A)Ames Team to Use Robots, Humans to Study Impact Sites and Volcanoes Selected to Join New Virtual Research Institute

One day, human activity will extend across the solar system. Scientists believe this will  expand our understanding of Earth and the universe in which we live. A team of researchers, led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., seeks to study what volcanoes and impact sites on Earth can tell us about the early evolution of the solar system and unique characteristics and features of our moon, the moons of Mars and asteroids.

The Ames project dubbed “FINESSE,” which stands for Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration, was selected to join a new NASA virtual institute that will focus on questions concerning space science and human space exploration. The team was selected to participate by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), which is based at Ames.

FINESSE will study the formation of volcanoes, evolution of magma chambers, and the mechanics and chronology of cratering from impacts, as well as the evolution and entrapment of volatile chemicals. The team also will find samples on Earth to study the geology and chemistry of sites that have melted due to impacts.

“The goal of our research is to gain knowledge and prepare for the strategic human and robotic exploration of our moon, the moons of Mars and near-Earth asteroids,” said Jennifer Heldmann, principal investigator of the FINESSE project at Ames. “Our science program is infused with leading edge exploration concepts to help us better understand the effects of volcanism and impacts as dominant planetary processes on these bodies, and to understand which exploration concepts of operations and capabilities enable and enhance science findings.”

The philosophy behind the creation of SSERVI is that science and exploration complement each other. The late Mike Wargo, formerly NASA’s chief exploration scientist, succinctly captured the essence of the Institute saying, “Exploration enables science, and science enables exploration.”

The FINESSE team, composed of a world-class team of astronauts, scientists, and operations, robotics and exploration experts, will perform science-driven field exploration at two strategically chosen field sites. The team will simluate both robotic and human exploration missions at the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho and at the West Clearwater Lake Impact Structure in northern Canada.

Craters of the Moon lava field is a striking area of recent volcanic activity within Idaho’s Snake River Plain.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon

“These sites have been chosen to address scientific questions pertaining to volcanism and impact science, respectively, and are geologic analogs to other bodies in our solar system,” said Darlene Lim, deputy principal investigator of the FINESSE team at Ames and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “These volcanic and impact records are a valuable source of first-hand knowledge about volcanic landform formation and modification, as well as the structure and character of impact craters, and can better our understanding of these processes throughout our solar system.”

For example, the formation of craters from impacts by meteoroids, referred to as “impact cratering,” is the dominant geological process on the moon, asteroids and moons of Mars. By understanding the origin and location of impact sites, the history of impact bombardment in the inner solar system, the formation of complex impact craters, and the effects of shock on planetary materials, we can understand the processes that shape the moon, asteroids and moons of Mars.

Volcanism is another geologic process that has significantly shaped the surface of planetary bodies. The team will study the processes, features and rock types related to volcanic eruptions, as well as the formation of volcanoes, lava tubes and flows and deposits of volcanic rocks.

Once in the field, the team will simulate work with the same mission contraints as if they were on the surface of our moon, an asteroid or the moons of Mars. One way to simulate the complexities of missions on other planetary bodies is to build in actual latencies and constraints for communications and bandwidth between a crew on the moon, an asteroid and ground control on Earth.

“These mission constraints help us evaluate strategically selected concepts of operations and capabilities with respect to their anticipated value for future human-robotic scientific exploration,” said Heldmann. “Specifically, understanding the robustness of our communications and planning capabilities is key to understanding how to maximize science return while conducting human-robotic missions.”

The FINESSE team now will begin to prepare for the rigors of the field with site selection workshops and a series of operational readiness tests. Team training sessions will develop mission-specific flight rules and operational protocols.

Ames' David Blake using the Terra instrument

The Terra in-situ portable miniaturized X-ray diffraction instrument, used to identify minerals.

Image Credit: NASA

The field program will begin at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho and includes a robotic mission involving NASA’s K-Rex planetary rover and a set of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The K-Rex rover, developed by the NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group, will simulate a robot on the surface of the moon or other body, while the UAVs will simulate orbiting spacecraft. The team also will use the Terra in-situ portable X-ray diffraction (XRD) system instrument. Terra is a miniaturized laboratory for identifying minerals and is a spin-off of the Ames-developed Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument onboard the Curiosity mission that landed on Mars in August 2012.

“We will use these platforms to conduct science research and to help us select areas of interest for follow up during a coordinated human-robotic mission in the subsequent years,” said Anthony Colaprete, deputy principal investigator of the FINESSE team at Ames.

The team also will travel to the West Clearwater Lake Impact Structure to conduct a human mission to study this unique impact crater site. Finesse fieldwork will focus on exploration techniques and simultaneously aim to maximize science return.

“When we say ‘science return’ we mean our ability to study geological features that will enable us to definitively answer questions about fundamental planetary science processes,” said Colaprete. “We also will evaluate how robots – working before, in parallel, or after humans – might increase the science return from future exploration missions.”

“We look forward to collaborative scientific discoveries from these teams,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “These results will be vital to NASA successfully conducting the ambitious activities of exploring the solar system with robots and humans.”

Rachel Hoover
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.



B)Superconductivity in orbit: Scientists find new path to loss-free electricity

Superconductivity in orbit: Scientists find new path to loss-free electricity

These images show the distribution of the valence electrons in the samples explored by the Brookhaven Lab collaboration — both feature a central iron layer sandwiched between arsenic atoms. The tiny red clouds (more electrons) in the undoped sample on the left (BaFe2As2) reveal the weak charge quadrupole of the iron atom, while the blue clouds (fewer electrons) around the outer arsenic ions show weak polarization. The superconducting sample on the right (doped with cobalt atoms), however, exhibits a strong quadrupole in the center and the pronounced polarization of the arsenic atoms, as evidenced by the large, red balloons. Credit: Brookhaven National Lab

( —Armed with just the right atomic arrangements, superconductors allow electricity to flow without loss and radically enhance energy generation, delivery, and storage. Scientists tweak these superconductor recipes by swapping out elements or manipulating the valence electrons in an atom’s outermost orbital shell to strike the perfect conductive balance. Most high-temperature superconductors contain atoms with only one orbital impacting performance—but what about mixing those elements with more complex configurations?

Now, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have combined atoms with multiple orbitals and precisely pinned down their electron distributions. Using advanced electron diffraction techniques, the scientists discovered that orbital fluctuations in iron-based compounds induce strongly coupled polarizations that can enhance electron pairing—the essential mechanism behind superconductivity. The study, set to publish soon in the journal Physical Review Letters, provides a breakthrough method for exploring and improving superconductivity in a wide range of new materials.

“For the first time, we obtained direct experimental evidence of the subtle changes in electron orbitals by comparing an unaltered, non-superconducting material with its doped, superconducting twin,” said Brookhaven Lab physicist and project leader Yimei Zhu.

While the effect of doping the multi-orbital barium iron arsenic—customizing its crucial outer electron count by adding cobalt—mirrors the emergence of high-temperature superconductivity in simpler systems, the mechanism itself may be entirely different.

“Now superconductor theory can incorporate proof of strong coupling between iron and arsenic in these dense electron cloud interactions,” said Brookhaven Lab physicist and study coauthor Weiguo Yin. “This unexpected discovery brings together both orbital fluctuation theory and the 50-year-old ‘excitonic’ theory for high-temperature superconductivity, opening a new frontier for condensed matter physics.”

Atomic Jungle Gym

Imagine a child playing inside a jungle gym, weaving through holes in the multicolored metal matrix in much the same way that electricity flows through materials. This particular kid happens to be wearing a powerful magnetic belt that repels the metal bars as she climbs. This causes the jungle gym’s grid-like structure to transform into an open tunnel, allowing the child to slide along effortlessly. The real bonus, however, is that this action attracts any nearby belt-wearing children, who can then blaze through that perfect path.



C)What are the chances that a particle collider’s strangelets will destroy the Earth?


A gold-ion collision in the STAR detector at RHIC. Critics argue that no matter how small the risks of the RHIC program, they are still worth an investigation. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

( —At the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Long Island, New York, scientists study high-speed ion collisions that reveal what the universe may have looked like moments after the Big Bang. RHIC is the second-highest-energy heavy-ion collider in the world, after the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and currently the only operating particle collider in the US.

Even before RHIC began operating in 2000, some people worried that the unprecedented experiment would pose risks of potentially catastrophic scenarios. Some of the concerns included the creation of a black hole or production of strange matter that could result in the destruction of the Earth, possibly within seconds.

In 1999, before the collider opened, the media attention on the subject prompted BNL to form a committee of scientists to investigate the probability of such catastrophic scenarios. A few months later, the committee concluded that RHIC was safe.

RHIC has now been running for nearly 15 years, and scientists have used it to make many fascinating discoveries, such as that of a quark-gluon plasma with a temperature of 4 trillion K. This liquid-like substance is unlike any kind of normal matter and recreates the conditions that existed during the first seconds of the universe.

But due to budget cuts, in 2013 a government advisory panel recommended shutting down RHIC in the coming years as funding is put toward other projects. The US Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, passed just a few weeks ago, includes a provision for the establishment of a nine-member commission to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of all of the US national labs, including RHIC. It’s called the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories.

According to Eric E. Johnson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of North Dakota, and Michael Baram, Professor Emeritus at Boston University Law School, this may also be a good time to reevaluate the safety risks at RHIC. They have written an  opinion piece on the subject that is posted at International Business Times.

Johnson and Baram are calling for the new commission to look into the risks of RHIC destroying the Earth in addition to evaluating the financial aspects. A large part of the motivation for their appeal is because of the ongoing upgrades to RHIC. The collider is  preparing for its 14th run, where it will be operating at 18 times the luminosity for which it was originally designed. The high luminosity will enable scientists to conduct more detailed studies of the quark-gluon plasma’s properties and investigate how it transitions into the normal matter that we see in the universe today.

Another area that Johnson and Baram argue begs some scrutiny is that RHIC is now running at lower energies than in the past. Somewhat counterintuitively, lower energies may pose a higher risk than higher energies. In the original risk assessment report in 1999, the scientists stated that “Elementary theoretical considerations suggest that the most dangerous type of collision is that at considerably lower energy than RHIC.” That assessment referenced RHIC’s original design energy of 100 GeV. Over the years, lower-energy experiments were performed, and the 2014 run will include three weeks at 7.3 GeV.

Johnson and Baram are concerned that these changes might increase the possibility that the collider will generate strangelets, hypothetical particles consisting of up, down, and strange quarks. Some hypotheses suggest that strangelet production could ignite a chain reaction converting everything into strange matter.

In their opinion piece, Johnson and Baram quote Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom, who stated that the Earth would then become “an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred metres across.”

Along with other critics concerned with safety, Johnson and Baram are concerned that the original risk assessment in 1999 was biased because all of the committee members were either planning to participate in RHIC experiments or had a deep interest in the RHIC’s data. The diversity of the new commission may allow it to overcome that problem.

Since the new commission will reflect a broad range of expertise in science, engineering, management, and finance, Johnson and Baram think that “this gathering of talent is a unique opportunity to ensure the RHIC gets the rigorous, independent risk analysis it has long warranted.”

“The luminosity upgrade, along with other evolutions of the RHIC program—including running collisions at different energies—suggests that the question of risk needs a fresh look,” Johnson told “For example, one of the reassurances given in the original safety report in 1999 was that the RHIC would run at a relatively high energy that would make strangelet formation less likely. But now the RHIC is being run at much lower energies. So, a re-evaluation is in order.

“Bottom line, I can’t say whether or not the RHIC program is so risky that it should be shut down. But I do think it’s clear that the original safety assessment lacked independence and that it is now woefully outdated. The Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories is an opportunity to look at the issue in a fair and complete way.”

In the end, the dilemma raises the question of whether and how to perform unbiased low-probability, high-impact risk assessment for large science experiments—and whether it’s possible to achieve this feat in a way that satisfies everyone.



About sooteris kyritsis

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