times in the distant geological past. The Silurian period, approximately 400 million years ago, is thought to have been a time of highly elevated atmospheric CO2 (more than 10 times the modern concentration), and was found by the researchers to be a time of exceptionally warm shallow-ocean temperatures—nearly 35 degrees C. In contrast, the Carboniferous period, roughly 300 million years ago, appears to have been characterized by far lower levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (similar to modern values) and had shallow marine temperatures similar to or slightly cooler than today-about 25 degrees C. Thus, the draw-down of atmospheric CO2 coincided with strong global cooling.

"This is a huge change in temperature," says John Eiler, a professor of geochemistry at Caltech and a coauthor of the study. "It shows that carbon dioxide really has been a powerful driver of climate change in Earth's past."

The title of the Nature paper is "Coupling of surface temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations during the Paleozoic era." The other authors are Jan Veizer of the University of Ottawa, Karem Azmy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Uwe Brand of Brock University, and Christopher R. Weidman of the Waquoit National Estuarine Research Reserve, Massachusetts.

Writer: 
Robert Tindol
Writer: 

Caltech, JPL, Northrop Grumman to Celebrate 50 Years of Space Exploration

PASADENA, Calif.--Before October 1957, space flight was a thing of fantasy. Today we are experienced space explorers with unlimited voyages to undertake. Where is space flight's next horizon? What constitutes sensible space investment? How did the space pioneers accomplish their goals? These topics will be addressed at "50 Years in Space: An International Aerospace Conference Celebrating 50 Years of Space Technology," which will take place from September 19 to 21 at the California Institute of Technology.

The conference is hosted by Caltech, the Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories at Caltech (GALCIT), Northrop Grumman Corporation, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, space industry pioneers and experts, and representatives from foreign space programs will speak on the history of space exploration, sensible space investment, and the future of space exploration from the perspectives of the aerospace industry, academia, government, and science. The opening keynote speaker will be the chairman of Northrop Grumman, Ronald Sugar.

"Our speakers represent all the institutions that essentially created and successfully sustained space exploration," said Ares Rosakis, Theodore von Karman Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering and GALCIT director, and co-organizer of the conference with Dwight Streit, vice president, foundation technologies in Northrop Grumman's Space Technology sector. "This group crosses international and institutional boundaries. Each of our speakers is a preeminent expert in at least one of the many disciplines required for space travel. Their passion for space science and technology will make this conference the definitive observance worldwide commemorating 50 years in space," Streit noted.

"Many technologies developed as a result of space exploration have become integral terrestrial technologies--and our efforts benefit society in surprising ways that are completely separate from their initial impetus. As we look to the future, we will see how this important aspect of aeronautics continues--especially in the areas of tracking weather changes, global temperatures, and greenhouse gases, as well as the formations of the earth's crust related to seismic activity," Rosakis said.

The launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, began the space age. Within weeks, the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation spun off Space Technology Laboratories (STL), with Simon Ramo as its president. STL and Ramo-Wooldridge became part of TRW Inc. in 1958, and then eventually part of Northrop Grumman in 2002.

In 1958, the JPL-built Explorer 1 put the U.S. in the space race, followed soon thereafter by Pioneer 1, built by TRW and the first spacecraft launched by NASA.

Ramo, the "R" in TRW, earned his PhD at Caltech in 1936. TRW's Space and Electronics Group became the Space Technology sector at Northrop Grumman. The president of the company's Space Technology sector, Alexis Livanos (also a Caltech graduate, having earned his bachelor's, master's, and PhD at Caltech), will give a special tribute to Ramo, 94, at the conference.

Livanos will join JPL director Charles Elachi (who earned his MS and PhD at Caltech), and Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau as chairs of the conference. Elachi and Chameau will also be speaking.

Caltech alumnus Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, a geologist, one of the last two men to walk on the moon, and a NASA adviser, will be joined by Ed Stone, former director of JPL, and Gentry Lee, chief engineer for the Planetary Flight Systems Directorate at JPL, for a "look back" at the accomplishments of the past 50 years, many of which they bravely spearheaded. JPL, which became part of NASA after its formation in 1958, remains at the center of robotic planetary exploration and Earth-observing science. JPL is managed by Caltech.

Representatives of the top-tier space programs around the globe will also be present, including NASA's Griffin; European Space Agency Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain; President of Centre National d'Études Spatiales Yannick d'Escatha; and Masato Nakamura of the Japanese Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, all of whom will discuss the future of space exploration.

Miles O'Brien, CNN chief technology and environment correspondent, will moderate a panel discussion titled "Space and the Environment: Sensible Space Investment." Participating in the panel, and also presenting a separate talk, is A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the 11th president of India and a noted scientist and aeronautical engineer.

Other distinguished guests include keynote speaker John C. Mather, James Webb Space Telescope senior project scientist; Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO; Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites; and Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson. Mather was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the areas of black body form, cosmic microwave background radiation, and Big-Bang theory. PayPal creator Musk, whose space-transportation company, SpaceX, has opened up a whole new segment of the aerospace industry, will be speaking on a panel discussing the future of space exploration from an industry perspective. Closing keynote speaker Tyson is the recipient of eight honorary doctorates and was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2007.

Several speakers will address the aerospace industry's perspective on the future of space flight. These include Musk; David Thompson, chairman and CEO of Orbital Science Corporation; Joanne Maguire, executive vice president, space systems, at Lockheed Martin; and David Whelan, corporate vice president, Boeing.

The perspective from academia will come from, among others, Caltech alumna and president of Purdue University France Córdova and Charles Kennel, the former director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Ronald Sega, undersecretary, United States Air Force, and the Defense Department's executive agent for space, will also speak on the future of space exploration.

Participants will be able to view large replicas of spacecrafts, rovers, and satellites. "This is more than a sit-and-listen event," said Rosakis. "It is an interactive learning experience. Guests will meet and exchange ideas with like-minded people and professionals in between formal presentations. The displays and replicas will also add to the guests' visual understanding of space exploration. They will be able to understand what the presence of these structures really feels like."

Full registration is $550. To register, go to http://www.galcit.caltech.edu/space50/. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis, and seating is limited.

Caltech, JPL, Northrop Grumman, California Space Authority employees, Southern California high-school and college students and teachers with ID are welcome to attend the talks free of charge, but they must register via the website. 

Writer: 
Jill Perry
Writer: 

NASA'S Spitzer Finds Water Vapor on Hot, Alien Planet

It may not be a waterworld that would field many of Kevin Costner's dreams, but the exoplanet HD 189733b has just been found to have water vapor in its atmosphere. The observation provides the best evidence to date that water exists on worlds outside our own solar system.

The discovery was made by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which possesses a particularly keen ability to study nearby stars and their exoplanets. HD 189733b is located 63 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula.

"Water is the quintessence of life as we know it," says Yuk Yung, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and one of the authors of a paper appearing in this week's journal Nature. "It is exciting to find that it is as abundant in another solar system as it is in ours."

The Spitzer observations show that HD 189733b swelters as it zips closely around its star every two days or so. Astronomers had predicted that planets of this class, termed "hot Jupiters," would contain water vapor in their atmospheres. Yet finding solid evidence for this has been slippery. These latest data are the most convincing yet that hot Jupiters are "wet." "We're thrilled to have identified clear signs of water on a planet that is trillions of miles away," said Giovanna Tinetti, a European Space Agency fellow at the Institute d'Astrophysique de Paris in France.

A former postdoctoral scholar at the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at Caltech, Tinetti is lead author of the Nature paper.

Coauthor, Mao-Chang Liang of Caltech and the Research Center for Environmental Changes in Taiwan said, "The discovery of water is the key to the discovery of alien life."

Although water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it, wet hot Jupiters are not likely to harbor any creatures. Previous measurements from Spitzer indicate that HD 189733b is a fiery 1,000 degrees Kelvin (1,340 degrees Fahrenheit) on average. Ultimately, astronomers hope to use instruments like those on Spitzer to find water on rocky, habitable planets like Earth. "Finding water on this planet implies that other planets in the universe, possibly even rocky ones, could also have water," said coauthor Sean Carey of the Spitzer Science Center ,which is headquartered at Caltech. "I'm excited to tell my nephew and niece about the discovery."

The new findings are part of a brand-new field of science that is concerned with investigating the climate on exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Such faraway planets cannot be seen directly; however, in the past few years, astronomers have begun to glean information about their atmospheres by observing a subset of hot Jupiters that transit, or pass in front of ,their stars as seen from Earth. Earlier this year, Spitzer became the first telescope to analyze, or break apart, the light from two transiting hot Jupiters, HD 189733b and HD 209458b. One of its instruments, called a spectrometer, observed the planets as they dipped behind their stars in what is called the secondary eclipse. This led to the first-ever "fingerprint," or spectrum, of an exoplanet's light. Yet, the results indicated the planet was dry, probably because the structure of these planets' atmospheres makes finding water with this method difficult.

Later, a team of astronomers found hints of water on HD 209458b by analyzing visible-light data taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble data were captured as the planet crossed in front of the star, an event called the primary eclipse. Now, Tinetti and her team have captured the best evidence yet for wet hot Jupiters by watching HD 189733b's primary eclipse in infrared light with Spitzer. In this method, changes in infrared light from the star are measured as the planet slips by, filtering starlight through its outer atmosphere. The astronomers observed the eclipse with Spitzer's infrared-array camera at three different infrared wavelengths and noticed that each time a different amount of light was absorbed by the planet. The pattern by which this absorption varies with wavelength matches that created by water.

"Water is the only molecule that can explain that behavior," said Tinetti. "Observing primary eclipses in infrared light is the best way to search for this molecule in exoplanets."

The water on HD 189733b is too hot to condense into clouds; however, previous observations of the planet from Spitzer and other ground- and space-based telescopes suggest that it might have dry clouds, along with high winds and a hot, sun-facing side that is warmer than its dark side. Other authors of the Nature paper include Alfred Vidal-Madjar, Jean-Phillippe Beaulieu, David Sing, Nicole Allard, and Roger Ferlet of the Institute d'Astrophysique de Paris; Robert J. Barber and Jonathan Tennyson of University College London in England; Ignasi Ribas of the Institut de Ciències de l'Espai, Spain; Gilda E. Ballester of the University of Arizona, Tucson; and Franck Selsis of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, France.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of Caltech. Spitzer's infrared-array camera was built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. The instrument's principal investigator is Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA. For graphics about this research and more information about Spitzer, visit http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/spitzer and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer

Writer: 
Robert Tindol
Writer: 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - GPS