Space Science News Sunday – open thread (video)

Time again folks for Science Sunday. Here are a whole bunch of quick hits from my browser tabs.

Space News

China’s Chang’e 3 probe has achieved lunar orbit. Later this month, it is expected to attempt to land a probe equipped with a separate small 6-wheel rover — named Yuto or ‘jade rabbit’ — to perform experiments on the moon’s surface.

Artist's depiction of China's Chang'e lander and Yutu mini-rover (photo: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)

Artist’s depiction of China’s Chang’e lander and Yutu mini-rover (photo: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has logged its 100,000th laser blast. Able to vaporize rock and dirt from up to 30 feet away, the ChemLaser is used to analyze chemical content from the revealed light spectrographs. Curiosity’s ground team tweeted, “#PewPewPew I’ve fired my ChemCam laser 100,000+ times on Mars for SCIENCE!”

Sadly, Comet ISON appears definitely to be no more. In rounding the sun, it broke up and all that remained was a rapidly dissipating cloud of dust and vapor. Alas, no Christmas Comet this year. You’d think after the Comet Kohoutek fizzle-out in 1973, we’d have learned not to hype a comet before it’s actually worth hyping, but no.

Ceries - dwarf planet and asteroid (photo: Hubble Space Telescope)

Ceres – dwarf planet and asteroid (photo: Hubble Space Telescope)

NASA’s ion-engine powered Dawn probe continues on its way to Ceres, expected to arrive in 2015. Like the demoted Pluto, Ceres is considered one of our solar system’s “dwarf planets”. Orbiting the sun from within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Ceries has about 4% of the mass of our moon and about as much surface area as the nation of India. What’s especially intriguing is there are signs of both water and carbonates on Ceres’ surface — which could be critical for possible colonization efforts, should we humans ever develop the courage to leave our fragile nest.

Shimizu Corporation is thinking even bigger: Turn Earth’s moon into a solar power station. Because one side of the moon always faces the Earth, the only way to make it work 100% of the time would be to have solar panels on both the near and far side. Shimizu’s proposal would be to have self-replicating robots build a band around the entire 6800 mile circumference of the moon’s equator. Transmitters on the nearside would broadcast the energy (probably in the form of microwaves) at the Earth. To be sure, in addition to the obvious technical challenges, we’d have to think in terms of worldwide electricity transmission systems, rather than merely within a single nation’s borders. Shimizu estimates the full installation could supply around 13,000 Terawatts of power, constantly and steadily. By comparison, the entire power generating capacity of the United State is about 1 Terawatt.

Artist's conception of Shimizu's proposed lunar equatorial solar power belt. I've surmised the numbers are: 1 = solar panels; 2 = maglev tramline and power conduits; 3 = power transmitter; 4 = control station; 5 = maglev train; 6 = automated robotic solar panel maker (photo: Shimizu Corporation)

Artist’s conception of Shimizu’s proposed lunar equatorial solar power belt. I’ve surmised the numbers are: 1 = solar panels; 2 = maglev tramline and power conduits; 3 = power transmitter; 4 = control station; 5 = maglev train; 6 = automated robotic solar panel maker (photo: Shimizu Corporation)

Shimizu Corporation's proposed lunar belt solar power generating system. Not so sure I like the title 'Master Plan' though... (photo: Shimizu Corporation)

Shimizu Corporation’s proposed lunar belt solar power generating system. Not so sure I like the title ‘Master Plan’ though… (photo: Shimizu Corporation)

Earth News

Scientists believe they’ve identified the culprit behind the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan (and created the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster). Except when caused by fracking, most of the time earthquakes are the result of fault lines in our Earth’s crust. Where two plates rub against each other or one is pushing under another, there are quakes. When this happens at sea, as it did for the Tohoku quake in 2011, it can generate a tsunami. One remarkable detail is the slippage for this quake was an unprecedented 30 to 50 meters. (The largest previous one on record was off the coast of Chile in 1960, a slip of just 20 meters.)

So what caused this unexpectedly violent slip between two tectonic plates? It turns out that the fault itself is very thin–less than five meters thick in the area sampled. This makes it the thinnest plate boundary on Earth. In addition, clay deposits that fill the narrow fault are made of extremely fine sediment, which makes it extremely slippery. These traits in particular caused the massive slip that resulted in the major tsunami that devastated the region.

Medical News

Vaccine, vaccination, shot, health care, disease, bacteria, sick

Vaccine via Shutterstock

A vaccine used to prevent tuberculosis might also be effective in stopping (or at least slowing) multiple sclerosis, including for people just beginning to show the symptoms of MS. This could be a huge breakthrough in treatment.

No surprise: It costs more to eat healthy, which is why poor folks often have bad diets. One study determined the actual cost to be roughly $1.50 more a day to eat healthy meals than junk. Ironic, isn’t it, how knowledge like this comes on the heels of Congressional Republicans’ constant efforts to cut food stamps.

Dyslexia really is in the brain, and it appears to be due to a mis-wiring between the auditory and speech centers in the brain, the areas involved with language processing.

Tech News

amazon-droneRemember John’s post the other day about the Amazon drone delivery service? Researchers at ETH Zurich are working on algorithms that can enable a quadrocopter to continue flying after losing a rotor or engine. (They claim to be able to keep flying with ‘multiple’ failures, but I’m not seeing as how that’s possible unless it’s two rotors directly opposite each other across the midline of the craft.)

Just by using existing fiber optic cables differently, researchers at Swiss EPFL have found a way to transmit ten times the current usual bandwidth of data.

MIT Physicist Julian Sonner has come up with a theory to explain quantum entanglement: Wormholes. (QE is a behavior between two particles where if you do something to one of them, the other demonstrates a reaction, instantaneously, no matter how far apart they are. QE effects have been demonstrated many times in the laboratory and now the competition has been to see how far apart the two particles can be from one another and still work.) Sonner’s conjecture is entangled particles actually create a tiny, submicroscopic wormhole (or gravitational tunnel) between themselves.

And with that, I’ll close with today’s video. ‘This Week @ NASA’ — a round up of other space-related news.


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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