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Three planets orbiting dwarf star prime spots to search for life -
3/5/2016 9:07:36 AM

A Belgian-led team reported Monday that it's discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star less than 40 light-years away.

Astronomers searching for life beyond our solar system may need to look no farther than a little, feeble nearby star.

A Belgian-led team reported Monday that it's discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star less than 40 light-years away. It's the first time planets have been found around this type of star — and it opens up new, rich territory in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Because this star is so close and so faint, astronomers can study the atmospheres of these three temperate exoplanets and, eventually, hunt for signs of possible life. They're already making atmospheric observations, in fact, using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope will join in next week.

Altogether, it's a "winning combination" for seeking chemical traces of life outside our solar system, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Julien de Wit, a co-author of the study, released by the journal Nature.

The star in question — named Trappist-1 after the Belgian telescope in Chile that made the discovery — is barely the size of Jupiter and located in the constellation Aquarius.

Other exoplanet searches have targeted bigger, brighter stars more like our sun, but the starlight in these cases can be so bright that it washes out the signatures of planets. By comparison, cool dwarf stars that emit infrared light, like Trappist-1, make it easier to spot potential worlds.

University of Liege astronomers in Belgium — lead study authors Michael Gillon and Emmanuel Jehin — built the Trappist telescope to observe 60 of the nearest ultra-cool dwarf stars. The risky effort paid off, de Wit noted in an email.

"Systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology," Gillon said in a statement. "So if we want to find life elsewhere in the universe, this is where we should start to look."

The two inner exoplanets take between 1.5 and 2.4 days to orbit the Trappist-1 star. The precise orbit time of the third planet is not known, but it falls somewhere between 4.5 days and 73 days. That puts the planets 20 times to 100 times closer to their star than Earth is to our sun, Gillon noted. The setup is more similar in scale to Jupiter's moons than to our solar system, he added.

Although the two innermost planets are very close to the star, it showers them with only a few times the amount of energy that Earth receives from our own sun. The third exoplanet farther out may receive significantly less of such radiation than Earth does.

The astronomers speculate the two inner exoplanets may have pockets where life may exist, while the third exoplanet actually might fall within the habitable zone — real estate located at just the right distance from a star in order to harbor water and, possibly, life.

Spitzer and Hubble should answer whether the exoplanets have large and clear atmospheres, according to de Wit. They also might be able to detect water and methane, if molecules are present.

Future observatories, including NASA's James Web Space Telescope set to launch in 2018, should unearth even more details.

Gillon and his colleagues identified the three exoplanets by observing regular dips in the infrared signals emanating from the Trappist-1 star, some 36 light-years away. A single light-year represents about 6 trillion miles.

The astronomers conducted the survey last year using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, or Trappist. It's considered a prototype for a more expansive European project that will widen the search for potentially habitable worlds to 500 ultra-cool stars. This upcoming project is dubbed Speculoos — short for Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars.


Uttarakhand forest fire reaches Kasauli boarding school, students evacuated -
3/5/2016 9:04:46 AM

The number of active fires dropped sharply to 40 in the hill state and the Centre claimed the situation was under control

The forest fires raging through large parts of Uttarakhand began showing signs of abating, however, they reached a boarding school in Himachal Pradesh's Kasauli. The evacuation of the children began soon after the fire started.

The number of active fires dropped sharply to 40 in the hill state and the Centre claimed the situation was under control. Three persons were arrested from Pithoragarh and Nainital for burning dry leaves of Cheed and stoking the fires.

"There are only 40 active fires in the state today (Monday) in comparison to yesterday's (Sunday's) 73 which is an encouraging sign. It shows the situation is gradually getting under control. Today there were 271 incidents of forest fires in the state out of which 232 have been extinguished," Additional Chief Secretary (Forest) S Ramaswamy said. Two IAF helicopters made nine sorties from Nainital and Pauri and poured water out of Bamdi buckets over the flaming forests as 10,000 personnel fought numerous infernos on the ground.

Panic gripped Lawrence school, Sanawar near Kasauli, on Monday as fires raging in adjoining forests advanced towards the school. "The fires were brought under control and no damage was caused to the 169-year-old residential school and the situation was normal," said R Chauhan, a senior teacher of the school.

Fire tenders were rushed to the forests which fought the flames for nearly two hours and brought them under control. The forest officials said it was ground fire caused by burning of dry pine needles and such fires are common during the summer and a number of fires has occurred in forests in 

Exposed: Water tankers for drought-hit Maharashtra are being illegally sold out -
3/5/2016 9:03:35 AM

Places like Latur and Beed are the worst hit. The situation is so bad that the government had to rush a 50-wagon water train to the parched region. But all in vain, as India Today's special investigation reveals.

As Marathwada witnesses one of the worst droughts that the region has seen in the past century, water tankers arranged by the government for thirsty villages are being diverted and sold for Rs 2,000 each by local administrators to rich businessmen.

Places like Latur and Beed are the worst hit. The situation is so bad that the government had to rush a 50-wagon water train to the parched region. But all in vain, as India Today's special investigation reveals.

Beed, located 137 km from Latur, is also reeling under severe water shortage. Villagers are largely dependent on water tankers arranged by the administration. Close to 800 water tankers are supplying water every day to villages across this central Maharashtra region. But is that water reaching those who really need it? India Today's special investigation team visited Beed for a reality check. And the probe revealed shocking details.ater tankers meant for the thirsty population of the region are being sold to businessmen for profit. The dirty business has been authorised by local administrative officers.

Our reporters posed as businessmen wanting to set up an industry in the area and met Gopal Gurkhade, the Sabhapati of Beed municipal council. The reporters told Gurkhade that they will need 2-3 tankers of water everyday.

Despite the severe water shortage, the Sabhapati of the Beed Municipal council had no problem promising 36,000 litres of water a day. Villagers may be queuing up for water for hours, but that was not Gopal Gurkhade's concern. His only concern was money.

The deal was struck - Rs 6,000 for 36,000 litres water every day. And this was not all, Gurkhade even offered protection from police and uninterrupted power supply for the factory.

India Today investigation team then met officers of Beed's Panchayat Samiti. It is the Samiti which manages the flow of water tankers to the region's thirsty villages. Our reporters got in touch with Lakshmikant, the Panchayat officer, and Ghyasuddin Zuberi, the man who handles all the accounts of the tankers. Both agreed to meet us at our hotel.


The two admitted that sending tankers for private use was a big risk, but had a simple plan to ensure that tankers reach the 'factory site' without any hitch. The tankers would deliver water at night, without any government identification on them. So, for Rs 48,000 a week, water meant for Beed's parched villagers was sold to construct a factory. There was no limit to the amount of water the reporters could ask for, as long as they had the money.

In the course of the probe, India Today's special investigation team also met Beed's Nayab Tehsildar Kama Kute. She's supposed to have firsthand idea of the terrible situation in her district. But when the reporters told her that we needed water tankers to set up a factory, she was more than willing to help.

India Today reporters asked Kamal Kute, if she could divert a tanker meant for one of the villages to the construction site and she agreed. All she needed was permission from her boss. The special investigative team met Ashok Nandlangaonkar, Tehsildar, Beed, next.

After a brief introduction, in the first meeting itself, the Beed Tehsildar was also on board. He, however, did not talk about money. The reason was revealed to the team by his junior, Kamal Kute, later. Nandlangaonkar did not want to be caught on CCTV camera taking money. So, he sent Kute to meet the team outside office to work out the deal. The Nayab Tehsildat met the reporters with her husband at the hotel.

On the next day, Kute met India Today reporters and the deal was finalised: Rs 2,000 for one tanker. Before leaving, India Today's special investigation team met with Ashok Nandlangaonkar once again. This time they asked him if they could install a borewell at their plot. Boring beyond 200 feet is illegal in the state and a person can be jailed for defying the law. But even this illegality was not an issue with the Tehsildar.

Marathwada is facing a dry spell. Unfortunately, water scarcity in the region has more to do with the local administration's callous attitude than nature's vagaries.

Also read: Exposed: Water tankers meant for thirsty being sold to rich businessmen in parched Marathwada

India Today Impact: Officials involved in water tanker scam suspended, probe ordered