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News Picks

Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.

There are 27 posts for the selected month (October 2016).

October 21, 2016 4:00 PM

Despite the challenges, crewed Mars missions are on the horizon

National Geographic: Because Mars is one of the closest planets to Earth, it may be the next frontier for human exploration. However, it is some 55 million km away, and such a long journey through space poses numerous challenges, including designing a spacecraft that could shield the astronauts from cosmic rays, provide enough space to keep them comfortable, and store enough food and supplies. In addition, space’s zero gravity has a detrimental effect on human bone and muscle mass over time and causes the body to retain fluids in the brain and elsewhere. Nevertheless, some space agencies and private companies are planning future crewed missions to the Red Planet. Whereas NASA is working to send astronauts into orbit around Mars by the 2030s, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has set his sights on the ambitious goal of actually landing humans on the planet's surface by 2024. This National Geographic article looks in depth at the current technology and costs and explores possible scenarios for colonizing Mars.
October 21, 2016 2:19 PM

Ancient shipwrecks found at the bottom of the Black Sea

New Scientist: Submersibles for the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project have discovered 41 shipwrecks lying on the bottom of the seabed. The ships’ remains, some more than 1000 years old, have been well preserved by the anoxic, or low-oxygen, conditions, which prevent the decay of the wood and other natural materials. Rudders, masts, tillers, and even ropes can be seen in high-quality images taken using 3D photogrammetry. Because of their location far out at sea, the ships were more likely trading vessels than battleships, says Jon Adams of the University of Southampton, UK, principal investigator on the project.
October 20, 2016 12:44 PM

First US nuclear reactor in two decades goes live in Tennessee

Chattanooga Times Free Press: On 19 October, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) officially connected the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant to the electrical grid. Watts Bar Unit 2 is the first nuclear reactor to be added to the US's power system in 20 years. The last reactor added was the plant's Unit 1, which opened in 1996. The $4.7 billion reactor started generating power in May but has been undergoing tests and evaluations ever since. It is the TVA's seventh nuclear reactor. Together the TVA's seven reactors provide nearly 40% of the regional utility's power generation. Unit 1 and Unit 2 each provide 1150 MW. The TVA has no plans to construct more reactors, however, because regional electricity demand has leveled off. Unit 2 will serve as a replacement for older coal plants that have been closed.

October 20, 2016 12:35 PM

Contact lost with Schiaparelli lander on its way to Mars’s surface

New York Times: The ExoMars mission suffered a setback yesterday after its Schiaparelli lander separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter and began its descent to Mars’s surface. Although the lander appears to have successfully deployed its parachute and heat shield, it stopped transmitting signals shortly before its scheduled landing. A board of inquiry now plans to sift through the data to find out what went wrong. Nevertheless, the European Space Agency, which collaborated with the Russian space agency Roscosmos on the mission, still considers the project to be a success because the orbiter is in place and already transmitting data. Despite the lander’s loss, the ExoMars mission should still be able to fulfill its primary goal of preparing for a more ambitious Mars mission in 2020.
October 19, 2016 3:59 PM

German experiment to measure neutrino mass begins

International Business Times: On 14 October, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany turned on the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino (KATRIN) experiment. The €60 million ($66 million) facility houses a 220 ton spectrometer that will be used for the next five years to attempt to measure the exact mass of neutrinos. In the standard model of particle physics, neutrinos were predicted to be massless; however, the discovery that neutrinos have different flavors and oscillate between them suggests that the particles do have mass. Whereas electrons have a mass of 511 000 eV, neutrinos may have a mass of just 2 eV. KATRIN, which has a sensitivity of 0.2 eV, is designed to find a precise measurement of neutrino mass by studying the particles that are released by the decay of tritium atoms. Guido Drexlin, one of KATRIN's spokespersons, says that the research team hopes to have clear data to present as early as sometime next year.

October 19, 2016 12:09 PM

Roof collapses lead to section closures at US waste isolation plant

Albuquerque Journal: Problems continue at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The Department of Energy is now planning to close off the south end of the nuclear waste repository because of a series of roof collapses over the past year. The WIPP is still recovering from a major radiation leak in 2014, which caused a nine-month shutdown and construction delays because of additional safety measures and requirements for protective clothing for workers. Sealing off part of the repository will reduce the WIPP's storage capacity, but by how much has yet to be determined.
October 18, 2016 11:32 AM

Orbital ATK rocket launches successfully on ISS resupply mission On 17 October an Orbital ATK rocket blasted off at 7:45pm EDT from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Its uncrewed Cygnus cargo capsule is carrying 2300 kg of science experiments, hardware, and other supplies to the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). The successful launch was especially important for Orbital ATK because its last Antares rocket had exploded on the pad two years ago. Clear night skies allowed the launched rocket to be visible along the US East Coast, from Boston to South Carolina. Because of weather and issues with a ground support cable, the Cygnus spacecraft's launch had been delayed by several days. The craft's arrival at the ISS will now coincide with that of a Russian capsule carrying three astronauts, so Cygnus will have to wait to dock.
October 18, 2016 11:21 AM

Billion-dollar radar installation could be threatened by rising sea levels

Associated Press: To track space debris in orbit around Earth, the US Air Force is building a $1 billion radar installation on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Space Fence facility is being constructed by Lockheed Martin, which won the contract in 2014 and began construction last year with the goal of completion by late 2018. But the atoll rises just 3 m above sea level. According to Curt Storlazzi of the US Geological Survey, many islands in the atoll will be completely submerged by storms multiple times a year within just a few decades. The saltwater would pose a significant threat to electrical systems and other hardware. Dana Whalley, who is managing the Space Fence program, says that the facility has a projected lifespan of only 25 years. Sea walls should be able to protect the facility during that time scale, Whalley says.
October 17, 2016 3:40 PM

US Navy closes major deal on solar power

Washington Post: As of 14 October, Arizona’s Mesquite 3 solar array has been switched on and has started powering some 14 naval installations in California. Owned by Sempra Energy, the 150 MW facility will provide about one-third of the US Navy bases’ electrical needs at a fixed price for the next 25 years. The largest renewable-energy procurement ever by the federal government, the deal represents a clean-energy milestone for the US. Since 2010 the US has built about 50 large-scale solar photovoltaic facilities, the first five of which were financed by the Department of Energy. Energy secretary Ernest Moniz credits the DOE program with helping to drive down the cost and jump-start the solar power boom. Although solar power currently provides just 1% of total US electricity capacity, solar power generation has jumped from 20 MW before 2009 to some 31.6 GW today.
October 17, 2016 12:54 PM

China sends two astronauts on country's longest space mission

New York Times: Early Monday morning local time, China's space agency launched two astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft on a mission to dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab, which the agency put into orbit last month. The astronauts are scheduled to spend 30 days aboard the orbital lab, which will more than double the duration of the previous longest mission by a Chinese astronaut. The mission is the sixth crewed mission by China. Aboard Tiangong-2, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will test computers and station equipment and conduct other experiments. China hopes to launch a longer-lived station, Tianhe-1, in 2018.

October 14, 2016 4:50 PM

Universe is home to about 2 trillion galaxies, study says

Science News: The estimated number of galaxies that exist or existed at one time in the observable universe just jumped about 10-fold. So say Christopher Conselice of the University of Nottingham and his colleagues, who have performed the first detailed census of galaxies in the cosmos. The researchers used a combination of ground- and space-based telescopes to look at a particular volume of the universe to see how it has evolved over time. Although perhaps as many as 2 trillion galaxies existed at one time, the researchers say, many of them have since collided and merged to create larger ones. Nevertheless, there are hordes of relatively tiny galaxies waiting to be discovered that can’t be imaged with current technology.
October 14, 2016 12:51 PM

Former employees sue Arecibo Observatory for discrimination

Nature: Two former employees at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have filed a lawsuit after a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation determined that they were discriminated against and wrongfully terminated. In November 2015 Elizabeth Sternke informed the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), which oversees Arecibo, that she intended to file a complaint with the EEOC. Soon after, her contract job was terminated early. Subsequently, James Richardson, Sternke's husband and fellow USRA employee, filed his own EEOC complaint. In April 2016 the USRA terminated his position as well. The EEOC investigation found that both Sternke and Richardson had been terminated in retaliation for their complaints. On 4 October the couple filed suit against the USRA and Arecibo's deputy director Joan Schmelz for $2 million in back pay and damages. According to the EEOC, when Schmelz began working at Arecibo, she intentionally sidelined Richardson in favor of younger employees and "marginalized and ostracized" both Richardson and Sternke. Additionally, the USRA altered the job description of a position that Richardson was applying for and subsequently appointed a much younger staff member to fill it.

October 13, 2016 3:00 PM

Moon continues to be hammered by meteorites

Nature: Although most of the craters on the Moon’s surface formed millions of years ago, at least 222 new ones have appeared since 2009. The freshly formed depressions, which were identified by comparing images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with those taken decades ago by Apollo astronauts, are distributed across the lunar surface and range in size between 2 m and 43 m in diameter. Because the number of fresh craters is much larger than scientists had expected, researchers may need to rethink estimates of the lunar surface’s age and the design of any future lunar installations.
October 12, 2016 1:53 PM

Obama affirms public–private partnership to reach Mars

BBC: On 11 October CNN published an opinion piece written by President Obama in which he expanded on his previously stated goal of sending crewed missions to Mars by the 2030s. To achieve that goal, Obama wants to continue the partnership between NASA and private spaceflight companies in developing rockets and other technology. NASA already has a close relationship with companies such as SpaceX, which has been resupplying the International Space Station. Just a few weeks ago, SpaceX founder Elon Musk revealed his own ambitious plan to establish a permanent settlement on Mars.

October 12, 2016 12:26 PM

Private consortium plans telescope to find planets in Alpha Centauri

New York Times: On 11 October a consortium of nonprofits announced a plan to build a half-meter space telescope to look for potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system. The data from the telescope would allow astronomers to closely analyze any planets found and potentially determine atmospheric composition. Alpha Centauri is a binary system that is located just 4.37 light-years away. Only the star Proxima Centauri, which is now known to host an Earth-sized planet in its habitable zone, is closer. However, the Alpha Centauri stars are much more Sun-like than Proxima Centauri. Jon Morse of the BoldlyGo Institute, one of the organizations leading the consortium, says that the telescope would likely cost between $25 million and $50 million, about one-third the price of a comparable NASA project. The plan is to raise funds through major donations, though the group may also turn to crowdsourcing.

October 11, 2016 2:00 PM

Climate change threatens long-frozen Inuit artifacts in Arctic

Scientific American: For thousands of years, delicate ivory carvings, wood bows, leather goods, and even mummies from ancient Inuit have lain frozen in the Arctic permafrost. However, as global temperatures warm because of climate change, the permafrost is melting and sea levels are rising. As a result, archaeologists are racing to try to recover those artifacts before they are exposed to the elements or washed out to sea. Anne Jensen, a senior scientist at Ukpeavik Iñupiat Corporation, says that because of the quickly changing climate and limited financial resources, she and her colleagues are being forced to identify the sites with the most potential and salvage what they can.
October 11, 2016 11:46 AM

Montreal Protocol amendment would ban HFCs

Nature: At the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol this week, participants are discussing an amendment that would ban hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases that also attack the ozone layer. The most common HFC, the refrigerant HFC-134a, has 1430 times as much warming potential as carbon dioxide over a span of 100 years. Stopping the production of HFCs and gradually cutting back on their use would help not only to protect the ozone layer but also to achieve the goal of the Paris climate treaty to ameliorate global warming. Their ban would prevent the equivalent of 100 billion to 200 billion tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere by 2050 and could avert about half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century.
October 10, 2016 3:39 PM

New transistor created with a 1 nm gate

IEEE Spectrum: Current state-of-the-art commercially available silicon transistors have 20 nm gates; the theoretical minimum for silicon transistors is 5 nm. Some researchers view that 5 nm threshold as the point at which Moore's law, which describes the doubling of the density of transistors on computer chips, will break down. Using molybdenum disulfide and carbon nanotubes, Ali Javey of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and his colleagues have now created a transistor with a gate that is just 1 nm across. Javey is quick to caution that their transistor is far from being commercializable. But simply showing that it is possible for transistors to have gates below the 5 nm mark leaves the door open for the continuation of Moore's law.

October 7, 2016 3:31 PM

NASA reconsiders its role in Mars exploration

Nature: As more countries and commercial companies plan missions to Mars, NASA has begun to rethink its approach to studying the Red Planet. In the past, individual teams of scientists have proposed, built, and operated the scientific instruments that NASA launches into space. However, NASA's current Mars spacecraft are aging and it has just one new one scheduled to launch in 2020. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency, China, and the United Arab Emirates each plan to launch a rover or orbiter to Mars by 2020. And SpaceX could start sending its Red Dragon landers as early as 2018. As NASA's influence in space wanes, researchers may need to start applying for time to use scientific instruments already in place, much as astronomers do to use large telescopes. “The era that we all know and love and embrace is really coming to an end,” said Jim Watzin, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, at a recent Mars advisory group meeting.

October 7, 2016 1:27 PM

Hurricane Matthew has not behaved as expected

The Verge: When Hurricane Matthew first became a tropical storm on 28 September, it was not expected to become a major hurricane. However, it quickly turned into one, and by the time it hit several Caribbean islands, it had become a category 4 storm, the second-highest hurricane classification category. Hurricanes in the Atlantic are driven by warm winds traveling west from Africa and passing over warm ocean. The air lifts water vapor into the atmosphere, which lowers air pressure and creates more winds that feed into the cycle until a large storm gathers. Hurricane Matthew formed in an area where high-altitude winds were expected to prevent the storm from exceeding a category 3. Also, the storm did not lose as much energy as expected as it passed over islands in the Caribbean, which is why it remained a category 4 storm as it approached the US coast yesterday.

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