Was ‘Planet Nine’ a rogue planet?
Astronomers have been searching for “Planet Nine”—a hypothetical body thought to be lurking in the solar system’s outer f ringes—since its existence was first posited nearly three years ago. They have yet to locate the elusive outlier, but researchers at New Mexico State University believe they may have found some clues about its possible origins, reports CSMonitor.com. Their theory? That Planet Nine used to be one of the galaxy’s many “rogue” planets—which cruise freely around space rather than circling host stars—before being captured by the sun. They came to that conclusion after running 156 computer simulations of encounters between our solar system and rogue planets of various sizes and trajectories. The hypothetical starless planet was ejected from the solar system in about 60 percent of the simulated encounters, but in the other 40_percent it was trapped by the sun’s gravitational pull. James Vesper, the lead author of the study, says it is “very plausible” that Planet Nine is a captured rogue. The mysterious body, whose existence is inferred from the peculiar orbits of six icy objects beyond Neptune, is thought to be about 10 times larger than Earth and 25 times farther from the sun than Pluto. If this massive planet was a rogue, that would explain why it ended up so far from the solar system’s other eight planets.
Massive carbon sink
Scientists have found a vast peat swamp in Africa’s central Congo Basin that harbors about 30 billion metric tons of carbon—the equivalent of 20 years’ worth of U.S. fossil fuel emissions. Discovered using satellite imagery, the swamp is thought to cover 56,000 square miles and reach depths of up to 20 feet; radiocarbon dating suggests it has been accumulating for nearly 11,000 years. “It is 16 times larger than the previous estimate and is the single largest peatland complex found anywhere in the tropics,” Simon Lewis, co-leader of the research team, tells The Guardian (U.K.). Highly acidic and nearly devoid of oxygen, tropical peatlands prevent decaying plants and animals from fully decomposing, effectively trapping carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. But the researchers warn that if the carbon-rich ecosystem is destroyed for agricultural use, or allowed to dry out, much of its stored carbon would escape. “Peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when left intact,” notes Lewis. “Maintaining large stores of carbon in undisturbed peatlands should be a priority.”
Did a star eat a planet?
When astronomers discovered a mysterious flickering star in 2015, some experts thought it was a sign of extraterrestrial life—that the star was being orbited by an “alien megastructure,” composed of highly advanced solar panels. There is no evidence to support this wild theory. But researchers from Columbia University and the University of Califor nia, Berkeley have come up with another unusual explanation, reports New Scientist: They believe the star is flickering because it once ate a planet. Known as “Tabby’s star,” the mysterious celestial body has steadily grown fainter over the past century and periodically dims by as much as 22 percent—a change too significant to be attributed to passing debris or a swarm of comets. The new study posits that Tabby’s star is in fact returning to its normal state, having burned brighter than usual for up to 10,000 years after a collision with a planet. The authors believe the planet was torn apart and stripped of its moons during this collision, leaving a cloud of debris in atypical orbits that causes the star to “blink” in an unusual way. Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, who wasn’t involved in the research, says the “merger scenario” belongs in “the top tier of explanations.”
A chili pepper a day...
Eating red-hot chili peppers may help you live longer, reports CBSNews.com. In a new study, researchers from the University of Vermont examined the health and diet data of more than 16,000 Americans for nearly 19 years on average. They found that those who regularly ate hot peppers were 13 percent less likely to die over that period than those who didn’t eat such peppers. While the researchers didn’t establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between eating peppers and longevity, they theorized that the fiery fruit improves fat metabolism, which helps ward off obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers hot, is thought to be responsible for the health benefit; previous studies have found that this bioactive ingredient has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. Researchers Mustafa Chopan and Benjamin Littenberg said additional studies are needed to examine how different kinds of chili peppers affect people. “Such evidence may lead to new insights into the relationships between diet and health, updated dietary recommendations, and the development of new therapies.”
Health scare of the week
A deadly superbug
A rare, drug-resistant superbug impervious to all 26 antibiotics available in the U.S. has claimed the life of a woman in Nevada. The patient, in her 70s, had been hospitalized with a broken leg in India, where drug-resistant bacteria are more common. She developed an infection in her blood, which turned out to be Klebsiella pneumoniae, a type of gut bacteria from a family of superbugs. Back in the U.S., doctors found that the bacteria were resistant to all available antibiotics, even those usually reserved as a last resort for multidrugresistant bacteria. Within two months, the woman had died of multiple organ failure and sepsis. Health officials say her death is a grim reminder that drug-resistant bacteria are evolving, and that common infections could one day become untreatable. “People keep asking me, ‘How close are we to going off the cliff?’” James Johnson, professor of infectious diseases medicine at the University of Minnesota, tells NPR.org. “Come on, people. We’re off the cliff. It’s already happening. People are dying.”