Scientific News (October 2018)

Hubble nearing the end

Nearly three decades ago, the world was introduced to the new operational Hubble Space Telescope. The newly built observatory was once described at one of the most significant scientific instruments ever to be created.

After all these years of operating without any major incident, the Hubble Space Telescope was put into safe mode last week, due to the failure one of its gyroscopes which is needed to point the spacecraft in the right direction.

Hubble is running on only essential operating systems at present, while scientists attempt to fix the problem. Since the failure, controllers have made attempts to switch on an alternative gyroscopic system, however the telescope continued to malfunction, leaving Hubble with only two working gyros. It is essential that Hubble runs on all three remaining gyroscopes in order to ensure it is running at optimal efficiency. It was originally fitted with six.

Scientists will attempt to reconfigure the faulty gyroscope from the ground. Should the attempt at repair fail, the Hubble may have to continue to operate as is, but operate on one gyro. Even so, Hubble’s original operational lifespan was put at fifteen years, and has exceeded all expectations. It is hoped that Hubble, and the Chandra X-Ray Space Telescope – which has also gone into safe mode for similar reasons – will hold out long enough for the arrival of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2021.

Deputy Mission Head for the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr Rachel Osten, described the recent events as very stressful and problematic. Hubble is used by astronomers from around the globe and is in great demand. However, losing gyroscopic control will lead to visual limitations.  “We knew it was coming. The gyro lasted about six months longer than we thought it would (almost pulled the plug on it back in the spring). We’ll work through the issues and be back.”

There are two types of gyroscopes on Hubble; three are part of the original build, and three newer gyros which were fitted in orbit, that have been designed to last five times longer than the original parts. The older parts have faced several issues over previous years, so the failure of this older part was expected, as it was the last of the original gyros.

Nobel prize for optical ‘tweezers’

Nobel prize winners deserve their recognition. A group of three scientists have has successfully invented innovative ways to manipulate light, earning them this years prize for Physics.

The team of scientists included Arthur Ashkin from Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Gérard Mourou of École Polytechnique in France and Donna Strickland from the University of Waterloo in Canada and will between them share the 9 million Swedish Kronor award (approximately £1million).

Half of the prize money will be received by Ashkin, the inventor of ‘optical tweezers’, that can grasp particles, viruses and living cells using moving beams of light. Originally, the tweezers were used to trap live bacteria’s without damaging them in 1987. These are still widely used across the globe in laboratories in the investigations of inner cells and DNA. The same technique led to new methods of trapping and cooling individual atoms using lasers, another Nobel prize winner in Physics, back in 1997.

The remaining prize money will be equally split between Mourou and Strickland who between them, invented a technique to compress light into unparalleled short and high intense pulses, in a method know as Chirped Pulse Amplification. The technique uses a short laser pulse, which is processed, then stretched, amplified and squeezed thus creating ultrafast light beams.

Strickland, is honoured to have been the third woman to have receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there”, she told a recent press conference.

Beautiful, vague and weird particles tease scientists

Two unknown particles have been revealed by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the worlds largest particle accelerator.

According to a statement published by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), The underground ring near Geneva, measuring a 17 mile radius revealed two baryons – a type of composite subatomic particle containing an odd number of valence quarks – as well as hints of other particles.

Each baryon has a variable mix of quarks. For example, protons are baryons consisting of 2 “up” quarks and 1 “down” quark; however the 2 newest particles have been classified as “bottom baryons”.

The primary particle has been named “Σb(6097)+” and consists of “1 bottom” and “2 top” quarks, whilst the secondary particle has been names “Σb(6097)-“ consisting of “1 bottom and 2 down quarks”.

The particles were discovered following an experiment with LHCb, the Large Hadron Collider’s ‘Beauty’ accelerator which has been designed to specifically study a type of particle called, unsurprisingly, the Beauty Quark, when the protons had been smashed together and the rate of background particle decay. The experiment observed the presence of difference movements in the particles generated, which indicated traces of the formerly unobserved particles.

Particles that presented themselves similarly were observed in previous experiments at Fermilab in Illinois, however the particles showed a difference to the amount of mass seen in their new siblings. Bottom baryons that had been uncovered at CERN appeared approximately 6 times larger than protons.

Details of the possible third particle are sketchy, with these experiments only hinting about its existence. To date, it has been named “Z sub C (4100)” – the particle has yet to be formally identified and has been classified so far by scientists as a Weird Meson”, a particle that is somewhat unstable, quickly darting into existence throughout “high-energy” collisions consisting of 2 quarks and 2 antiquarks.

The collisions recorded by CERN also revealed some evidence of the existence of another particle, the Vague Meson, but not enough evidence for the physics community to announce a newly found discovery.

Stable catalyst for water/fuel reaction nearer

Researchers from the University of Illinois have produced an article, which details electro-catalytic material made from mixing metal compounds with Perchloric Acid, in a bid to sustainably break the bonds between oxygen and hydrogen, thus creating a stable catalyst that could turn water into fuel.

Researchers investigated the use of electrolyzers that use electricity to break water molecules to form Oxygen and Hydrogen. The most efficient electrolyzer sees the use of corrosive acids and electrode materials containing Iridium Oxide or Ruthenium Oxide. The former, Iridium, is more stable and one of the least abundant elements around the globe, which means that researchers are searching for alternative materials.

Hong Yang, co-author and Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering based in Illinois, recently explained what their research entailed. “Much of the previous work was performed with electrolyzers made from just two elements – one metal and Oxygen”.

“In a recent study, we found if a compound has two metal elements – Yttrium and Ruthenium – and oxygen, the rate of water-splitting reaction increased.”

Former member of Yang’s team, Yao Qin and his co-author on the paper, attempted previous experiments to manufacture the new material with various acids and temperatures, in order to increase the rate of the water-splitting reaction. By using Perchloric Acid as a catalyst, and allowing the mixture to react under a rise in temperature, the physical appearance of the Yttrium Ruthenate changed. Jaemin Kim, lead author and postdoctoral researcher said of the outcome, “The material became more porous and also had a new crystalline structure, different from all the solid catalysts we made before.”

“Because of the increased activity it promotes, a porous structure is highly desirable when it comes electrocatalysts,” said Yang “These pores can be produced synthetically with nanometer-sized templates and substances for making ceramics; however, those can’t hold up under the high-temperature conditions needed for making high-quality solid catalysts.”

The material that the team developed, a porous pyrochlore oxide of Yttrium Ruthenate divides water molecules faster than existing industry standard.  The team of researchers, along with Yang observed the appearance of the newly found material using an electron microscope. Their findings revealed the material was in fact 4 times more porous than the first Yttrium Ruthenate based material that was used in previous studies, and 3 times more than the commercially used Iridium and Ruthenium oxides.

Further work will see the team fabricate a device to further test and continue making improvements to the stability of the electrodes in acidic surroundings as there are a number of technical issues to overcome. Yang believes that the solutions to these problems that the team are endeavouring to solve will make an impact in the future of sustainable energy.

More elements on the table

Back in December 2017, 4 new scientific elements were discovered – however, it is only recently that they have been given their new identities within the periodic table. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry formally confirmed the discovery of elements, 113, 115, 117 and 118, placing them within the 7th row of the table.

New element names are the subject of certain rules that must remain in line with convention. The new names have followed traditional naming methods using discoverers and geographical scientific locations. The names will be held under a 5 month public review period before being officiated by IUPAC. They are Elements, 113, 115, 117 and 118 respectively.

In order, Element 113 will soon be formally known as “Nihonium” (Nh), its name originating from the Japanese word “Nihon”, otherwise known “Land of the Rising Sun”. Element 115 will go under the name of “Moscovium” (Mc), derived from the home of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, Dubna in Moscow, the home of this newly found element. Number 117 in the table has been christened “Tennessine” (Ts), after the name of the home state it was discovered in, at Oak Ridge, Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee. Finally, Element 118 is the only one named in honour of a person: “Oganesson” (Og) is derived from Yuri Oganessian, the Russian Physicist who made a number of significant contributions in the discoveries of many superheavy elements.

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Scientific News (September 2018)

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