This Week in Research: 3D Mapping the Galaxy; International Dust

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In this series, we look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!

Dark matter:  it makes up 96 percent of the universe, but… where is it, exactly? The amateur astronomers among us can now get our curiosity satisfied, thanks to the recent release of the largest-ever image of the universe, the first section of a 3D map that will eventually cover ” the positions of 1.5 million massive galaxies over the past seven billion years of cosmic time, as well as 160,000 quasars—giant black holes actively feeding on stars and gas—from as long ago as 12 billion years in the past.”

Where the maps we’re used to have highways and avenues, this map — dubbed DR9 — has images of 200 million galaxies and spectra (measurements of light wavelengths) for 1.35 million galaxies. (The spectra help scientists measure how much the universe has expanded since that galaxy was formed.) The map and accompanying data (which included research out of Johns Hopkins) also include better estimates for temperatures and chemical compositions of stars in the Milky Way.

“The most fun part of making this data available online is knowing that anyone on the Internet can now access the very same data and search tools that professional astronomers use to make exciting discoveries about our universe,” said Ani Thakar of Johns Hopkins University.

So, go check it out; you just might discover something.

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The smog, the haze, the gunk in the air:  the good (?) news is, it’s not all our fault. According to recent research from the University of Maryland, much of the pollution plaguing North America doesn’t stem rom industrial emissions, but instead from dust particles drifting over from Asia, Africa, and Europe.

“People have been concerned about how an emerging Asian economy and increased manmade pollution will influence North American air quality and climate, but we found that dust makes large contributions here,” said Hongbin Yu, a scientist with UM’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC).  “So we cannot just focus on pollution. We need to consider dust.”

The dust in question isn’t particularly problematic here on the ground; instead, it occurs at high altitudes, and affects upper atmospheric conditions. This means that the air we breathe is less affected, but still has a strong impact on climate change. Even if we work hard to reduce industrial emissions in the U.S. and in Asia’s emerging economies, the study’s researchers caution, the dust could still be a problem. As climate change continues to spur meteorological changes and as desertification progresses, we can expect more dust — and more climate change. (Remember the Dust Bowl?)

“Over the course of time climate, human influence on the environment, and dust emissions have been inextricably linked,” said Tony Busalacchi, a climate scientist at ESSIC. “One need only look at the Dust Bowl of the 1930′s to see this. With ever expanding drought conditions due to climate change, we can expect trans-boundary transport of dust aerosols to increase in the future.”



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