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Tag archives: space travel

Soft hair on black holes, making concrete on Mars and exploring the cosmos in 2016

By Hamish Johnston

 

This week’s Red Folder looks to the cosmos, starting with a spiffy new video from the European Space Agency. The slick presentation is a preview of some of the extra-terrestrial exploits that the agency has planned for 2016. This includes the landing of the Schiaparelli probe on the surface of Mars. This stationery lander will survey its Martian environs to find a suitable location to drop the ExoMars rover in 2018. The mission’s namesake is the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the surface of Mars and was the first to use the term canali to describe the straight lines that were thought to exist on the surface of the planet.

It’s possible that someday humans will colonize Mars and this will involve building dwellings and other structures on the Red Planet. In preparation, Lin Wan, Roman Wendner and Gianluca Cusatis at Northwestern University in the US have come up with a recipe for making concrete on Mars. The trio reckon that any successful colonization of the Red Planet will have to rely on local building materials because shipping stuff from Earth would be horrendously expensive.

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Zapping head lice and a job that is out of this world

Nit picker: the cold atmospheric pressure plasma lice killer (Courtesy: Fraunhofer IST)

Nit picker: the cold plasma lice killer. (Courtesy: Fraunhofer IST)

By Hamish Johnston

Do your children have head lice again? Now you don’t have to comb their hair until your arm goes numb or cover their head with goop. Instead, you can zap them away using a plasma. I’m not suggesting that you put your child’s head into ionized gas that’s hotter than the Sun – it turns out that a “cold atmospheric pressure plasma” will do the trick.

That’s the claim of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films in Göttingen, Germany. The team has created the above prototype, which creates a plasma using a high-voltage generator that sends short pulses to the teeth of the comb. The pulses ionize air molecules surrounding the teeth, but they are so short that the resulting plasma does not heat up. The charged ions and electrons in the plasma make short work of killing lice and their eggs, but are harmless to humans – at least according to Wolfgang Viöl and colleagues, who will be unveiling their device later this month at the MEDICA trade fair in Düsseldorf.

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Pushing towards the human–Martian frontier

 Walter Cunningham circa 1968

Eye on the sky: NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham during the Apollo 7 mission, in October 1968. (Courtesy: NASA)

 By Tamela Maciel at the National Space Centre in Leicester

Last week, the planet Mars was under the international spotlight once more as NASA scientists announced that liquid water may still be flowing on the surface of the red planet. Also, the much-anticipated film adaptation of The Martian – a 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir a science-driven story of human survival on Mars, hit the box office.  Mars was also the hot topic at a recent event held at the National Space Centre in Leicester. The guest of honour was Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham and throughout the hour-long Q&A, he emphasized the need to push the “next frontier” and send humans to Mars.

Cunningham is not a man lacking in confidence or the experience of pushing boundaries. When asked if he ever felt the pressure of the astronaut selection or training process, he said “I thought I could fly anything, any time, anywhere. Was that true? I don’t know. But that’s how I felt.”

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Whisky in space, methane-capturing coffee, conference disasters and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

Fancy a wee dram while you are orbiting the Earth? With the growing interest in space tourism, travellers could soon be enjoying a sip or two of whisky in space. To make such tipples as enjoyable as possible, the Scotch whisky maker Ballantine’s has developed a special “space glass” that works in the free-fall conditions of Earth orbit. The firm is also developing a special blend of whisky to be enjoyed in space.

Created by Ballantine’s master whisky blender Sandy Hyslop and James Parr from the Open Space Agency, the new glass was filled with Scotch and tested in free-fall at the ZARM drop tower in Bremen, Germany. You can find out more about how one’s palate changes in space and the challenges facing the glass designers in the above video. And if you want to know if the glass passed the free-fall test, there is a second video called “Space Glass Project: the microgravity test”.

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Pluto fly-by: New Horizons sails past cold, distant world

Image of Pluto todate taken by the New Horizons spacecraft

Perfect view: the sharpest image of Pluto to date taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

After trundling through our solar system for more than 10 years, NASA’s New Horizons mission made its closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto earlier today, at 12:49 BST. It was a mere 12,472 km from the planet’s surface – roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.

If you want to find out more about the New Horizons mission, read this recent news story by physicsworld.com editor Hamish Johnston. Above is best close-up view of this cold, unexplored world that the spacecraft sent back before its closest approach (when it was still 766,000 km from the surface), revealing in clear detail many of the planet’s surface features, including the “heart” at the bottom.

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Last chapter in Rosetta’s Philae lander story…for now

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta's NAVCAM from 10 km away. (Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta’s NAVCAM from 10km away.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

By Tushna Commissariat

Last week was exciting and exhausting for anyone involved in space exploration and astronomy, after scientists working on the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) made history when their “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But soon after celebrating Philae’s successful landing, a dramatic story unfolded. With a bumpy triple landing, harpoons that did not fire and tether the probe, as well as a final resting spot that lay in the shadows, which meant its solar panels received very little sunlight, Philae’s tumultuous story captivated the interest of thousands of people across the globe.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Philae’s batteries slowly drained of power, thousands mourned. “So much hard work..getting tired…my battery voltage is approaching the limit soon now,” Tweeted the Philae crew, and yet, the lander’s story was ultimately happy and successful. Although it spent only 57 “active” hours on the comet, ESA mission scientists were happy to report that the lander had indeed completed the entirety of its primary science mission.

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Rosetta’s Philae starts drilling into comet surface

The view from Philae’s final landing spot

View of a lifetime: Philae safely on the surface of Comet 67P.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

By Tushna Commissariat

It had clearly been a long and busy 24 hours for members of the Rosetta mission at the European Space Agency (ESA) as they gave the latest updates in today’s Google+ Hangout. On Wednesday the mission made history as its “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But there has been a great deal of drama and uncertainty since then, as it emerged yesterday that the lander’s final resting spot was more than 1 km away from where it was meant to arrive. Also, Philae is thought to be precariously positioned in the shadows on the far side of a large crater, where its solar panels cannot get enough light to operate as planned. Despite these hurdles, the lander’s many instruments have been functioning well and sending data back to Earth, via the Rosetta orbiter.

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Blood Moons, teachers who moulded the minds of great physicists and more

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her high-school physics teacher

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her high-school physics teacher. (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week has been an exciting and busy one at Physics World HQ, what with two Nobel prizes that included physics – the actual Nobel prize for physics, of course, as well as this year’s chemistry Nobel, which was given to three physicists. Since last week’s Red Folder was full of Nobel trivia and facts, I will only point you to two more interesting Nobel-related articles. The first is an excellent article on the Slate website, by one of our regular freelance authors Gabriel Popkin, where he looks at female physicists who deserve a Nobel. His list is in no way exhaustive, but does well to highlight some excellent work done by women that deserves recognition, so do take a look at “These women should win a Nobel prize in physics”. Also, Ethan Siegel from the Starts With a Bang! blog has written an excellent essay to silence any would-be naysayers about the worthiness of giving the Nobel to the researchers who developed blue LEDs. In “Why blue LEDs are worth a Nobel Prize”, he outlines the history of LEDs and talks about just how many applications they have in today’s times.

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Homework help from NASA, rescue missions, top technologies and more

By Tushna Commissariat

Who doesn’t like a bit of help with their homework – not 4-year-old Lucas Whiteley from West Yorkshire in the UK.  When faced with some tough and rather complex scientific questions, the enterprising child filmed a video of himself asking the US space agency NASA for some help. And much to his delight, he got a video response courtesy of NASA engineer Ted Garbeff of the Ames Research Center in California. In the 10-minute video, Garbeff answers Whiteley’s questions including “How many stars are there?” and “Did any animals go to the Moon?” Of course, the story garnered nation-wide interest and was covered by the Huffington Post, the Telegraph and others. Take a look at Garbeff’s response video above.

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Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

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