Month: March 2017

As the European Union celebrates 60 years, can Asia use it as a model for economic integration?

On 25 March 2017, the European Union’s heads of state and government will meet in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European project. The date marks the signing of the Treaties of Rome, which established the foundations of European Community that preceded the EU.

While the EU is a unique experiment in integration in many ways, the world abounds in other kinds of regional trade agreements; the World Trade Organization records more than 635. Still, as the most advanced form of market integration in the world, the EU provides a good model for other regions, including Asia.

Why the EU is a good model

Market integration is one of the tools that helped take Europe out of the ashes of the world wars and supported its transition out of the Cold War into peace. It provided a historically fragmented, war-torn, extremely diverse continent with a period of geopolitical stability, and thus brought wealth and prosperity.

Despite Britain’s impending exit from the group, the EU remains the most advanced and successful model for peace through economics in Europe’s history. The bloc continues to attract neighboring countries, having expanded from the original group of six to the current 28, with a combined population of more than 500 million and GDP of more than €14 billion. These countries work together across a single market and carefully selected common policy areas.

The EU’s market integration began with the free circulation of goods, based on the logic that the more states trade with one another and become interdependent, the less they are likely to go to war. It has extended to the free movement of people (stimulating travel, work abroad and cultural exchange), and enhanced economic integration through freer movement of capital and services, the option of joining a common currency, and other joint initiatives and policies.

Later members joined for mainly economic reasons; many others to fill the geopolitical void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its regime transition. Central and Eastern European countries, for instance, were supported in their transition to market economy and democracy by joining the EU and various other international institutions.

All signed up to trade with each other, but also to promote shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, peace, solidarity, strength through diversity and the rule of law. But increasingly negative attitudes towards the EU in some member states, and the EU’s struggle with confidence in its achievements and its future potential is a sign this stability came at the price of dynamic decision-making.

Integration in Asia

Asia is home to more than half of the world’s population and to most of the world’s production. These make it one of the most dynamic regions in the world, with huge economic potential.

Just as for the EU and its members, some countries in the region feel a certain frustration with the lack of progress by the World Trade Organization in dealing with the most urgent economic issues. While this may make regional integration à la EU seem desirable, the scope to achieve similar outcomes in Asia is shaky.

National contexts and ideologies in the region differ as much as economic structures, institutional differences, geopolitical, cultural and historic conditions. The motivation in Asia to work towards greater integration is often subject to the economies’ interdependence through trade and production networks within the global value chain, and is often commercially driven.

Nonetheless, Asia has numerous geo-economic groupings that may lead to EU-like integration including the East Asia Free Trade Agreement (EAFTA), the Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These already make it the world’s second-most integrated region after the EU.

ASEAN also has a network of additional free trade agreements with neighboring countries, such as those between Australia and New Zealand (AANZFTA, China (ACFTA), South Korea (AKFTA), India (AIFTA) and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Japan (AJCEP).

Then there is ASEAN+3 – China, Japan, and South Korea, which has an ambitious Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, which aims to expand sectors and topics of interaction by 2025.

Countries in the area are also working towards the establishment of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as an alternative to Trans Pacific Partnership, which has been rejected by US President Donald Trump.

The scene for further economic integration across Asia is clearly set. The RCEP would be a good start, providing the basis for economic cooperation, poverty alleviation, facilitation of trade in products and services and more.

Hurdles for further integration

But significant hurdles would need to be overcome if this project were to succeed along similar lines to the long-term achievements of the EU.

The first involves the question of will for unity in diversity, an idea that guides the EU. The region’s cultures, political regimes, economic systems and religious beliefs are more disparate than Europe. And we can count on many governments resisting sufficient institutional proximity, which would necessarily result in some diluting of sovereignty, non-interference, and territorial integrity.

The second hurdle entails superpower interests in seeing such integration take place – or not – and in what shape. Asia remains under the influence of fiercely competing superpowers, buffeted by the conflicting interests of China, the United States, and Russia. What are the chances the region can achieve equal partnership rather than extending the predominance of major regional actors; of reaching partnership rather than absorption?

There is no power balance between states in Asia as exists in Europe with Germany and France. These countries share a strong belief in European integration, and social and cultural understanding. What would be the parallel historical, ideological and social drivers in Asia? What or who would hold Asian integration together in times of crisis, something the more consolidated and stable EU is currently struggling with?

If Asia could integrate in its own way – most likely much more loosely than the EU and with fewer joint institutions and policies – then the formidable growth potential of the region could become a great driving force for dealing with the biggest challenges of today and tomorrow. These include national security, migration, competition and the re-emergence of protectionism, automation and unemployment, and aging work forces.

Working together to solve these complex challenges would make them much easier to deal with.

In December 2016, the EU and ASEAN celebrated the 40th anniversary of their relationship. As a summary to their underlying beliefs, they stated that “regional integration (is) the most effective way to foster stability, build prosperity and address global challenges.”

Each needs to promote this in its own setting to succeed.

Gabriele Suder, Principal Fellow, Faculty of Business & Economics/Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne

Photo Credit: Europa.eu

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Humans may have transformed the Sahara from lush paradise to barren desert

Once upon a time, the Sahara was green. There were vast lakes. Hippos and giraffe lived there, and large human populations of fishers foraged for food alongside the lakeshores.

The “African Humid Period” or “Green Sahara” was a time between 11,000 and 4,000 years ago when significantly more rain fell across the northern two-thirds of Africa than it does today.

The vegetation of the Sahara was highly diverse and included species commonly found on the margins of today’s rainforests along with desert-adapted plants. It was a highly productive and predictable ecosystem in which hunter-gatherers appear to have flourished.

These conditions stand in marked contrast to the current climate of northern Africa. Today, the Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world. It lies in the subtropical latitudes dominated by high-pressure ridges, where the atmospheric pressure at the Earth’s surface is greater than the surrounding environment. These ridges inhibit the flow of moist air inland.

How the Sahara became a desert

The stark difference between 10,000 years ago and now largely exists due to changing orbital conditions of the earth – the wobble of the earth on its axis and within its orbit relative to the sun.

But this period ended erratically. In some areas of northern Africa, the transition from wet to dry conditions occurred slowly; in others, it seems to have happened abruptly. This pattern does not conform to expectations of changing orbital conditions since such changes are slow and linear.

The most commonly accepted theory about this shift holds that devegetation of the landscape meant that more light reflected off the ground surface (a process known as albedo), helping to create the high-pressure ridge that dominates today’s Sahara.

But what caused the initial devegetation? That’s uncertain, in part because the area involved with studying the effects is so vast. But my recent paper presents evidence that areas where the Sahara dried out quickly happen to be the same areas where domesticated animals first appeared. At this time, where there is evidence to show it, we can see that the vegetation changes from grasslands into scrublands.

Scrub vegetation dominates the modern Saharan and Mediterranean ecosystems today and has significantly more albedo effects than grasslands.

If my hypothesis is correct, the initial agents of change were humans, who initiated a process that cascaded across the landscape until the region crossed an ecological threshold. This worked in tandem with orbital changes, which pushed ecosystems to the brink.

Historical precedent

There’s a problem with testing my hypothesis: datasets are scarce. Combined ecological and archaeological research across northern Africa is rarely undertaken.

But well-tested comparisons abound in prehistoric and historic records from across the world. Early Neolithic farmers of northern Europe, China, and southwestern Asia are documented as significantly deforesting their environments.

In the case of East Asia, nomadic herders are believed to have intensively grazed the landscape 6,000 years ago to the point of reducing evapo-transpiration – the process which allows clouds to form – from the grasslands, which weakened monsoon rainfall.

Their burning and land clearance practices were so unprecedented that they triggered significant alterations to the relationship between the land and the atmosphere that were measurable within hundreds of years of their introduction.

Similar dynamics occurred when domesticated animals were introduced to New Zealand and North America upon initial settlement by Europeans in the 1800s – only in these instances they were documented and quantified by historical ecologists.

New Zealand’s colonial pastoralists transformed the country’s landscape.
William Allsworth

Ecology of fear

Landscape burning has been occurring for millions of years. Old World landscapes have hosted humans for more than a million years and wild grazing animals for more than 20 million years. Orbitally induced changes in the climate are as old as the earth’s climate systems themselves.

So what made the difference in the Sahara? A theory called the “ecology of fear” may contribute something to this discussion. Ecologists recognize that the behavior of predatory animals toward their prey has a significant impact on landscape processes. For example, deer will avoid spending significant time in open landscapes because it makes them easy targets for predators (including humans).

If you remove the threat of predation, the prey behaves differently. In Yellowstone National Park, the absence of predators is argued to have changed grazers’ habits. Prey felt more comfortable grazing alongside the exposed riverbanks, which increased the erosion in those areas. The re-introduction of wolves into the ecosystem completely shifted this dynamic and forests regenerated within several years. By altering the “fear-based ecology”, significant changes in landscape processes are known to follow.

The introduction of livestock to the Sahara may have had a similar effect. Landscape burning has a deep history in the few places in which it has been tested in the Sahara. But the primary difference between pre-Neolithic and post-Neolithic burning is that the ecology of fear was altered.

Most grazing animals will avoid landscapes that have been burned, not only because the food resources there are relatively low, but also because of exposure to predators. Scorched landscapes present high risks and low rewards.

But with humans guiding them, domesticated animals are not subject to the same dynamics between predator and prey. They can be led into recently burned areas where the grasses will be preferentially selected to eat and the shrubs will be left alone. Over the succeeding period of landscape regeneration, the less palatable scrubland will grow faster than succulent grasslands – and, thus, the landscape has crossed a threshold.

It can be argued that early Saharan pastoralists changed the ecology of fear in the area, which in turn enhanced scrubland at the expense of grasslands in some places, which in turn enhanced albedo and dust production and accelerated the termination of the African Humid Period.

I tested this hypothesis by correlating the occurrences and effects of early livestock introduction across the region, but more detailed paleoecological research is needed. If proven, the theory would explain the patchy nature of the transition from wet to dry conditions across northern Africa.

Lessons for today

Although more work remains, the potential of humans to profoundly alter ecosystems should send a powerful message to modern societies.

More than 35% of the world’s population lives in dryland ecosystems, and these landscapes must be carefully managed if they are to sustain human life. The end of the African Humid Period is a lesson for modern societies living on drylands: if you strip the vegetation, you alter the land-atmosphere dynamics, and rainfall is likely to diminish.

This is precisely what the historical records of rainfall and vegetation in the south-western desert of the United States demonstrates, though the precise causes remain speculative.

In the meantime, we must balance economic development against environmental stewardship. Historical ecology teaches us that when an ecological threshold is crossed, we cannot go back. There are no second chances, so the long-term viability of 35% of humanity rests on maintaining the landscapes where they live. Otherwise, we may be creating more Sahara Deserts, all around the world.

David K Wright, Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology and Art History, Seoul National University

Photo Credit: hbieser

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NASA Selects Mission to Study Churning Chaos in our Milky Way and Beyond

NASA has selected a science mission that will measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars. This data will help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy, witness the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our galaxy.

The Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission, led by the principal investigator of the University of Arizona, Christopher Walker, will fly an Ultralong-Duration Balloon (ULDB) carrying a telescope with carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen emission line detectors. This unique combination of data will provide the spectral and spatial resolution information needed for Walker and his team to untangle the complexities of the interstellar medium, and map out large sections of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and the nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

“GUSTO will provide the first complete study of all phases of the stellar life cycle, from the formation of molecular clouds, through star birth and evolution, to the formation of gas clouds and the re-initiation of the cycle,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition.”

The mission is targeted for launch in 2021 from McMurdo, Antarctica, and is expected to stay in the air between 100 to 170 days, depending on weather conditions. It will cost approximately $40 million, including the balloon launch funding and the cost of post-launch operations and data analysis.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is providing the mission operations, and the balloon platform where the instruments are mounted, known as the gondola. The University of Arizona in Tucson will provide the GUSTO telescope and instrument, which will incorporate detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for mission of opportunity investigations in September 2014. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed two mission of opportunity concept studies selected from the eight proposals submitted at that time, and NASA has determined that GUSTO has the best potential for excellent science return with a feasible development plan.

NASA’s Explorers Program is the agency’s oldest continuous program and is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the astrophysics and heliophysics programs in agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The program has launched more than 90 missions. It began in 1958 with the Explorer 1, which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts, now called the Van Allen belt, named after the principal investigator. Another Explorer mission, the Cosmic Background Explorer, led to a Nobel Prize. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information on the Explorers Program, visit:

https://explorers.gsfc.nasa.gov

For more information on scientific balloons, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons

-end-

Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0257
felicia.chou@nasa.gov

Last Updated: March 24, 2017
Editor: Katherine Brown

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Set for Fifth Jupiter Flyby

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will make its fifth flyby over Jupiter’s mysterious cloud tops on Monday, March 27, at 1:52 a.m. PDT (4:52 a.m. EDT, 8:52 UTC).

At the time of closest approach (called perijove), Juno will be about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, traveling at a speed of about 129,000 miles per hour (57.8 kilometers per second) relative to the gas-giant planet. All of Juno’s eight science instruments will be on and collecting data during the flyby.

“This will be our fourth science pass — the fifth close flyby of Jupiter of the mission — and we are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Every time we get near Jupiter’s cloud tops, we learn new insights that help us understand this amazing giant planet.”

The Juno science team continues to analyze returns from previous flybys. Scientists have discovered that Jupiter’s magnetic fields are more complicated than originally thought and that the belts and zones that give the planet’s cloud tops their distinctive look extend deep into its interior. Observations of the energetic particles that create the incandescent auroras suggest a complicated current system involving charged material lofted from volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Peer-reviewed papers with more in-depth science results from Juno’s first flybys are expected to be published within the next few months.

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and arrived in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. During its mission of exploration, Juno soars low over the planet’s cloud tops — as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno is probing beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and studying its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California.

More information on the Juno mission is available at:

http://www.nasa.gov/juno

http://missionjuno.org

The public can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/NASAJuno

http://www.twitter.com/NASAJuno

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-9011
agle@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

 

Editor: Martin Perez

Photo Credit: NASA

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Republicans fumble ACA repeal: Expert reaction

Editor’s note: The fight didn’t last long. Moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. It was a surprisingly swift defeat for a legislative priority talked up by Republicans since the day Obamacare first passed. We asked congressional scholars what the retreat means – and what comes next.

Trump legslative agenda now in serious doubt

Richard A. Arenberg, Brown University

President Trump and the Republican Congressional leadership have suffered a stunning defeat. The inability of the new president and his GOP majority to pass the American Health Care Act in the House places in question their ability to accomplish their central campaign promise of repealing Obamacare. It also creates significant obstacles for the remainder of the Trump legislative agenda, especially the planned tax cut.

The conflicting demands by factions in the health care debate have laid bare huge fissures in the Republican caucus – fissures which had been masked by apparent unity in the wake of Trump’s surprising election. Further, the failure of this first test of the Trump administration and its allies on the Hill raises serious questions about Speaker Ryan’s ability to bridge those gaps.

The bill, pulled by the Speaker before it could suffer defeat on the House floor, contained more than US$880 billion of tax reductions over 10 years.

GOP leaders have been counting on that reduction to the revenue base to permit a large tax reform bill to be passed using the reconciliation process. Reconciliation would permit the tax bill to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, foreclosing the possibility of a Democratic filibuster.

However, in order to qualify under Senate rules, that bill must be revenue-neutral. The plan to use the tax reductions contained in the American Health Care Act was one of the main reasons that the Republican Congressional leadership convinced Trump to undertake the health care bill first.

The wisdom of that strategy will come under severe scrutiny in the White House in the days ahead.

Will the GOP ever get its act together?

Christopher Sebastian Parker, University of Washington

By now, the GOP should should be tired of this: public implosion.

Ever since the Tea Party showed up on the scene in 2009, the Republican party slips on every banana peel in sight. The fight between the party’s moderate wing and the more reactionary one, led former Senate Minority Leader, Bob Dole (R-KS), to say that neither he, nor president Ronald Reagan, could get elected in today’s GOP.

This was followed by the ouster of former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was primaried by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat in 2014. Why? He was perceived as too moderate. He was the first sitting majority leader to lose since 1899.

This was followed by the GOP resignation of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in 2015 because, he, too, was perceived to be too moderate

Now this. The Freedom Caucus is responsible for the current public rift in the GOP. What’s that old saying? “Be careful what you wish for.” Well, the GOP got its wish to govern, and they’re blowing it.

Richard Arenberg, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy and Political Science, Brown University and Christopher Sebastian Parker, Professor of Political Science, University of Washington

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

London attack: Terrorism expert explains three threats of jihadism in the West

Details about the man who attacked the British Parliament on March 22, identified by London police as British national Khalid Masood, are still emerging. With four victims confirmed dead, the attack is the worst in London since the July 7, 2005 bombings on the London transport system.

A day after the attack, the Islamic State media organization Amaq released a statement claiming responsibility. The statement read: “The attacker yesterday in front of the British Parliament was a soldier of the Islamic state.”

The language of the statement can help us understand the nature of not just this attack, but the nature of jihadist attacks in the West. Based on 10 years of research on the topic, I have identified three categories into which this attack is likely to fall.

Directed attack

The first and least probable scenario is that the attack in London was planned and directed by individuals within the IS hierarchy. In such a situation, the attacker would be part of a wider IS network.

Those types of attacks, such as the ones conducted by IS in Paris and Brussels (the anniversary of which was also on the same day as the London attack) in 2015 and 2016, respectively, are usually deadlier and more sophisticated than what we saw in London. The crude nature of the killings, in which Masood used a car as a battering ram before rushing police officers with knife, suggests that this act falls into one of the two following categories.

Inspired attack

This may have been a so-called “inspired” attack. This refers to a terrorist act undertaken by someone with no known ties to IS or other jihadist groups. These individuals see themselves as part of the wider global jihad movement after consuming jihadist propaganda and interacting with like-minded individuals online. They plan the attack alone, with no input from a terrorist organization.

The last such “inspired” incident in London was the killing of British Army soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013. The attackers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were inspired by al-Qaida and used a similar tactic to that seen in the Parliament attack, ramming their target with a car before stabbing him repeatedly.

Amaq’s announcement is instructive when it states that the attacker was acting “in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations.” This is likely a reference to the repeated announcements by IS members, most notably the group’s now deceased former spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, for Western IS sympathizers to use any means at their disposal to conduct terror operation in their home nations. In addition, IS usually refers to such individuals as its “soldiers” only when the group had no direct role in the attack.

These inspired acts are often referred to as lone-wolf attacks. While the term is widely used, recent research shows that few attacks in Europe are genuinely conducted by lone actors. For example, one study found that out of 38 IS-linked plots in Europe between 2014 and 2016, only six “were based on inspiration only.” However, even then the authors of the study concede that the plotters “usually had contacts in extremist circles, albeit not IS-related.” Such findings suggest that true lone-wolf attacks are in fact much rarer than many assume.

Remote-controlled attack

The final possible category of attack the London incident falls into is “remote-controlled.” This represents something of a hybrid of the two other forms of jihadist terrorism in the West. This occurs when a radicalized Westerner receives encouragement, and often direct instruction, from an IS member over the internet. These individuals, who my colleague Seamus Hughes and I refer to as “virtual entrepreneurs,” in a recent report are often based in IS-held territory and have built up respected reputations within the IS online milieus.

As IS has spread its influence over social media, and its virtual entrepreneurs have made use of a wide range of encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, Surespot and WhatsApp, this has become one of the main ways the group plans attacks in the West. In the same study cited above, researchers found that 50 percent of the 38 IS-linked plots in Europe between 2014 and 2016 were found to have involved “online instruction from members of IS’ networks.”

This phenomenon is also apparent in the United States.

My colleague and I discovered that out of 38 IS-inspired plots and attacks in the United States between March 1, 2014, and March 1, 2017, eight involved digital communication with virtual entrepreneurs. This includes the attempted shooting in Garland, Texas in May 2015. One of the attackers, Elton Simpson, was receiving encouragement and direction via encrypted chats with Junaid Hussain, a British IS member based in Syria. Virtual entrepreneurs have also been involved in at least six other terrorism-related cases, including helping Americans intending to travel to join the Islamic State. This brings the total number of U.S. terrorism cases linked to IS virtual entrepreneurs to 14.

Based on what we know so far, and after analyzing recent trends and the latest research, it is likely that the man who killed three people in London was acting either in the name of IS without any direct links, or was in possible contact with a virtual entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, the only certainty is that this will not be the last such attack in the West. As IS loses ground in Iraq and Syria, it will do all it can to retain an ability to strike in the West. While their key aim is to inspire attacks like those in Paris and Brussels, they will be increasingly difficult to conduct. This is due both to its dwindling resources and the increasing readiness of European security agencies who will be learning from recent attacks.

Lone actors, while rare, will continue offer IS a cost-free method of attack. Meanwhile, virtual entrepreneurs will be doing all they can to help their Western contacts plot and execute mass killings from afar.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Research Director of the Program on Extremism, George Washington University

Photo Credit:Tony Burgess

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Andromeda’s Bright X-Ray Mystery Solved by NuSTAR

The Milky Way’s close neighbor, Andromeda, features a dominant source of high-energy X-ray emission, but its identity was mysterious until now. As reported in a new study, NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission has pinpointed an object responsible for this high-energy radiation.

The object, called Swift J0042.6+4112, is a possible pulsar, the dense remnant of a dead star that is highly magnetized and spinning, researchers say. This interpretation is based on its emission in high-energy X-rays, which NuSTAR is uniquely capable of measuring. The object’s spectrum is very similar to known pulsars in the Milky Way.

It is likely in a binary system, in which material from a stellar companion gets pulled onto the pulsar, spewing high-energy radiation as the material heats up.

“We didn’t know what it was until we looked at it with NuSTAR,” said Mihoko Yukita, lead author of a study about the object, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

This candidate pulsar is shown as a blue dot in a NuSTAR X-ray image of Andromeda (also called M31), where the color blue is chosen to represent the highest-energy X-rays. It appears brighter in high-energy X-rays than anything else in the galaxy.

The study brings together many different observations of the object from various spacecraft. In 2013, NASA’s Swift satellite reported it as a high-energy source, but its classification was unknown, as there are many objects emitting low energy X-rays in the region. The lower-energy X-ray emission from the object turns out to be a source first identified in the 1970s by NASA’s Einstein Observatory. Other spacecraft, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton had also detected it. However, it wasn’t until the new study by NuSTAR, aided by supporting Swift satellite data, that researchers realized it was the same object as this likely pulsar that dominates the high energy X-ray light of Andromeda.

Traditionally, astronomers have thought that actively feeding black holes, which are more massive than pulsars, usually dominate the high-energy X-ray light in galaxies. As gas spirals closer and closer to the black hole in a structure called an accretion disk, this material gets heated to extremely high temperatures and gives off high-energy radiation. This pulsar, which has a lower mass than any of Andromeda’s black holes, is brighter at high energies than the galaxy’s entire black hole population.

Even the supermassive black hole in the center of Andromeda does not have significant high-energy X-ray emission associated with it. It is unexpected that a single pulsar would instead be dominating the galaxy in high-energy X-ray light.

“NuSTAR has made us realize the general importance of pulsar systems as X-ray-emitting components of galaxies, and the possibility that the high energy X-ray light of Andromeda is dominated by a single pulsar system only adds to this emerging picture,” said Ann Hornschemeier, co-author of the study and based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Andromeda is a spiral galaxy slightly larger than the Milky Way. It resides 2.5 million light-years from our own galaxy, which is considered very close, given the broader scale of the universe. Stargazers can see Andromeda without a telescope on dark, clear nights.

“Since we can’t get outside our galaxy and study it in an unbiased way, Andromeda is the closest thing we have to looking in a mirror,” Hornschemeier said.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

For more information on NuSTAR, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/nustar

http://www.nustar.caltech.edu

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

Photo Credit: NASA

 

Editor: Tony Greicius

 

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