Axios Science

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September 21, 2023

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This edition is 1,634 words, about a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Powerful X-rays are opening up "impossible" science

Illustration of an atom shape made my lasers

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A new generation of powerful X-ray lasers is being aimed at some of nature's fastest — and most fundamental — processes to try to reveal the atomic intricacies that drive them.

Why it matters: The details of how atoms interact in chemical reactions and electrons behave in materials could help scientists learn how to better mimic nature's abilities and efficiencies — from the energy-generating reactions of plants to the unique properties of minerals that power electronics.

  • "We'll be able to do experiments that were impossible before," says Matthias Kling, a professor of photon science at Stanford University.
  • "This type of information that you can get with laser-like X-rays, you just can't get by any other means."

Driving the news: The world's most powerful X-ray laser produced its first pulses last week.

  • The upgraded Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS-II) X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory can generate almost 1 million X-ray flashes per second — almost 8,000 times more than its predecessor.

How it works: The instrument accelerates electrons to near the speed of light. The electrons are then oscillated, causing them to emit X-rays.

  • Those X-ray pulses can be focused onto tiny areas and produce high-resolution snapshots of molecules that can be strung together to create movies that show how molecules interact with one another.
  • LCLS-II is currently producing soft "lower-energy" X-rays with plans to upgrade the instrument even more to produce hard X-rays. Hard X-rays have a wavelength on par with a bond between two atoms and can show details about bonds and the angles between atoms.

Zoom in: The reactions the X-rays can capture are happening in femtoseconds (one billionth of one millionth of a second) — or even attoseconds.

  • LCLS-II's predecessor was able to capture the contours of how an arrangement of molecules in plants changes as it splits water to form oxygen during photosynthesis.
  • The upgraded instrument could reveal important finer details about the other molecules that catalyze the photosynthetic reaction — for example, how the electrons on those catalysts move, says Kling, the director of science, research and development at the LCLS. These movements are key details for scientists trying to create artificial photosynthesis as an energy source.
  • High-powered X-rays can also be used to study the behavior of quantum materials whose properties defy classical physics descriptions, including graphene. Ultimately, X-ray science could help to invent new materials for electronic circuitry that currently depends on rare earth minerals.

The big picture: There are several other high-energy X-ray lasers around the world, including the European XFEL, which has been operating since 2017, and China's Shanghai High Repetition Rate XFEL and Extreme Light Facility, which is currently being built.

  • Other groups are taking a different tack and trying to make ultra-fast X-ray sources smaller, less expensive and more accessible.
  • Earlier this year, Arizona State University's compact X-ray light source (CXLS) produced its first X-rays. The device is part of a larger project called the compact X-ray free-electron laser, or CXFEL.
  • "The goal is to get these machines into more places," including universities, semiconductor fabrication plants and hospitals, says Sam Teitelbaum, a condensed matter physicist at ASU who is working on the design and building of the CXFEL.

Between the lines: Existing tools could measure only pure, stable molecules — which don't reflect the messiness of nature.

  • With the new instruments, "we can see living things the way they wiggle and jiggle in our bodies in real time and the way [materials] wiggle and jiggle in a real device," Teitelbaum says.
  • Instead of eliminating the messiness, scientists can now consider its importance.

The bottom line: "X-ray light sources allow us to have X-ray vision into the microscopic world," Kling says.

2. NASA's largest asteroid sample will land on Earth this weekend

One of OSIRIS-REx's arms touching the surface of asteroid Bennu. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to sample an asteroid is bringing its rubbly haul back to Earth Sunday, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: Scientists hope to use high-powered lab equipment to study the sample of asteroid Bennu to learn more about how our solar system has evolved over billions of years.

What's happening: The OSIRIS-REx sample is expected to come back through the atmosphere Sunday, landing in the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range.

  • After its release from the spacecraft, the capsule containing the sample is expected to land under parachutes at about 10:55am ET Sunday.
  • The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will fire its thrusters 20 minutes after capsule release to meet up with its next target of study: asteroid Apophis.
  • You can watch live NASA TV coverage of the recovery of the capsule starting at 10am ET Sunday here.

Catch up quick: OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016, and NASA nabbed its sample of Bennu in 2020.

  • The researchers behind the mission were surprised to find that the material on the outer part of Bennu where the spacecraft collected its sample was "loosely packed" and would feel like "stepping into a pit of plastic balls that are popular play areas for kids," NASA said.
  • The roughly half-pound sample is expected to be the largest ever returned to Earth.

The big picture: Asteroids and comets are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of the solar system.

  • Scientists hope that by learning more about them, they can shed light on some of the mysteries of our universe — including how water, and even life, took hold on Earth.

3. Danger of hyped-up alien claims

Illustration of a magnifying glass with the glass portion in the shape of an alien face with large eyes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A run of alien-related news last week didn't present proof that extraterrestrial life exists. But it did reveal how distorted, misrepresented and hyped the search for life beyond Earth can become, Miriam and I write.

Why it matters: Unscientific claims of alien life and far-from-confirmed findings illustrate alien illiteracy that risks undermining the possible moment when life somewhere in the universe is discovered.

  • "There should be a lot of value assigned to that finding," says Eddie Schwieterman, an astrobiologist at the University of California, Riverside.
  • "The consequences are going to be very far-reaching for our civilization, both for science and culture."

Driving the news: A self-proclaimed "ufologist" presented what he claimed were "alien corpses" to Mexico's Congress last week.

  • Experts dismissed the claims and the researcher presented no hard evidence for his assertion. But it still spread far and wide on social media and in mainstream media in Mexico, the U.S. and beyond.
  • On Friday, NASA announced the first report from its UAP (unidentified anomalous phenomena) study team, saying the team hadn't found evidence that UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin but that the space agency would use their data to better illuminate what UFOs could be.
  • Earlier in the week, NASA scientists announced the James Webb Space Telescope had detected carbon dioxide and methane — and possibly a molecule closely associated with life on Earth — in the atmosphere of a planet 120 light years from Earth. The detection of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) was very weak, but many latched on to the finding.

Details: Some of the news coverage and hype around these developments elicited eye rolls and sighs among scientists.

  • The gravity of finding life beyond Earth requires scientists "to put a lot of value on doing it right and having the correct procedures for reporting claims and being honest about the uncertainty," Schwieterman says.

Read the entire story.

4. Worthy of your time

NIH upholds controversial plan to step up oversight of foreign collaborators (Max Kozlov — Nature)

How brain implants are treating depression (Laura Sanders — Science News)

Weather data from Pearl Harbor warships recovered to study climate science (Kerry Breen — CBS)

Scientists find ocean on one of Jupiter's moons contains carbon (Hannah Devlin — The Guardian)

5. Something wondrous

Octahedral pink diamonds found in the Argyle diamond mine. Credit: Murray Rayner

Pink diamonds found in the Argyle mine. Credit: Murray Rayner

The breakup of a supercontinent 1.3 billion years ago may have moved rare pink diamonds from the depths of Earth to the surface, researchers reported this week.

Why it matters: The key role of continent movements in producing pink diamonds could point to other caches of the valuable gems.

  • More than 90% of the pink diamonds found on Earth came from the Argyle mine in western Australia.
  • But they are still "incredibly rare" — about one in 500 diamonds at the mine is pink, says Hugo Olierook, a geologist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. The mine closed in 2020.

How it works: Scientists knew that diamonds form from carbon under intense pressure deep in the Earth.

  • They also knew that colliding tectonic plates can twist, bend and rotate the crystal lattices, turning them pink. (If they're twisted even more, they become red; even more and they turn brown.) Argyle's pink diamonds were formed more than 1.8 billion years ago when plates collided in what is now western Australia.
  • A volcano eruption brought them to surface, but scientists didn't know what triggered it and exactly when.
  • Unlike other diamonds typically found in old rock deposits in the middle of continents, the pink diamonds at Argyle are in younger rocks.

What they found: Analyzing minerals from rocks in the mine, Olierook and his colleagues found they arrived at the surface about 1.3 billion years ago — 100 million years before scientists previously thought, they report this week in the journal Nature Communications.

  • At that time, the supercontinent Nuna was splitting.
  • At Argyle, the land didn't break apart but stretched and thinned where the plates had collided hundreds of millions of years earlier.
  • The researchers propose that thinning created gaps in the crust through which magma could have then carried the diamonds to the surface.

Yes, but: There are open questions about the details of how the diamonds formed, and Olierook says the estimate of Argyle's age could be refined.

  • "Just because it's the exact same age as a supercontinent breakup doesn't necessarily mean it's the breakup that caused the diamond eruption," he cautions.
  • "It's a very good theory. It seems to make sense. But unless you've got a time machine and go back in time to actually witness it happening there, then it's difficult to know."

Big thanks to editor Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath, to Miriam Kramer for contributing, to Natalie Peeples on the Axios Visuals team, and to copy editor Jay Bennett.