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New theory explains possible origin of plummeting Chicxulub impactor that struck off Mexico

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New theory explains possible origin of plummeting Chicxulub impactor that struck off Mexico

It was tens of miles wide and forever changed history when it crashed into Earth about 66 million years ago.

The Chicxulub impactor, as it’s known, left behind a crater off the coast of Mexico that spans 93 miles and goes 12 miles deep. Its devastating impact brought the reign of the dinosaurs to an abrupt and calamitous end by triggering their sudden mass extinction, along with the end of almost three-quarters of the plant and animal species then living on Earth.The enduring puzzle has always been where the asteroid or comet that set off the destruction originated, and how it came to strike the Earth. And now a pair of Harvard researchers believe they have the answer.In a study published in Scientific Reports, Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard, and Amir Siraj ’21, an astrophysics concentrator, put forth a new theory that could explain the origin and journey of this catastrophic object and others like it.

Using statistical analysis and gravitational simulations, Loeb and Siraj show that a significant fraction of a type of comet originating from the Oort cloud, a sphere of debris at the edge of the solar system, was bumped off-course by Jupiter’s gravitational field during its orbit and sent close to the sun, whose tidal force broke apart pieces of the rock. That increases the rate of comets like Chicxulub (pronounced Chicks-uh-lub) because these fragments cross the Earth’s orbit and hit the planet once every 250 to 730 million years or so.

“Basically, Jupiter acts as a kind of pinball machine,” said Siraj, who is also co-president of Harvard Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and is pursuing a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. “Jupiter kicks these incoming long-period comets into orbits that bring them very close to the sun.”

It’s because of this that long-period comets, which take more than 200 years to orbit the sun, are called sun grazers, he said.“When you have these sun grazers, it’s not so much the melting that goes on, which is a pretty small fraction relative to the total mass, but the comet is so close to the sun that the part that’s closer to the sun feels a stronger gravitational pull than the part that is farther from the sun, causing a tidal force” he said. “You get what’s called a tidal disruption event and so these large comets that come really close to the sun break up into smaller comets. And basically, on their way out, there’s a statistical chance that these smaller comets hit the Earth.”

The calculations from Loeb and Siraj’s theory increase the chances of long-period comets impacting Earth by a factor of about 10, and show that about 20 percent of long-period comets become sun grazers. That finding falls in line with research from other astronomers.

The pair claim that their new rate of impact is consistent with the age of Chicxulub, providing a satisfactory explanation for its origin and other impactors like it.

“Our paper provides a basis for explaining the occurrence of this event,” Loeb said. “We are suggesting that, in fact, if you break up an object as it comes close to the sun, it could give rise to the appropriate event rate and also the kind of impact that killed the dinosaurs.”

Loeb and Siraj’s hypothesis might also explain the makeup of many of these impactors.“”Our hypothesis predicts that other Chicxulub-size craters on Earth are more likely to correspond to an impactor with a primitive (carbonaceous chondrite) composition than expected from the conventional main-belt asteroids,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

This is important because a popular theory on the origin of Chicxulub claims the impactor is a fragment of a much larger asteroid that came from the main belt, which is an asteroid population between the orbit of Jupiter and Mars. Only about a tenth of all main-belt asteroids have a composition of carbonaceous chondrite, while it’s assumed most long-period comets have it. Evidence found at the Chicxulub crater and other similar craters that suggests they had carbonaceous chondrite.

This includes an object that hit about 2 billion years ago and left the Vredefort crater in South Africa, which is the largest confirmed crater in Earth’s history, and the impactor that left the Zhamanshin crater in Kazakhstan, which is the largest confirmed crater within the last million years.

The researchers say that composition evidence supports their model and that the years the objects hit support both their calculations on impact rates of Chicxulub-sized tidally disrupted comets and for smaller ones like the impactor that made the Zhamanshin crater. If produced the same way, they say those would strike Earth once every 250,000 to 730,000 years.

Loeb and Siraj say their hypothesis can be tested by further studying these craters, others like them, and even ones on the surface of the moon to determine the composition of the impactors. Space missions sampling comets can also help.

Aside from composition of comets, the new Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile may be able to see the tidal disruption of long-period comets after it becomes operational next year.

“We should see smaller fragments coming to Earth more frequently from the Oort cloud,” Loeb said. “I hope that we can test the theory by having more data on long-period comets, get better statistics, and perhaps see evidence for some fragments.”

Loeb said understanding this is not just crucial to solving a mystery of Earth’s history but could prove pivotal if such an event were to threaten the planet again.

“It must have been an amazing sight, but we don’t want to see that side,” he said.

This work was partially supported by the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

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Large wildfires create weather that favors more fire

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New theory explains possible origin of plummeting Chicxulub impactor that struck off Mexico


A new UC Riverside study shows soot from large wildfires in California traps sunlight, making days warmer and drier than they ought to be.

Many studies look at the effect of climate change on wildfires. However, this study sought to understand the reverse — whether large fires are also changing the climate.

“I wanted to learn how the weather is affected by aerosols emitted by wildfires as they’re burning,” said lead study author and UCR doctoral candidate James Gomez.

To find his answers, Gomez analyzed peak fire days and emissions from every fire season over the past 20 years. Of these fire days, he examined a subset that occurred when temperatures were lower, and humidity was higher. “I looked at abnormally cool or wet days during fire season, both with and without fires. This mostly takes out the fire weather effects,” Gomez said.

Published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the study found that large fires did have an effect. They made it hotter and drier than usual on the days the fires burned. The extra heat and aridity may then make conditions favorable for more fire.

“It appears these fires are creating their own fire weather,” Gomez said.

The most intense fires occurred in Northern California, where fire-fueling vegetation is denser than elsewhere in the state. On average, temperatures were about 1 degree Celsius warmer per day during the fires.

There are likely two reasons for this. One — soot traps heat, and two — the extra heat reduces humidity in the atmosphere, making it more difficult for clouds to form.

“Fires emit smoke with black carbon, or soot. Since it is very dark, the soot absorbs sunlight more readily than bright or reflective things,” Gomez said.

There are two types of aerosols: reflective and absorptive. Sulfate aerosols, which are byproducts of fossil fuel burning, are reflective and can cool the environment. These particles reflect the sun’s energy back into space, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Recent UCR research points to an unfortunate byproduct of improving air quality by reducing sulfate aerosols. Since these particles have a cooling effect, removing them makes climate change more severe and leads to an increase in wildfires, especially in northern hemisphere forests.

Sulfate aerosols can also help make clouds brighter, more reflective, and more effective at cooling the planet.

The researchers note that the only way to prevent additional wildfires when cleaning up reflective sulfate air pollution is to simultaneously reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

Absorptive aerosols have the opposite effect. They trap light and heat in the atmosphere, which can raise temperatures. Black carbon, the most common aerosol emission from wildfires, is an absorbing aerosol. They not only directly make temperatures hotter, but indirectly as well by discouraging cloud formation and precipitation.

“What I found is that the black carbon emitted from these California wildfires is not increasing the number of clouds,” Gomez said. “It’s hydrophobic.” Fewer clouds mean less precipitation, which is problematic for drought-prone states.

While some studies have shown an association between fires and brighter, more numerous clouds, this one did not.

Notably, the study found that days with fewer fire emissions had a more muted effect on the weather. “If the aerosols are coming out in smaller amounts and more slowly, the heating effect is not as pronounced,” Gomez said.

Gomez is hopeful that mitigating CO2 emissions, alongside better land management practices, can help reduce the number of large wildfires.

“There is a buildup of vegetation here in California. We need to allow more frequent small fires to reduce the amount of fuel available to burn,” Gomez said. “With more forest management and more prescribed burns, we could have fewer giant fires. That is in our control.”



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Astronomers see a massive black hole awaken in real time

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New theory explains possible origin of plummeting Chicxulub impactor that struck off Mexico


In late 2019 the previously unremarkable galaxy SDSS1335+0728 suddenly started shining brighter than ever before. To understand why, astronomers have used data from several space and ground-based observatories, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), to track how the galaxy’s brightness has varied. In a study out today, they conclude that they are witnessing changes never seen before in a galaxy — likely the result of the sudden awakening of the massive black hole at its core.

Imagine you’ve been observing a distant galaxy for years, and it always seemed calm and inactive,” says Paula Sánchez Sáez, an astronomer at ESO in Germany and lead author of the study accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Suddenly, its [core] starts showing dramatic changes in brightness, unlike any typical events we’ve seen before.” This is what happened to SDSS1335+0728, which is now classified as having an ‘active galactic nucleus’ (AGN) — a bright compact region powered by a massive black hole — after it brightened dramatically in December 2019 [1].

Some phenomena, like supernova explosions or tidal disruption events — when a star gets too close to a black hole and is torn apart — can make galaxies suddenly light up. But these brightness variations typically last only a few dozen or, at most, a few hundreds of days. SDSS1335+0728 is still growing brighter today, more than four years after it was first seen to ‘switch on’. Moreover, the variations detected in the galaxy, which is located 300 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo, are unlike any seen before, pointing astronomers towards a different explanation.

The team tried to understand these brightness variations using a combination of archival data and new observations from several facilities, including the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile’s Atacama Desert [2]. Comparing the data taken before and after December 2019, they found that SDSS1335+0728 is now radiating much more light at ultraviolet, optical, and infrared wavelengths. The galaxy also started emitting X-rays in February 2024. “This behaviour is unprecedented,” says Sánchez Sáez, who is also affiliated with the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics (MAS) in Chile.

“The most tangible option to explain this phenomenon is that we are seeing how the [core] of the galaxy is beginning to show (…) activity,” says co-author Lorena Hernández García, from MAS and the University of Valparaíso in Chile. “If so, this would be the first time that we see the activation of a massive black hole in real time.”

Massive black holes — with masses over one hundred thousand times that of our Sun — exist at the centre of most galaxies, including the Milky Way. “These giant monsters usually are sleeping and not directly visible,” explains co-author Claudio Ricci, from the Diego Portales University, also in Chile. “In the case of SDSS1335+0728, we were able to observe the awakening of the massive black hole, [which] suddenly started to feast on gas available in its surroundings, becoming very bright.”

“[This] process (…) has never been observed before,” Hernández García says. Previous studies reported inactive galaxies becoming active after several years, but this is the first time the process itself — the awakening of the black hole — has been observed in real time. Ricci, who is also affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University, China, adds: “This is something that could happen also to our own Sgr A*, the massive black hole (…) located at the centre of our galaxy,” but it is unclear how likely this is to happen.

Follow-up observations are still needed to rule out alternative explanations. Another possibility is that we are seeing an unusually slow tidal disruption event, or even a new phenomenon. If it is in fact a tidal disruption event, this would be the longest and faintest such event ever observed. “Regardless of the nature of the variations, [this galaxy] provides valuable information on how black holes grow and evolve,” Sánchez Sáez says. “We expect that instruments like [MUSE on the VLT or those on the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)] will be key in understanding [why the galaxy is brightening].”

Notes

[1] The SDSS1335+0728 galaxy’s unusual brightness variations were detected by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) telescope in the US. Following that, the Chilean-led Automatic Learning for the Rapid Classification of Events (ALeRCE) broker classified SDSS1335+0728 as an active galactic nucleus.

[2] The team collected archival data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), and the eROSITA instrument on IKI and DLR’s Spektr-RG space observatory. Besides ESO’s VLT, the follow-up observations were conducted with the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR), the W. M. Keck Observatory, and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory.



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Bedtime battles: 1 in 4 parents say their child can’t go to sleep because they’re worried or anxious

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New theory explains possible origin of plummeting Chicxulub impactor that struck off Mexico


Many bedtime battles stem from children’s after dark worries, suggests a new national poll.

And while most families have bedtime rituals to help their little ones ease into nighttime, many rely on strategies that may increase sleep challenges long term, according to the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

Overall, one in four parents describe getting their young child to bed as difficult — and these parents are less likely to have a bedtime routine, more likely to leave on a video or TV show, and more likely to stay with their child until they’re asleep.

“Our report reinforces the common struggle of getting young children to sleep. When this transition to bedtime becomes a nightly conflict, some parents may fall into habits that work in the moment but could set them up for more sleep issues down the road,” said Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark, M.P.H.

“Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is crucial. When children don’t get enough rest, it can impact their physical development, emotional regulation and behavior.”

Nearly one in five parents say they have given their kids melatonin to help with sleep while a third stay in the room until their child completely dozes off, according to the nationally representative poll that includes responses from 781 parents of children ages one to six surveyed in February.

Nighttime worries interfere with sleep

Parents share common reasons behind bedtime struggles, with nearly a quarter saying their child’s sleep is often or occasionally delayed due to being worried or anxious.

A particular challenge, parents say, is when children don’t stay asleep. More than a third of parents say their child wakes up upset or crying, with more than 40% saying their child moves to their parents’ bed and about 30% saying children insist that the parent sleep in their room.

“Many young children go through stages when they become scared of the dark or worry that something bad might happen, causing them to delay bedtime or become distressed by parents leaving the room. Bad dreams or being awakened in the middle of the night can also disrupt sleep,” Clark said.

“Although this is a normal part of a child’s development, it can be frustrating when parents already feel tired themselves at the end of the day. Parents should find a balance between offering reassurance and comfort while maintaining some boundaries that help ensure everyone — both kids and adults — get adequate sleep.”

More findings from the report, plus Clark’s recommendations for helping young children fall and stay asleep:

Stick to a regular bedtime routine

Most parents polled report having a bedtime routine for their child, often including brushing teeth, reading bedtime stories and/or bathing. Less than half also say their child has a drink of water or snack, turns off devices, prays and talks about their day.

Other bedtime habits include holding a blanket or stuff animal or sucking a pacifier or fingers.

Not only does having a consistent bedtime routine help make the nighttime transition smoother, Clark says, it also provides one-on-one time, allowing the child to get their parent’s full attention.

“A predictable bedtime routine provides a sense of security and comfort and signals to the child that it’s time to slow down,” she said.

“Knowing what to expect next can reduce anxiety and help children feel safe and relaxed. Having this dedicated time with parents also promotes bonding and emotional connection, creating positive associations with bedtime.”

Nearly two-thirds of parents also said children staying up to play was a major factor in delaying sleep. Clark says, highlighting the need to wind down at least an hour before bed.

Promote an environment conducive to sleep

A little less than half of parents polled say their child sleeps in their own bedroom while less than a quarter share a bedroom with siblings or in the parents’ bedroom. One in 10 kids spend part the night in their own bedroom and part of the night with parents.

More than two-fifths of parents polled said noise from other rooms interfered with their child’s sleep.

“The sleep environment can have a major effect on a child’s sleep quality, including getting to sleep and staying asleep through the night,” Clark said.

“When possible, children should have their own bed in a room that is quiet, without a lot of noise from other family members.”

Many parents polled also use a nightlight or crack the bedroom door so the child isn’t in complete darkness, Clark says, but parents should make sure the light does not shine directly at the child’s face.

Some parents also play calming music or stories to help their child go to sleep, while others use a white noise machine or app. However, Clark cautions to keep white noise machines at no more than 50 decibels and placed at least seven feet from the child’s bed to prevent unintended damage to the child’s hearing.

Talk to a doctor before using aids like melatonin

Many types of melatonin products are advertised as being appropriate for children but these products have not undergone rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness, and their side effects and long term impact on a child’s growth and development are unknown, Clark says.

“Although melatonin is a natural hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles and may be fine to use occasionally, parents shouldn’t rely on it as a primary sleep aid,” Clark said.

“Parents who are considering giving melatonin to their young child should consult with their pediatrician to discuss options and rule out other causes of sleep problems first.”

If using melatonin, parents should also start with the lowest dose possible.

In addition, it’s important to keep electronics such as tablets or televisions out of children’s bedroom, as the blue light emitted by many of these screens interferes with the natural production of melatonin.

Offer comfort but enforce boundaries

Parents can help ease little ones’ anxiety by allowing extra time to let them talk about their day, which might draw out specific worries and give parents a chance to provide compassion and reassurance, Clark said.

Rather than remaining in the room, parents can also offer to check on the child every few minutes, which acknowledges the child’s fears and offers a reassuring presence, but still maintains a calm sleep environment and promotes sleep independence.

“Families can incorporate comforting rituals to help transform nighttime fears into a calming experience,” Clark said.

Have a consistent approach when children wake up in the night

Some children are prone to vivid dreams or nightmares and may have difficulty getting back to sleep. Parents should decide on their approach to this situation and stick with it, Clark says, whether it’s taking the child back to bed or allowing them to stay in the parents’ room.

“Being consistent in carrying out that approach will help the child adjust and be more likely to return to sleep,” Clark said.

Ease into changes in sleep patterns, such as dropping naps

For young children, a major sleep-related transition is discontinuing daytime naps. In general, children ages one to two should get 11-14 hours of sleep with naps while the amount of recommended sleep decreases slightly from ages three to six.

If children are taking longer to fall asleep at nap time, resisting naps or suddenly having difficulty falling asleep at night or waking up earlier than usual in the morning, it may be time to drop the nap, Clark says.

“Parents may need to adjust sleep routines gradually to transition to changes to a child’s sleep patterns,” Clark said.

Other changes that can affect a child’s sleep include transitioning from a crib to a toddler bed, starting school, having a change in their daytime routine, or being outdoors for longer than usual.



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