Astronomers discover watery cloud-covered atmosphere around Neptune-sized exoplanet

Astronomers have identified a watery atmosphere containing clouds around an exoplanet first discovered in 2010.

The planet, HAT-P-26b, orbits a moderately bright dwarf star named GSC 0320-01027, and is a similar mass to Neptune. While such exoplanets have been discovered in large numbers – astronomers have discovered several thousand exoplanets to date – knowledge about what atmospheres they may or may not have remains relatively scarce.

As a result, the discovery of an atmosphere containing water around this otherwise unremarkable exoplanet is highly significant.

Not only does it allow astronomers to infer the proportion of certain elements in the atmosphere, but it also helps to further the understanding of how atmospheres vary across exoplanets of different sizes and allow researchers to hone their models for how planets form.

The atmosphere was in part discovered using observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency

The atmosphere was discovered by a team of astronomers led by Hannah R Wakeford using six separate observations. Four were made recently using the Hubble Space Telescope, while two were previously made using the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The researchers were able to use the observations not only to determine that the planet has water in its atmosphere, but how much is present. This in turn allowed them to calculate the atmosphere’s metallicity: the proportion of elements in the atmosphere that are heavier than both hydrogen and helium.

In the case of HAT-P-26b, this number was lower than had been expected, based on what is known about other similarly-sized planets such Neptune and Uranus.

It is thought that the reason for this is that this exoplanet acquired an atmosphere later than usual, when it was reaching the end stages of it formation. This is because this low metallicity suggests the planet has not experienced any major impacts from debris such asteroids since its atmosphere formed.

Despite being considered ‘Neptune-sized’ the planet has a number of significant differences to Neptune/ Image courtesy of NASA

The discovery, which is detailed in a paper published today in the journal Science, is significant for the understanding Neptune-sized planets, both in our own solar system and beyond, which are highly abundant.

“Neptune-sized worlds are among the most common planets in our galaxy and frequently exist in orbital periods very different from that of our own Solar System ice giants,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Atmospheric studies using transmission spectroscopy can be used to constrain their formation and evolution.”

Despite having a mass similar to Neptune, HAT-P-26b has a number of other differences to the Solar System’s eighth planet. It is, for example, almost twice the size of Neptune, despite being considered ‘Neptune-sized’ but has an orbit of just 4.23 days.

Adding stem cells to the brains of mice “slowed or reversed” ageing

Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists “slowed or reversed” ageing in mice by injecting stem cells into their brains.

The study, published online in the journal Nature, saw the scientists implant stem cells into mice’s hypothalamus, which caused molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs) to be released.

The miRNA molecules were then extracted from the hypothalamic stem cells and injected into the cerebrospinal fluid of two groups of mice: middle-aged mice whose hypothalamic stem cells had been destroyed and normal middle-aged mice.

This treatment significantly slowed aging in both groups of animals as measured by tissue analysis and behavioural testing that involved assessing changes in the animals’ muscle endurance, coordination, social behaviour and cognitive ability.

“Our research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging,” said senior author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein.

“But we also found that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it’s possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body.”

To reach the conclusion that stem cells in the hypothalamus held the key to aging, the scientists first looked at the fate cells in the hypothalamus as healthy mice got older.

The number of hypothalamic stem cells began to diminish when the mice reached about 10 months, which is several months before the usual signs of aging start appearing. “By old age—about two years of age in mice—most of those cells were gone,” said Dr. Cai.

Images courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.

The researchers next wanted to learn whether this progressive loss of stem cells was actually causing aging and was not just associated with it.

To do this, the scientists observed what happened when they selectively disrupted the hypothalamic stem cells in middle-aged mice.

“This disruption greatly accelerated aging compared with control mice, and those animals with disrupted stem cells died earlier than normal,” said Dr. Cai.

Finally, to work out whther adding stem cells to the hypothalamus counteracted ageing, the scientists injected hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of middle-aged mice whose stem cells had been destroyed as well as into the brains of normal old mice.

In both groups of animals, the treatment slowed or reversed various measures of aging.

The scientists are now trying to identify the particular populations of microRNAs that are responsible for the anti-aging effects seen in mice, which is perhaps the first step toward slowing the aging process and successfully treating age-related diseases in humans.

Self-driving delivery cars coming to UK roads by 2018

A driverless vehicle designed to deliver goods to UK homes is set to take to the road next year after the successful conclusion of an equity crowdfunding campaign.

Developed by engineers at The University of Aberystwyth-based startup The Academy of Robotics, the vehicle, Kar-Go, is road-legal, and capable of driving on roads without any specific markings without human intervention.

Kar-Go has successfully raised £321,000 through Crowdcube – 107% of its goal – meaning the company now has the funds to build its first commercially ready vehicles. This amount will also, according to William Sachiti, Academy of Robotics founder and CEO, be matched by “one of the largest tech companies” in the world.

Images courtesy of Academy of Robotics

The Academy of Robotics has already built and tested a prototype version of Kar-Go, and is working with UK car manufacturer Pilgrim to produce the fully street-legal version.

The duo has already gained legal approval from the UK government’s Centre for Autonomous Vehicles, meaning the cars will be able to immediately operate on UK roads once built.

The aim of Kar-Go is to partner with suppliers of everyday consumer goods to significantly reduce the cost of deliveries, and the company’s goal in this area is ambitious: Sachiti believes Kar-Go could reduce delivery costs by as much as 98%.

Whether companies go for the offering remains to be seen, but the company says it is in early stage discussions with several of the largest fast-moving consumer goods companies in Europe, which would likely include the corporations behind some of the most recognisable brands found in UK supermarkets.

Introducing Kar-go Autonomous Delivery from Academy of Robotics on Vimeo.

While some will be sceptical, Sachiti is keen to drive the company to success, and already has an impressive track record in future-focused business development. He previously founded Clever Bins – the solar powered digital advertising bins found in many of the nation’s cities – and digital concierge service MyCityVenue – now part of SecretEscapes.

“As a CEO, it is one of my primary duties to make sure Kar-go remains a fantastic investment, this can only be achieved by our team producing spectacular results. We can’t wait to show the world what we produce,” he said.

“We have a stellar team who are excited to have begun working on what we believe will probably be the best autonomous delivery vehicle in the world. For instance, our multi-award winning lead vehicle designer is part of the World Championship winning Brabham Formula One design team, and also spent years as a Design Engineer at McLaren.”