New York Times: The Chinese government has announced a five-year space-exploration plan that calls for launching a space laboratory and collecting samples from the Moon, all by 2016, along with a powerful manned spaceship and space freighters. The plan includes a major expansion of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System, which on Tuesday began providing navigation, positioning, and timing data on China and surrounding areas. China intends to expand Beidou from its current 10 satellites to 35 satellites in orbit by 2020.
National Geographic: An analysis of summertime storm activity in the eastern US from 1995 to 2009 revealed that the occurrence of tornadoes and hailstorms peaked in the middle of the week, when human-made summertime air pollution also peaked. Pollution can help breed storms because moisture gathers around specks of pollutants, which leads to more cloud droplets, which get lofted to higher, colder air, where they’re more likely to produce hail. The process by which pollution can increase the number of tornadoes is more complex. The large icy hail particles seeded by pollutants have less surface area than an equal mass of smaller particles of condensed water or ice, and they evaporate more slowly and are less likely to suck heat from the air. It then becomes easier for warm air to help form a supercell, the storm type that usually produces tornadoes and large hail.
Nature: On 29 December 2008, chemistry research assistant Sheharbano Sangji suffered third-degree burns when the t-butyl lithium she was drawing from a bottle via a syringe burst into flames. She wasn’t wearing a lab coat, and her clothes caught fire. She died in the hospital 18 days later. In the wake of Sangji’s death, UCLA tightened its safety policies; but despite calls to improve academia’s safety standards across the US, there’s little evidence that bench scientists or laboratory heads outside of UCLA have changed their behavior.
The Los Angeles district attorney has now charged UCLA and organic chemist Patrick Harran with three counts each of “willful violation of an occupational health and safety standard causing the death of an employee.” Harran faces up to four and a half years in prison if convicted, and UCLA could be fined as much as $1.5 million on each count. UCLA notes in its statement that an earlier investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health found “no willful violations on the part of UCLA”, and says it plans to fight the charges.
NPR: Traveling at 636 miles per minute, Voyager 1 is headed toward interstellar space . Right now, the craft is in the outermost layer of the heliosphere, the bubble of charged particles the Sun forms around itself. The solar wind in that area is nil, but the 100-fold greater intensity of high-energy electrons in elsewhere in the galaxy indicates an approaching boundary. Voyager 1 is expected to cross that boundary sometime in the next three years.
SF Gate: A pair of spacecraft known as Grail-A and Grail-B are set to enter orbit around the Moon over the New Year’s weekend. They launched from the Florida coast in September and are independently traveling to their destination. Over the next two months they will fly in formation around the Moon until they’re approximately 56 kilometers above the lunar surface and about 200 kilometers apart. At that point, regional changes in the Moon’s gravity field will cause them to accelerate or slow down, which will change the distance between them; the changes in distance will allow mapping of the gravity field. With that information, it will be possible to deduce features at or below the Moon’s surface and may help explain why the far side of the Moon is more rugged than the side that faces Earth.
BBC: Yet another Soyuz rocket launch has failed. After liftoff from Russia’s Plesetsk spaceport on Friday, 23 December, the Soyuz-2 vehicle was unable to put a communications satellite into orbit. It is one of several failed attempts this year, including Phobus-Grunt in November and the Progress cargo spacecraft, which was to take supplies to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, in August. Russia’s problems could severely impact the US, which depends on Russian rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, writes Will Englund for the Washington Post. In his overview article, Englund notes how Russia has tripled its science spending over the past 10 years, “but innovation is losing out to exhaustion, corruption and cronyism.” Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is still struggling to bounce back.
New Scientist: “While globetrotting is not a prerequisite to winning the coveted [Nobel] prize, having a CV that looks like a much-stamped passport is increasingly seen as the signature of an ambitious and motivated young scientist,” writes Jessica Griggs for New Scientist. According to a report published by the Royal Society in London, over the past 15 years, more than 35% of articles published in international journals involved international collaborations. A UK government report found that more than 63% of British researchers worked outside the country and those who went abroad for at least two years and returned were 66% more productive in terms of the number of papers published. In this Q&A, Griggs, the careers editor at New Scientist, tackles such basic questions as why go abroad, how to get a placement, which country to choose, and where to get the necessary funding.
Nature: Spain’s Ministry of Science has been cut by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a member of the People’s Party. Rajoy had pledged to reduce the number of government ministries from 15 to 12. Responsibility for science and research will now be the purview of Luis de Guindos, the minister of economy and competition. The Ministry of Science was created in 2000, under a People’s Party government, but fell under a joint ministry with education from 2004 to 2008, then again became a dedicated ministry from 2008 to 2011.
ScienceDaily: Researchers at Purdue University have designed V-shaped gold and silicon nanoantennas that can cause broadband light to bend in unusual ways, including with negative angles of refraction. Extending earlier work by a group at Harvard University, the Purdue team showed that an array of the nanoantennas at a material interface can change the phase and propagation direction of light over a broad range in the near-IR. The arrays, much thinner than the light’s wavelengths, produced dramatic deviations from the conventional laws governing how light refracts as it passes from one material to the next. Says team member Vladimir Shalaev, “Not only the bending effect, refraction, but also the reflection of light can be dramatically modified by the antenna arrays on the interface, as the experiments showed.” Shalaev is the scientific director of nanophotonics at Purdue’s Birck Nanotechnology Center and one of the authors of a paper published online yesterday in Science. The team’s technique could have a range of technological applications, including in fiber-optic telecommunications and in more powerful microscope lenses.
New York Times: Yesterday the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) unanimously approved a radical new reactor design, writes Matthew Wald for the New York Times. To diminish the probability of an accident, the Westinghouse AP1000 relies more on gravity and natural heat convection and less on pumps, valves, and human operators than other models. In addition, even if there is a total loss of electric power, the AP1000 should shut down safely, and a combination of automatic systems and design features would keep the reactor safe for three days without human intervention. In an attempt to streamline construction and cut costs, the NRC waived the usual 30-day waiting period before its approval becomes official. It also plans to issue a combined construction and operating license, and it preapproved a standard reactor design that all utilities will use. However, only four reactors are expected to be built in the next decade—two in Georgia and two in South Carolina, with the first one scheduled to go online in 2016—because of concerns following the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the low price of natural gas.