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UPI NewsTrack Science and Technology News

Nov. 14, 2012 at 6:52 PM   |   Comments

'Homeless' planet without a star found

MONTREAL, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- A "homeless" planet that is not orbiting a star and thus is free of any gravitation link has been discovered, Canadian and European astronomers are reporting.

University of Montreal researchers and European colleagues said it is the first isolated planet of its kind ever observed.

"Although theorists had established the existence of this type of very cold and young planet, one had never been observed until today," astrophysicist Etienne Artigau said in a University of Montreal release Wednesday.

The planet, dubbed CFBDSIR2149, is located within a group of very young stars known as the AB Doradus Moving Group but is not gravitationally linked to any of them and has the specific criteria of mass, temperature and age to be designated as a "planet."

"Over the past few years, several objects of this type have been identified, but their existence could not be established without scientific confirmation of their age," Montreal doctoral student Jonathan Gagne said. "Astronomers weren't sure whether to categorize them as planets or as Brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are what we could call failed stars, as they never manage to initiate nuclear reactions in their centers."

Researchers say the isolated planet, about seven times the size of Jupiter, could have been flung away from other bodies during its formation.


Skype works to fix hack vulnerability

PALO ALTO, Calif., Nov. 14 (UPI) -- U.S. Internet-phone service Skype says it has fixed a problem that allowed hackers using known email addresses to reset passwords to gain control of accounts.

The Microsoft-owned company has fixed an exploit that made it possible for hackers to take over Skype accounts as long as they knew the email address associated with the accounts, ZDNet reported.

The vulnerability was revealed Wednesday on a Russian blog.

"The only thing you need to obtain full access to any Skype account is primary email of that account (the email which used when the Skype account been registered)," a post on the pixus.ru blog said, giving step-by-step instructions for exploiting the vulnerability.

Hackers using the fault could log in to accounts that were not theirs and then reset the password, giving them control of the account.

Skype said it had disabled the password-reset feature while it dealt with the vulnerability.

"Early this morning we were notified of user concerns surrounding the security of the password reset feature on our website. This issue affected some users where multiple Skype accounts were registered to the same email address," the company said in a statement. "We suspended the password reset feature temporarily this morning as a precaution and have made updates to the password reset process today so that it is now working properly."


Brain gene pushed humans past apes

EDINBURGH, Scotland, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- An international team of researchers led by Scottish scientists says it has discovered a gene that helps explain how humans evolved from chimpanzees.

The gene, called miR-941, appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how humans learned to use tools and language, the University of Edinburgh reported Wednesday.

The gene is the first carried by humans and not by apes that has been shown to have a specific function within the human body, the researchers said.

Unique to humans, miR-941 emerged between 6 and 1 million years ago and is highly active in two areas of the brain that control decision-making and language abilities, they said.

It emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed "junk DNA," in a startlingly brief interval of evolutionary time, the researchers said.

"As a species, humans are wonderfully inventive -- we are socially and technologically evolving all the time," Edinburgh researcher Martin Taylor said. "But this research shows that we are innovating at a genetic level too.

"This new molecule sprang from nowhere at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate. We're now hopeful that we will find more new genes that help show what makes us human."


Sensors to keep elderly safe at home

ADELAIDE, Australia, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Australian computer scientists say they're developing novel sensor systems that will help older people live independently and safely in their own homes.

Radio-frequency identification and sensor technologies are being adapted to automatically identify and monitor human activity, with the goal of determining whether an individual's normal routine is being maintained so assistance can be provided if it is needed, the University of Adelaide reported Wednesday.

Although RFID technology is in common use today in applications such as anti-shoplifting and vehicle identification at toll road collection points, its use in interpreting human activity remains largely experimental, the scientists said.

"Our work will be among the first few projects in the world conducting large-scale common-sense reasoning in automatic human activity recognition," researcher Michael Sheng said.

The proposed system will be important for an aging population, he said.

"This is becoming a significant problem for most developed countries where the proportion of older people is rapidly increasing and the labor market is tightening -- there are more elderly people to be looked after but less people to do it," he said.

"We are trying to solve this by developing a system using a network of sensors attached to objects that the person is interacting with in the home; using software to interpret the collected data to tell us what someone is doing."

The system, which would not require older people to wear anything or turn anything on or off, could be a low-cost and unobtrusive system without the privacy issues and intensive monitoring involved in video surveillance, he said.

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