Oribiter to map moon; looking for ice

Before NASA sends astronauts back to the moon, it wants to scope out the territory it has largely ignored since the last time it sent astronauts there 40 years ago. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter  will carry out the first in a series of robotic missions to map and measure the moon in greater detail than before. Of particular interest is whether frozen water might lurk in the shadows of craters near the moon’s poles. “Those areas of the moon, we actually have very sparse information of,” said Craig Tooley, the project manager of the mission. For the occupants of a future lunar settlement, ice would be a source not only of drinking water, but also air and energy. Water molecules can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen. The orbiter’s payload includes a camera that can make out objects as small as a yard wide, a heat-mapping instrument to find where it might be cold enough for ice to persist near the surface, a laser altimeter for generating topographic maps, and a cosmic ray telescope for measuring the radiation raining down on the moon.

The mission’s purpose is to help NASA locate landing places for the astronauts and plan how to build a moon base.

Kenneth Chang
NYT News Service

Element number 112 yet to get a name

We have a new chemical element! Well, we have a few atoms for at least a few seconds whenever anyone can make it in a particle collider.

Element number 112 (its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus) was discovered by scientists at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. Now the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, which decides on such important things as names and symbols, has officially recognised the discovery and has sent Sigurd Hofmann, the lead researcher of the team that made number 112, a formal letter asking him to think up a name for his new element.

In time-honoured and thorough fashion, sombre chemists will consider and vet the name before finally bestowing it officially upon element 112 in about six months. Hofmann has to submit a name within weeks.

Element 112 is the heaviest known element in the periodic table, around 277 times more massive than hydrogen. Scientists from Germany, Finland, Russia and Slovakia were involved in the experiments surrounding its discovery, a team of 21. There isn’t that much of this stuff around: the first atom was created by Hofmann’s team in 1996; six years later a research team at the Riken Discovery Research Institute in Japan produced another atom.

To make the atoms of element 112, physicists fired zinc ions (atomic number 30) around a 120m particle accelerator at a lead target (atomic number 82), causing the nuclei of atoms to fuse.

Alok Jha
The Guardian

A La Venetian blinds: Snake’s scales create different amounts of friction.Snakes’ locomotion a matter of scales?

A snake’s slithering, how it translates wiggling motion into forward movement, has always been a bit of a mystery. Over the years, researchers developed the idea that an undulating snake drove its flanks laterally against small objects, like rocks and twigs, to propel itself. “But that didn’t explain how snakes can move in areas where there isn’t anything to push on,” said David L Hu, of Georgia Institute of Technology and New York University. Now Hu and colleagues say the secret (The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) is in the snake’s scales, which create different amounts of friction based on direction. The researchers conducted experiments with milk snakes and other species, and used the results to develop a model for slithering mechanics. They put snakes on very smooth surfaces, and in other instances wrapped them in cloth. The snakes were unable to move forward, no matter how much they wriggled. 

A snake’s scales, Hu said, resemble overlapping Venetian blinds, and tend to catch on tiny variations in the surface they lie on. This friction is greater in the forward direction than in sideways directions, as it is with wheels and ice skates.

Henry Fountain
NYT News Service

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