Season for lunacy

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Jun 4 2011, 04:11am hrs

This month, its going to be the season of the lunatics. The word, derived from the latin lunaticus (meaning moonstruck) is especially apt this June, what with a lunar eclipse on the 15th that is supposed to be the longest in the century and the darkest in 40 years. For that rare soul who doesnt know what a lunar eclipse is, its when the earth passes between the sun and the moon, casting a shadow on the latter. They come in all shapes, ranging from the barely visible to the partial to the total eclipse, such as the one thatll happen on the 15th. Due to day and night differences across the globe, the eclipse will obviously be visible at different times. In India, itll actually be visible early 16th morning, between midnight and dawn. According to astronomers, its the year for eclipses. A partial solar eclipse took place on June 1, but unless you were in the Arctic, youd have missed it. But dont worry, therell be another on July 1, and yet another on November 25. Lunacy will be back in vogue on December 10, with a second total lunar eclipse.

Ancient light

Now, lets look farther afield into space. Much, much farther. In fact, as far as weve ever seen before. Astronomers have confirmed that they have spotted the most distant object in the universe so far. A 10-second gamma ray burst from the supernova explosion of a dying star was found to have originated a mind-bending 13.14 billion light years away from Earth. The explosion itself was a million million times the brightness of the sun, but the distance was so vast that only gamma rays reached NASAs SWIFT space telescope. The really fascinating thing about this isnt the distance, which is enormous, but what it actually means. A light year is the distance light (moving at 299,792,458 m/s) covers in a year. So, if we detect radiation coming from 13.14 billion light years away, it means that it took 13.14 billion years to reach us. In essence, the gamma rays that NASA detected were the oldest things we have ever detected in the universe; the universe was less than 4% of its present age and 10% of its current size when the explosion occurred. This ancient light has the potential to reveal valuable information about the creation of the universe and the conditions that soon followed the Big Bang.

Worms from hell

While were on the subject of pushing boundaries, researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium and Princeton University have found the deepest spot on Earth where they have found complex life living and thriving. At a depth of 3.6 kilometres underground, tiny wormswith fully functional nervous, digestive and respiratory systemswere found in three South African gold mines. The researchers aptly named the species of worm Halicephalobus mephisto, after Fausts devil Mephistopheles. Over the last few decades, scientists have found a number of bacteria and single-celled organisms living deep underground; the previous record holder for the deepest living thing was yeast found up to 450 meters deep in Swedish granite. Not only are these worms from hell located deeper, but theyre also far more complex, pointing to possible basic life forms deep under the surface of alien planets, like Mars.