Chinese Space Program Heads for the Far Side of the Moon

The American space program may have turned its attention toward Mars in recent years, but other countries have set their sights on objects a bit closer to home. This week, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced its plans to be the first nation to send a rover to the far side of the Moon, which is not visible from Earth. 

The CNSA got a relatively late start but has more than made up for it by progressing with impressive speed through a series of lunar missions. By December 2013, the program had landed its Chang’e 3 probe on the Moon. The probe carried a lunar rover called Yutu (“jade rabbit”), which roamed the Moon’s surface, collecting rock samples. Analysis of those samples, published in December 2015, changed the scientific understanding of the Moon’s history. 

Also onboard the Chang’e 3 probe was a robotic telescope, which has been hard at work for more than two years now. In October 2015, Chinese researchers reported that the telescope had logged more than 2000 hours looking at 40 different stars. 

Now the CNSA is looking ahead to 2018, when it intends to launch Chang’e 4 toward the far side of the Moon. This next-generation probe is similar to its predecessor but has a larger carrying capacity, which will allow the collection of more geological samples. If successful, Chang’e 4 will be the first spacecraft to land on the Moon’s far side—an exciting possibility for scientists.

Like the American-Soviet space race of the 20th century, the Chinese space program may have a dual agenda, part scientific and part geopolitical. The U.S. Department of Defense has cast a critical eye on the CNSA’s projects, asserting the program was “pursuing activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis,” according to Reuters. The Chinese government claims the program has only peaceful intentions.

The CNSA’s landers and rovers take their names from figures in Chinese mythology. According to legend, the goddess Chang’e lives on the Moon with her pet rabbit Yutu. Where many Westerners see a man in the Moon, Chinese people can trace the outline of Yutu, hard at work with a mortar and pestle, brewing the elixir of life for its mistress. 

NASA, JPL-Caltech
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.


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