Levitating plastic beads mimic the physics of spinning asteroids

Some asteroids can barely hold it together.

Rather than solid lumps of rock, ‘rubble pile’ asteroids are loose collections of material, which can split apart as they rotate (SN: 3/16/20). To understand the inner workings of such asteroids, one team of scientists turned to levitating plastic beads. The beads clump together, forming collections that can spin and break up, physicist Melody Lim of the University of Chicago reported March 15 at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Chicago.

It’s an elegant dance that mimics the physics of asteroid formation, which happens too slowly to observe in real-life space rocks. “These ‘tabletop asteroids’ compress phenomena that take place over kilometers [and] over hundreds of thousands of years to just centimeters and seconds in the lab,” Lim said. The results are also reported in a paper accepted in Physical Review X.
Lim and colleagues used sound waves to levitate the plastic beads, which arranged themselves into two-dimensional clumps. Acoustic forces attract the beads to one another, mimicking the gravitational attraction between bits of debris in space. Separate clumps then coalesced similarly to how asteroids are thought to glom onto one another to grow.
When the experimenters gave the structures a spin using the sound waves, the clumps changed shape above a certain speed, becoming elongated. That could help scientists understand why ‘rubble pile’ asteroids, can have odd structures, such as the ‘spinning tops’ formed by asteroids Bennu and Ryugu (SN: 12/18/18).

Eventually, the fast-spinning clumps broke apart. This observation could help explain why asteroids are typically seen to spin up to a certain rate, but not beyond: Speed demons get split up.

Samples of the asteroid Ryugu are scientists’ purest pieces of the solar system

Samples of the asteroid Ryugu are the most pristine pieces of the solar system that scientists have in their possession.

A new analysis of Ryugu material confirms the porous rubble-pile asteroid is rich in carbon and finds it is extraordinarily primitive (SN: 3/16/20). It is also a member of a rare class of space rocks known as CI-type, researchers report online June 9 in Science.

Their analysis looked at material from the Japanese mission Hayabusa2, which collected 5.4 grams of dust and small rocks from multiple locations on the surface of Ryugu and brought that material to Earth in December 2020 (SN: 7/11/19; SN: 12/7/20). Using 95 milligrams of the asteroid’s debris, the researchers measured dozens of chemical elements in the sample and then compared abundances of several of those elements to those measured in rare meteorites classified as CI-type chondrites. Fewer than 10 meteorites found on Earth are CI chondrites.
This comparison confirmed Ryugu is a CI-type chondrite. But it also showed that unlike Ryugu, the meteorites appear to have been altered, or contaminated, by Earth’s atmosphere or even human handling over time. “The Ryugu sample is a much more fresh sample,” says Hisayoshi Yurimoto, a geochemist at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

The researchers also measured the abundances of manganese-53 and chromium-53 in the asteroid and determined that melted water ice reacted with most of the minerals around 5 million years after the solar system’s start, altering those minerals, says Yurimoto. That water has since evaporated, but those altered minerals are still present in the samples. By studying them, the researchers can learn more about the asteroid’s history.

A pigment’s shift in chemistry robbed a painted yellow rose of its brilliance

The fading of a once-vibrant yellow rose reveals how the ravages of time and chemical alteration can dampen the visual power of a painting.

Most of the flowers in Abraham Mignon’s 17th century painting Still Life with Flowers and a Watch seem to leap off the canvas. But one yellow rose, painted with arsenic sulfide–based orpiment pigment, is a flat, jarring element. That wasn’t Mignon’s intention: The rose lost its luster due to the chemical transformation of some of its original bright pigment into colorless lead arsenates, researchers report June 8 in Science Advances.
Paintings conservator Nouchka De Keyser of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and colleagues analyzed the rose using noninvasive techniques including X-ray fluorescence imaging and X-ray powder diffraction (SN: 10/1/21). The team first mapped the lingering traces of arsenic, lead, calcium and other chemical elements in the layers of paint to reveal how Mignon carefully layered paint to create a nearly three-dimensional rose out of light and shadow.

The analyses also revealed two newer crystals on the rose containing both lead and arsenic. Called mimetite and schultenite, the crystals are the product of a series of chemical reactions. First, the reaction of orpiment with light created a highly mobile type of arsenic called arsenolite. That mobilized arsenolite then found its way to an underlying layer of lead white paint and chemically reacted with it to produce the mimetite and schultenite. The crystals lack the bright color of the orpiment — instead, they are colorless and flatten the flower’s appearance.
Science can’t turn back the clock on the chemical transformation to restore the rose’s erstwhile glory — that’s a one-way street. But digital reconstructions made using similar techniques as in the new study could offer several benefits and not just to scientists and art historians, De Keyser says. Not only can such reconstructions reveal now-faded elements in other paintings — they might also appear in museums, allowing visitors a ghostly glimpse of a painting’s true past.

50 years ago, the United States and Soviet Union joined forces for science

U.S. and Soviet leaders … signed agreements on space, science and technology, health and the environment…. The space agreement … outlines plans for cooperation in fields such as meteorology, study of the natural environment, planetary exploration and space biology.

The 1972 space agreement led to the first inter­national human spaceflight, the Apollo-Soyuz mission, during which Soviet and U.S. crews socialized in space (SN: 7/26/75, p. 52). Apollo-Soyuz encouraged decades of collaboration that continues today on the International Space Station. Now, Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted many countries to pull back on scientific endeavors with Russia, in space and on Earth (SN: 3/26/22, p. 6). While NASA remains committed to the space station, the head of Russia’s space agency has threatened to end the cooperation in retaliation for sanctions imposed in response to the war. Russia has yet to make moves to abandon the station, though the country has ceased supplying rocket engines to the United States.

50 years ago, scientists thought a desert shrub might help save endangered whales

The sperm whale is an endangered species. A major reason is that the whale oil is heat-resistant and chemically and physically stable. This makes it useful for lubricating delicate machinery. The only substitute is expensive carnauba wax from the leaves of palm trees that grow only in Brazil … [but] wax from the seeds of the jojoba, an evergreen desert shrub, is nearly as good.

After sperm whale oil was banned in the early 1970s, the United States sought to replenish its reserves with eco-friendly oil from jojoba seeds (SN: 5/17/75, p. 335). Jojoba oil’s chemical structure is nearly identical to that of sperm whale oil, and the shrub is native to some North American desert ecosystems, making the plant an appealing replacement. Today, jojoba shrubs are cultivated around the world on almost every continent. Jojoba oil is used in hundreds of products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and lubricants. Meanwhile, sperm whale populations have started to recover under international anti-whaling agreements (SN: 2/27/21, p. 4).

Invasive jorō spiders get huge and flashy — if they’re female

Some thumbnail-sized, brown male spiders in Georgia could be miffed if they paid the least attention to humans and our news obsessions.

Recent stories have made much of “giant” jorō spiders invading North America from eastern Asia, some large enough to span your palm. Lemon yellow bands cross their backs. Bright red bits can add drama, and a softer cheesecake yellow highlights the many joints on long black legs.

The showy giants, however, are just the females of Trichonephila clavata. Males hardly get mentioned except for what they’re not: colorful or big. A he-spider hulk at 8 millimeters barely reaches half the length of small females. Even the species nickname ignores the guys. The word jorō, borrowed from Japanese, translates to such unmasculine terms as “courtesan,” “lady-in-waiting” and even “entangling or binding bride.”
Mismatched sexes are nothing new for spiders. The group shows the most extreme size differences between the sexes known among land animals, says evolutionary biologist Matjaž Kuntner of the Evolutionary Zoology Lab in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The most dramatic case Kuntner has heard of comes from Arachnura logio scorpion spiders in East Asia, with females 14.8 times the size of the males.

With such extreme size differences, mating conflicts in animals can get violent: females cannibalizing males and so on (SN: 11/13/99). As far as Kuntner knows, however, jorō spiders don’t engage in these “sexually conflicted” extremes. Males being merely half size or thereabouts might explain the relatively peaceful encounters.

When it comes to humans, these spiders don’t bother anybody who doesn’t bother them. But what a spectacle they make. “I’ve got dozens and dozens in my yard,” says ecologist Andy Davis at the University of Georgia in Athens. “One big web can be 3 or 4 feet in diameter.” Jorō spiders have lived in northeastern Georgia since at least 2014.
These new neighbors inspired Davis and undergraduate Benjamin Frick to see if the newcomers withstand chills better than an earlier invader, Trichonephila clavipes, their more tropical relative also known as the golden silk orb-weaver. (The jorō also can spin yellow-tinged silk.) The earlier arrival’s flashy females and drab males haven’t left the comfy Southeast they invaded at least 160 years ago.

Figuring out the jorō’s hardiness involves taking the spider’s pulse. But how do you do that with an arthropod with a hard exoskeleton? A spider’s heart isn’t a mammallike lump circulating blood through a closed system. The jorō sluices its bloodlike fluid through a long tube open at both ends. “Think of a garden hose,” says Davis. He has measured heart rates of monarch caterpillars, and he found a spot on a spider’s back where a keen-eyed observer can count throbs.

Female jorō spiders packed in ice to simulate chill stress kept their heart rates some 77 percent higher than the stay-put T. clavipes, tests showed. Checking jorō oxygen use showed females have about twice the metabolic rate. And about two minutes of freezing temperatures showed better female survival (74 percent versus 50 percent). Lab tests used only the conveniently big jorō females, though male ability to function in random cold snaps could matter too.

Plus jorō sightings in the Southeast so far suggest the newer arrival needs less time than its relative to make the next generation, an advantage for farther to the north. The adults don’t need to survive deep winter in any case. Mom and dad die off, in November in Georgia, and leave their hundreds of eggs packed in silk to weather the cold and storms.

Reports on the citizen-observer iNaturalist site suggest that in Georgia, jorō spiders already cover some 40,000 square kilometers, Davis and Frick report February 17 in Physiological Entomology. Sightings now stretch into Tennessee and the Carolinas. But how far the big moms and tiny dads will go and when, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Grainy ice cream is unpleasant. Plant-based nanocrystals might help

You can never have too much ice cream, but you can have too much ice in your ice cream. Adding plant-based nanocrystals to the frozen treat could help solve that problem, researchers reported March 20 at the American Chemical Society spring meeting in San Diego.

Ice cream contains tiny ice crystals that grow bigger when natural temperature fluctuations in the freezer cause them to melt and recrystallize. Stabilizers in ice cream — typically guar gum or locust bean gum — help inhibit crystal growth, but don’t completely stop it. And once ice crystals hit 50 micrometers in diameter, ice cream takes on an unpleasant, coarse, grainy texture.

Cellulose nanocrystals, or CNCs, which are derived from wood pulp, have properties similar to the gums, says Tao Wu, a food scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They also share similarities with antifreeze proteins, produced by some animals to help them survive subzero temperatures. Antifreeze proteins work by binding to the surface of ice crystals, inhibiting growth more effectively than gums — but they are also extremely expensive. CNCs might work similarly to antifreeze proteins but at a fraction of the cost, Wu and his colleagues thought.

An experiment with a sucrose solution — a simplified ice cream proxy — and CNCs showed that after 24 hours, the ice crystals completely stopped growing. A week later, the ice crystals remained at 25 micrometers, well beneath the threshold of ice crystal crunchiness. In a similar experiment with guar gum, ice crystals grew to 50 micrometers in just three days.
“That by itself suggests that nanocrystals are a lot more potent than the gums,” says Richard Hartel, a food engineer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who was not involved in the research. If CNCs do function the same way as antifreeze proteins, they’re a promising alternative to current stabilizers, he says. But that still needs to be proven.

Until that happens, you continue to have a good excuse to eat your ice cream quickly: You wouldn’t want large ice crystals to form, after all.