Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.
Ars Technica: This morning, Blue Origin announced that yesterday it launched its New Shepard rocket to an altitude of 100.5 km and returned it safely to the launch site. It is the first rocket to achieve this task. The ability to reuse hardware could cut the costs of access to space or high-altitude flight substantially. Space X has been working on a similar technique for the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, but has had only limited success. Blue Origin's New Shepard combines a booster with a pressurized crew capsule, and its video of the launch suggests that the company intends to use New Shepard for space tourism: Passengers riding in the crew capsule would be lifted into space for a brief period of weightlessness, then the capsule would deploy a parachute before returning to Earth.
New Scientist: Maximizing the amount of material that can be included in space launch cargos is a significant task—boxes and other items have already been converted into flat sheets that take up less space in the cargo and can be assembled in orbit. Lynn Rothschild of NASA's Ames Research Center and her colleagues have now gone one step further by taking the plastic sheets out of the equation entirely. They genetically engineered Escherichia coli bacteria to produce polystyrene and P(3HB) plastics. After the plastic is processed into sheets, a black marker is used to draw lines on them; when the sheets are placed under IR light, the dark areas contract and the sheets fold along the lines. The team also experimented with attaching Bacillus spores to cellulose strips that are strategically placed on the plastic. The spores expand and contract based on changes in humidity, causing the plastic to bend. Further work is needed to make the process practical. Intentionally sending E. coli bacteria to space is risky, however, because they could contaminate the food supplies.
Science: This week, at a meeting of the governing council of the multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project, which is under construction in France, new estimates were presented that suggest the project will cost $13 billion and won't begin operations until the late 2020s. That moves the go-live date at least six years later than previously projected, and about a decade later than initially projected. The council also asked that the seven international partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US—all provide additional funding for the project. However, after the council meeting concluded today, the delegates said that they would all be conducting their own reviews of the new schedule and funding requests before any long-term decision is made. The council did approve the proposed construction schedule for the next two years.
Ars Technica: In a letter sent to US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, claims that a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate study was rushed to publication despite the concerns of several NOAA scientists. Last month, Smith subpoenaed internal communications from NOAA regarding the study, about which he has said that "NOAA employees altered temperature data to get politically correct results and then widely publicized their conclusions as refuting the nearly two-decade pause in climate change we have experienced." In his letter to Pritzker, Smith says the information on which he based his subpoena was provided by whistleblowers. In response to the letter, NOAA says that the study was published in Science after the normal peer-review process and that NOAA has provided all the data, which were already publicly available and should be sufficient to verify the findings.
Nature: The Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA) is a proposed European Space Agency mission designed to detect gravitational waves. To determine if the mission is technically feasible as designed, on 2 December the agency is launching LISA Pathfinder, as a proof of concept. On board LISA Pathfinder will be two 2-kg cubes of gold and platinum that will be completely isolated from everything except the force of gravity. Instrumentation on the satellite will measure the cubes' relative motions with what is hoped to be picometer accuracy. If successful, LISA Pathfinder will open the door for the full-scale eLISA mission in which two cubes would be similarly isolated but aboard two separate craft 5 million km apart.
New Scientist: The two most common types of glue are liquids that dry and solids that are melted and then cooled. Now Syuji Fujii of Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan and his colleagues have created a dry powder that turns to glue when squished. The powder consists of millimeter-sized balls of liquid trapped inside a layer of calcium carbonate nanoparticles. When put under pressure, the balls break and release the sticky liquid, which creates the bond as it dries. Fujii thinks that the glue will be most useful for fitting together complicated shapes, such as parts in automobiles, aircraft, and electronics, because the powder can be easily poured into the gaps between the parts before the stickiness is activated.