University of Texas at Austin

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Research Round Up Fall 2011: New planets, a bigger black hole, more effective solar cells and more

It seems that the only time astronomers at The University of Texas at Austin took a break from finding new planets and bigger black holes during the fall 2011 semester was when university geologists edged in with evidence of a lake under the surface of Saturn’s moon, Europa.

As busy as those researchers were, the semester also brought discoveries in green energy, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, concealed handguns and the relationship between children’s happiness and their parents.

Here’s a look at the significant discoveries researchers at The University of Texas at Austin made in fall 2011.

NASA, Texas Astronomers Find a Goldilocks Planet and Others

An artist's conception of Kepler 22b, a planet in its star's habitable zone.

An artist's conception of Kepler 22b, a planet in its star's habitable zone.

Astronomers at NASA and The University of Texas located the first planet located in the “habitable zone” around a star — the “just-right” orbit that’s not too hot or too cold for water to exist in liquid form, making life as we know it possible. It’s just 1,000 light years away.

Observations by University of Texas at Austin graduate student Paul Robertson and research scientist Michael Endl eliminated other possible causes of the transit signal using the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Later, other astronomers found that the planet, called Kepler-22b, is just 2.4 times the size of Earth and may be as much as 20 times Earth’s mass.

Pair of Black Holes ‘Weigh In’ at 10 Billion Suns, the Most Massive Yet

Artist's conception of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a supermassive black hole. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook).

Artist's conception of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a supermassive black hole. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook).

A team of astronomers including Karl Gebhardt and graduate student Jeremy Murphy of The University of Texas at Austin have discovered the most massive black holes to date — two monsters weighing as much as 10 billion suns and threatening to consume anything, even light, within a region five times the size of our solar system. Both black holes are more than 320 million light years away.

The team measured the black holes’ masses by combining observations of the fast-moving stars at their hearts made with the giant Gemini and Keck telescopes in Hawaii with observations of their diffuse outer regions (called the “dark halo”) using the George and Cynthia Mitchell Spectrograph on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope at The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory.

Astronomers Find Unusual Multi-planet Solar System

A team of researchers led by Bill Cochran of The University of Texas at Austin used the Kepler space telescope to discover an unusual multiple-planet system containing a super-Earth and two Neptune-sized planets orbiting in resonance with each other.

Evidence for “Great Lake” – potential place for life — found on Europa

A cross-section of what the subsurface lake on Europa might look like, with Saturn on the horizon.

A cross-section of what the subsurface lake on Europa might look like, with Saturn on the horizon.

Scientists from The University of Texas at Austin and colleagues have discovered what appears to be a body of liquid water the volume of the North American Great Lakes locked inside the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The water could represent a potential habitat for life.

Many more such lakes might exist throughout the shallow regions of Europa’s shell, lead author Britney Schmidt, a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics, writes in the journal Nature.

Further increasing the potential for life, the newly discovered lake is covered by floating ice shelves that seem to be collapsing, providing a mechanism for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and a vast ocean already inferred to exist below the thick ice shell.

Discovery of a ‘dark state’ could mean a brighter future for solar energy

The efficiency of conventional solar cells could be significantly increased, according to new research on the mechanisms of solar energy conversion from chemists at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Parkinsonian” worms might be key to drugs for Parkinson’s disease

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have devised a simple test, using dopamine-deficient worms, for identifying drugs that may help people with Parkinson’s disease.

Memory-enhancing drug might improve exposure therapy for PTSD patients

A memory-enhancing drug may improve the speed and effectiveness of prolonged exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients, according to a new pilot study by psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin and other institutions.

Researchers Develop Optimal Algorithm for Determining Focus Error in Eyes and Cameras

University of Texas at Austin researchers have discovered how to extract and use information in an individual image to determine how far objects are from the focus distance, a feat only accomplished by human and animal visual systems until now.

Like a camera, the human eye has an auto-focusing system, but human auto-focusing rarely makes mistakes. And unlike a camera, humans do not require trial and error to focus an object.

Johannes Burge, a postdoctoral fellow in the College of Liberal Arts’ Center for Perceptual Systems and co-author of the study, says it is significant that a statistical algorithm can now determine focus error, which indicates how much a lens needs to be refocused to make the image sharp, from a single image without trial and error.

Appalachian tiger swallowtail butterfly is a hybrid species

The Appalachian tiger swallowtail butterfly evolved through the hybridization of Eastern and Canadian swallowtails.

The Appalachian tiger swallowtail butterfly evolved through the hybridization of Eastern and Canadian swallowtails.

Flitting among the cool slopes of the Appalachian Mountains is a tiger swallowtail butterfly species that evolved when two other species of swallowtails hybridized long ago, a rarity in the animal world, biologists from The University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University have found.

“How new species form is one of the central questions in evolutionary biology,” says Krushnamegh Kunte, a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard who began his research as a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin. “Hybrid speciation is more common in plants, but there are very few cases in animals. This study may create the fullest picture we have to date of hybrid speciation occurring in an animal.”

Why Texas women have concealed handguns licenses

Texas women who hold concealed handgun licenses are motivated to do so by feelings of empowerment and a need for self-defense, according to research by University of Texas at Austin researchers.

Middle-aged parents only as happy as their least happy grown child

Despite the fact that middle-aged parents are no longer responsible for their grown children, the parents’ emotional well-being and life satisfaction remain linked to those children’s successes and problems — particularly their least-happy offspring, research from The University of Texas at Austin shows.

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» Research Round Up Fall 2011: New planets, a bigger black hole, more effective solar cells and more

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