Part-III Addendum to (First Will Come Reversal Excursions Then the Flip)

The episodic nature of the Earth’s glacial and interglacial periods within the present Ice Age (the last couple of million years) have been caused primarily by cyclical changes in the Earth’s circumnavigation of the Sun. Variations in the Earth’s eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession comprise the three dominant cycles, collectively known as the Milankovitch Cycles for Milutin Milankovitch, the Serbian astronomer and mathematician who is generally credited with calculating their magnitude. Taken in unison, variations in these three cycles creates alterations in the seasonality of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. These times of increased or decreased solar radiation directly influence the Earth’s climate system, thus impacting the advance and retreat of Earth’s glaciers.

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The first of the three Milankovitch Cycles is Earth’s axial tilt. It is the inclination of the Earth’s axis in relation to its plane of orbit around the Sun. Oscillations in the degree of Earth’s axial tilt occur on a periodicity of 41,000 years from 21.5 to 24.5 degrees. Today the Earth’s axial tilt is about 23.5 degrees, which largely accounts for our seasons.  Because of the periodic variations of this angle the severity of the Earth’s seasons changes. With less axial tilt the Sun’s solar radiation is more evenly distributed between winter and summer. However, less tilt also increases the difference in radiation receipts between the equatorial and Polar Regions.

The second principle of the Milankovitch Cycle is Earth’s precession. Precession is the Earth’s slow wobble as it spins on axis. This wobbling of the Earth on its axis can be likened to a top running down, and beginning to wobble back and forth on its axis. The precession of Earth wobbles from pointing at Polaris (North Star) to pointing at the star Vega. When this shift to the axis pointing at Vega occurs, Vega would then be considered the North Star. This top-like wobble, or precession, has a periodicity of 23,000 years.

The third principle of the Milankovitch Cycles is the Earth’s eccentricity. Eccentricity is, simply, the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This constantly fluctuating, orbital shape ranges between more and less elliptical (0 to 5% ellipticity) on a cycle of about 100,000 years. These oscillations, from more elliptic to less elliptic, are of prime importance to glaciation in that it alters the distance from the Earth to the Sun, thus changing the distance the Sun’s short wave radiation must travel to reach Earth, subsequently reducing or increasing the amount of radiation received at the Earth’s surface in different seasons.

Part III – Cosmic Rays and There Effect to Our Solar System and Earth

First, I wish to address the study of the most powerful kinetically energized cosmic ray particle what has now become known as the ‘OMG Particle’.

“OMG” was the nickname given to the first example of what are now known as ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, detected in 1991 by the University of Utah’s Fly’s Eye cosmic ray detector. That single proton slammed into our atmosphere going roughly 99.99999999999999999999951 percent the speed of light. And no, all those nines aren’t just for dramatic effect to make the number look impressive – it really was that fast. This particle had the same amount of kinetic energy as a decently thrown baseball … compressed down into an object the size of a proton.

That means this particle had over 10 million times more energy than what our most powerful particle collider, the LHC, can produce. Due to relativistic time dilation, at that speed, the OMG particle could travel to our nearest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri, in 0.43 milliseconds of the particle’s own time. It could continue on to our galactic core by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence (from its own perspective).

To accelerate a charged particle to insane velocities, you need two key ingredients: a lot of energy and a magnetic field. The magnetic field does the work of transferring to the particle whatever energies are in your event (say, the explosive kinetic energy of a supernova blast or the swirling gravitational pull as matter falls toward a black hole).

The true origins of these ultra-high-energy “OMG” particles are tough to pin down, and despite almost 30 years of detection history, we don’t have a lot of firm answers. Which is fine – it’s good to have at least some mysteries left in the universe. Astrophysicists could use some job security, too.


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NEW STUDY: Can We Protect the Brain From Cosmic Radiation?

Although this new study is focused space travel and the damage cosmic rays can impose on the human brain, it is important to reflect upon the current trend of a diminishing strength of Earth’s magnetic field allowing a significant increase of cosmic rays.

Another factor is the predicted lessening of solar cycle strengths – perhaps over the next 100 years. When there is a lower number of sunspots, there will be fewer solar storms such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and coronal holes. It is the stronger solar winds which deflect galactic cosmic rays. There is a considerable scientific argument which propose cosmic ray radiation is more harmful to Earth and humans than solar storm events.

As we prepare to enter a new era of space travel, we must find ways of averting health risks posed by the cosmic environment. Deep space radiation, in particular, is known to impair cognitive function. Have researchers found a way to undo that damage?

This is the eve of sending astronauts to explore deep space, colonizing and terraforming other planets, and planning for space tourism. One main threat comes from cosmic radiation, which can harm the central nervous system, altering cognitive function and leading to symptoms similar to those found in Alzheimer’s disease.

With their colonizing missions to Mars planned for as soon as the 2030s, NASA – as well as private companies interested in space travel concepts – have been looking into effective ways of protecting astronauts from the harms of radiation.

So far, researchers have focused mainly on how to enhance spacecrafts and protective outfits for outer space travelers to fend off this strong radiation. Now, however, investigators from the University of California, San Francisco – led by Susanna Rosi – have started developing a treatment that might offset the neuro-degeneration triggered by cosmic rays.

The results of their experiments, which they carried out on mouse models, are now published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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BREAKING NEWS: Scientists to Determine Recent Supernovae Responsible for Earth’s Previous Mass Extinction

Dr Brian Thomas, an astrophysicist at Washburn University in Kansas, USA, modeled the biological impacts at the Earth’s surface, based on geologic evidence of nearby supernovae 2.5 million and 8 million years ago. In his latest paper, Thomas investigated cosmic rays from the supernovae as they propagated through our atmosphere to the surface, to understand their effect on living organisms.

How would a nearby supernova affect life on Earth? Thomas laments that supernovae often are exemplified as “supernova goes off and everything dies”, but that is not quite the case. The answer lies in the atmosphere. Beyond sunscreen, the ozone layer protects all biology from harmful, genetically altering ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Thomas used global climate models, recent atmospheric chemistry models and radiative transfer (the propagation of radiation through the layers of the atmosphere) to better understand how the flux of cosmic rays from supernovae would alter Earth’s atmosphere, specifically the ozone layer.

One thing to note is that cosmic rays from supernovae would not blast everything in their paths all at once. The intergalactic medium acts as a kind of sieve, slowing down the arrival of cosmic rays and “radioactive iron rain” (60Fe) over hundreds of thousands of years, Thomas tells Astrobiology Magazine. Higher energetic particles will reach Earth first and interact with our atmosphere differently than lower energy particles arriving later. Thomas’s study modeled the depletion in ozone 100, 300, and 1,000 years after the initial particles from a supernova began penetrating our atmosphere. Interestingly, depletion peaked (at roughly 26 percent) for the 300-year case, beating out the 100-year case.

The high-energy cosmic rays in the 100-year case would zip right through the stratosphere and deposit their energy below the ozone layer, depleting it less, while the less energetic cosmic rays arriving during the 300-year interval would deposit more energy in the stratosphere, depleting ozone significantly.

A decrease in ozone could be a concern for life on the surface. “This work is an important step towards understanding the impact of nearby supernovae on our biosphere,” says Dr Dimitra Atri, a computational physicist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, USA.

Thomas examined several possible biologically-damaging effects (erythema, skin cancer, cataracts, marine phytoplankton photosynthesis inhibition and plant damage) at different latitudes as a result of increased UV radiation resulting from a depleted ozone layer. They showed heightened damage across the board, generally increasing with latitude, which makes sense given the changes we see in the fossil record. However, the effects aren’t equally detrimental to all organisms. Plankton, the primary producers of oxygen, seemed to be minimally affected. The results also suggested a small increase in the risk of sunburn and skin cancer among humans.

So, do nearby supernovae result in mass extinctions? It depends, says Thomas. “There is a subtler shift; instead of a ‘wipe-out everything’, some [organisms] are better off and some are worse off.” For example some plants showed increase yield, like soybean and wheat, while other plants showed reduced productivity.  “It fits,” Thomas states, referring to the change in species in the fossil record.

In the future, Thomas hopes to expand on this work and examine possible linkages between human evolution and supernovae.


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JUST IN: New NASA Mission Explores ‘Cosmic Rain’

A new experiment set for an Aug. 14 launch to the International Space Station will provide an unprecedented look at a rain of particles from deep space, called cosmic rays, that constantly showers our planet. The Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass mission destined for the International Space Station (ISS-CREAM) is designed to measure the highest-energy particles of any detector yet flown in space.

Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass

The ISS-CREAM experiment will be delivered to the space station as part of the 12th SpaceX commercial resupply service mission. Once there, ISS-CREAM will be moved to the Exposed Facility platform extending from Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module. “High-energy cosmic rays carry a great deal of information about our interstellar neighborhood and our galaxy, but we haven’t been able to read these messages very clearly,” said co-investigator John Mitchell at Goddard. “ISS-CREAM represents one significant step in this direction.”

At energies above about 1 billion electron volts, most cosmic rays come to us from beyond our solar system. Various lines of evidence, including observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, support the idea that shock waves from the expanding debris of stars that exploded as supernovas accelerate cosmic rays up to energies of 1,000 trillion electron volts (PeV). That’s 10 million times the energy of medical proton beams used to treat cancer. ISS-CREAM data will allow scientists to examine how sources other than supernova remnants contribute to the population of cosmic rays.

Protons are the most common cosmic ray particles, but electrons, helium nuclei and the nuclei of heavier elements make up a small percentage. All are direct samples of matter from interstellar space. But because the particles are electrically charged, they interact with galactic magnetic fields, causing them to wander in their journey to Earth. This scrambles their paths and makes it impossible to trace cosmic ray particles back to their sources.

JUST IN: New Study Affirms Mantle Plumes Source of Heated Surface

As outlined in my article Cosmic Ray Penetration More Prevalent Than Realized, a new study published July 27th in the journal ‘Science’, identifies mantle plumes – viscous molten rock coming from the Earth’s outer core – as the source heated surfaces which include volcanoes and ocean bottom fissures.

For more than 2 decades, scientists have pondered the nature of these mysterious regions, sometimes called Ultra Low Velocity Zones (ULVZs). Researchers examining one below Iceland at a depth of nearly 3000 kilometers, now have their answer. This discovery shows molten plumes that shoot out as roots of hot rock that slowly rise through the mantle to feeding a system of volcanoes and fissures.

Earth scientists have long suspected that upwellings in these mantle convection currents would manifest themselves as the plumes responsible for Earth’s volcanic hot spots. Now we have started to see them with sophisticated computer models that use the waves from large earthquakes to create CT scan–like tomographic pictures of Earth’s interior; says Barbara Romanowicz, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and led author of the study.

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Coming Next: History of War and Quakes