News round-up: New elements, Olympicene, Venus, SpaceX & Neutrinos

Guest contributor Conor McKeever kicks off our new fortnightly round-up of the key science news of the last few weeks.

Two more place cards at the Periodic Table


Video: youtube | periodicvideos

Scientists have officially named two elements whose discoveries were announced last year. Element 114, first detected in 1999 by scientists at Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), will be called Flerovium (symbol Fl) after the Institute’s founder, Georgy Flyorov. Element 116 will become Livermorium (symbol Lv) in honour of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, which teamed up with the JINR to discover the element.

Both elements were made by colliding atoms of lighter elements together – neither is stable enough to occur naturally. Although this means they are unlikely to find any applications outside of the lab, the hunt for heavier atoms pushes the boundaries of our understanding of quantum physics.

Chemists make world’s smallest Olympic rings


Image: University of Warwick

Scientists from the University of Warwick have made a molecular version of the famous rings just in time for this summer’s Games. The molecule, dubbed olympicene, is only 1.2 nanometres wide – so small, that its structure cannot be visualised using the traditional method of scanning tunnelling microscopy. Instead the group turned to IBM Research – Zurich, pioneers in a technique known as noncontact atomic force spectroscopy, to produce this image of a single olympicene molecule.

While the molecule’s similarity to graphene may give it useful electronic properties – similar molecules are being tested in solar cells and LEDs – the challenge was devised as a way to celebrate the arrival of the Olympics in the UK, and to inspire young people to take an interest in science.

Venus transits the Sun for last time this century


Image: NASA

The planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun last week, offering millions of people a glimpse of a phenomenon that won’t been seen again until 2117. Those living around the Pacific were able to see the entire seven-hour event, but people across the world watched as it was broadcast live over the Internet – only the second time in history that this has been possible.

Much rarer than solar eclipses, but predictable down to the day, transits of Venus are also scientifically important – they gave astronomers the first reliable estimates of the distance to the Sun. Centuries later, with astronomers now able to observe planets transiting other stars, they offer a way to check our estimates of these planets’ size and atmospheric composition, by comparing them to the known values for Venus.

SpaceX Dragon capsule returns to Earth


Image: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean after its nine-day mission to the International Space Station. The vessel made history last month after becoming the first commercial cargo ship to dock with the ISS, taking half a tonne of food and supplies to the orbiting astronauts. Following the successful mission, the SpaceX company has been awarded a £1 bn contract with NASA for a further 12 expeditions, in a move that NASA hopes will free up funding for missions to Mars and beyond. The company is also developing the capability for human spaceflight, with the aim of launching a crewed flight in 2015.

Confirmed: neutrinos did not break speed limit


Image: CERN

In September 2011, a team at CERN shocked the world when they announced that neutrinos might travel faster than the speed of light. Now at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, they’ve confirmed what many had suspected – that faulty wiring was to blame.

The original data suggested that neutrinos fired from the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) lab in Geneva arrived in a lab 450 miles (720 km) away in Italy around 60 nanoseconds too early. After a number of teams failed to replicate the result, two faults were discovered that eventually accounted for the discrepancy.

Despite this, the researchers announced they were pleased to see the scientific method in action. They also confirmed that their original goal of observing muon neutrinos morphing into tau neutrinos was a step closer, after seeing only the second-ever instance of this change. If confirmed, this could indicate that neutrinos have mass – something that has so far been difficult to prove.

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