March 30, 2010

Large Hadron Collider breakthrough as beams collide

Filed under: Black Holes, Cosmology — bferrari @ 11:37 am
One part of the Large Hadron Collider

One part of the Large Hadron Collider

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider managed to make two proton beams collide at high energy Tuesday, marking a “new territory” in physics, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The $10 billion research tool has been accelerating the beams since November in the LHC’s 17-mile tunnel on the border of Switzerland and France.

The beams have routinely been circulating at 3.5 TeV, or teraelectron volts, the highest energy achieved at the LHC so far, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Watch live Web cast from CERN

The first two attempts Tuesday failed, said Steve Myers, CERN’s director for accelerators. He said the beams were lost before they reached their full energy.

Experiments at the LHC may help answer fundamental questions such as why Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity — which describes the world on a large scale — doesn’t jibe with quantum mechanics, which deals with matter far too small to see.

The collider may help scientists discover new properties of nature. The as-yet theoretical Higgs boson, also called “the God particle” in popular parlance, could emerge within two or three years, Myers said in November.

Evidence of supersymmetry — the idea that every particle has a “super partner” with similar properties in a quantum dimension (according to some physics theories, there are hidden dimensions in the universe) — could crop up as early as 2010.

The collider has been dogged by problems. It made headlines late last year when a bird apparently dropped a “bit of baguette” into the accelerator, making the machine shut down.

The incident was similar in effect to a standard power cut, said spokeswoman Katie Yurkewicz. Had the machine been going, there would have been no damage, but beams would have been stopped until the machine could be cooled back down to operating temperatures, she said.

The collider achieved its first full-circle beam in September 2008 amid much celebration. But just nine days later, the operation was set back when one of the 25,000 joints that connect magnets in the LHC came loose and the resulting current melted or burned some important components of the machine, Myers said.

The faulty joint has a cross-section of a mere two-thirds of an inch by two-thirds of an inch.

Should Tuesday’s experiment go as planned and scientists are able to establish 7 TeV collisions, the plan is to run them continuously for 18 to 24 months with a short technical stop at the end of 2010, CERN said.

“It will be the beginning of a long period of running the accelerator with beams at this energy,” Sutton said. “It’s the period in which experiments will really start to collect data in this new energy region, where the potential for discoveries may be made.”

Sutton compared the experiments to Christopher Columbus sailing for the New World in 1492, when he knew what he was looking for but didn’t know what he might find.

“It’s going into a new energy region,” she said. “It’s a new territory in particle physics, so we’re really just standing on the threshold of that, which is exciting for everybody here, of course.”

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March 23, 2010

Moon Water Comes in Three Different Flavors, Say Scientists

Filed under: Inner Solar System, Life, Moons — bferrari @ 8:49 am
NASA/GSFC/ASU  By looking across the landscape rather than straight down, photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter emphasize topography and lighting, giving a dramatic view of the lunar terrain.

NASA/GSFC/ASU By looking across the landscape rather than straight down, photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter emphasize topography and lighting, giving a dramatic view of the lunar terrain.

Since the surprise discovery last year of trace amounts of water on the moon, scientists have been redefining their concept of Earth’s rocky neighbor. Now researchers say the water on the moon comes in three different flavors.

Until recently the moon was thought to be bone dry. But measurements in the last year from the Mini-SAR and Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3 or “M-cubed”) instruments on India’s Chandrayaan-1 moon probe and from NASA’s recent LCROSS mission have proved that wrong.

Mini-SAR found 40 craters, each containing frozen water at least 6.6 feet deep on the lunar surface – which adds up to 600 million tons of lunar ice stuff altogether. LCROSS slammed into the moon on Oct. 9, 2009 and found evidence of water in another crater.

“So far we’ve found three types of moon water,” said Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. “We have Mini-SAR’s thick lenses of nearly pure crater ice, LCROSS’s fluffy mix of ice crystals and dirt, and M-cube’s thin layer that comes and goes all across the surface of the moon.”

LCROSS struck moon water in a cold, permanently dark crater at the lunar south pole. Since then, the science team has been thoroughly mining the data collected from the intentional moon crash.

“It looks as though at least two different layers of our crater soil contain water, and they represent two different time epochs,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “The first layer, ejected in the first 2 seconds from the crater after impact, contains water and hydroxyl bound up in the minerals, and even tiny pieces of pure ice mixed in. This layer is a thin film and may be relatively ‘fresh,’ perhaps recently replenished.”

This brand of moon water resembles the water M3 discovered last year in scant but widespread amounts, bound to the rocks and dust in the very top millimeters of lunar soil, scientists say. But the second layer is different.

“It contains even more water ice plus a treasure chest of other compounds we weren’t even looking for,” he says. “So far the tally includes sulfur dioxide (SO2), methanol (CH3OH), and the curious organic molecule diacetylene (H2C4). This layer seems to extend below at least 0.5 meters and is probably older than the ice we’re finding on the surface.”

The researchers don’t yet know why some craters contain loads of pure ice while others are dominated by an ice-soil mixture. It’s probably a sign that the moon water comes from more than one source.

“Some of the water may be made right there on the moon,” Spudis said. “Protons in the solar wind can make small amounts of water continuously on the lunar surface by interacting with metal oxides in the rocks. But some of the water is probably deposited on the moon from other places in the solar system.”

These findings are completely rewriting the book on the moon.

“It’s a different world up there,” says Spudis, “and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Who knows what discoveries lie ahead?”


March 10, 2010

Fastest Orbiting Stars Circle Each Other in Mere Minutes

Filed under: Cosmology, Outer Solar System, Supernova — bferrari @ 1:06 pm
Fastest binary pair ever seen

Fastest binary pair ever seen

After a decade of mystery, astronomers have now shown that a pair of white dwarf stars spin around each other in just 5.4 minutes, making them the fastest-orbiting and tightest binary star system ever found, the researchers claim.

The record-setting stellar duo, known as HM Cancri or RX J0806.3+1527, offer challenges in explaining how such a system might form. The super-quick stars may also present a great future test-bed for detecting gravitational waves, which are elusive ripples in space-time.

Researchers say the stars in HM Cancri are so near to one another – about a quarter of the distance between the Earth and the moon – that they could not get much closer without smushing together.

“A five-minute orbit is about as close as two white dwarf stars can get without merging,” said Danny Steeghs, an astrophysicist at the University of Warwick, and co-author of a new paper describing the results.

Dying stars

White dwarfs are the white-hot cores left over from stars that have sloughed off their outer, cooler layers while aging several billion years longer than our sun.

Paradoxically, smaller white dwarfs are more massive than bigger, puffier white dwarfs, given these stars’ extreme densities.

In the case of HM Cancri, this phenomenon has led to the smaller, though heavier star gravitationally stealing matter from its nearby companion. A ring of gas has likely formed around the smaller star, while altering the appearance of the donor dwarf.

“The more massive star is distorting the shape of the lighter one into that of a pear, or a raindrop structure,” said paper co-author Arne Rau, a post-doctoral researcher in astrophysics at the Max-Planck Institute for Extra-Terrestrial Physics in Germany.

Matter striking the heavier star unleashes bursts of light and energy, which is what first drew astronomers’ attention to HM Cancri more than 10 years ago. This periodic brightening as the stars revolve about each other implied the astounding 5.4 minute orbital period, which astronomers initially were at a loss to explain.

Several alternative scenarios about HM Cancri, such as magnetic field interactions of more typically spaced-out, slower dwarfs, had been proposed over the years. Bad weather had scuttled many previous attempts to get a sharper look at HM Cancri.

Upon Closer Inspection

To finally nail down the orbital period, an international team of astronomers made fresh, clear observations of the stellar duo last year with the Keck I telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The new, detailed spectroscopic measurements showed a shift in HM Cancri’s light that fits with the model of two stars whirling around each other nearly every five minutes. (By the time one finishes reading this article, the pair will have made a furious revolution.) The next fastest-orbiting pair comes in at a comparatively slow-poke 9.6 minutes, almost twice as long. (For comparison, Earth takes a year to go around the sun.)

Simon Albrecht, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT who studies binary star systems but was not involved in this research, says he finds the data analysis “thorough,” though researchers have had to make a few assumptions about the nature of the HM Cancri system.

Exactly how HM Cancri got to look the way the paper’s authors think it does now remains rather puzzling, said Steeghs. The stars that smoldered down into HM Cancri’s white dwarfs must have initially been much farther apart, given how little space remains between them now.

Two stars similar to our sun, yet with one initially about twice as massive as the other must have ended up having their life cycles timed so that this evolution could occur, Steeghs said. Further study of HM Cancri may inform models of how binaries interact with each other over lifetimes that last billions of years.

Gravitational Wave Maker

In any case, as they have wound closer and continue along at their current breakneck pace, HM Cancri’s stars should shed energy in the form of gravitational waves. These ripples in space-time were first predicted by Albert Einstein as part of his general theory of relativity in 1915, but have yet to be directly detected.

Given HM Cancri’s properties and relative closeness within the Milky Way galaxy, Rau thinks the two quick stars’ gravitational waves will be right in the range of frequencies detectable by the space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), set to launch later this decade.

“HM Cancri has the shortest orbital period we know, and is therefore the most interesting system to find gravitational waves,” Rau told

The research was published in the March 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.


March 3, 2010

On a Clear Day…. NASA Reveals Mesmerising ‘Blue Marble’ Images of Earth

Filed under: Cosmology, Earth, Inner Solar System, Life — bferrari @ 10:52 am

These spectacular ‘blue marble’ images are the most detailed views of Earth to date.

Using a collection of satellite images, scientists painstakingly stitched together months of observations to create these montages which show the surface of the continents and oceans in stunning detail.

This mesmerising view of Earth is a montage of images taken by the Terra satellite orbiting 435miles above the planet's surface

This mesmerising view of Earth is a montage of images taken by the Terra satellite orbiting 435miles above the planet’s surface

Much of the imagery came from a space camera onboard the Nasa satellite Terra, which is orbiting 435miles above the Earth’s surface.

A spokesman from the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, which released the pictures, said: ‘These are spectacular “blue marble” images, which show the beauty of our small planet.’

The two pictures show opposite sides of Earth. One reveals the entire North American continent, Central America, the northern half of South America, Greenland and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, in one perfect shot.

The other highlights most of Europe, Africa and Asia. However, both northern Europe and Australia are just out of the picture.

Our planet’s surface covers 197 million square miles with 57 million square miles of land and the rest as water.

India takes centre stage here with the vast continent of Africa curving away to the left. Images were taken every eight days to reveal land surface that might otherwise be obscured by cloud

India takes centre stage here with the vast continent of Africa curving away to the left. Images were taken every eight days to reveal land surface that might otherwise be obscured by cloud

The land and coastal ocean portions of the images are based on surface observations collected from June through September 2001 and combined every eight days to compensate for clouds that might block the sensor’s view of the surface on any single day.

Nasa has been photographing the Earth from space since the first camera equipped satellites were launched into space in the early 1960’s.

Since then the space agency has been compiling images of our home planet year on year, with the most iconic image being the famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17 in 1972.

‘Earthrise’ was taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, which was the first manned voyage to orbit the Moon. The image (right) from October 24, 1946, was taken at an altitude of 65 miles by a 35mm camera within a V-2 missile and showed the first pictures of Earth as seen from space. The missile which had been taken from the Germans at the end of World War II and was launched in the New Mexico desert

March 1, 2010

Italy’s Answer to the Race for Space?

Filed under: Space Exploration — bferrari @ 3:54 pm

Italy's Hypersonic Transport

The Italian Center for Aerospace Research (CIRA) is poised to fly its Pollux vehicle, an unmanned space plane prototype, in a drop test aimed at testing in-flight maneuvering capabilities.

Hypersonic space planes may someday fly into space from airport runways, but an Italian aerospace firm first wants to test whether such futuristic vehicles could still pull off high-speed maneuvers during the fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The Italian Center for Aerospace Research (CIRA) in Capua, Italy has prepped a new unmanned prototype space plane called Pollux for a possible flight in March. Pollux would perform several test maneuvers while reaching a top re-entry speed of Mach 1.2.

“We want to fly while re-entering, and we want to reduce the logical gap between aeronautics and space,” said Gennaro Russo, CIRA’s Space Programs lead and USV (Unmanned Space Vehicles) program manager.

A less-advanced twin to Pollux, the engineless prototype space vehicle named Castor, successfully flew at transonic speeds between altitudes of about 10 and 6.2 miles, and reached a top speed of Mach 1.08, or just above the speed of sound.

Pollux is designed to reach its drop height of about 15 miles courtesy of a stratospheric balloon. Upon release, the space vehicle is expected to carry out pre-programmed aeronautic maneuvers where it pulls its nose up, conducts an angle of attack maneuver, a two-bank turn maneuver, and then finish with another nose-up maneuver before opening its parachute at a height of just over 3 miles.

All those twists and turns would allow the 500 experimental sensors aboard Pollux to record the acceleration, aerodynamic pressures, and strain throughout. That information will go a long way toward helping researchers figure out what maneuvers a hypersonic vehicle could pull off as it comes in for landing from space, researchers said.

“Being able to handle the flight and not simply the drop along a re-entry trajectory, you will be able to select the landing spaceport regardless of the weather conditions during the re-entry,” Russo told

Like its twin Castor, Pollux is a 30-foot-long flying test vehicle with a wingspan of 13 feet, and a weight of 2,910 pounds. But Pollux has more advanced control systems that allow the unmanned space vehicle to autonomously make its own last-minute tweaks for flight patterns.

Pollux also has a single-stage parachute, rather than the three-stage parachute used by Castor in 2007. Castor’s three-stage parachute did not slow it down enough to avoid some damage upon landing two years ago, but Pollux’s handlers seem confident that they can better control the newer prototype and slow it down enough to require just the single-stage parachute.

Two experiments are also slated to ride piggy-back aboard Pollux.

The first is a systems-on-a-chip designed by the company Strago Ricerche, which will help gauge accelerations for the flight. The second is a physics experiment by second grade schools of Italy’s Apulia region that will survey atmospheric opacity due to aerosols.

The flights of Castor and Pollux may also help inform other ongoing efforts to develop space planes. The British company Reaction Engines Limited received initial funding last year from the European Space Agency and British government to begin developing its Skylon space plane concept.

The U.S. Air Force has its own secretive space plane set for launch later this year.

Russo and CIRA have already begun planning beyond their twin space vehicle prototypes. A hypersonic version that could reach Mach 7 or 8 is on the drawing boards due to collaboration with the University of Queensland and Australia’s Department of Defense.


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