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Updated: 1 hour 23 min ago

NASA reconnects with Sun-orbiting spacecraft

23 August 2016
New Scientist: After two years of radio silence, NASA has announced that it has successfully reestablished contact with STEREO-B, one of a pair of spacecraft that have been orbiting the Sun since 2006. The mission of the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) has been the study of the Sun’s coronal mass ejections. The two spacecraft were so successful initially that the mission got extended several times. In 2014, however, as the spacecraft were about to pass to the far side of the Sun, NASA controllers lost contact with STEREO-B during a planned test of its computer reboot system. It is thought that the probe started spinning out of control, much like what happened to Japan’s Hitomi spacecraft. Although NASA has now managed to make contact with STEREO-B, scientists do not yet know whether the spacecraft will be able to resume normal operations.

John Madey

22 August 2016

Bioluminescent jellyfish proteins used to produce low-energy laser

22 August 2016
New Scientist: To develop better and safer tools for use in biomedical imaging, researchers have worked with both conventional and polariton lasers. Neither has proven satisfactory because the first requires a lot of energy and the second, extremely low temperatures. Now Malte Gather of the University of St. Andrews in the UK and colleagues have overcome both problems by engineering a laser from the green fluorescent proteins found in jellyfish. The researchers placed a thin film of fluorescent protein between two mirrors and got it to fluoresce by shining blue light on it. The result is an organic polariton laser that could be embedded in living tissue and used to map and differentiate among thousands of types of cells.

Higgs discovery prompts proposals for bigger, better particle experiments

22 August 2016
Nature: After the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at the 27-km-circumference Large Hadron Collider (LHC), bigger and better facilities have been proposed to continue the search for new particles. Among them are the 31-km-long International Linear Collider to be built in Japan and two 50 km to 100 km circular colliders, one for protons and the other for electrons and positrons, in China. However, all will cost considerable money to build, and any one project could drain international funding from the others. A less expensive option, proposed by CERN’s director-general Fabiola Gianotti, would be to increase the power of the LHC by installing new superconducting magnets. Rather than turning to powerful colliders, some physicists are hoping novel experiments will lead to the discovery of new physics. The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment under construction at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, will analyze neutrino oscillations and look for new types of neutrinos beyond the currently known three.

Battelle contract renewed to operate Pacific Northwest laboratory

22 August 2016
But DOE wants the contractor to reach out to regional universities and to bring more diversity to the lab’s staff.

US struggles to clean up after 2014 New Mexico nuclear accident

22 August 2016
Los Angeles Times: More than two years ago, a drum of nuclear waste exploded at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The explosion caused the facility massive long-term damage, which has stalled the shipment of thousands of tons of radioactive waste from US nuclear plants. The accident also led to the discovery of some two dozen safety lapses that had cropped up over 15 years of operation. The Department of Energy, which manages the site, has been slow to clean up but hopes to reopen the site for limited use by the end of the year. To meet its contractual obligations to dispose of waste from US nuclear weapons research and production, DOE has said the facility may have to stay open longer than planned or increase the amount of waste it accepts each year.

NASA sets ambitious budget goals for Space Launch System

22 August 2016
Ars Technica: Since the end of the space shuttle era, NASA has been developing its next-generation launch vehicle. Called the Space Launch System, it is set to be the most powerful rocket ever built. It could also be the most expensive. Keeping costs down is “going to take some different thinking and maybe a little bit more risk taking,” said Bill Hill, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, in an interview with Ars Technica. The goal, he says, is to keep production and operations costs to $2 billion or less, or roughly half NASA’s annual budget, so that the other half could be used to fund human missions to the Moon or Mars.

Inside droplets that won’t freeze are crystals that won’t melt

22 August 2016
The strange nanoparticles are yet more evidence that in materials science, small is different.

UK looks at small nuclear reactors as alternative to big plants

19 August 2016

Reuters: The $24 billion project to build a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in the UK has inspired several companies and government agencies to begin exploring the potential usefulness of small modular reactors (SMRs). Those scaled-down versions of reactors comprise a series of smaller parts, or modules, that can be made in factories, easily transported to a construction site, and assembled in just 6 to 12 months. Many companies envision using multiple SMRs in the place of a single large reactor because they could produce nearly as much electricity at a fraction of the cost. The UK's National Nuclear Laboratory estimates that by 2035, up to 7 GW of electricity—more than twice the planned capacity of the Hinkley Point power plant—could be generated by SMRs.

Australian shared solar power network will utilize blockchain

19 August 2016

New Scientist: A blockchain is a method of securing data by encrypting batches of transactions made within a system and linking them into a chain that is then stored on all the computers in a network. It is most commonly used for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Now residents in a community in Australia will use a blockchain to share the electricity they generate from their home solar panels. In the initial test run, 20 households in the community will be equipped with a Raspberry Pi computer system to track their energy use. The system will record transactions as residents sell their extra electricity to each other, though no energy will actually be traded for the first two months. Assuming the test is successful, PowerLedger, the company behind the system, plans to deploy larger networks in Perth and Victoria next year.

Satellite data used to pinpoint the poorest areas of the world

19 August 2016
BBC: Identifying the poorest of Earth’s residents can be difficult for various reasons, including their remoteness or local political instabilities. Although satellites have been used to map poverty by looking for the most sparsely illuminated areas, that criterion has not proven definitive. Now a team from Stanford University has combined those nighttime maps with high-resolution daylight images to look for indications of different levels of economic well-being, such as the number of paved roads compared with unpaved ones and the presence of metal roofs on buildings. Sophisticated computer software then categorizes the various indicators and looks for details and patterns that are “predictive of poverty,” says Marshall Burke, one of the team members. To verify the computer model’s accuracy, the researchers compared the results with household survey data.

Climate change forces Alaskan village to move

19 August 2016
NPR: Although they have considered relocating since 1976, the residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, have now officially voted 94–78 to move. The reason is coastal erosion due to climate change. Shishmaref, an Inupiat native village, is located on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. For decades, storm surges have been damaging homes and other structures, and rising waters and melting permafrost have been eating away at the island’s land mass. Within the next 30 years, the village will be completely underwater, says resident Esau Sinnok. The plan is to move the entire village to the mainland so that the community can remain together. However, the costs of moving an entire village could ultimately prove to be prohibitive, and some of the residents, particularly members of the older generation, do not wish to move.