The first fully robotic lunar sample return

At about the same time the Apollo 11 astronauts were completing their historic first human moonwalk, Luna 15, a robotic space mission of the Soviet space programme, began its descent to the surface of the moon from lunar orbit. Tasked with the objective of gathering lunar samples and returning them to Earth, Luna 15 crashed on the lunar surface and was destroyed on impact.

Luna 15 was one among a string of failures in the Soviet space programme in its attempt to bring lunar samples back to Earth. They eventually succeeded with Luna 16, which became the first mission to retrieve samples from the moon’s surface without direct human involvement.

Two stages

The Luna 16 spacecraft consisted of two stages – an ascent stage and a descent stage. While the descent stage was mainly concerned with providing course corrections, lunar orbital insertion and the landing manoeuvre; the ascent stage was responsible for propelling the sample container back to Earth.

The descent stage, which had four legs to support the craft on the surface, acted as a launch pad for the ascent stage. The descent stage also housed fuel tanks and a landing radar, while the ascent stage held the radio equipment and the spherical sample return container.

Launched on September 12, 1970, Luna 16 travelled to the moon without incident, save for one midcourse correction. Entering orbit on September 17, it required two further orbital adjustments in the next two days to alter its altitude and inclination in preparation for descent to the moon. Luna 16 began its descent on September 20 by firing its main engine and six minutes later, it landed softly in its target area.

Drilling for samples

Less than an hour after landing, Luna 16 used an automatic drill to dig through the lunar surface. Seven minutes later, the drill reached a depth of 35 mm before hitting rock. The core sample was withdrawn and lifted to the top of the spacecraft, before the collected rocks were safely deposited in the small spherical capsule.

Having accomplished half of what it set out to do, Luna 16 now had to safely return its invaluable cargo back to Earth. A little over 25 hours after landing on the moon, the return stage’s rocket motor was fired and the spacecraft’s upper stage lifted off from the moon with its 105 g of lunar soil.

Over the next three days, the ascent stage traversed directly back to Earth, needing no midcourse corrections during its journey. Reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at a velocity of 11 km/second, the capsule then parachuted to the surface. It landed 80 km southeast of Zhezkazgan, a town in Kazakhstan, on September 24.

Completely automated

Even though Apollo 11 astronauts had retrieved lunar samples during their historic moonwalk in July 1969 and Apollo 12 astronauts had repeated the feat in November 1969, Luna 16 was special in its own right. This mission was not only the first time the Soviets had managed to collect rock and soil samples from the surface of the moon, but also the first time any nation had managed to bring back samples in a completely automated manner.

The lunar samples collected were then analysed by scientists, who found out in what way the rocks and soil were similar and different from those collected in the Apollo 11 and 12 missions. While the dark, powdery basalt material closely resembled the soil recovered by Apollo 12 from another lunar mare (large, dark, basaltic plains on our moon) site, Luna 16’s samples slightly differed from those collected by Apollo 11 in the levels of titanium and zirconium oxide.

Even though some Luna missions had failed as they either ended in crashes or failed to reach orbit, the programme as a whole was largely a great success. The programme achieved a series of firsts from the time Luna 1 managed the first lunar flyby in 1959. Luna 16 joined the list of successes by achieving the first robotic sample return.

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Who flew to 37000 feet balloon ride?

We take the views from the skies for granted these days. With passenger flights more common than ever before, the splendid sights that are on offer occupy our attention for not more than a few moments at a stretch. And yet, there was a time, not long back, when aeronautical expeditions were just taking flight.

It was in the second half of the 19th Century when ballooning had progressed to something of interest to scientists. And it was in this climate that English meteorologist, aeronaut, and astronomer James Glaisher, accompanied by accomplished English balloonist Henry Coxwell, broke the record for travelling higher than any others before them.

Astronomer turns aeronaut

The son of a watchmaker, Glaisher was born in London in 1809. A visit to the Greenwich Observatory in 1833 stoked his interest in scientific instruments, prompting him to join the Cambridge Observatory as an assistant to astronomer and mathematician George Airy.

After making a series of observations on Halley's comet in 1835, Glaisher followed his mentor to Greenwich Observatory. He joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1841 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1849. By the time he had turned his attention to balloon flights, he had already made considerable contributions to science.

It was while surveying Ireland, mapping its contours and highest peaks, that Glaisher decided to set his sights skywards. With the firm belief that these trips would help him understand the atmospheric forces that govern the weather on Earth, Glaisher managed to convince the British Association for the Advancement of Science to fund his trips.

Teams up with Coxwell

 Glaisher teamed up with Coxwell, an expert balloonist of the time. for these flights. They worked together and started from scratch, acquiring a new balloon to be used for their voyages. Unlike the hot air balloons of today, these balloons were filled with a light gas like hydrogen. This meant that even though they could rise "with the ease of an ascending vapour” (in Glaisher's own words), descending involved opening a valve to let some of this gas out of the balloon. Landing too was no easy feat as it needed releasing an anchor "that would hook into a tree or hedges and stop them being dragged along the ground".

Following some false starts, the duo had their first success on July 17 1862 when they took off from Wolverhampton in the morning. Even though most of their other flights departed from

Crystal Palace in London, they returned to Wolverhampton, for the flight on September 5, their most popular trip.

Accompanied by six pigeons intended to send out messages from the balloon, Glaisher and Coxwell set out on that day, venturing into the unknown. Even though the flight had been delayed by "unfavourable weather, they went ahead with their ride.

Uncontrolled ascent

 As it turns out, the flight on September 5 was not a controlled ascent with Glaisher describing that the balloon was "rising too quickly" and "going around too quickly". The fate of the pigeons should have indicated what was coming as Glaisher mentions that "a third was thrown out between four and five miles, and it fell downwards as a stone".

Glaisher's notes tell us that it was around 22,380 feet above sea level that he began noticing difficulties with his vision as he had trouble reading the many instruments that he had brought with them for the expedition. By 26,350 feet, Glaisher "lost himself, no longer able to read his instruments and drifting away from consciousness owing to the cold, the lack of oxygen and the pressure falling rapidly with the ascent.

While it was obvious by this point that they had to descend, and quickly, the balloon's valve-line had twisted and tangled itself with the other ropes as a result of the turning motion of the balloon. Coxwell, who himself was losing control of his limbs, climbed out of the safety of the basket to release the valve. In the end, he held the valve-line in his teeth and yanked his head many times, filled with relief when he finally succeeded in opening the valve, beginning their rapid descent.

When Glaisher came back to his senses, he quickly returned to his instruments, taking down notes and making all the observations that he could. Within no time, their near-fatal episode had come to a successful conclusion as they landed away from Northampton.

Weather-related discoveries

Glaisher and Coxwell estimated that they had climbed up to 37,000 feet in that ride, nearly 8,000 feet above the summit of Mt. Everest, reaching heights that had never been seen before. As for the pigeons, only one remained when they were back on earth and it was so

As for the pigeons, only one remained when they were back on Earth and it was so traumatised that it clung on to Glaisher for a full 15 minutes before eventually taking flight.

Unfazed by this near-death experience, Glaisher went on to make many more flights, making crucial observations that changed our understanding of weather. He discovered that the winds change speeds at different altitudes and also found out the way in which raindrops form and gather moisture as they head towards the Earth.

Glaisher's reports and writings were a treasure trove of sorts as he went into incredible detail with immense zest. He wanted his observations and recorded experiences to not only be of interest in the scientific circles. With a lucid and vivid writing style, he made sure that the common folks too shared the sense of wonder that he himself experienced. That sense of wonder is still not lost on humankind.

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Who was Bluetooth named after?

Bluetooth technology was named after a 10th century Viking king, Harald "Blatand" Gormsson who ruled Denmark and Norway from 958 to 985. Gormsson was known for bringing people together through non-violent ways and excellent communication skills.

He had a nickname "Blatand" in Danish which translates to "Bluetooth" in English. It was reasoned that just as the king united Denmark and Norway under his rule, the wireless technology seamlessly united the PC and other cellular devices.

In 1996, three industry leaders, Intel, Ericsson, and Nokia, met to plan the standardization of this short-range radio technology to support connectivity and collaboration between different products and industries.

During this meeting, Jim Kardach from Intel suggested Bluetooth as a temporary code name. Kardach was later quoted as saying, “King Harald Bluetooth…was famous for uniting Scandinavia just as we intended to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.”

Bluetooth was only intended as a placeholder until marketing could come up with something really cool.

Later, when it came time to select a serious name, Bluetooth was to be replaced with either RadioWire or PAN (Personal Area Networking). PAN was the front runner, but an exhaustive search discovered it already had tens of thousands of hits throughout the internet.

A full trademark search on RadioWire couldn’t be completed in time for launch, making Bluetooth the only choice. The name caught on fast and before it could be changed, it spread throughout the industry, becoming synonymous with short-range wireless technology.

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What is the mystery of the meitnerium?

Just like transuranium elements correspond to the chemical elements with atomic number greater than 92 (the atomic number of uranium).transfermium elements are those elements that have an atomic number greater than 100 (the atomic number of fermium). Even though transfermium elements are a subset of transuranium elements, which are all unstable and decay radioactively into other elements, the need for this classification stems from number of reasons.

Apart from the fact that none of the transfermium elements occur naturally and are all synthesised artificially.sometimes with great difficulty, they are also united in the fact that very little is still known about these elements, as only a few atoms of each have been produced so far.

Transfermium Wars

One other factor that is common to these elements is the well-documented tussle between the Cold War adversaries over the discovery priority and naming of many of the transfermium elements. Even dubbed as the Transfermium Wars, it draws attention to the furious bickering over these elements, mainly involving the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the U.S. and the Joint Institute of National Research in Dubna.

Founded in Darmstadt in what was then West Germany in 1969, the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung (GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy lon Research), which was the German nuclear research facility, emerged as a new player in synthesis of super-heavy elements. Led by German physicists Peter Armbruster and Gottfried Munzenberg, the team first tasted success in 1981 with the discovery of element 107.

A single atom of meitnerium

 And then, on August 29, 1982, they succeeded again when they produced a single atom of meitnerium. The element was synthesised by bombarding a target of bismuth-209 with accelerated nuclei of iron-58, yielding a single atom of what I came to be known as meitnerium. The isotope produced, meitnerium-266, had 157 neutrons in its nucleus along with 109 protons, which defines the element and gives it its atomic number.

Even though the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) had stepped in by this time to clearly state that scientists should avoid prematurely suggesting names for new elements that were then mired in controversy and disputes, meitnerium escaped unscathed as no other team claimed priority for its discovery. The GSI group named it after nuclear physicist

“Render justice”

Armbruster had described the naming as a way "to render justice to a victim of German racism and to credit in fairness a scientific life and work. For Meitner not only faced discrimination as a woman, but also as a Jew and had to flee Germany. What's worse, her instrumental role in the discovery of nuclear fission didn't receive due credit as she was marginalised by German chemist Otto Hahn, her long-term collaborator and someone she had seen as a friend.

While Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 "for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei", Meitner's contributions were neglected. Meitner herself described Hahn's behaviour in her biography Lise Meitner. A Life in Physics as "simply suppressing the past, before adding that "I am part of that suppressed past".

Meitner did receive some recognition for her works before her death in 1968 and her exclusion from the Nobel Prize is now widely considered as unfair. Her scientific contributions were forever immortalised when the name meitnerium was officially adopted for element 109 in 1997. After all, fewer chemists have an element named after them than those who have won the Nobel Prize.

Short half-life

While practical applications of meitnerium would probably make both the element and the woman it is named after more famous, it is clearly something for the future. The original method used to produce an atom in 1982 was repeated in 1988 and 1997, producing two and 12 atoms, respectively. While a number of other isotopes of meitnerium have also been reported, all of these have half-lives ranging from milliseconds to a few seconds at the most.

The limited availability of the element, both in terms of quantities and time, implies that studying it has been extremely difficult, even using experimental techniques that are collectively known as atom-at-a-time methods.

Even though the element's chemistry remains an unknown secret, there is scope for optimism as research has suggested the existence of isotopes with a longer half-life. When scientists crack the ways to produce atoms of those isotopes, the chemical and physical properties of meitnerium will finally move out from the realm of educated speculation.

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Where is India's first grain ATM?

ATMS (Automated Teller Machines) doling out cash is a familiar sight in most cities and towns. But have you heard of a "Grain ATM'? The Haryana Government has recently set up its first ATM machine for dispensing food grains in Gurugram district. Let's find out more about it.

First of its kind

The country's first food grain ATM has come up at Farrukhnagar, and is named "Annapurti" (Automated, Multi Commodity, Grain Dispensing Machine). Installed as a pilot project -a small-scale implementation to test the viability of the project- the ATM as of now will provide three types of grains - wheat, rice, and millet. It is said that each machine can dispense 70 kg of grains in under seven minutes at a time.

The machine has been installed under the UN's World Food Programme, which works closely with several countries to address issues of food scarcity and hunger.

Why has it been set up?

The purpose of the Annapurti ATM, according to Haryana's Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala, is to make the process of distributing grains at government-run ration shops easy and hassle-free. On successful completion of the pilot project at Farrukhnagar, the government plans to install these machines at all ration shops across the State.

How does it function?

The grain ATM has a biometric system with a touch-screen, where the beneficiaries have to enter their Aadhaar or ration card number to get their grains. This is to ensure the right quantity of grains reaches the right beneficiaries. As it is an automatic machine; the scope of error in measurement is said to be negligible. On biometric authentication, the machine will dispense the foodgrains the bags placed under the machine. Besides helping prevent pilferage, the system is expected to bring in greater transparency in the public distribution system and reduce waiting time of beneficiaries.

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