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Jan. 24, 2013 at 6:54 PM
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NASA to join in 'dark universe' hunt

GREENBELT, Md., Jan. 24 (UPI) -- NASA says it is joining a European Space Agency mission designed to investigate the cosmological mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.

A space telescope named Euclid will launch in 2020 and spend six years mapping as many as 2 billion galaxies spread over more than one-third of the sky.

Its mission is to gather clues about the dark matter and dark energy that influence the evolution of the universe in ways that still are poorly understood, the space agency reported Thursday.

"NASA is very proud to contribute to ESA's mission to understand one of the greatest science mysteries of our time," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington.

NASA will contribute 16 state-of-the-art infrared detectors and four spare detectors for one of two science instruments planned for Euclid, he said.

Dark matter first was postulated in 1932, but still has not been detected directly. Called dark matter because it does not interact with light, its existence can only be inferred though its interaction with ordinary matter through gravity.

While dark matter pulls matter together, dark energy -- about which even less in known or understood -- is pushing the universe apart at ever-increasing speeds.

It is hoped Euclid will yield the best measurements yet of changes in the acceleration of the universe, providing new clues about the evolution and fate of the cosmos, NASA said.

Warning raised for New Zealand volcano

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- New Zealand scientists say activity at a volcano on an island to the east of the North Island has led them to upgrade a warning to aircraft and to sightseers.

The White Island volcano is showing an increasing level of unrest, causing the government's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences to raise its aviation alert code Thursday from yellow to orange, indicating an increased likelihood of eruption, China's Xinhua news agency reported.

Explosions and ash emissions began at White Island in August and activity has been increasing since about Jan. 14, scientists said, with increased hydrothermal activity in the island's "hot lake."

"Visitors to White Island are now at the highest level of risk since the start of the 2012 eruptions," GNS vulcanologist Gill Jolly said in a statement.

"Hazards to visitors can include the health effects of volcanic gas exposure, including respiratory issues, skin and eye sensitivity to acid gases," he said. "Explosive eruptions can occur at any time with little or no warning. We advise a high level of caution should be taken if visiting the island."

White Island's current activity is the first since an eruption in 2001.

Insect found to use Milky Way as guide

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- An African insect with a tiny brain and minimal computing power is the first animal proven to use the Milky Way to orient itself on Earth, researchers say.

African dung beetles have eyes too weak to distinguish individual constellations but can use the gradient of light to dark provided by the Milky Way to ensure they keep rolling their dung balls in a straight line and avoid circling back to competitors at the dung pile, Swedish and South African scientists report in the journal Current Biology.

While birds and humans navigate by the stars, the discovery is the first convincing evidence for such abilities in insects, the researchers say.

"Even on clear, moonless nights, many dung beetles still manage to orientate along straight paths," Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden said. "This led us to suspect that the beetles exploit the starry sky for orientation -- a feat that had, to our knowledge, never before been demonstrated in an insect."

The beetles can transport their dung balls along straight paths under a starlit sky but lose the ability under overcast conditions, the researchers said.

On starry nights the beetles climb on top of their dung balls to perform a "dance" during which they locate light sources to use for orientation, they said.

"The dung beetles don't care which direction they're going in; they just need to get away from the bun fight at the poo pile," Marcus Byrne of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa said.

Weather can alter climate change beliefs

DURHAM, N.H., Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Climate change beliefs held by independent voters can be dramatically swayed by short-term weather conditions, University of New Hampshire researchers reported.

This is in contrast to how voters aligned with a political party hold on to their beliefs, they said.

"We find that over 10 surveys, Republicans and Democrats remain far apart and firm in their beliefs about climate change. Independents fall in between these extremes, but their beliefs appear weakly held -- literally blowing in the wind," researchers Lawrence Hamilton and Mary Stampone wrote in the journal Weather, Climate and Society.

"Interviewed on unseasonably warm days, independents tend to agree with the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. On unseasonably cool days, they tend not to," Hamilton and Stampone said.

Hamilton is a professor of sociology and Stampone is a professor of geography and is also the New Hampshire state climatologist.

They used statewide data from about 5,000 random-sample telephone interviews conducted on 99 days during 2 1/2 years, and correlated that with temperature and precipitation records.

Weather had a substantial effect on climate change views mainly among independent voters, they found.

"The shift was dramatic," Hamilton said. "On the coolest days, belief in human-caused climate change dropped below 40 percent among independents. On the hottest days, it increased above 70 percent."

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