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Rumors are rippling through the science world that physicists may have detected gravitational waves, a key element of Einstein’s theory which if confirmed would be one of the biggest discoveries of our time.

There has been no announcement, no peer review or publication of the findings—all typically important steps in the process of releasing reliable and verifiable scientific research.

Instead, a message on Twitter from an Arizona State University cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, has sparked a firestorm of speculation and excitement.

Krauss does not work with the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which is searching for ripples in the fabric of space and .

But he tweeted on Monday about the apparent shoring up of rumor he’d heard some months ago, that LIGO scientists were writing up a paper on gravitational waves they had discovered using US-based detectors.

“My earlier rumor about LIGO has been confirmed by independent sources. Stay tuned! Gravitational waves may have been discovered!! Exciting,” Krauss tweeted.

His message has since between retweeted 1,800 times.

If gravitational waves have been spotted, it would confirm a final missing piece in what Albert Einstein predicted a century ago in his theory of general relativity.

The discovery would open a new window on the universe by showing scientists for the first time that  exist, in places such as the edge of black holes at the beginning of time, filling in a major gap in our understanding of how the universe was born.

A team of scientists on a project called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) announced in 2014 that they had discovered these very ripples in space time, but soon admitted that their findings may have been just galactic dust.

A spokeswoman for the LIGO collaboration, Gabriela Gonzalez, was quoted in The Guardian as saying there is no announcement for now.

“The LIGO instruments are still taking data today, and it takes us time to analyze, interpret and review results, so we don’t have any results to share yet,” said Gonzalez, professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University.

“We take pride in reviewing our results carefully before submitting them for publication—and for important results, we plan to ask for our papers to be peer-reviewed before we announce the results—that takes time too!”

Other observers pointed out that any supposed detection may be a simple practice run for the science teams, not a real discovery.

“Caveat earlier mentioned: they have engineering runs with blind signals inserted that mimic discoveries. Am told this isn’t one,” Krauss tweeted.

But science enthusiasts may have to wait awhile longer to get all the details.

The LIGO team’s first run of data ends Tuesday, January 12.

“We expect to have news on the run results in the next few months,” Gonzalez was quoted as saying by New Scientist magazine.


Henry Sapiecha

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Telescope lenses someday might come in aerosol cans.

Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory are exploring a new type of space telescope with an aperture made of swarms of particles released from a canister and controlled by a laser.

These floating lenses would be larger, cheaper and lighter than apertures on conventional space-based imaging systems like NASA’s Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, said Grover Swartzlander, associate professor at RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and Fellow of the Optical Society of America. Swartzlander is a co-investigator on the Jet Propulsion team led by Marco Quadrelli.

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program is funding the second phase of the “orbiting rainbows” project that attempts to combine space optics and “smart dust,” or autonomous robotic system technology. The smart dust is made of a photo-polymer, or a light-sensitive plastic, covered with a metallic coating.

“Our motivation is to make a very large aperture telescope in space and that’s typically very expensive and difficult to do,” Swartzlander said. “You don’t have to have one continuous mass telescope in order to do astronomy–it can be distributed over a wide distance. Our proposed concept could be a very cheap, easy way to achieve large coverage, something you couldn’t do with the James Webb-type of approach.”

An adaptive optical imaging sensor comprised of tiny floating mirrors could support large-scale NASA missions and lead to new technology in astrophysical imaging and remote sensing.

Swarms of smart dust forming single or multiple lenses could grow to reach tens of meters to thousands of kilometers in diameter. According to Swartzlander, the unprecedented resolution and detail might be great enough to spot clouds on exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system.

“This is really next generation,” Swartzlander said. “It’s 20, 30 years out. We’re at the very first step.”

Previous scientists have envisioned orbiting apertures but not the control mechanism. This new concept relies upon Swartzlander’s expertise in the use of light, or photons, to manipulate micro- or nano-particles like smart dust. He developed and patented the techniques known as “optical lift,” in which light from a laser produces radiation pressure that controls the position and orientation of small objects.

In this application, radiation pressure positions the smart dust in a coherent pattern oriented toward an astronomical object. The reflective particles form a lens and channel light to a sensor, or a large array of detectors, on a satellite. Controlling the smart dust to reflect enough light to the sensor to make it work will be a technological hurdle, Swartzlander said.

Two RIT graduate students on Swartzlander’s team are working on different aspects of the project. Alexandra Artusio-Glimpse, a doctoral student in imaging science, is designing experiments in low-gravity environments to explore techniques for controlling swarms of particle and to determine the merits of using a single or multiple beams of light.

Swartzlander expects the telescope will produce speckled and grainy images. Xiaopeng Peng, a doctoral student in imaging science, is developing software algorithms for extracting information from the blurred image the sensor captures. The laser that will shape the smart dust into a lens also will measure the optical distortion caused by the imaging system. Peng will use this information to develop advanced image processing techniques to reverse the distortion and recover detailed images.

“Our goal at this point is to marry advanced computational photography with radiation-pressure control techniques to achieve a rough image,” Swartzlander said. “Then we can establish a roadmap for improving both the algorithms and the control system to achieve ‘out of this world’ images.”

Henry Sapiecha


Australia and South Africa are to share the world’s biggest telescope – the Square Kilometre Array.

After an intense six-year battle between the two bidding nations, a split-site solution for the giant radio telescope has been reached, with antennas to be built in both countries.

The decision was made on Friday night at a meeting in Amsterdam of the board of directors of the international  SKA Organisation overseeing the telescope’s construction.

It had been feared Australia would miss out, after an independent scientific panel in February narrowly recommended South Africa as the preferred site.

To be one of the great scientific projects of the 21st century, the array  will be so sensitive it could detect an aircraft radar on a planet 50 light years away.

Folklore, Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends from Around the World

It will be able to look back to the dark ages just after the Big Bang, and could help answer some of the big question of the cosmos, such as whether we are alone, and the nature of mysterious dark energy and dark matter.

Due to be fully operational by 2024, the internationally funded project will provide a significant  economic boost to both countries, particularly in the construction, engineering and IT sectors.

In a majority determination it was decided that most of the dishes that will comprise the array in the first phase will be built in South Africa and combined with a 64-dish telescope planned  there called MeerKAT.

More SKA dishes will be added to a 36-dish telescope almost completed in Australia called the Australian SKA Pathfinder.

A second set of mid-frequency antennae will be built in South Africa and a third set of low frequency antenna will be built in Australia.

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Your Guide To Travelling Australia

The core Australian site is in the remote shire of Murchison, in Western Australia, a radio-quiet zone about 300 kilometres north-east of Geraldton which has only about 100 people in an area larger than Holland.

In South Africa, it is in the Karoo desert in the Northern Cape.
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The decision to share the telescope, which will have three types of antennas including 3000 dishes, was made by five of the organisation’s eight member nations – Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, Canada and China.

The concept of building a mega-telescope with a square kilometre of collecting area was proposed 20 years ago.
Australia and South Africa were shortlisted as potential hosts in 2006.

In March, the Herald broke the story that the independent scientific panel had recommended South Africa.

However a final decision was delayed while a new scientific working group investigated the possibility of an ‘‘inclusive approach’’ that would ‘‘maximise the value from the investments made by both countries’’.

On Friday, before the decision to share the telescope was made, the Minister of Science, Chris Evans, said the Australian government had ‘‘continued to argue Australia’s case right up to the 11th hour’

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Russia believes fragments of its Phobos-Grunt probe, which spiralled back to Earth after failing to head on a mission to Mars, has crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

“According to information from mission control of the space forces, the fragments of Phobos-Grunt should have fallen into the Pacific Ocean at 17.45pm GMT (4.45am AEDT on Monday),” space forces spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin told the Interfax news agency.

There was no immediate comment from Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, which throughout the day, as the probe approached Earth, had given wildly different predictions about where it could land.

Zolotukhin said that the space forces had closely followed the probe’s course.

“This has allowed us to ascertain the place and time of the fall of the craft with a great degree of accuracy,” he told Interfax.

According to the ITAR-TASS news agency, the probe should have splashed down 1250 kilometres west of the island of Wellington off the coast of Chile.

A landing in the ocean would be a huge relief for Russia after earlier reports suggested it could crash into the territory of South America, possibly Argentina.

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft should have been on an expedition to Mars’ largest moon but instead became stuck in an Earth orbit that has become lower and lower as it becomes increasingly tugged by the Earth’s gravity.

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Sydney space enthusiast Robert Brand and his 9-year-old son Jason recently launched a high-tech weather balloon a quarter of the way to space, retrieving images and flight data to help school children get a better understanding about space.

Mr Brand, of Dulwich Hill, has a history with space – at age 17 he wired up some of the Apollo 11 communications gear in Sydney during his term break from college. He was also stationed at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory in New South Wales at the request of the European Space Agency for spacecraft Giotto’s encounter with Halley’s comet in 1986 and Voyager’s encounter with Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and ’89. Also under his belt is an award from NASA for support of STS-1, the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle program, presented personally by the commander and moon walker John Young.

So when it came time for Mr Brand to launch his own gear towards space he was well prepared, documenting his do-it-yourself journey on his personal blog for other space enthusiasts to watch and track.

“[The balloon launch] was being done to help science education in the Sydney area and anywhere else in fact because we were publishing [on the internet] all of the information and data that we got from the balloon launch,” said Mr Brand, 59.

Launch day was December 28, 2011 from Rankins Springs near Goolgowi in Central NSW. As the balloon got up to about 85,000 feet (25.9 kilometres) above Earth before it burst, Mr Brand and his son tracked it using amateur radio.

“During the flight we were actually relaying data back to the ground and off to a server and that allowed people from all over the world to actually participate with this flight and track it as it was going,” Mr Brand said. “We were getting back a lot of comments on some of the social media [services] such as Facebook just really helping us understand what they were sort of getting out of the whole project. People were sort of yelling loudly if you could put it that way, on the [wotzup] website claiming ‘Hey, they’ve reached this height and that height’, and so there was a lot of really great audience participation in this.”

The data being sent back from the balloon – which was later recovered about 50 kilometres away from where it was launched – tracked altitude, position, rate of climb, payload temperature, payload voltage and air pressure, Mr Brand said. The balloon also has a camera on board that captured still images. “We could actually see as [the balloon] hit different wind levels in the atmosphere and eventually we got up into a jet stream and actually found that we had two jet streams,” Mr Brand added.

When the balloon finally popped it came hurtling back towards Earth at about 40 metres per second, according to flight data.

“So this thing was falling a bit like a brick would fall at ground level but it slowed down and eventually the parachute dropped it on the ground at about six metres per second,” Mr Brand said.

What's in the box? Jason shows the weather balloon's payload.What’s in the box? Jason shows the weather balloon’s payload. Photo: Supplied 

The balloon was put together with the help of senior students at Sydney Secondary College at Blackwattle Bay, who Brand sought to get involved with the project and tasked them with doing a whole stack of materials testing. They tested the styrofoam and how it reacted in zero atmosphere as well as the glue, ensuring it would hold throughout the flight. “The students were putting these materials in a bell jar and sucking the air out of it . . . and checking all of the materials held together – and to protect some of the electronics from the very cold temperatures of about minus 50 Celsius we simply used bubble wrap. … You’d be surprised to know that bubble wrap doesn’t explode when it gets into pretty much zero atmosphere.”

The photos that came back from maximum altitude look “pretty much like that taken from a space shuttle”, Mr Brand said.

“So very dark skies looking at this very thin blue line around the Earth which is our atmosphere and protective layer. It’s a bit scary when you see that photo and realise how thin the Earth’s atmosphere really is.”

When it came time to recover the balloon it was tracked to landing on a field near the small town of Weethalle in NSW, Mr Brand said. “There was nothing growing on it. It seemed to have been abandoned.”

After knocking on a farm door to no avail, he and his son entered the field to locate the balloon. After driving “pretty much right on top of it” it was recovered, allowing for the father and son duo to publish the photos it captured that weren’t sent back live but stored on the camera attached to the balloon.

Mr Brand hopes to do more balloon launches and get schools involved.

“I’ll keep doing this each year and trying to get . . . more interest in the school year earlier in the year. I’m very keen to hear from people that might be interested in getting involved.”

twitter This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb

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Known for quite some time, but still strange oddities of the universe; the rather oddly shaped moons of Saturn, Pan and Atlas, have confused scientist for some time now.

Saturn family e1301116480754 Saturns Bizzarely Shaped UFO Moons Baffle Scientists
Montage pattern of Saturn and several of its satellites, Dione, Tethys, Mimas, Enceladus, Rhea, and Titan

No- one really knew or could even explain how it was possible that these moons came to be in the form that they are in. These moons, which are only about 20 miles across, have baffled  researchers throughout the years.

After much deliberation, and just as much curiosity, a handful of researchers thought that they may have a few answers to the much debated question of how these moons came to be by studying countless photographs.

Some theories claim that the moons would have started out as very immense cores that originated from the collision that caused the rings to be formed. By starting off as a massive core, it would allow a limitless number of smaller ring particles to bind themselves to the core causing them to form the moon. It was the only explanation given as to why the moons are the shape that they are and the size that they are. Much in the way that the rings of Saturn were formed around the planet is the explanation given as to how the ring-like structure has formed around the moons.

Research that was performed at the Southwest Research institute suggested that Saturn must have had many large moons in its early history. It was suggested that these moons probably were on a collision course with the planet and during the flight towards the planet they caught on fire and the ice shell surrounding them melted. This would leave way for the rock to sink to the centre.

While much of this is still a mystery, many still marvel at the amazing moons surrounding the planet Saturn.

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AS sparkling bling goes, it doesn’t get bigger.


Australian astronomers have discovered a planet they think is made of diamond.

The galactic gem could be as large as 60,000 kilometres across – five times the diameter of Earth.

The "diamond planet" orbiting a pulsar, centre, of this image. The orbit is represented by the dashed line. The blue lines represent the radio signal from the pulsar.The “diamond planet” orbiting a pulsar, centre, of this image. The orbit is represented by the dashed line. The blue lines represent the radio signal from the pulsar. Illustration: Swinburne University 

It is orbiting a tiny, dead, spinning star, called a pulsar, about 4000 light years away in the Milky Way.

CSIRO astronomer Michael Keith said the diamond planet was likely to be very hot and glowing white.

“It would probably look very pretty,” he said.

An international team, led by Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, found the exotic object using telescopes including the radio telescope at Parkes. They were searching for pulsars – the lighthouses of the universe – which emit beams of radio waves as they spin rapidly.

They discovered a pulsar which is only about 20 kilometres across and rotating extremely fast – 175 times every second.

Slight variations in its pulse alerted the astronomers to the presence of the companion planet, which orbits the pulsar every two hours and 10 minutes. Dr Keith said the planet appeared to have been a massive star that lost more than 99 per cent of its mass.

Its density made it likely it comprise mostly of carbon atoms, crushed together in a crystalline structure “very similar to diamond.”

He joked that it would be priceless: “I recently got engaged so I know how much diamonds cost.”

Team member Willem van Straten said they hoped the planet was glowing white, because that would make it easier to see light from it using a telescope. The team was searching for millisecond pulsars because they were like accurate “clocks” whose regularity could be used to detect the presence of gravitational waves – theoretical ripples in space time thought to be generated by cosmic events such as two black holes colliding.

The “holy grail” would be to find a pulsar orbiting a black hole, to see if Einstein’s general theory of relativity still holds in an extremely strong gravity field, he said. “You could study space and time in the vicinity of the black hole with a lot of precision.”

Somewhat unromantically the pulsar, with its diamond companion, is named PSR J1719-1438

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China’s bid for man-made sun

Experimental nuclear fusion reactor is seen at a laboratory in the Southwest Institute of Physics in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.Experimental nuclear fusion reactor is seen at a laboratory in the Southwest Institute of Physics in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Photo: Reuters

David Stanway

May 4, 2011 – 12:54PM

The congenial Professor Duan Xuru doesn’t look like a stereotypical mad scientist as he shows guests into a cluttered laboratory filled with canisters, vacuum pumps and patched-up pipes tied together with spirals of blue wire and rubber tubing.

But Professor Duan, based in the south-west Chinese city of Chengdu, is working on an audacious project described as a “man-made sun”. He hopes it will eventually create almost unlimited supplies of cheap and clean energy.

Professor Duan is no maverick either, but a pioneer in one of the many expeditions that China has launched to map out its nuclear energy options in the future.

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Old-fashioned atom splitting has been in the spotlight after Japan’s biggest earthquake and tsunami left an ageing nuclear reactor complex on the north-east coast on the verge of catastrophic meltdown.

While Germany and Italy have turned their backs on nuclear power, China is pressing ahead with an ambitious plan to raise capacity from 10.8 gigawatts at the end of 2010 to as much as 70 or 80 GW in 2020.

Many of the nuclear research institutes across the country are working on advanced solutions to some of the problems facing traditional reactors, from the recycling and storage of spent fuel to terrorist attacks.

But Professor Duan and his state-funded team of scientists are on a quest for the Holy Grail of nuclear physics: a fusion reactor that can generate power by forcing nuclei together instead of smashing them apart – mimicking the stellar activity that brought heavy elements into existence and made the universe fit for life.

Professor Duan said fusion could be the ultimate way forward: it is far safer than traditional fission, requires barely 600 grams of hydrogen fuel a year for each 10-gigawatt plant, and creates virtually no radioactive waste.

“Due to the problems in Japan, the government hopes nuclear fusion can be realised in the near future,” said Professor Duan, the director of fusion science at the South-western Institute of Physics, founded in 1965 and funded by the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).

While fusion has moved some way beyond the purely hypothetical after more than half a century of painstaking research, it still remains some distance away from being feasible. Critically, the energy required to induce a fusion reaction far exceeds the amount of energy produced.

Fusion might be the ultimate goal, but in the near future, all China’s practical efforts will continue to focus on a new model of conventional fission reactors.

While China’s nuclear industry awaits the results of a government review in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, all signs point to China pushing ahead with its long-term strategy.

The National Development and Reform Commission said last week China would continue to support the construction and development of advanced nuclear reactors and related nuclear technologies.

“Suddenly, China has become even more important to the world – as other people ask whether they still want to go ahead, China still seems intent on going ahead at full speed,” said Steve Kidd, deputy secretary general with the World Nuclear Association, a London-based lobby group.

If traditional nuclear power represents the civil application of the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, fusion is an extension of the hydrogen bomb, first tested by the United States in 1952.

Showing Reuters around a sweltering, hermetically-sealed lab designed to bring hydrogen isotopes to an unthinkable 55-million degree boil in a 1.65 metre vacuum chamber, Professor Duan said progress had been slower than first expected at the dawn of the nuclear age.

“It took about nine years to go from the atomic bomb to nuclear power, and we hoped it would take a maximum of 20 years to get from the first H-bomb to a fusion reactor,” he said. “But in reality it was very difficult because there were so many technical and scientific challenges.”

Described by one observer as an attempt to put the sun in a box, nuclear fusion has been derided as the province of cranks and charlatans – the modern equivalent of the perpetual motion machines that plagued US patent offices in the 19th century. Sceptics scoff that the world is now 50 years away from fusion power – and always will be.

Professor Duan shrugged off the criticism. He has spent more than 20 years in the field, including eight years in Germany, and found reasons to be optimistic.

“Actually, the concept of nuclear fusion is very simple,” he said with a wry smile. “The first thing is to generate the plasma. The second thing is to heat the plasma to a few hundred million degrees. And then you need to confine it.”

The devil, of course, is in the details.

Exotic options

As Japan’s stricken Fukushima plant lurched from crisis to crisis in March and April, the safety of nuclear power was called into question – including in China. Five days after the quake and tsunami knocked out the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi complex, China said it was suspending approvals for nuclear power plants pending safety checks of plants in operation or under construction.

China by most calculations is already the world’s biggest energy consumer, and demand for power is set to soar in the next decade. But its dependence on fossil fuels have also turned it into the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas.

Professor Duan’s fusion reactor could be the answer to China’s energy conundrum. It does not require hectares of space or tonnes of scarce fuel or water resources. It produces no carbon dioxide emissions or waste, and is completely safe, even if struck by an earthquake.

A large part of China’s fusion research is now focused on the tokamak, a Russian acronym meaning “toroidal magnetic chamber”.

It is a doughnut-shaped vacuum vessel wrapped in superconducting magnetic coils that confine and control the ultra-high temperature soup of ions and electrons known as plasma.

But tokamaks can only run a few seconds in experiments conducted every five months or so, creating a brief 500-megawatt burst of energy before fizzling out.

Unlike the tokamak, new conventional technologies are on the cusp of being commercialised, including “third-generation” designs imported from US-based Westinghouse, owned by Toshiba, and France’s Areva.

Also on the horizon are fourth and fifth-generation technologies that go by names such as fast-breeder, travelling wave, or high-temperature gas-cooled, as well as small and versatile “modular” reactors with shorter construction times.

“[China] has investments in the more exotic reactor designs and they also have got co-operation on fast reactors with the Russians,” said Mr Kidd of the World Nuclear Association. “They are keeping their options open, and Fukushima will encourage that tendency toward next-generation reactors.”

The allure of the next generation reactors is they can eliminate, or at least defer, the problem of fuel shortages by reprocessing spent uranium into plutonium and other actinides and boost the amount of usable fuel by a factor of 50.

Like fusion, some of these advanced reactors remain a long way from the market, said Adrian Heymer, executive director at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, DC.

High-temperature gas-cooled reactors are unlikely to be ready until 2030, and fast breeders could have to wait until the 2040s.

“When we say future, we are really looking at the distant future – they not only need a step forward in technology but certainly also a step-up in operator acumen,” Mr Heymer said.

The nuclear debate, Mr Kidd says, needs to focus more on the commercial application of current technologies.

“The nuclear industry’s reaction, whenever there is a problem, is to try to find technical solutions rather than business solutions, which is the way any other industry would deal with it.”

Non-mainstream technology is a diversion, he said, and China needs to focus on the task in hand: getting a new generation of reactors into commercial operation for the first time.

“What the industry has to do now is build a large number of third-generation units around the world, bring costs down and establish a global supply chain that will allow costs to be cut.”

Fission mission

All the discussions about Professor Duan’s “artificial sun” seemed ironic in the April gloom of Chengdu in China’s rainswept Sichuan basin, where industry representatives met to talk about the long-term prospects for nuclear power.

They were originally lined up to celebrate the country’s rapid capacity build-up and the extraordinary leaps expected over the next decade. Now they had to come to terms with the worst crisis to hit the industry in a quarter-century.

For the first time in years, China’s bullish nuclear firms were on the back foot. Tang Hongju, the head of the nuclear division of the Chengdu-based Dongfang Electric, one of China’s biggest nuclear equipment manufacturers, tried gamely to put it in the best light.

“The fact that we could have this conference and invite so many experts after the Fukushima accident shows how much confidence there still is in the Chinese nuclear sector.”

Some worried about profits in the coming year.

“We are actually quite worried about a slowdown in orders,” said a representative with another supplier. “There is still a lot of uncertainty because in the end it all depends on what the government decides. Right now we have no idea what it will be.”

Before March 11, the world was awaiting a bold 2020 capacity target of 85 GW, more than doubling the previous 40 GW figure. The two big plant builders, CNNC and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC), said 100 GW would be possible.

Even before Fukushima, some urged caution. The State Council Research Office published a paper in January saying China needed to rein in the overexuberant nuclear sector and keep the target at around 70 GW.

“There was a lot of hot air about a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in the last few years and the credibility of it was getting lower – Fukushima actually provides an excuse to slow down a bit.”

Beijing has not yet published new targets, but Xue Xinmin, a researcher with the NDRC’s Energy Research Institute, said it was now likely to be scaled back to around 70-80 GW.

He said a slowdown would give China time to improve its regulatory system, train personnel and build manufacturing capacity, thus ensuring the industry’s long-term strength.

Official corruption is another concern. Last November, the CNNC chief was jailed for life for taking bribes and abuse of power, raising questions about the integrity of policy-making at the top of the industry.


Despite the uncertainties, optimism continues to prevail – and some insiders suggested Fukushima could actually cement China’s future dominance of the sector.

“The Japan accident could be good for China,” said one industry official who didn’t want to be identified in order to speak more candidly.

“It will force China to move forward technologically and pay even more attention to safety. But it will also lead to a bigger slowdown in nuclear development in other countries. China can really gain the upper hand.”

China has already committed itself to investing $1.5 trillion in seven strategic industries, including nuclear and high-speed rail.

Its plans to push into high-tech sectors prompted US President Barack Obama to call for a “Sputnik moment” aimed at ensuring that the United States doesn’t fall behind.

Even the lower target of 70 GW is still a huge leap from 10.8 today, and China could very quickly return to “business as usual Kidd said.

While many predicted the safety review after Fukushima would cause project approvals to be suspended for at least a year, now the expectation is for the pipeline to start moving again in August.

Dozens of plants are waiting to be built.

“Obviously, there will be some delays, but I don’t think there are any implications for those projects already under construction – and there are 27 of those, which is enough to be going along with,” said Kidd.

Fukushima nightmare

Parts of China are prone to earthquakes, such as the 8.0-magnitude quake that flattened several towns in Sichuan in 2008, killing 80,000 people.

The quake did no harm to nuclear power plants, sparing China a Fukushima-style nightmare.

But it damaged beyond repair a turbine manufacturing unit belonging to one of China’s biggest nuclear equipment makers, Dongfang Electric, at a loss of 1.6 billion yuan.

Since then, the company has recovered, building and expanding facilities in quake-damaged Deyang and elsewhere.

Despite misgivings among the public, the quake didn’t stop nearby cities – including the megapolis of Chongqing – from pushing ahead with their own reactor plans.

Chinese netizens have expressed concerns about the projects, and after Fukushima some accused local officials of putting prestige and profit ahead of public safety.

“The people of Sichuan should unite and together resist the shameful act of building a nuclear power station in Sichuan,” said one comment on an internet site ( used to discuss local issues in the province.

Existing nuclear projects are clustered on China’s eastern coast, but the government has identified nuclear power as a crucial part of efforts to reduce coal dependence and boost energy supplies in poor and polluted interior regions.

Beijing said shortly before the Japan crisis that China’s first inland plant would begin construction within two years, and Sichuan was among a number of provinces hoping to be in the first pick.

A lot is at stake. Sichuan officials said apart from Dongfang Electric, more than 30 companies in the province were preparing for the projects, which have not been given the final go-ahead by the central government.

Critics of nuclear power suggest all the “inland” nuclear plans should be torn up in light of the Japan crisis, and not just because of the potential earthquake risks.

“China has a huge variety of natural disasters – this is a country vulnerable to extreme weather and the government needs to take into consideration all the worst-case scenarios,” said Li Yan, China campaign manager with Greenpeace.

Nuclear supporters see a massive overreaction to Fukushima.

“The safety requirements for inland nuclear power plants are no different from those on the coast – the key consideration is water supply and environmental capacity,” said Li Xiaoxue, an official in charge of new reactor projects at CGNPC.

Kidd of the World Nuclear Association said plants in earthquake-prone regions could be scaled back, but that was no reason to ban all inland projects.

“Some of the regions have seismic problems and as a consequence of Fukushima there may be less of a rush to go to some of these areas, including Sichuan, but otherwise there’s no particular good reason not to build them,” he said.

Generation gap

Li of CGNPC caused a stir at the Chengdu conference when he said China could halt approvals for new second-generation plants – similar to the Fukushima Daiichi plant – after Japan’s disaster. He also wondered whether China was ready to make the big leap into third-generation technology.

The company later denied Li had made those statements. But even if China does go ahead with some second-generation plants among the many projects pending approval, the Japan crisis is likely to strengthen its prior commitment to third-generation reactors such as the AP1000 and Areva’s EPR.

“China was heading that way anyway,” said Kidd. “They see the AP1000, or derivations of the AP1000, as the way forward. I think they have looked at it and said if they can build it properly, it will be cheaper.”

At Sanmen on the east coast, China is building the world’s first AP1000, a model designed by Westinghouse to withstand the sort of catastrophic strains that struck the Fukushima complex.

China isn’t just building Westinghouse’s new third-generation model, it is also absorbing the technology in a strategy aimed at seizing the global initiative in the industry and building an entire industrial chain with a global reach.

Technology transfers from Westinghouse and others will allow China to create its own reactor brands. CNNC is talking to foreign partners about selling them abroad.

“Many of the technologies have already been basically localised,” said Xue, the NDRC researcher. Reactors now under construction could rely on domestic manufacturers for around 80-85 per cent of their components and equipment, he said.

“We are localising advanced technologies in order to enter the global market – China must become a nuclear exporting country and exporting reactors must be a part of our national strategy.”

China is emulating South Korea, which signed a similar technology transfer agreement in 1987 and is building its own reactors in the United Arab Emirates.

“With the transfer of technology, the Chinese will have the wherewithal to move ahead with similar designs, and by the time they get to unit 10 they are going to be pretty much self-sufficient,” said Heymer of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“It could mean that by 2020-2025 they will be up and running themselves and could be a competitor,” he said.

Breaking even

Back at his lab in Chengdu, Professor Duan remains optimistic about the long-term prospects for fusion, particularly when the pressures of climate change begin to intensify.

Professor Duan heads a team of 200 people, up from just a few dozen in the 1980s when fusion researchers were struggling to convince their paymasters the technology was feasible.

In recent years, Beijing has offer more funds, partly to meet its commitments to a fusion project known as the international thermonuclear experimental reactor, or ITER.

“Now it is much better than before,” Professor Duan said. “One reason is energy security. Another is political: we joined the ITER project.”

China joined the European Union, Russia, Japan and the United States in ITER in 2003. With India and South Korea also on board, the project aims to produce a working fusion reactor by 2019. The countries will share the project’s costs, expected to run to €10 billion.

Fusion is far behind fission in terms of development and far more reliant on international cooperation, at least while the technology is in its infancy. China, which has shown it can leverage its nuclear might to get know-how from Westinghouse and Areva, could be equally hard-headed if fusion looks like is paying off.

While the fusion research community has no secrets now, Professor Duan said, labs like his could start to go their own way if big breakthroughs are made.

A number of labs – including the Joint European Torus (JET) in Abingdon near Oxford in the United Kingdom – have come close to a crucial breakthrough: getting more power out of the reactor than they put in, a ratio known as Q or “breakeven”. ITER is likely to lift Q from less than 1 to more than 10 within 20 years.

The Q ratio is a starker, more scientific version of the sort of cost-benefit analysis that is brought to all forms of energy, including conventional nuclear power.

For the industry’s inveterate opponents, benefits will always be outweighed by costs. But as China scours the planet for the scarce resources needed to meet the energy demand of more than 1.3 billion people, nuclear is seen as fundamental.

During his travels around the nuclear conference circuit, Kidd said he had identified as many as 20 separate excuses why nuclear power shouldn’t be developed, but in the end, the fundamental problem facing the sector is cost.

It is a problem China is in the best position to solve.

“They have a wonderful opportunity to show what they can do and the key thing they can bring to the world is lower costs.”

Whether China can eventually do the same for fusion remains to be seen, and until it is finally commercialized, China and the rest of the world have little choice but to endure all the costs and risks that arise from splitting the atom.

Professor Duan has dedicated his adult life to fusion research, and he still isn’t sure if he will see a commercially viable reactor in his lifetime.

“It is difficult to say,” he said ruefully.

“I believe we will have a fusion power plant within 50 years, but I don’t know if I will still be here to see it.”


China unveils rival to

International Space Station

April 27, 2011 – 10:06AM

Read more:

Less than a decade ago, it fired its first human being into orbit. Now, Beijing is working on a multi-capsule outpost in space. But what is the political message of the Tiangong ‘heavenly palace’?

China has laid out plans for its future in space, unveiling details of an ambitious new space station to be built in orbit within a decade.

The project, which one Nasa adviser describes as a “potent political symbol”, is the latest phase in China’s rapidly developing space programme. It is less than a decade since China put a human into orbit for the first time, and three years since its first spacewalk.

The space station will weigh around 60 tonnes and consist of a core module with two laboratory units for experiments, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. 

Officials have asked the public to suggest names and symbols for the unit and for a cargo spacecraft that will serve it.

Professor Jiang Guohua, from the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, said the facility would be designed to last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy.

The project heralds a shift in the balance of power among spacefaring nations. In June, the US space agency, Nasa, will mothball its whole fleet of space shuttles, in a move that will leave only the Russians capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The $US100bn outpost is itself due to fly only until 2020, but may be granted a reprieve until 2028.

Bernardo Patti, head of the space station programme at the European Space Agency (Esa), said: “China is a big country. It is a powerful country, and they are getting richer and richer. They want to establish themselves as key players in the international arena.

“They have decided politically that they want to be autonomous, and that is their call. They must have had some political evaluation that suggests this option is better than the others, and I would think autonomy is the key word.”

He added that China’s plans would be “food for thought” for policymakers elsewhere. Esa and other nations are already discussing a next-generation space station that would operate as a base from which to explore space beyond low-Earth orbit; future missions could return astronauts to the moon, land them on asteroids, or venture further afield to Mars.

“Another country trying to build its own infrastructure in space is competition, and competition always pushes you to be better,” Patti said.

The central module of the Chinese space station will be 18.1 metres long, with a maximum diameter of 4.2 metres and a launch weight of 20 to 22 tonnes. The laboratory modules will be shorter, at 14.4 metres, but will have the same diameter and launch weight.

Pang Zhihao, a researcher and deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Space International, told Xinhua: “The 60-tonne space station is rather small compared with the International Space Station [419 tonnes] and Russia’s Mir space station [137 tonnes], which served between 1996 and 2001.

“But it is the world’s third multi-module space station, which usually demands much more complicated technology than a single-module space lab.”

China is also developing a cargo spaceship, which will weigh less than 13 tonnes and have a diameter of no more than 3.35 metres, to transport supplies and equipment to the space station.

John Logsdon, a Nasa adviser and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said China’s plans would give it homegrown expertise in human space flight. “China wants to say: ‘We can do everything in space that other major countries can do,”‘ he said. “A significant, and probably visible, orbital outpost transiting over most of the world would be a potent political symbol.”

China often chooses poetic names for its space projects, such as Chang’e – after the moon goddess – for its lunar probes; its rocket series, however, is named Long March, in tribute to communist history. The space station project is currently referred to as Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”.

But Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told a news conference: “Considering past achievements and the bright future, we feel the manned space programme should have a more vivid symbol, and that the future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name.

“We now feel that the public should be involved in the names and symbols, as this major project will enhance national prestige and strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride.”

China plans to launch the Tiangong-1 module later this year, to help master docking technologies. An unpiloted spacecraft will attempt to dock with the module; two piloted spacecraft will then follow suit.

Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the programme, said researchers were developing technology to ensure astronauts could remain in space for at least 20 days and to ensure supplies could be delivered safely.

According to, Jiang, the chief engineer at the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, in Beijing, told an international conference last month: “The rendezvous and docking project is smoothly going through technical preparations and testing.”

The Tiangong-2 should support three astronauts for around 20 days, while the Tiangong-3, which is due for launch in 2015, should support them for twice as long. The laboratories would allow China to develop the technology it needs to build the space station.

Jiang added that China aimed to increase international exchanges, and that the hardware from the current rendezvous and docking project is compatible with the International Space Station.

“We will adhere to the policy of opening up to the outside world,” he said. “Scientists of all countries are welcome to participate in space science experimental research on China’s space station.”

China hopes to make its first moon landing within two years and to put an astronaut on the moon as early as 2025.

The Guardian

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

Unseen NASA space pics now available for viewing on line

NASA has released a trove of data from its sky-mapping mission, allowing scientists and anyone with access to the Internet to peruse millions of galaxies, stars, asteroids and other hard-to-see objects.

Many of the targets in the celestial catalog released online this week have been previously observed, but there are significant new discoveries. The mission’s finds include more than 33,000 new asteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter and 20 comets.

NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which carried an infrared telescope, in December 2009 to scan the cosmos in finer detail than previous missions. The spacecraft, known as WISE, mapped the sky one and a half times during its 14-month mission, snapping more than 2.5 million images from its polar orbit.

The spacecraft’s ability to detect heat glow helps it find dusty, cold and distant objects that are often invisible to regular telescopes.

The batch of images made available represents a little over half of what’s been observed in the all-sky survey. The full cosmic census is scheduled for release next (northern) spring.

“The spectacular new data just released remind us that we have many new neighbours,” said Pete Schultz, a space scientist at Brown University, who had no role in the project.

University of Alabama astronomer William Keel has already started mining the database for quasars – compact, bright objects powered by super-massive black holes.

“If I see a galaxy with highly ionized gas clouds in its outskirts and no infrared evidence of a hidden quasar, that’s a sign that the quasar has essentially shut down in the last 30,000 to 50,000 years,” Keel said.

WISE ran out of coolant in October, making it unable to chill its heat-sensitive instruments. So it spent its last few months searching for near-Earth asteroids and comets that should help scientists better calculate whether any are potentially threatening.

The mission, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was hundreds of times more sensitive than its predecessor, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which launched in 1983 and made the first all-sky map in infrared wavelength.

AP Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha