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Earth grows large crystals, rare elements in just minutes

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Oct. 7 (UPI) — Scientists have gained new insights into crystal growth rates inside pegmatites, veinlike formations that host some of the planet’s biggest crystals, as well as valuable elements such as tantalum, niobium and lithium.

Magma cooling time typically controls the size of crystals — when magma cools quickly, crystals remain microscopic, and when it cools slowly, crystals have time to grow.

But pegmatite crystals appear to upend this logic, researchers said in a study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“Pegmatites cool relatively quickly, sometimes in just a few years, and yet they feature some of the largest crystals on Earth,” Cin-Ty Lee, professor of geology at Rice University, said in a news release. “The big question is really, ‘How can that be?'”

To determine the growth rates of pegmatite crystals, scientists turned to the rare elements that are often found inside pegmatites.

“It was more a question of, ‘Can we figure out how fast they actually grow?'” said Rice graduate student Patrick Phelps. “Can we use trace elements — elements that don’t belong in quartz crystals — to figure out the growth rate?”

After surveying dozens of scientific papers on the chemistry of crystal formation and closely examining a variety of crystals from a pegmatite mine in Southern California, researchers developed a formula for translating chemical profiles into crystal growth rates.

“We examined crystals that were half an inch wide and over an inch long,” Phelps said. “We showed those grew in a matter of hours, and there is nothing to suggest the physics would be different in larger crystals that measure a meter or more in length. Based on what we found, larger crystals like that could grow in a matter of days.”

Pegmatites are formed when pieces of Earth’s crust are pulled down and recycled inside Earth’s mantle. Water trapped in the crust is dissolved into the melt. As the pegmatite rises and cools, a diversity of minerals are formed. With the precipitation of each new mineral, the remaining melt becomes increasingly water-logged.

“Eventually, you get so much water left over that it becomes more of a water-dominated fluid than a melt-dominated fluid,” Phelps said. “The leftover elements in this watery mixture can now move around a lot faster. Chemical diffusion rates are much faster in fluids and the fluids tend to flow more quickly. So when a crystal starts forming, elements can get to it faster, which means it can grow faster.”

While collecting pegmatite crystals, Phelps noticed many of the quartz crystals had formed in cracks that had opened up in the still-forming pegmatite.

“You see these pop up and go through the layers of pegmatite itself, almost like veins within veins,” Phelps said. “When those cracks opened, that lowered the pressure quickly. So the fluid rushed in, because everything’s expanding, and the pressure dropped dramatically. All of a sudden, all the elements in the melt are now confused. They don’t want to be in that physical state anymore, and they rapidly start coming together in crystals.”

Researchers used a combination of advanced imaging techniques — cathodoluminescence microscopy and laser ablation with mass spectrometry — to measure the concentration of trace elements in the quartz crystals.

Using discoveries made by material scientists several decades ago, Phelps and his research partners were able to determine the growth rates.

“There are three variables,” Phelps said. “There’s the likelihood of things getting brought in. That’s the partition coefficient. There’s how fast the crystal is growing, the growth rate. And then there’s the diffusivity, so how quickly elemental nutrients are brought to the crystal.”

Their analysis showed the quartz pegmatite crystals had grown at rates several orders of magnitude faster than anyone had previously predicted.

The research team had a hard time accepting the numbers, though. Their formulas showed the crystals were growing in a matter of hours. But after double and triple checking their work, Phelps and his colleagues accepted their discovery.

“We’d done the math and the physics. That part was sound. While we didn’t expect it to be that fast, we couldn’t come up with a reason why it wasn’t plausible.”



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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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