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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

On this day in history: Krakatoa erupted

In 1927, Krakatoa began a new volcanic eruption on the seafloor along the same line as the cones of previous activity. By 26 Jan 1928, a growing cone had reached sea level and formed a small island called Anak Krakatoa (Child of Krakatoa). Sporadic activity continued until, by 1973, the island had reached a height of 622 ft above sea level. It was still in eruption in the early 1980s. The volcano Krakatoa is on Pulau (island) Rakata in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, Indonesia. It had been quiet since its previous catastrophic eruption of 1883. That threw sulphur and pumice 33 miles high and 36,380 people were killed either by the ash fall or by the resulting tidal wave. The only earlier known eruption was in 1680, and was only moderate.

Volcano, by ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and the Image Science & Analysis Group, Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The combination of pyroclastic flows, volcanic ash, and tsunamis had disastrous results in the region. There were no survivors from the 3,000 people located on the island of Sebesi, about 13 km (8.1 mi) from Krakatoa. Pyroclastic flows killed around 1,000 people at Ketimbang on the coast of Sumatra some 48 km (30 mi) north from Krakatoa. The official death toll recorded by the Dutch authorities was 36,417, although some sources put the estimate at 120,000 or more. Many settlements were destroyed, including Teluk Betung (Bandar Lampung), and Sirik and Serang in Java. The areas of Banten on Java and Lampung on Sumatra were devastated. There are numerous documented reports of groups of human skeletons floating across the Indian Ocean on rafts of volcanic pumice and washing up on the east coast of Africa, up to a year after the eruption. Some land on Java was never repopulated; it reverted to jungle, and is now the Ujung Kulon National Park.

Ships as far away as South Africa rocked as tsunamis hit them, and the bodies of victims were found floating in the ocean for months after the event. The tsunamis which accompanied the eruption are believed to have been caused by gigantic pyroclastic flows entering the sea; each of the four great explosions was accompanied by massive pyroclastic flows resulting from the gravitational collapse of the eruption columns.This caused several cubic kilometers of material to enter the sea, displacing an equally huge volume of seawater. The town of Merak was destroyed by a tsunami 46 m (151 ft) high. Some of the pyroclastic flows reached the Sumatran coast as much as 40 km (25 mi) away, having apparently moved across the water on a cushion of superheated steam. There are also indications of submarine pyroclastic flows reaching 15 km (9.3 mi) from the volcano.

Smaller waves were recorded on tidal gauges as far away as the English Channel. These occurred too soon to be remnants of the initial tsunamis, and may have been caused by concussive air waves from the eruption. These air waves circled the globe several times and were still detectable on barographs five days later.

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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

New Mars rover findings revealed - much higher concentrations of silica indicate 'considerable water activity'

New findings by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover are the focus of a press conference this morning at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, Calif. A group of scientists, including one from Los Alamos National Laboratory, revealed that the Curiosity rover found much higher concentrations of silica at some sites the rover has investigated in the past seven months than anywhere else it has visited since landing on Mars 40 months ago. Silica makes up nine-tenths of the composition of some of the rocks.

Mars, by NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
"The high silica was a surprise," said Jens Frydenvang of Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Copenhagen, also a Curiosity science team member. "While we're still working with multiple hypotheses on how the silica got so enriched, these hypotheses all require considerable water activity, and on Earth high silica deposits are often associated with environments that provide excellent support for microbial life. Because of this, the science team agreed to make a rare backtrack to investigate it more."

The first discovery was as Curiosity approached the area "Marias Pass," where a lower geological unit contacts an overlying one. ChemCam, the rover's laser-firing instrument for checking rock composition from a distance, detected bountiful silica in some targets the rover passed along the way to the contact zone. The ChemCam instrument was developed at Los Alamos in partnership with the French IRAP laboratory in Toulouse and the French Space Agency.

Adding information about silica clues was a major emphasis in rover operations over a span of four months and a distance of about one-third of a mile (half a kilometer). It involves many more readings from ChemCam, plus elemental composition measurements by the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometeter (APXS) on the rover's arm and mineral identification of drilled rock-powder samples analyzed by the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover.

Curiosity's science team is working with two main hypotheses to explain the recent findings on Mount Sharp, both of which require water. Water that is acidic would tend to carry other ingredients away and leave silica behind. Alkaline or neutral water could bring in dissolved silica that would be deposited from the solution. Apart from presenting a puzzle about the history of the region where Curiosity is working, the recent findings on Mount Sharp have intriguing threads to what an earlier rover, Spirit, found halfway around Mars. There, signs of sulfuric acidity were observed.

Adding to the puzzle, some of the silica found at one rock Curiosity drilled, called "Buckskin," is in a mineral named tridymite, which is found in Bandelier tuff, common in New Mexico but rare elsewhere, and never before seen on Mars. The usual origin of tridymite on Earth involves high temperatures in igneous or metamorphic rocks, but the finely layered sedimentary rocks examined by Curiosity have been interpreted as lakebed deposits.

Curiosity has been studying geological layers of Mount Sharp, starting from the bottom, since 2014, following two years of productive work on the plains surrounding the mountains. The mission delivered evidence in its first year that lakes in the area billions of years ago offered favorable conditions for life, if microbes ever lived on Mars. As Curiosity studies successively younger layers up Mount Sharp's slopes, the mission is investigating how ancient environmental conditions evolved from lakes, rivers and deltas to the harsh aridity of today's Mars.

Buckskin was the first of three rocks where drilled samples were collected during that period. The CheMin identification of tridymite prompted the team to look at possible explanations for it: "We could solve this by determining whether trydymite in the sediment comes from a volcanic source or has another origin," said Liz Rampe, of Aerodyne Industries at NASA's Johnson Space Center. "A lot of us are in our labs trying to see if there's a way to make tridymite without such a high temperature."

Beyond Marias Pass, ChemCam and APXS readings showed a pattern of high silica in pale zones along fractures in the bedrock, linking the silica enrichment there to alteration by fluids that flowed through the fractures and permeated into the bedrock. CheMin analyzed drilled material from a target called "Big Sky" in bedrock away from a fracture and from a fracture-zone target called "Greenhorn." Greenhorn indeed has much more silica, but not any in the form of tridymite. Much of it is in the form of noncrystalline opal, which can form in many types of environments, including hot springs, acid leaching and other wet settings.

"What we're seeing on Mount Sharp is dramatically different from what we saw in the first two years of the mission," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. "There's so much variability within relatively short distances. The silica is one indicator of how the chemistry changed. It's such a multifaceted and curious discovery, we're going to take a while figuring it out."

The ChemCam has just passed 300,000 laser shots on Mars, each of which returns a color spectrum of the resulting plasma.

For more about Curiosity, which is examining sand dunes this month, visit the Mars Science Laboratory webpage: mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

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Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Tim Peake: How the UK astronaut gets to space and back

UK astronaut Tim Peake will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) on 15 December. Since the space shuttle's retirement, the Russian Soyuz launch system is now the only way for crew members to get to the ISS.

The basic design for the Soyuz capsule was laid down as far back as the 1960s. It was originally intended to serve as the craft that would carry cosmonauts to the Moon.

When the US beat them to the lunar surface in 1969, the USSR's lunar programme was scrapped. But the Soyuz was retained, and became the Soviet - and subsequently Russian - vehicle of choice for launching humans to low-Earth orbit.

It was the craft that carried the first crew to the International Space Station in 2000, and has been the only craft ferrying humans to the orbiting outpost since the retirement of the US space shuttle in 2011.

"International Space Station after undocking of STS-132" by NASA/Crew of STS-132 -Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 
The current version, known as the Soyuz-TMA, can transport up to three cosmonauts and a limited amount of cargo to and from the ISS. At least one Soyuz is docked to the space station at all times to be used as a lifeboat in an emergency.

At one end of the spacecraft is the spherical orbital module. It's about the size of a large van and provides extra living space for the crew during flight. It can be used to store supplies and other cargo, such as experiments, and there's also a toilet.

The orbital module contains the mechanism used to dock with the space station and the hatch that allows crew members to enter the ISS.

The craft's mid-section is known as the descent module, and is where crew members sit during launch and the journey back to Earth. It contains the spacecraft's controls and displays, including a periscope that allows the crew to see the docking target on the ISS.

The seats have custom-fitted liners, individually moulded to each person's body. This is designed to help cushion the crew members when they land on Earth after a mission.

The third module is known as the instrument module. It contains the thrusters, oxygen and propellant tanks, communications equipment and the onboard computer.

Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the 50m-high launcher consists of three sections, or stages. The first stage consists of four identical liquid-booster rockets. These are strapped around the core, or second, stage. The third, or upper, stage carries the Soyuz spacecraft.

The vehicle uses refined kerosene and liquid oxygen as fuel and can deliver payloads of more than seven tonnes - about the weight of a small lorry - into orbit.

Crew members enter the spacecraft two-and-a-half hours before launch to prepare it. At T-minus zero, the four boosters and core engine ignite, propelling the rocket into the air. About two minutes into the flight, the four booster rockets are jettisoned.

The core stage keeps firing, until it too separates at about 4 minutes 48 seconds after launch. A third stage engine then propels the Soyuz to its desired orbit at an altitude of some 220km. During the nine-minute sequence, crew members have to withstand forces up to three-and-a-half times their bodyweight.

The spacecraft then has to perform five engine burns in order to catch up with the ISS. This generally takes six hours, but if things don't go as planned, mission control may decide to fall back to an alternative two-day transfer mode.

Rendezvous and docking with the space station is automated by the onboard computer. It keeps track of the positions of the Soyuz and ISS using measurements from mission control and a radar system called Kurs. However, crew members closely monitor the process and have the ability to intervene or take over manual control if required.

During the final approach, a docking probe on the end of the Soyuz inserts into a cone on the ISS. Once "capture" is confirmed, the docking probe retracts, bringing the two vehicles together. A series of hooks and latches then close over, securing the Russian capsule to the ISS.

Once a tight seal is confirmed, the air pressure in the Soyuz is equalised with that of the ISS and the hatch is opened, so the new arrivals can enter the station.

When crew members are ready to return to Earth, a command is given to start opening the hooks and latches that hold the Soyuz to the ISS. The spacecraft then separates from the space station at a graceful speed of 10cm/s (4ins/s). Once the Soyuz has reached a distance of 20m (66ft) the Soyuz fires its thrusters for 15 seconds.

When the capsule reaches a distance of 19km (12mi) from the ISS, the Soyuz makes its main "de-orbit burn", firing the engines for 4 minutes, 21 seconds to begin the return to Earth. The descent module carrying the crew separates from the empty orbital module which burns up in the atmosphere.

About 15 minutes before landing, the capsule deploys a drogue parachute to slow its descent speed from 230m/s (755 ft/s) to 80m/s (262 ft/s). The main parachute is then released, cutting the capsule's speed to 7 m/s (24ft/s) and shifting it to a vertical position.

Six engines fire on the underside of the capsule to cushion the craft just before it thuds down on the Kazakh steppe.

A recovery and rescue team then arrives to extract the crew members.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Levels of mercury in dolphins linked to exposure in humans, groundbreaking study finds

What do mercury levels in dolphins say about mercury levels in humans? Quite a bit, according to a new study by scientists at FAU Harbor Branch, which sheds light on the potential dangers of consuming locally caught seafood.

This is the first time that researchers have closed the loop between marine mammal and human health, by taking findings from their research and applying them to explore the potential risks facing humans living in the same region.

The study centers around dolphins living in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), Florida and humans who live along the estuary and consume much of the same seafood as the dolphins. Initial studies of IRL dolphins showed high levels of mercury, which led scientists to conduct a follow-up study of humans who live in the same geographic area. The most toxic form of mercury known as methylmercury builds up in fish, shellfish, and animals that eat fish, and are the main sources of mercury exposure in humans.

Dolphin by NASAs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The findings from this study, published in the current issue of the journal Veterinary Sciences, showed that the cross-section of people tested also had high levels of mercury and that much of that mercury was due to consumption of locally obtained fish and shellfish. More than half of the participants in the study had a concentration of mercury in their hair, which was greater than the guideline for exposure defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"This research exemplifies the role of dolphins as an animal sentinel in identifying a public health hazard," said Adam Schaefer MPH, FAU Harbor Branch epidemiologist. "It is a unique and critical example of closing the loop between animal and human health."

Mercury is an important global health problem, most of which is due to consumption of fish and shellfish that become contaminated through the food web. The major human health risk results from high exposure during pregnancy, since the developing nervous system of a fetus is highly vulnerable to environmental insults such as maternal exposure to mercury. Long-term effects have been shown in poorer performance on standardized tests of learning, memory, visual-motor skills and cognitive development in multiple studies around the world.

"Fish consumption is recommended for a healthy diet and has many benefits including a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease," said John Reif, D.V.M., Colorado State University research professor and collaborator on the study. "Pregnant women can balance the risks and benefits of seafood consumption by continuing to eat fish, but avoiding fish caught in the Indian River Lagoon where the levels of mercury are higher."

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

On this day in history: the first manned voyage of a hydrogen balloon left Paris

In 1783, the first manned voyage of a hydrogen balloon left Paris carrying Professor Jacques Alexander Cesar Charles and Marie-Noel Robert to about 600 m and landed 43 km away after 2 hours in the air.

Robert then left the balloon, and Charles continued the flight briefly to 2700 m altitude, measured by a barometer. This hydrogen-filled balloon was generally spherical and used a net, load ring, valve, open appendix and sand ballast, all of which were to be universally adopted later. His hydrogen generator mixed huge quantities of sulfuric acid with iron filings.

On 27 Aug 1783, Charles had launched an unmanned hydrogen balloon, just before the Montgolfiers' flight.

Hot air balloon, by Kropsoq (photo taken by Kropsoq) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
There are three main types of balloon:

The hot air balloon or Montgolfière obtains its buoyancy by heating the air inside the balloon; it has become the most common type.

The gas balloon or Charlière is inflated with a gas of lower molecular weight than the ambient atmosphere; most gas balloons operate with the internal pressure of the gas the same as the pressure of the surrounding atmosphere; a superpressure balloon can operate with the lifting gas at pressure that exceeds that of the surrounding air, with the objective of limiting or eliminating the loss of gas from day-time heating; gas balloons are filled with gases such as:

  • Hydrogen – originally used extensively but, since the Hindenburg disaster, is now seldom used due to its high flammability;
  • Coal gas – although giving around half the lift of hydrogen, extensively used during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, since it was cheaper than hydrogen and readily available;
  • Helium – used today for all airships and most manned gas balloons;
Other gases have included ammonia and methane, but these have poor lifting capacity and other safety defects and have never been widely used.

The Rozière type has both heated and unheated lifting gases in separate gasbags. This type of balloon is sometimes used for long-distance record flights, such as the recent circumnavigations, but is not otherwise in use.

Both the hot air, or Montgolfière, balloon and the gas balloon are still in common use. Montgolfière balloons are relatively inexpensive, as they do not require high-grade materials for their envelopes, and they are popular for balloonist sport activity.

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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Whiffs from cyanobacteria likely responsible for Earth's oxygen

Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere emerged in whiffs from a kind of cyanobacteria in shallow oceans around 2.5 billion years ago, according to new research from Canadian and US scientists.
The Earth by NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans.
These whiffs of oxygen likely happened in the following 100 million years, changing the levels of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere until enough accumulated to create a permanently oxygenated atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago - a transition widely known as the Great Oxidation Event.

"The onset of Earth's surface oxygenation was likely a complex process characterized by multiple whiffs of oxygen until a tipping point was crossed," said Brian Kendall, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Waterloo. "Until now, we haven't been able to tell whether oxygen concentrations 2.5 billion years ago were stable or not. These new data provide a much more conclusive answer to that question."

The findings are presented in a paper published this month in Science Advances from researchers at Waterloo, University of Alberta, Arizona State University, University of California Riverside, and Georgia Institute of Technology. The team presents new isotopic data showing that a burst of oxygen production by photosynthetic cyanobacteria temporarily increased oxygen concentrations in Earth's atmosphere.

"One of the questions we ask is: 'did the evolution of photosynthesis lead directly to an oxygen-rich atmosphere? Or did the transition to today's world happen in fits and starts?" said Professor Ariel Anbar of Arizona State University. "How and why Earth developed an oxygenated atmosphere is one of the most profound puzzles in understanding the history of our planet."

The new data supports a hypothesis proposed by Anbar and his team in 2007. In Western Australia, they found preliminary evidence of these oxygen whiffs in black shales deposited on the seafloor of an ancient ocean.

The black shales contained high concentrations of the elements molybdenum and rhenium, long before the Great Oxidation Event.

These elements are found in land-based sulphide minerals, which are particularly sensitive to the presence of atmospheric oxygen. Once these minerals react with oxygen, the molybdenum and rhenium are released into rivers and eventually end up deposited on the sea floor.

In the new paper, researchers analyzed the same black shales for the relative abundance of an additional element: osmium. Like molybdenum and rhenium, osmium is also present in continental sulfide minerals. The ratio of two osmium isotopes - 187Os to 188Os - can tell us if the source of osmium was continental sulfide minerals or underwater volcanoes in the deep ocean.

The osmium isotope evidence found in black shales correlates with higher continental weathering as a result of oxygen in the atmosphere. By comparison, slightly younger deposits with lower molybdenum and rhenium concentrations had osmium isotope evidence for less continental input, indicating the oxygen in the atmosphere had disappeared.

The paper's authors also include Professor Robert Creaser of the University of Alberta, Professor Timothy Lyons from the University of California Riverside and Professor Chris Reinhard from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Tiny protein 'compasses' found in fruit flies - and potentially humans

Tiny biological compasses made from clumps of protein may help scores of animals, and potentially even humans, to find their way around, researchers say.

Scientists discovered the minuscule magnetic field sensors in fruit flies, but found that the same protein structures appeared in retinal cells in pigeons’ eyes. They can also form in butterfly, rat, whale and human cells.

The rod-like compasses align themselves with Earth’s geomagnetic field lines, leading researchers to propose that when they move, they act on neighbouring cell structures that feed information into the nervous system to create a broader direction-sensing system.

Professor Can Xie, who led the work at Peking University, said the compass might serve as a “universal mechanism for animal magnetoreception,” referring to the ability of a range of animals from butterflies and lobsters to bats and birds, to navigate with help from Earth’s magnetic field.

Whether the compasses have any bearing on human navigation is unknown, but the Peking team is investigating the possibility. “Human sense of direction is complicated,” said Xie. “However, I believe that magnetic sense plays a key role in explaining why some people have a good sense of direction.”

The idea that animals could sense Earth’s magnetic field was once widely dismissed, but the ability is now well established, at least among some species. The greatest mystery that remains is how the sensing is done.

One type of molecular compass, proposed by the biologist Klaus Schulten, senses geomagnetic field information through the bizarre quantum behaviour of electrons that are produced when light falls on retinal proteins called cryptochromes. But Xie argues that a compass based on cryptochromes alone is not enough to navigate.

By screening the fruit fly genome, the Chinese team discovered a protein they named MagR, which forms rod-like clumps with cryptochrome proteins. This MagR-cryptochrome cluster behaves like a sophisticated magnetic sensor that in principle can sense the direction, intensity or inclination of Earth’s magnetic field.

“The nanoscale biocompass has the tendency to align itself along geomagnetic field lines and to obtain navigation cues from a geomagnetic field,” said Xie. “We propose that any disturbance in this alignment may be captured by connected cellular machinery, which would channel information to the downstream neural system, forming the animal’s magnetic sense.”

In a series of follow-up experiments, the scientists show that MagR-cryptochrome compass can form in a range of species, including monarch butterflies, pigeons, more rats, minke whales and humans. Details are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

Xie said the discovery could go beyond understanding how animals navigate, and lead to new technologies that allow scientists to control cell processes and influence animal behaviour with magnetic fields.

Simon Benjamin, who studies quantum materials at Oxford University, said that evolution seemed to have found a number of ways to sense magnetic fields. “It seems plausible that the structure discovered in this paper is key to the fruit fly’s compass, and perhaps other species as well.”

He added that the finding was exciting even if the MagR-cryptochrome cluster was not one of nature’s biocompasses, because it could be used to develop new technologies. “There is a continual drive for cheaper, smaller, more robust, or more sensitive field sensors. They’re needed to enable a vast range of applications from mining survey systems to map navigation with mobile phones.”

“It has been well documented that cryptochromes, which are crucial to the compass proposed in this new paper, may harness significant quantum effects to convert the Earth’s weak magnetic field into a signal in the animal’s brain. 

This is a tantalising possibility since the new UK quantum technology hubs are focusing about a quarter of their £150M on sensor systems. It would be remarkable if we can learn some tricks from Mother Nature in this highly-advanced field of physics,” he added.

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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Diamonds may not be so rare as once thought

Diamonds may not be as rare as once believed, but this finding in a new Johns Hopkins University research report won't mean deep discounts at local jewellery stores.

"Diamond formation in the deep Earth, the very deep Earth, may be a more common process than we thought," said Johns Hopkins geochemist Dimitri A. Sverjensky, whose article co-written with doctoral student Fang Huang appears today in the online journal Nature Communications. The report says the results 'constitute a new quantitative theory of diamond formation,' but that does not mean it will be easier to find gem-quality diamonds and bring them to market.

"Rough diamond" by Unknown USGS employee - Original source: USGS "Minerals in Your World" website. 
For one thing, the prevalence of diamonds near the Earth's surface - where they can be mined - still depends on relatively rare volcanic magma eruptions that raise them from the depths where they form. For another, the diamonds being considered in these studies are not necessarily the stuff of engagement rings, unless the recipient is equipped with a microscope. Most are only a few microns across and are not visible to the unaided eye.

Using a chemical model, Sverjensky and Huang found that these precious stones could be born in a natural chemical reaction that is simpler than the two main processes that up to now have been understood to produce diamonds. Specifically, their model - yet to be tested with actual materials - shows that diamonds can form with an increase in acidity during interaction between water and rock.

The common understanding up to now has been that diamonds are formed in the movement of fluid by the oxidation of methane or the chemical reduction of carbon dioxide. Oxidation results in a higher oxidation state, or a gain of electrons. Reduction means a lower oxidation state, and collectively the two are known as 'redox' reactions.

"It was always hard to explain why the redox reactions took place," said Sverjensky, a professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. The reactions require different types of fluids to be moving through the rocks encountering environments with different oxidation states.

The new research showed that water could produce diamonds as its pH falls naturally - that is, as it becomes more acidic - while moving from one type of rock to another, Sverjensky said.

The finding is one of many in about the last 25 years that expands scientists' understanding of how pervasive diamonds may be, Sverjensky said.

"The more people look, the more they're finding diamonds in different rock types now," Sverjensky said. "I think everybody would agree there's more and more environments of diamond formation being discovered."

Nobody has yet put a number on the greater abundance of diamonds, but Sverjensky said scientists are working on that with chemical models. It's impossible to physically explore the great depths at which diamonds are created: roughly 90 to 120 miles below the Earth's surface at intense pressure and at temperatures about 1,650 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The deepest drilling exploration ever made was about 8 or 9 miles below the surface, he said.

If the study doesn't shake the diamond markets, it promises to help shed light on fluid movement in the deep Earth, which helps account for the carbon cycle on which all life on the planet depends.

"Fluids are the key link between the shallow and the deep Earth," Sverjensky said. "That's why it's important."

This research was supported by grants from the Sloan Foundation through the Deep Carbon Observatory (Reservoirs and Fluxes and Extreme Physics and Chemistry programs) and by a U.S. Energy Department grant, DE-FG-02-96ER-14616.

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Monday, 2 November 2015

On this day in history: the first synthetic rubber was announced

On 2nd November 1931, the DuPont company, of Wilmington, Delaware, announced the first synthetic rubber. It was known as DuPrene, and from 1936 as Neoprene. Many scientists were trying to make natural rubber in the 1920s and 30s. One of the Wallace Carothers team, Gerard Berchet, had left a sample of monovinylacetylene in a jar with hydrochloric acid (HCl) for about five weeks. 

Then on 17 Apr 1930, coworker Arnold M. Collins happened to look in that jar and found a rubbery white material. The HCl had reacted with the vinylacetylene, making chloroprene, which then polymerized to become polychloroprene. The new rubber was expensive, but resisted oil and gasoline, which natural rubber didn't. It was the first good synthetic rubber.

In 1935, German chemists synthesized the first of a series of synthetic rubbers known as Buna rubbers. These were copolymers, meaning the polymers were made up from two monomers in alternating sequence. Other brands included Koroseal, which Waldo Semon developed in 1935, and Sovprene, which Russian researchers created in 1940. B.F. Goodrich Company scientist Waldo Semon developed a new and cheaper version of synthetic rubber known as Ameripol in 1940.

The production of synthetic rubber in the United States expanded greatly during World War II, since the Axis powers controlled nearly all the world's limited supplies of natural rubber by mid-1942 once Japan conquered Asia. Military trucks needed rubber for tyres, and rubber was used in almost every other war machine. The U.S. government launched a major (and largely secret) effort to improve synthetic rubber production. A large team of chemists from many institutions were involved, including Calvin Souther Fuller of Bell Labs. The rubber designated GRS (Government Rubber Styrene), a copolymer of butadiene and styrene, was the basis for U.S. synthetic rubber production during World War II. By 1944, a total of 50 factories were manufacturing it, pouring out a volume of the material twice that of the world's natural rubber production before the beginning of the war. It still represents about half of total world production.

Operation Pointblank bombing targets of Nazi Germany included the Schkopau (50K tons/yr) plant and the Hüls synthetic rubber plant near Recklinghausen (30K, 17%), the Kölnische Gummifäden Fabrik tire and tube plant at Deutz on the east bank of the Rhine. The Ferrara, Italy, synthetic rubber factory (near a river bridge) was bombed August 23, 1944. Three other synthetic rubber facilities were at Ludwigshafen/Oppau (15K), Hanover/Limmer (reclamation, 20K), and Leverkusen (5K). A synthetic rubber plant at Oświęcim in Nazi-occupied Poland, was under construction on March 5, 1944.

World War Two poster about synthetic rubber tyres
Solid-fuel rockets during World War II used nitrocellulose for propellants, but it was impractical and dangerous to make such rockets very large. During the war, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers came up with a new solid fuel based on asphalt mixed with an oxidizer (such as potassium or ammonium perchlorate), and aluminium powder. This new solid fuel burned more slowly and evenly than nitrocellulose, and was much less dangerous to store and use, but it tended to slowly flow out of the rocket in storage and the rockets using it had to be stockpiled nose down.

After the war, Caltech researchers began to investigate the use of synthetic rubbers to replace asphalt in their solid fuel rocket motors. By the mid-1950s, large missiles were being built using solid fuels based on synthetic rubber, mixed with ammonium perchlorate and high proportions of aluminium powder. 

Such solid fuels could be cast into large, uniform blocks that had no cracks or other defects that would cause non-uniform burning. Ultimately, all large solid-fuel military rockets and missiles would use synthetic-rubber-based solid fuels, and they would also play a significant part in the civilian space effort.

Additional refinements to the process of creating synthetic rubber continued after the war. The chemical synthesis of isoprene accelerated the reduced need for natural rubber, and the peacetime quantity of synthetic rubber exceeded the production of natural rubber by the early 1960s.

Nowadays synthetic rubber is used a great deal in printing on textiles. In this case it is called rubber paste. In most cases titanium dioxide is used with copolymerization and volatile matter in producing such synthetic rubber for textile use. Moreover, this kind of preparation can be considered to be the pigment preparation based on titanium dioxide.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Meat and tobacco: the difference between risk and strength of evidence

Comparing smoking to bacon in terms of risk of cancer is extremely misleading, despite the strength of evidence being similar.

Vegetarians are probably breathing a sigh of relief today as headlines are warning us that processed and cured meats cause cancer. But the way this message has been framed in the media is extremely misleading.

Comparing meat to tobacco, as most news organisations who’ve chosen to report this have done, makes it seem like a bacon sandwich might be just as harmful as a cigarette. This is absolutely not the case.

A bacon sandwich

The headlines are referring to the news that the World Health Organisation has classified cured and processed meats (bacon, salami, sausages, ham) as group 1 carcinogens, because there is a causal link between consuming these meats and bowel cancer. This group also includes tobacco, alcohol, arsenic and asbestos, all known to cause certain cancers.

But just because all these things cause cancer, doesn’t mean they’re all as risky as each other. A substance can increase your risk of cancer a small amount, or, like tobacco, a huge amount. Comparing them like for like is just really confusing to anyone trying to work out how to lead a healthy life.

The risk of lung cancer from smoking is extremely high. Of all cases of lung cancer (44,488 new cases in the UK in 2012), evidence suggests that 86% of these are caused by tobacco. And lung cancer isn’t the only type of cancer caused by smoking. CRUK estimate that 19% of all cancers are caused by smoking. Another way of looking at this is that if smoking was completely eliminated, there would be 64,500 fewer cases of cancer in the UK per year.

In contrast, the recent evidence that suggests a causal link between processed meat and bowel cancer estimates that 21% of bowel cancers (which occurs at slightly lower rates than lung cancer – 41,600 new cases in 2011) were caused by eating processed and red meat. If all such meat was eliminated entirely from our diet, they estimate that 8,800 cases of cancer would be prevented in the UK per year.

All this simplistic reporting ignores a variety of other factors – the amount you consume, for example, is likely to affect your risk a great deal. And that’s not to mention addiction – however much you crave a bacon sandwich at times, it doesn’t contain nicotine.

The WHO have deemed the strength of evidence that processed meats cause cancer to be equivalent to that showing that smoking causes cancer. This means that if you eat a lot of red or processed meats you are increasing your risk of cancer. But to compare it to something as lethal as smoking is confusing and dangerous.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Europe and Russia mission to assess Moon settlement

The European and Russian space agencies are to send a lander to an unexplored area at the Moon's south pole.

It will be one of a series of missions that prepares for the return of humans to the surface and a possible permanent settlement.

The spacecraft will assess whether there is water, and raw materials to make fuel and oxygen.

BBC News has obtained exclusive details of the mission, called Luna 27, which is set for launch in five years' time.

The mission is one of a series led by the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, to go back to the Moon.

These ventures will continue where the exploration programme that was halted by the Soviet Union in the mid 1970s left off, according to Prof Igor Mitrofanov, of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, who is one of the lead scientists.

"We have to go to the Moon. The 21st Century will be the century when it will be the permanent outpost of human civilisation, and our country has to participate in this process," he told BBC News.

But unlike efforts in the 1960s and 70s, when the Soviet Union was working in competition with the US and other nations, he added, "we have to work together with our international colleagues".

Full moon: Gregory H. Revera
Bérengère Houdou, who is the head of the lunar exploration group of at Esa's European Space Research and Technology Centre (Estec), just outside Amsterdam, has a similar strategy.

"We have an ambition to have European astronauts on the Moon. There are currently discussions at international level going on for broad cooperation on how to go back to the Moon."

One of the first acts of the new head of the European Space Agency, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, was to state that he wants international partners to build a base on the Moon's far side.

The initial missions will be robotic. Luna 27 will land on the edge of the South Pole Aitken (SPA) basin. The south polar region has areas which are always dark. These are some of the coldest places in the Solar System. As such, they are icy prisons for water and other chemicals that have been shielded from heating by the Sun.

According to Dr James Carpenter, Esa's lead scientist on the project, one of the main aims is to investigate the potential use of this water as a resource for the future, and to find out what it can tell us about the origins of life in the inner Solar System.

"The south pole of the Moon is unlike anywhere we have been before," he said.

"The environment is completely different, and due to the extreme cold there you could find large amounts of water-ice and other chemistry which is on the surface, and which we could access and use as rocket fuel or in life-support systems to support future human missions we think will go to these locations."

Back in the heady days of the Apollo missions, it seemed almost inevitable that those astounding but brief trips to the Moon would be followed by something more permanent. But the notion of colonies soon proved to be science fantasy. After the last of 12 astronauts left their boot prints in the lunar dust in 1972, the US government and taxpayers collectively declared, "been there, done that". America had scored a dazzling point over the Soviet Union but at eye-watering cost, so the final three planned Apollo missions were cancelled.

For a while, our nearest neighbour in space seemed rather unappealing. But then, over recent years, came a series of discoveries about the lunar dust itself, suggesting that the Moon holds water and minerals that could conceivably help support a settlement, if anyone has the appetite to pay for it. So a new batch of missions is under way. China seems to be particularly eager, launching increasingly capable robotic craft that could pave the way for human flights, sometime in the 2030s.

In all probability, the next boots on the Moon will be Chinese. One of China's leading space scientists told me how he even envisages opening lunar mines to extract valuable resources such as Helium-3. Throughout history, humanity has gazed at the Moon through different eyes. In the 1960s, it was the scene for Cold War rivalry. Now it is seen as a potential staging-post for longer journeys and as a rock waiting to be dug up and exploited.

Prof Mitrofanov says that there are scientific and commercial benefits to be had by building a permanent human presence on the lunar surface.

"It will be for astronomical observation, for the utilisation of minerals and other lunar resources and to create an outpost that can be visited by cosmonauts working together as a test bed for their future flight to Mars."

Esa and its industrial collaborators are developing a new type of landing system able to target areas far more precisely than the missions in the 1960s and 70s. 

The so-called "Pilot" system uses on-board cameras to navigate and a laser guidance system which is able to sense the terrain while approaching the surface and be able to decide for itself whether the landing site is safe or not, and if necessary to re-target to a better location.

Europe is also providing the drill which is designed to go down to 2m and collect what might be hard, icy samples. According to Richard Fisackerly, the project's lead engineer, these samples might be harder than reinforced concrete and so the drill will need to be extremely strong.

"We are currently looking at the technologies we would need to penetrate that type of material and are looking at having both rotation and hammering functions. The final architecture has yet to be decided - but this combination of rotation, hammering and depth is a step beyond what we have already flown or is in development today," he told BBC News.

Esa will also provide the onboard miniaturised laboratory, called ProSPA. It will be similar to the instrument on the Philae lander, which touched down on the surface of Comet 67P last year. But ProSPA will be tuned to searching for the key ingredients with which to make water, oxygen, fuel and other materials that can be exploited by future astronauts.

The instrument will help scientists discover out how much of these critical resources are under the surface, and, crucially, whether they can be extracted easily.

Europe's participation in the mission is due to receive final approval at a meeting of ministers in late 2016. It has the strong support of Esa and Roscosmos hierarchy, and the scientists involved in Luna 27 are confident that it is not a question of if but when humans go back to the lunar surface.

"This whole series of missions feels like the beginning of the return to the Moon but it is also starting something new in terms of overall exploration of the Solar System," says Mr Fisackerly.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Unexpected information about Earth's climate history from Yellow River sediment

By meticulously examining sediments in China's Yellow River, a Swedish-Chinese research group are showing that the history of tectonic and climate evolution on Earth may need to be rewritten. 

Their findings are published today in the highly reputed journal Nature Communications.

To reconstruct how the global climate and topography of the Earth's surface have developed over millions of years, deposits of eroded land sediment transported by rivers to ocean depths are often used. This process is assumed to have been rapid and, by the same token, not to have resulted in any major storages of this sediment as large deposits along the way.

However, knowledge gaps and contradictory data in research to date are impeding an understanding of climate and landscape history. In an attempt to fill the gaps and reconcile the contradictions, the researchers have been investigating present-day and ancient sediment deposits in the world's most sediment-rich river: the Yellow River in China.

The researchers, from Uppsala University (led by Dr. Thomas Stevens) and Lanzhou University (led by Dr. Junsheng Nie), China, analysed Yellow River sediment from source to sink and determined its mineral composition. They also determined the age of mineral grains of zircon, a very hard silicate mineral that is highly resistant to weathering.

Zircon ages serve as a unique fingerprint that yields information about the sources of these sediment residues from mountain chains, according to Thomas Stevens of Uppsala University's Department of Earth Sciences, one of the principal authors of the study.

The Yellow River is believed to gain most of its sediment from wind-blown mineral dust deposits called loess, concentrated on the Chinese Loess Plateau. This plateau is the largest and one of the most important past climate archives on land, and also records past atmospheric dust activity: a major driver of climate change.

The scientists found that the composition of sediment from the Yellow River underwent radical change after passing the Chinese Loess Plateau. Contrary to their expectations, however, the windborne loess was not the main source of the sediment. Instead, they found that the Loess Plateau acts as a sink for Yellow River material eroded from the uplifting Tibetan plateau.

This finding completely changes our understanding of the origin of the Chinese Loess Plateau. It also demonstrates large scale sediment storage on land, which explains the previously contradictory findings in this area.

'Our results suggest that a major change in the monsoon around 3.6 million years ago caused the onset of Yellow River drainage, accelerated erosion of the Tibetan plateau and drove loess deposition,' Thomas Stevens writes.

Weathering of this eroded material also constitutes a further mechanism that may explain the reduced levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the beginning of the Ice Age. The researchers' next step will be to compare terrestrial and marine records of erosion to gauge how far sediment storage on land has impacted the marine record.

'Only then will we be able to assess the true rates of erosion and its effect on atmospheric CO2 and thus the climate in geologic time,' says Stevens.

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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

On this day in history - the first patent for carbon paper was secured

In 1806, Englishman Ralph Wedgwood secured the first patent for carbon paper, which he described as an “apparatus for producing duplicates of writings.” In his process, thin paper was saturated with printer's ink, then dried between sheets of blotting paper.

His idea for the carbon paper was a byproduct of his invention of a machine to help blind people write, and the “black paper” was really just a substitute for ink. In its original form, Wedgwood's “Stylographic Writer” employed a metal stylus instead of a quill for writing, with the carbon paper placed between two sheets of paper in order to transfer a copy onto the bottom sheet.

A sheet of carbon paper, with the coating side down. 

The manufacture of carbon paper was formerly the largest consumer of montan wax. In 1954 the Columbia Ribbon & Carbon Manufacturing Company filed a patent for what became known in the trade as solvent carbon paper: the coating was changed from wax-based to polymer-based.

The manufacturing process changed from a hot-melt method to a solvent-applied coating or set of coatings. It was then possible to use polyester or other plastic film as a substrate, instead of paper, although the name remained carbon paper.

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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Liquid water flows on today's Mars: NASA confirms evidence

New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

Martian slopes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

"Our quest on Mars has been to 'follow the water,' in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we've long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars."

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it's likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren't as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.

Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA's Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet's soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.
"The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are," said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

"When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water," he said. "Now we know there's more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL."

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA's Mars missions.

"It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future."

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