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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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Listen to 5 October
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QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 5 October 2006
An artist's impression of the STEREO Mission (credit: NASA)
An artist's impression of the STEREO mission (credit: NASA)

Embryos from the Dawn of Animal Life
 
Take a few tons of ancient rock from southwest China, treat it with acid and then sort through the lot under a microscope. If you're lucky you will find a few tiny balls not much bigger than grains of sand. Put these in a powerful x-ray scanner and they tell an amazing story - the story of some of the first animals on Earth, more than 500 million years ago.

Dr Phil Donoghue from Bristol University has been leading an international team of palaeontologists who are doing just that.

Amazingly, the tiny balls are the fossilised embryos of primitive wormlike animals.

The start of the Cambrian period 542 million years ago marks a dramatic change in the fossil record.

Suddenly, all sorts of complex invertebrate animals appear, representing many of the modern groups of species.

Before that there are some fossils but they are of strange soft bodied creatures unlike anything alive today.

The question is whether the Cambrian period marks a true explosion in the evolution of complex animals or whether they existed before but in forms that were too small or soft to be preserved.

The newly discovered embryos - some of them even older than the Cambrian - are beginning to answer such questions.

A New Look at the Sun

A small fleet of spacecraft is heading off to probe the most energetic explosions in the solar system.

The Japanese Solar-B craft and NASA's two STEREO satellites will look at the sun to study in detail how solar flares and mass-ejections send clouds of hot gas racing towards the Earth with the energy of millions of hydrogen bombs.

Solar-B was launched on 23rd September from southern Japan and rechristened Hinode which means sunrise in Japanese. Its high-resolution instruments will be looking at detailed features on the surface of the sun as they develop into solar flares, releasing vast amounts of energy and accelerating high-speed particles towards the Earth.

Professor Len Culane of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London describes one of the instruments, built in Britain, which will study the process at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

Later this month, NASA hopes to launch STEREO, a pair of spacecraft which will give a stereoscopic view of what are called coronal mass ejections, huge clouds of gas hurled out from the sun.

Dr Chris Davies of the Rutherford Appleton laboratory describes another British-built instrument that will image these clouds as they race towards the Earth.

Such solar storms can damage satellites and cause surges in electrical power lines. The hope is that, by understanding how they form and develop, it will be possible to issue solar weather forecasts for our planet.
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