Friday, October 23, 2020


Time again for news from the world of science! (Yes, you remember science—the thing that depends on verifiable facts and repeated experimentation to prove logical theories?) Today’s news is genuinely exciting and, in addition to providing more plot bunnies than a patch of cerebral clover, these stories leave actual room for optimism!

Osiris-Rex loves Bennu. At least, judging by the kiss the NASA spacecraft gave the asteroid on Tuesday, the first step in its mission to collect dust and rock samples from the rugged bit of space voyager to bring back home in 2023. The rendezvous with the asteroid has been underway since launching from Cape Canaveral in 2016 and included a prolonged orbit of the asteroid for data collection. Though data sent from the spacecraft confirmed the sample collection was successful, it will be as long as a week before scientists at NASA will know for sure whether the samples actually made it onboard safely. If something went wrong, Osiris-Rex will have another chance to complete the collection before the sample capsule parachutes into the Utah desert on its return home. Even at this stage, however, NASA scientists were over the moon. As NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine said, “We are on the way to returning the largest sample brought home from space since Apollo. If all goes well, this sample will be studied by scientists for generations to come.”

Osiris-Rex: One small step for machine-kind . . .

Cheap, clean and abundant energy? Wouldn’t that be the answer to everyone’s prayers? But scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe they may be well on the way to making good on that goal with a working prototype of a fusion reactor. They have developed a design for a compact fusion reactor that mimics the sun, smashing hydrogen atoms together to release energy, thus generating less radioactive waste and using less fuel than any conventional energy process.

The search for the dream of fusion, which does not generate planet-warming greenhouse gases, has so far taken decades, but the MIT team says in a series of peer-reviewed papers that construction on their tennis-court-sized reactor, SPARC, could begin as early as next spring. Construction might take three to four years, with a goal of beginning production of energy by 2035. This would be a leap forward over SPARC’s closest competitor, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France, which has been underway since 2013 and is not expected to produce any fusion reaction until 2035. The MIT improved design uses superconducting magnets to contain the extremely hot and high-pressure reactions going on inside the reactor, producing as much as ten times the energy it consumes. Martin Greenwald, co-lead scientist on the MIT team, is optimistic, but he does add one caveat: “If we can overcome the engineering challenges, this machine will perform as we predict.”

Goodbye to plastic? No matter how hard we all try to reduce, reuse and recycle, it seems there is just too much plastic for our planet to handle. It fills up our garbage cans, our landfills, our oceans. It strangles our sea creatures, settles at the bottom of the deepest ocean crevices, poisons even our tiniest humans through the milk they drink in their baby bottles. But what can we do? The corporations that rule our lives won’t stop putting their products in cheap plastic containers, and most of us have no choice but to buy what they sell.

But scientists at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England have been working with a plastic-eating enzyme called PETase (a natural digestive substance discovered in a landfill in Japan in 2016). They have found a way to accelerate this chemical’s ability to break down the avalanche of plastic in our environment—by combining it with another enzyme called MHETase. The new “superenzyme” breaks down plastic six times faster than PETase alone. Better yet, the process dismantles the petroleum-based product, leaving behind the basic building blocks of the stuff so it can be used over and over again. Not that the superenzyme works superfast; it would still take days or weeks to recycle that soft drink bottle you just tossed in the trash. But researchers are looking for ways to speed the process and scale up operations. At this stage of the game, any progress is welcome.

Meanwhile, on Mars. First, we hear there may be exotic lifeforms flying (swimming?) around in the dense clouds of Venus. Now, it seems, Mars may be hiding an environment ripe for microscopic life in salty ponds below its barren surface. Italian scientists reported their findings last week, more than two years after identifying evidence of what they believe to be a network of underground lakes in data sent back from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

The research team, led by Roma Tre University’s Sebastian Emanuel Lauro, used more than 100 radar observations from the orbiter from 2010 to 2019, analyzing the findings with a method similar to that used on Earth to detect buried lakes in the Antarctic and Canadian Arctic.  High concentrations of salt in the water likely kept the lakes from freezing as Mars, once warm and wet, gradually became dry, barren and cold. The surface temperature at the South Pole of Mars averages an estimated 172 degrees Fahrenheit but gets temperatures warm underground. The scientific team urged future missions to Mars to target this region, calling the area of potential biologic interest. Co-author of the paper outlining the team’s findings, Roberto Orosei, of Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics, insists it’s possible the subsurface lakes may have been “a place where life could adapt and survive.”

And if that’s not a plot bunny, I don’t recognize a fluffy tail when I see one.

Cheers, Donna

*Information for this week’s post provided by:

“Nasa Osiris-Rex spacecraft lands on asteroid Bennu in mission to collect dust,” The Guardian, October 22, 2020.

“MIT Researchers Say Their Fusion Reactor Is ‘Very Likely to Work,’by Victor Tangermann,, September 29, 2020.

“A new ‘super enzyme’ that digests plastic waste six times faster, has been engineered, scientists say,” by Lynn Hasco, (PA Patriot News), September 29, 2020.

“Clouds of Venus could harbor life, new study shows,” by Andrea Leinfelder, Microsoft News, September 14, 2020.

“Salty lake, ponds may be gurgling beneath South Pole on Mars,” by Marcia Dunn, AP News, September 28, 2020.


1 comment:

  1. Some great ideas here. The news of the compact fusion reactor made me immediately think of a possible next step--maybe a Mr. Fusion toaster oven sized reactor as shown in Back to the Future? :)


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