Vampire Star

The Universe is a diverse place, and many stars are quite unlike the Sun. Now an international team has used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to study what are known as O-type stars, which have very high temperature, mass and brightness.

These stars have short and violent lives and play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. They are also linked to extreme phenomena such as 'vampire stars', where a smaller companion star sucks matter off the surface of its larger neighbour.

'These stars are absolute behemoths,' said Hugues Sana, from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, who is the lead author of the study.

Vampire star! New research using data from ESO's Very Large Telescope has revealed close binaries transfer mass from one star to another, a kind of stellar vampirism depicted in this artist's impression

'They have 15 or more times the mass of our Sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 30,000C.'

The astronomers studied a sample of 71 O-type single stars and stars in pairs (binaries) in six nearby young star clusters in the Milky Way. Most of the observations in their study were obtained using ESO telescopes, including the VLT.

By analysing the light coming from these targets in greater detail than before, the team discovered that 75 per cent of all O-type stars exist inside binary systems, a higher proportion than previously thought, and the first precise determination of this number.

More importantly, though, they found that the proportion of these pairs that are close enough to interact (through stellar mergers or transfer of mass by so-called vampire stars) is far higher than anyone had thought, which has profound implications for our understanding of galaxy evolution.

O-type stars make up just a fraction of a percent of the stars in the Universe, but the violent phenomena associated with them mean they have a disproportionate effect on their surroundings.

The winds and shocks coming from these stars can both trigger and stop star formation, their radiation powers the glow of bright nebulae, their supernovae enrich galaxies with the heavy elements crucial for life, and they are associated with gamma-ray bursts, which are among the most energetic phenomena in the Universe. O-type stars are therefore implicated in many of the mechanisms that drive the evolution of galaxies.

An artist impression of the binary system LH54-425, which consists of two very massive stars. The larger star's powerful wind overpowers the smaller star's wind, creating a region of hot gas where the outflows collide

'The life of a star is greatly affected if it exists alongside another star,' says Selma de Mink (Space Telescope Science Institute, USA), a co-author of the study.

'If two stars orbit very close to each other they may eventually merge. But even if they don't, one star will often pull matter off the surface of its neighbour.'

Mergers between stars, which the team estimates will be the ultimate fate of around 20-30 per cent of O-type stars, are violent events. But even the comparatively gentle scenario of vampire stars, which accounts for a further 40-50 per cent of cases, has profound effects on how these stars evolve.

Until now, astronomers mostly considered that closely-orbiting massive binary stars were the exception, something that was only needed to explain exotic phenomena such as X-ray binaries, double pulsars and black hole binaries.

The new study shows that to properly interpret the Universe, this simplification cannot be made: these heavyweight double stars are not just common, their lives are fundamentally different from those of single stars.

For instance, in the case of vampire stars, the smaller, lower-mass star is rejuvenated as it sucks the fresh hydrogen from its companion. Its mass will increase substantially and it will outlive its companion, surviving much longer than a single star of the same mass would.

The victim star, meanwhile, is stripped of its envelope before it has a chance to become a luminous red super giant.

Instead, its hot, blue core is exposed. As a result, the stellar population of a distant galaxy may appear to be much younger than it really is: both the rejuvenated vampire stars, and the diminished victim stars become hotter, and bluer in colour, mimicking the appearance of younger stars.

Knowing the true proportion of interacting high-mass binary stars is therefore crucial to correctly characterise these faraway galaxies.

The only information astronomers have on distant galaxies is from the light that reaches our telescopes.

Without making assumptions about what is responsible for this light we cannot draw conclusions about the galaxy, such as how massive or how young it is.

This study shows that the frequent assumption that most stars are single can lead to the wrong conclusions,' concludes Hugues Sana.

Understanding how big these effects are, and how much this new perspective will change our view of galactic evolution, will need further work. Modeling binary stars is complicated, so it will take time before all these considerations are included in models of galaxy formation.


Top 9 Bizarre Beached Creatures

Shore is strange… at least sometimes, and usually after a storm. Beachcombers often can’t believe their eyes (or noses) when encountering some of Neptune’s more notable washed-up castoffs and even scientists can be befuddled on first impression. Like most UFO’s, there’s always an explanation for the apparently unexplainable… it’s up to you, however, if you choose to believe it.

Quit While You’re a Head

Not much happens in Temuka, a town of just over 4,000 located on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, but all that changed on October 28th, 2009 when the aliens landed… according to Rose Fraser, who came across it while walking along Temuka Beach. “I must admit, I thought: ‘Heck, this is an alien’. It looks like it’s got big ribs coming out of it, but it looks like they could be tentacles, so I don’t know.” Scientific analysis soon proved her conjecture a might ambitious, identifying the “mysterious blob” instead as the top of a Sperm Whale’s head. “It is not yet known what will happen to the blob of whale,” concludes the Fairfax NZ News, and frankly we’d rather not know either.

Storm Sturgeon

Something was fishy about the so-called “nightmarish Lovecraftian sea monster” that washed ashore on South Carolina’s Folly Beach in March of 2012, or maybe that was just the aroma carried by the sea breeze. It certainly wasn’t the look of this thing, which appeared to have time-traveled from the age of the dinosaurs. A local vet identified the scaly, scute-covered corpse to be a wayward Atlantic Sturgeon, a fish that can grow up to 15 feet long, weigh as much as 800 pounds, and hasn’t really changed much since the species originated around 100 million years ago. Great Old Ones indeed!

The Kivalina Strain

The remote native community of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea shore in northwestern Alaska isn’t the first place one might expect an alien invasion but on August 3rd, 2011, that’s exactly what happened. Rolling onto the beach for miles around, the first wave was NOT made of little green men, but little orange spores… billions of them.

The tiny orange spheres turned out to be fungal spores of a type of plant rust, to be exact. Who knew plants can rust? Anyway, it’s a good thing those who assumed the bloom was made up of crab eggs or some other form of sea life waited for scientists to determine the precise nature of the “orange goo” before slathering it on their sushi. Wait a minute, wasn’t the lethal pathogen from the novel and film The Andromeda Strain a type of fungal spore?

Lost Your Head?

“I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like it,” said Basil Park of McIvers, on the shore of Newfoundland’s Bay of Islands. “There’s fishermen around here who fished all their lives and they couldn’t tell you.” That’s saying something, even if the subject is a headless creature 15 feet long, 10 feet of which form a tapering tail. Officials of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans haven’t disclosed the nature of the creature that washed ashore in February of 2010. While they’re waiting for the head to turn up (in New Zealand, perhaps?), we suggest they pass the time reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Montauk Monster

No list of washed-up creatures would be complete without mention of the first (of at least three) Montauk Monster. Reports of the ferocious-looking carcass originated from far-eastern Long Island, New York, in July of 2008 and exploded onto the Internet shortly thereafter. Though DOA when it hit the popular Ditch Plains beach, the creature lives on in pop culture and has even been a subject of a beautiful yet disturbing painting by Dan Lacey.

Four years after its discovery, speculation still abounds over the creature’s origin, identity (it may be the decomposed remains of a raccoon) and even its whereabouts, as according to the Wikipedia entry on the Montauk Monster “It is unknown what happened to the carcass.” Well it didn’t just walk away, did it? DID IT??

Opah Is The Devil

That’s “Opah”, not Oprah, and although this big beached beauty may look somewhat satanic the lower reaches it hails from aren’t hellish in the least. Known variously as Sunfish, Moonfish, or Kingfish, these deep-ocean fish are rarely seen even when biologists and anglers are looking for them.

It “looked like it was from another planet,” stated Scott Williams, a local surfer who discovered the massive fish being battered by waves one morning in October of 2010, just off the coast of San Diego. It’s estimated the manhole-sized, 100-lb Opah would bring $12 per pound if sold at market prices but being that it was a fish out of water, literally, eating it might not be advisable.

Violets Are Blew

Purple Storm Snails (Janthina janthina) are rarely seen anywhere BUT washed up on a beach. These exquisitely beautiful gastropods have paper-thin shells and blow “bubble rafts” of transparent chitin to keep them afloat on the ocean’s surface. They acquired their colloquial name from their propensity to being blown onto beaches by strong storm winds.

From Russia With Ugh

I see your Montauk Monster and raise you a Moscow Monster! This seriously decomposed… something… was found by soldiers stationed on Russia’s far-eastern island territory of Sakhalin in 2006. Sakhalin, by the way, is about 5,000 miles east of Moscow… just sayin’.

Once the story broke, Russian Special Service personnel quickly removed the remains from the beach “for in-depth studies”, though over five years later not a peep has been heard from them. Independent observers working from photos taken and transmitted before the FSS (the KGB’s successor) put a bearhug on further reporting noted similarities between the washed-up creature’s skull and skeleton to those of Orca and Beluga Whales, the later of which are rather populous in the waters off Sakhalin.

Bigfoot, Meet Bigtooth

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… it IS safe in the water, just stay off the beach! OK, the only danger posed by the toothy creation above is potentially stubbing one’s toe on it. And by “creation”, we don’t mean it in the biblical sense. Tampa Bay artist Juan Cabana conceived, composed and posed the purported Sea Monster as one of his “Seamystery” series of mythical creatures, monsters, mermaids and aliens. The ferocious fish-beast above was auctioned off at eBay by Cabana in June 2006 and any image seen on the Internet is derived from the photos Cabana included in the auction description.


Jewel Caterpillars

Not much is known about so-called Jewel Caterpillars of the genus Dalceridae but one thing’s certain: this group of 84 moth species includes some of the most beautiful bugs you’ve ever laid eyes on. Like gorgeous gems, however, it’s better to look than to touch: the soft, sticky, slug-like creatures are a treat for the eyes, not the hands.

Meet Acraga Coa, A “Slug” With Style

Though caterpillars and moths of the genus Dalceridae have been described in scientific literature for over a century, it’s only recently that they’ve come to wider notice among regular folks. This is partly due to the creatures’ habitat, typically tropical rainforests of the Neotropic ecozone which stretches from southern Florida and coastal Mexico down through most of South America.

While advances in modern photography have helped expose Dalceridae larva to readers of National Geographic magazine, among other such publications, the recent proliferation of news blogs, science websites, and photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Pinterest have done even more to bring Jewel Caterpillars to a wider audience.

Beautiful though the Dalceridae may be, just what the heck are they? Among a vast wealth of caterpillars of virtually all shapes, sizes, colors and configurations, Jewel Caterpillars stand out from the crowd. Even those species whose larvae are uncolored rivet one’s attention due to their glossy gelatinous coatings that seemingly transform them into living, moving gems.

The spotlight shining on Dalceridae larvae will likely solidify their everyday colloquial name from Slug Caterpillars to Jewel Caterpillars. Nothing against slugs – some species are surprisingly brightly colored – but for the Dalceridae looking astonishingly exquisite is the norm and not the exception.

The particular Jewel Caterpillar featured here is the larva of Acraga Coa, a moth native to the Mexican rainforest. Its rise to Internet stardom was facilitated by Gerardo Aizpuru, a scuba instructor and amateur wildlife photographer who noticed a specimen crawling across a Mangrove tree leaf near Cancun, Mexico, one day in April 2012. Aizpuru submitted his excellent snaps to Project Noah, user-created image and knowledge database self-described as “a tool to explore and document wildlife and a platform to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere.”

Diamonds In The Rough

Over the next days and weeks, Aizpuru’s lovely “living jewel” exploded across the Web with lightning speed, prompting a flood of search inquiries asking what the creature was and were there others similar to it.

At this point the spotlight shifted somewhat as amateur and professional photographers alike searched online databases and actual rainforest habitats for other members of the Dalceridae family. Could any of Acraga Coa’s cousins rival its larva’s striking good looks?

Jewel-like but not gems, Dalceridae larvae such as the specimen above look good enough to pin to one’s blouse though that’s not recommended. In fact, they may look the way they do by design: predatory ants and insects display a distinct distaste for the caterpillars’ gooey, gelatinous coverings.

It seems as if the caterpillars are well aware of their power to give potential predators pause. They’ve been observed crawling on top of leaves, resting in full view of all and sundry, nonchalantly showing off their glistening coats and apparently daring any enemies to take a bite – and very few do.

It’s hard to get a handle on which Dalceridae caterpillar is which. Not that entomologists are “sluggish” in any way, it’s just that the combination of the creatures’ hard to reach habitats and the fact that many caterpillars look different from one molt to another make identifying any one Dalceridae larva a bit of a guessing game.

Than again, what’s in a name? For non-scientists who don’t have to submit a thesis, simply enjoying the wonders of nature as expressed by Jewel Caterpillars is enough of a blessing. Take the lime green critter above: could it hold a candle to an emerald or vice versa? Let’s not try holding candles to emeralds or Jewel Caterpillars, okay?

Orange You Glad It’s A Moth?

Every caterpillar is destined to become a moth, assuming it survives the many trials and tribulations of the larval state and manages to make with the metamorphosis inside its cocoon. For Jewel Caterpillars, this stage of life remains wrapped in mystery. Until science shows us otherwise, we’ll have to imagine Dalceridae larvae weave cocoons similar to the Urodus (possibly) moth’s gorgeous golden basket above.

Everyone knows the story of the ugly caterpillar reborn as a beautiful butterfly, and while moths are often lacking in the beauty department Acraga Coa doesn’t disappoint. Not only is the moth Painted a warm, rich shade of orange, it’s festooned with fluffy tufts worthy of the Westminster Dog Show’s prettiest poodle.

Glutinous gooey gel and fluffy filamentary fur – polar opposites to be sure but the exquisite Jewel Caterpillar manages to transform one into the other without even the most minor of missteps. It’s just one more example of Nature’s wonder, honed to perfection over many millions of years of evolution with, perhaps, millions of years of further refinement to look forward to!


Guinea 'Olym' Pig Games Calendar 2013

Maverick Arts Publishing has created a new calendar depicting guinea pigs going for gold at a huge sporting event like the Olympics. The Guinea Pig Games 2013 calendar features the furry creatures competing in events such as hurdles, swimming, showjumping and cycling.

As you may have already guessed, the guinea pigs weren’t taking part in any of the events. It’s all digital manipulation. The animals were photographed in a comfortable studio for no more than five minutes at a time and with plenty of treats.

Steve Bicknell, owner of publishers Maverick Arts, says: "Guinea Pig Games is one of our most successful calendars. We hired the guinea pigs from Palace Piggie Rescue in Crawley in exchange for a donation. The owner of the rescue site handled the guinea pigs."


Beautiful Glacier Waterfalls in Svalbard, Norway

Svalbard, which means "cold coasts", is an archipelago in the Arctic, constituting the northernmost part of Norway as well as of Europe. It is located about 400 miles north of mainland Europe, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Despite being so close to the North Pole, Svalbard is comparatively warm, thanks to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, which makes it habitable. In fact, Svalbard is the northernmost permanently inhabited region on the planet.

The islands cover a total area of 62,050 square km, nearly 60% of which is covered by glacier with many outlet glaciers terminating in the sea. Some of these glaciers have small waterfalls formed from melting snow and ice. Most of Svalbard is barren rock but during the short summer, the melting snow in the milder parts of the islands give place to vast stretches of tundra vegetation, sometimes dotted with delicate flowers.

Svalbard is home to seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, environment. Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds, and also features polar bears, short legged reindeer, polar foxes, whales, seals and walruses. Svalbard is renowned for its variety of birds, including Arctic Terns, Arctic Fulmar and Puffins. Whales can be spotted off the coastlines particularly during late summer. Humpback whales, Orcas, Beluga Whales, and Narwhals all frequent the ocean waters near Svalbard.


Spectacular Granite Spires at Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine or Towers of Paine are three massive granite pillars jutting out some 2,800 meters above the Patagonian steppe at South America's finest national park, 1,960 km south of the Chilean capital Santiago. These breathtaking spires are flanked by the summit of Paine Grande (3,050 m) and the sharp tusks of black sedimentary peaks known as Los Cuernos (The Horns). Aside from these spectacular granite spires and mountains of the massif that dominate the landscape, the national park also encompasses ridges, crags, glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and lagoons.

The centerpiece of the park is, of course, the three gigantic Towers of Paine. One of the earliest description of the area can be found in a book by Lady Florence Dixie published in 1880, where the British writer refered to the three towers as Cleopatra's Needles. She and her party were the first tourists to visit what is now called Torres del Paine National Park.

The Paine massif is actually a part of the eastern spur of the Andes located on the east side of the Grey Glacier, rising dramatically above the Patagonian steppe. The highest summit of the range is Cerro Paine Grande at an elevation of 2,884 m. The South Tower of Paine is about 2,500 m, while the Central Tower of Paine is about 2,460. There are other smaller summits including the Cuerno Principal, about 2,100 m, and Cerro Paine Chico at about 2,650 m.

Much of the geology of the Paine Massif area consists of black, Cretaceous sedimentary rocks, its strata showing complex folds resulting from tectonic deformation during the formation of the Andes. But these dark mountains are also streaked with pale granite, which formed when magma rose from the depths 13 million years ago, becoming trapped and slowly solidifying to form what is known as a laccolith. Glacial ice eroded the overlying rock exposing these gigantic granite monoliths that stand today.

Torres del Paine National Park is not just mountains and rocks. It’s an area of astonishing scenic beauty with snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes. The Grey, Tyndall and Balmaceda Glaciers are remains of once much more extensive system that retreated approximately 10,000 years ago. The evergreen forests of Verano extend to the west as far as the foot of the Andes mountains, which wise up to a treeless alpine zone. There are about 106 species of birds, some of which are endangered, such as Coscoroba Swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) and Darwin-Nandu (Pterocnemia pennata).

The national park is a popular hiking destination in Chile. More than 20,000 national and 40,000 international tourists visit the site annually. There are clearly marked and well maintained paths and many refugios which provide shelter and basic services. Camping is only allowed at specified campsites and wood fires are prohibited throughout the park.

Fire has been a recent threat. In 1985, a Japanese tourist started a fire that burned about 150 km² of the park. Then again in February 2005, a wildfire was ignited at Torres del Paine, when a tourist accidentally knocked his stove onto ground vegetation. The fire which lasted for about ten days, destroyed 155 km² of the park, including about 2 km² of native forest. In late December 2011, yet another fire burned 128 km² of the reserve, destroying about 36 km² of native forest.