Get excited: the new Mars rover Curiosity is set to land early next week. And the Internet wants you to be prepared, circulating articles, explanations, and lots of videos, the highlights of which we’ve collected here:
Why Do We Have Curiosity?
Considering that we already have one working rover on the surface of the Red Planet, what’s with all the brouhaha over this one? To find out why we’re sending Curiosity to Mars, Ph.D Comics went to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to talk to scientists, ogle the full-sized replica of Curiosity, and learn about the new rover’s scientific instruments, which include, among other things, a rock-shooting laser.
What’s the News: With Congress yet to pass a budget, the country is facing a government shutdown unless lawmakers reach an agreement by midnight tonight. In addition to shuttering many government offices, the shutdown would likely cause present serious difficulties for federal government-funded research.
Difficulties Such As…
Image: flickr / daveeza
Oil refineries aflame. Train tracks twisted like string. Buildings ripped from their foundations. Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake has left its mark, especially in the expected death toll of over 1,000 people. This video roundup shows the science behind what happened today in Japan.
Why (Most) Buildings Didn’t Crumble
The death toll is estimated around 1,000, which is bad enough, but it would have been much higher without good engineering, mandated by strict building codes. But these codes haven’t been strict for long. In the 7.3-magnitude Kobe earthquake in 1995, 6,500 Japanese people died, and engineers looked on in horror as many buildings came crashing down; the most deadly ones were built before 1981, when building standards were still lower.
The Kobe tragedy, says The Telegraph‘s Peter Foster, compelled Japanese officials to tighten building regulations for residential offices and transportation infrastructure. Engineers made buildings “earthquake proof” by outfitting them with “deep foundation and massive shock absorbers that dampen seismic energy,” and by enabling the bases of buildings to move “semi-independently to its superstructure, reducing the shaking caused by a quake.” Skyscrapers now sway during an earthquake but don’t collapse, Foster says, and that helps explain why damage to buildings in Tokyo was kept to a minimum this time around. [The Atlantic Wire]
Why Couldn’t Geologists Predict It?
Japan’s massive earthquake today may be over, but we’re still feeling the effects, from nuclear reactor scares in Japan to tsunami warnings along the entire west coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Much is still unknown about this earthquake, including official destruction assessments and total death tolls, but here’s what we do know:
Two preliminary earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.2 and 6.3 struck off the coast of Honshu, Japan, the day before the major blow: This 8.9-magnitude quake—the largest in Japan’s recorded history—struck at 2:46 pm local time on Friday, its epicenter located about 231 miles northeast of Tokyo at a depth of 15 miles. Even after this large one, over thirty aftershocks—the strongest measuring 7.1 in magnitude—continued to batter the island nation.
The Immediate Effects
Fires and collapsed buildings were the main cause of injuries and death early on, from conflagrations sweeping an oil refinery in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo to the roof collapsing during a graduation ceremony in Tokyo. But fears soon centered on Japan’s nuclear facilities: Four power plants successfully shut down, but one experienced problems:
According to Nature’s Tokyo correspondent, David Cyranoski, Japanese media are reporting that the emergency core cooling system (ECCS) at the Fukushima #1 plant is not working due to a loss of electrical power, and problems with the backup diesel generator. The reactor is currently relying on an alternate cooling system that circulates water using a pump system. This system can operate for about 7 to 8 hours. According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of the government’s industry ministry, this is the first time in Japan that the ECCS of a nuclear power station has not functioned. [Nature]
The local governments near the Fukushima plant urged the area’s 2,000 residents to evacuate, though no leaks have been detected and the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum assured everyone (pdf) that Fukushima reactor’s core “still has a sufficient amount of water for cooling, with no danger of the nuclear fuel being exposed”.
Why It Could Have Been Worse