Scientific News (September 2018)

Robot rock

Plans are underway by the Japanese Space Agency to explore the surface on an asteroid using a robot.  The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft finally arrived at the asteroid Ryugu earlier this year following a three-and-a-half-year journey towards the rock, which is shaped like a spinning top.

Japanese officials have selected dates this September and October for when the robot landing craft from the Haybusa-2 will start its observations. These robots will be dispersed to different regions across the asteroid.  Should the mission be successful, the Haybusa-2 will be the first craft in space to gather data from landing apparatus placed upon the surface of an asteroid.

The asteroid with a dimensional width of 1km was formally known as “162173”, and is a nascent asteroid which is believed to have formed at the beginning of the early Solar System.  The findings of the data received could provide us information on the origin and evolution of Earth itself.

The Hayabusa-2 was launched back in December 2014 from the Tanegashima Launch Centre based in Southern Japan.  On the 21st September, one of the first ‘piggybacked’ packages will be released.  The 3.3kg container dubbed ‘Minerva II-1’ which has been carefully mounted upon the spacecraft will position two robots  – Rovers 1A and 1B – on to the surface of the asteroid. The Rovers, each  approximately 1kg in weight will move gradually throughout the low gravity of the asteroid with a hopping motion. Each unit is powered by a motor that rotates in order to generate a thrust, causing the robot to be propelled across the asteroids surface. Each unit also houses its own wide-angle and stereo cameras to enable them to send data and pictures directly back to Earth.

On October 3rd, a further lander called Mascot from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), developed together with the French Space Agency (CNES) will be deployed. Mascot, also known as the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, weighs up to 10kg and will be used to gather scientific data from the surface of the asteroid.  Like the Rovers, Mascot also carries its own wide-angle camera. In addition to this, it also houses its own microscope, a radiometer and a magnetometer.  These instruments will be used to study the composition of minerals, temperatures and magnetic fields on the asteroid.

Once Mascot has reached its destination on the surface, it only has one opportunity to change its position: by jumping. Mascot will need to be careful on its landing, due to the asteroid’s rough surface. The team are keen to see the unit land safely once it has changed position, and should any damage be caused during the process, any data collected could be jeopardised or lost.

A third unit, called Minerva II-2, also constructed by a team based at Tohoku University in Japan, will be deployed and installed in the future.

During the current mission, the Hayabusa-2 mission will be expected to start excavating the asteroid and dislodge fresh dust from underneath the surface. Following this, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) then plan to place detonators to set off explosive charges that will create a crater – once formed, the next phase of the mission for Hayabusa-2 will be to start its descent into the crater to collect rocks that have not been exposed or altered by the environment in which the asteroid is found.  Once these samples have been collected, they will then be sent to an Earth based laboratory where in-depth studies and investigations will take place.

Scientists are expected to receive the samples following Hayabusa-2’s departure back to Earth in early 2020.

Aftershock Intelligence for earthquakes

A team of scientists based at the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California, USA have trained an Artificial Intelligence network to predict and map earthquake aftershocks.

Scientists understand that it is not possible to predict the actual location and time of an earthquake; however, seismologists do have knowledge and to a certain extent can predict the movement of aftershocks.  Susan Hough, Geophysicist from US Geological Survey said: “We’ve known for a long time that they will cluster spatially and decay over time.”

In 1992, following a sequence of tremors, interest was raised in mapping the locations of where aftershocks could occur, based on where the main tremor arose and where the shift of movement affected other faults.  A 7.3 magnitude earthquake shook the town of Landers in Southern California and surrounding smaller communities. Three hours after the event, an aftershock measuring a magnitude of 6.5 struck the area of Big Bear that stood approximately 35 kilometers (21 miles) away. It wasn’t until the next day that a further aftershock was felt, this time near the Yucca Mountain, Nevada which stood nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) away with a magnitude of 5.7.

Investigations took place by researchers, where they initially tried to extract the complex stress change patterns using various principles, most commonly in this case, a principle known as ‘Coulomb Failure Stress Change’, which is dependent on fault orientations. Fault orientations in the subsurface came with their own complications, and stresses could push faults from many directions at one time.

More recently, Phoebe DeVries, an earthquake scientist with her team of colleagues from Harvard University, and Google AI entered the data of over 130,000 mainshock and aftershock sites into the AI system. The data that was provided including locations, magnitudes and measures of stress within the faults.  The AI system was able to determine the likelihood of an aftershock and its location.  Information for a further 30,000 known mainshock/aftershock events were also included.

The AI system provided the team with consistent predictions and proving its own worth against the Coulomb Failure Principal.  The AI’s results connected the location, magnitudes and stress measurements and steadily predicted the locations.

Hough praised the work by the team involved, and believes that it could pave the way to improve future forecasting.  The study focusses on the permanent shifts caused by the static stresses caused by a quake.  Aftershocks could be generated by a transient cause known as ‘dynamic stress’ that is produced by the rumbles within the ground caused by the quake.

It is questionable whether an AI forecasting system can provide rapid aftershock predictions following a mainshock as the results take a few hours to process after the initial event, although the studies currently have proved their worth, and have provided beneficial evidence for scientists and geologists.

Now that’s we call a solar power plant

The search to discover innovative techniques to obtain solar power has moved a step forward following the work of researchers who have successfully split water into hydrogen and oxygen after changing specific photosynthetic mechanisms within plants.

Photosynthesis is the process that plants utilise when converting sunlight into energy.  Oxygen is produced during the process, causing the water that is absorbed to split and  providing the planet with nearly its whole provision of oxygen. The hydrogen that is produced when the water is split could be used as an environmentally friendly and potentially unlimited source of sustainable and renewable energy.

The study led by students at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, chose to use semi-artificial photosynthesis whilst exploring new techniques in producing and storing solar energy.  The students utilised natural light from the sun to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen by using a combination of biological and artificial apparatuses.

This revolutionary research could be the foundation required to produce new renewable energy. An article in Nature Energy, has outlined how the students at the Reisner Laboratory at Cambridge were able to develop their system which has helped them achieve the process of unassisted solar-driven water-splitting.  The students also discovered during their work that they were able to absorb more solar light than found in natural process of photosynthesis.

First Author and PhD Student, Katarzyna Sokól from St John’s College said: “Natural photosynthesis is not efficient because it has evolved merely to survive so it makes the bare minimum amount of energy needed — around 1-2 per cent of what it could potentially convert and store.”

“It’s exciting that we can selectively choose the processes we want, and achieve the reaction we want which is inaccessible in nature. This could be a great platform for developing solar technologies. The approach could be used to couple other reactions together to see what can be done, learn from these reactions and then build synthetic, more robust pieces of solar energy technology.”

The methods for artificial photosynthesis have been known within science for many decades, but until now it has not been successfully utilised in the production of renewable energy, due to the reliance upon using catalysts. These can be often prove to be expensive and in some cases highly toxic. The outcome highlights that at this current time, the new findings cannot be used just yet at industrial levels, although the findings will enable new future pioneering processes to be developed.

During their findings, the team of researchers involved were able to improve the amount of energy produced and stored, as well as reactivating a process in the algae used that has lain dormant for many years. Explanations within the report cover the hydrogenase enzyme that is present in algae,  and its capabilities of reducing protons into hydrogen. It is believed that during the time of evolution, the process was deactivated due to it being unnecessary for survival. The team were able to bypass the inactive process, and achieved the reaction required that split water separately into hydrogen and oxygen.

The teams work has been described as a “milestone” by Dr Erwin Reisner, Head of the Reisner Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, as well as an author of one of the papers released.

His explanations of the work describe the difficult challenges that the team faced when integrating the biological and organic components into inorganic materials for assembling semi-artificial strategies, and firmly believes that the work that has developed an opening and a foundation for the future of solar energy conversion.


Results shock for science students

GCSE examination grades for science this year have fallen despite Ofqual, the regulators of qualifications, exams and tests in England taking steps to avoid thousands of students receiving a “U” grade.

The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) are blaming the government’s shake-up of GCSE Science and the examination entry patterns.

The government replaced the original GCSE Science, Additional Science and Further Additional Science exams with a new double award qualification, GCSE Combined Science throughout England, making this years results more difficult to compare to last years figures. The JCQ have managed to compile a system in which these figures can be measured.  The new system includes entries of 16-year olds in Science and Additional Science in 2017, as well as earlier entries by 15 year olds during 2016.

Using their comparison techniques, the results show that the double GCSE award figures were down right across the main grade thresholds. Many results showed UK entries at A/7 Level and above reduced by 0.4% from 7.9% in 2017, to 7.5% this year. C/4 entries and above also fell by 0.6% from 55.8% in 2017 to 55.1%, with G/1 and above falling by 0.9% from 99% in 2017 to 98.1%.

The JCQ have seen an increase in the entries to individual sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Physics following the governments move to change the science examination modifications, and many students prior to taking individual subjects would have chosen Additional Science. Figures show that there has been a uptake in science entrants, with a 23% increase in Biology, 18.6% in Chemistry and a 17.2% rise in Physics.

Attack of the drones

Wildlife experts have raised concerns with government agencies over the number of incidents that have been reported involving low flying drones and the disturbance of protected wildlife in their habitats and breeding areas.  Drones have been observed flying dangerously close to wildlife sites in Scotland, and witnesses have reported seeing drones driving seals into the water at protected “haul-out” sites, causing seal pups to be crushed by their elders as they hurry towards safety. Concerns have also been raised about flocks of nesting birds upon the cliffs becoming panicked by the presence of drones, causing them to plummet from the rocks into the sea, leaving fledglings without parents.

It is understood that some sites across the United Kingdom have been given special status offering protection from disturbances, whether it be accidental or criminal.  The Partnership of Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) in Scotland want drone operators to understand the laws in place and the implications.

PAW understand that drone footage can be used to witness the behaviours of the animals in their habitats, but users must understand and be mindful about the effects that drones can have on the wildlife.  PAW has reported birds reacting to drones with aggressive behaviours, causing injury to both themselves and damage to the drones.  Head of Investigations, Ian Thompson urges drone users to “watch the animals”; a change in their behaviour could be a sign of stress and panic, which means that drone users need to be aware of such changes and move away from the affected wildlife immediately.

The RSPB in Scotland fear that guillemots and razorbills could be easily panicked by drones that are in flight close to cliff edges. The RSPB have their own drones, which are used to monitor the habitats and to carry out surveys.

Fines of up to £5,000 or imprisonment for up to 6 months are the current penalties for unlawful disturbances on protected wildlife.  The law currently imposes fines on anyone that causes harassment or creates a disturbance near any protected breeding wild animals, dolphins, whales and seals.  The fines and punishments are the same to all offenders including egg collectors, boat skippers or drone operators.

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Scientific News (August 2018)

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