April 30, 2011

Astronomers may have witnessed a star torn apart by a black hole | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

Filed under: Black Holes, Cool — bferrari @ 6:53 pm

On March 28, 2011, NASA’s Swift satellite caught a flash of high-energy X-rays pouring in from deep space. Swift is designed to do this, and since its launch in 2004 has seen hundreds of such things, usually caused by stars exploding at the ends of their lives.

But this time was hardly “usual”. It didn’t see a star exploding as a supernova, it saw a star literally getting torn apart as it fell too close to a black hole!

The event was labeled GRB 110328A –a gamma-ray burst seen in 2011, third month (March) on the 28th day (in other words, last week). Normal gamma-ray bursts are when supermassive stars collapse (or ultra-dense neutron stars merge) to form a black hole. This releases a titanic amount of energy, which can be seen clear across the Universe.

And those last two characteristics are certainly true of GRB 110328A; it’s nearly four billion light years away*, and the ferocity of its final moments is not to be underestimated: it peaked at a solid one trillion times the Sun’s brightness!

Yegads. I’m rather glad this happened so far away. That’s not the kind of thing I’d like to see up close.

Although initially cataloged as a GRB, followup observations indicated this was no usual event. The way the light grew and faded seemed to fit better with a star getting torn apart. And what can do that to an entire star? A black hole. So instead of the star in question forming a black hole, it apparently literally fell victim to one!

The observations indicate the black hole in question may have as much as half a million times the mass of the Sun, meaning it’s very probably a supermassive black hole in the very center of a distant galaxy. Hubble Space Telescope observations (not yet released to the public) also place the event very near the center of a galaxy, which is consistent with this scenario.

So what happened?

We think that at the center of every large galaxy (including our own Milky Way) lies a supermassive black hole, some with millions or even billions of times the Sun’s mass. Some of these, like our own, are sitting there quietly. Without matter falling into them, black holes are pretty calm. But if a gas cloud, say, wanders too close, it forms a disk around the hole called an accretion disk. This disk heats up and can emit tremendous amounts of light (as in this illustration here). Some galaxies are continuously feeding of material like this, and we call them active galaxies.

In the case of GRB 110328A, something else happened. The galaxy is known to be quiet; NASA’s Fermi satellite can see gamma rays over much of the sky, and has reported no emission from this galaxy for the past couple of years. So whatever happened here was a singular event.

What fits all the data is that of a star orbiting the center of the black hole. Perhaps it was on a safe orbit but got flung closer to the black hole after a close encounter with another star or gas cloud, or perhaps it started out close and over millions of years its orbit has brought it closer and closer to that monster at the galaxy’s heart.

Whatever happened, the star’s life ended suddenly and catastrophically. Black holes have incredibly strong gravity, of course, but that gravity gets weaker with distance. Stars are big, a million or more kilometers across, and that means one side of the star was substantially closer to the black hole than the other, so the near side felt a stronger pull of gravity than the far side of the star. This has the effect of stretching the star in a process called tides.

A star is held together by its own gravity. As the star in question here inched closer to the black hole, the force stretching the star got stronger, and at some point overcame its internal gravity. The star got literally torn apart by the black hole!

The material swirled around the black hole, forming a small and temporary accretion disk. Observations indicate that for a short time, two beams of matter and energy called jets erupted from the doomed star the black hole, and it was the flash of tremendous energy from this that triggered Swift, and a flurry of observations from other telescopes cascaded from that.

It’s not certain that this is actually what happened so far away in the core of that far-flung galaxy, but it does fit what’s seen so far (and at least one other star has been seen to have been eaten by a black hole before). It also predicts that radio emission from the event will be highly variable, and that the visible brightness should brighten again over the next few weeks. Astronomers are eagerly observing this distant event to see if their ideas will still hold true as time goes on, or if more surprises are in store.

And I need to add something to this story. I used to work on Fermi and Swift, writing educational stories and activities based on their observations, but that was many years ago. I don’t keep up with their daily doings so much.

I actually found out about GRB 110328A when I got an email the other day from my friend Adria Updike, who observes GRBs. She told me an amazing thing: a colleague of hers, PhD candidate Alexander Kann, started a thread on the Bad Astronomy/Universe Today Bulletin Board about the GRB. BAUT, as we call the board, was started by my friend Fraser Cain of Universe Today and myself, hence the name of the board.

Another astronomer friend of mine, Bill Keel, is also a BAUT member. He read the thread, and used the SARA 1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona, to observe the burst:

On the left is his observation on April 1, and on the right on April 4. The position of GRB 110328A is circled. As you can see, it was pretty faint. It has apparently faded somewhat over the three day interval — which is expected; the initial event (a star getting torn apart! I can’t get over that!) released a huge flash of energy which faded over time. It’s hard to see in the two images because the burst looks about the same brightness, but the second observation had a longer exposure time (you can see fainter stars in it), so the source did fade.


April 29, 2011

The untold story of Valery Spitkovsky

How a brilliant scientist – and renowned refusenik – wound up dying in virtual obscurity

By Joni Schockett

Special to the Jewish Advocate

As a refusenik, Spitkovsky was cut off from his scientific world. We have just completed celebrating Pesach, the holiday when we retell the story of how, thousands of years ago, the Jews escaped from a tyrant and sought freedom in the Promised Land.

More than four decades ago, the Jews of the Soviet Union also tried to escape tyranny, but the communist government refused to let them go. They became known as refuseniks. For seeking their freedom, many lost their jobs and were ostracized. They lived in limbo, hounded by the KGB.

This is the story of one of those refuseniks.

As a young scientist, Valery Spitkovsky achieved breakthroughs that led to advancements in satellite communications and space travel. He served on joint Soviet-US expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, setting an endurance record that still stands.

But Spitkovsky’s desire to stray from the life scripted for him destroyed his career and unhinged his world.

Spitkovsky in an alley, near one of the many apartments he called home as a refusenik. Below: in 1983, with his son Ilya.

A queen, a prime minister and scores of scientists took up his cause, bringing it to the attention of then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. After more than a dozen lost years, Spitkovsky was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1990. But the next chapter in his life did not go as he had hoped.

A month ago, Valery Spitkovsky died from complications of brain cancer at the Sherrill House in Boston. He was buried at the Baker Street Cemeteries, with money provided by Medicaid. His death went unnoticed; Medicaid’s coverage does not include obituaries.

I knew Spitkovsky and his family for more than 20 years. His story is heartbreaking, but also uplifting. In spirit, it is the story of not just one refusenik, but of many.

One of Valery Spitkovsky’s earliest memories was of his mother closing the curtains tight, lighting Chanukah candles, blowing them out and then hiding the menorah. He spoke of that memory often, as if reminding himself why he had been willing to endure so much hardship.

Valery Spitkovsky was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1939. His father was an associate professor at the Odessa Merchant Marine Institute and would sometimes take along his son when he took his students out to sea. Young Valery came to love the sea, the scientific devices his father used, and the math his father taught him. He also studied Torah, but that, like the candles, was kept secret.

Valery excelled in school, especially in science, and he graduated from high school with the highest honors. At college, he earned a degree in electromagnetic wave communications. There he studied electronic tubes and the development of transistors. Some of his fellow students laughed at him when, as a freshman in 1956, he wrote a paper that predicted that one day televisions would hang on walls like “framed paintings.” He graduated in 1961 with a Red Diploma, the equivalent of summa cum laude.

On a ship during a scientific mission to Antarctica early in his career.

Between 1961 and 1964, Valery took part in several US-Soviet polar missions. He studied the aurora borealis and electromagnetic fields, researching their effect on satellite telecommunications. He established a world record by spending an entire year at Vostok Station, 800 miles from the South Pole. He loved the biting cold, but more than that, he loved his young American colleagues, who often talked about the free life in the States.

Soon after returning from his first expedition, Valery returned to university and earned several graduate degrees. He then became a radio engineer and astronomer at the prestigious Pulkovo Observatory and Academy near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He helped design the world’s largest stand-alone radio telescope, the Ratan 600, and he helped develop communications antennae technology that would be critical in the safe return of the imperiled Apollo 13 and the repair of the Hubble telescope. But you won’t find Valery’s name in any articles. The moment he asked to leave the Soviet Union, his name was expunged from every blueprint, every article, every paper, every book chapter. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

As his scientific status was on the rise, Valery married and had a daughter. But the marriage could not survive his long trips away from home. After his divorce, he would not see his daughter for many years.

In the 1970s, Valery worked on the joint Apollo-Soyuz space project. He made connections with more American scientists, but rebuffed their suggestions that he emigrate to work with them in the States. Meanwhile, his research was increasingly co-opted for military purposes. The Soviet military offered to make him a general if he would work on top secret weapons technology. Valery said no; he wanted his research to be put toward peaceful uses. The military persisted, and again he said no.

On March 28, 1977 – a week before Passover – Valery quit his job. He vowed never again to work for the “Devil Empire,” as he called the Soviet Union. A few weeks later he applied to emigrate to America. He was denied. Fearing that the nation would lose such a gifted scientist, the KGB confiscated his travel permits. The government took away his apartment and many of his possessions. What hurt most, though, was losing his standing in the scientific community and his many friends and colleagues. They feared for their own careers.

Valery took refuge in Leningrad’s bohemian artists’ community, among the only people brave enough to associate with him. There he met a young artist, who also had a degree in mechanical engineering. Her name was Sofia, and they fell in love.

Over the next several years, the KGB kept Valery under constant surveillance and threatened those seen with him. When he tried to reconnect with his daughter, the KGB warned his ex-wife that she risked losing her job and jeopardizing her daughter’s welfare. She cut off all ties with him.

Valery was labeled a “State Secret Applicant,” forbidden to leave the country on the grounds that he might disclose vital state secrets. Having never held anything higher than a mid-level clearance, he insisted he posed no security threat.

He told me that the KGB once backed him into a corner and hissed that he would never leave the Soviet Union – never! He told stories of trying to lose his watchers by weaving in and out of alleys, into basements and over walls. When I once teased him that he was exaggerating to make his tales more exciting, his eyes took on a far-away look and he told us that we had no idea of what the Soviets could – and would – do.

Desperate, he finally took a job fixing machinery at a post office in Leningrad, while moving around among friends. The one bright spot was that in 1982, Sofia had a baby, a boy they named Ilya after Valery’s brother. Shortly after the baby’s birth, the KGB approached the young mother and asked her to testify against Valery in a criminal trial. She was told to say that he had pressured her to leave the Soviet Union with him. She refused, but was so terrified that she and the baby went into hiding. Thanks to friends, the couple were able to meet occasionally in safe houses.

Every six months, beginning in 1978, Valery petitioned the courts for permission to emigrate; every six months he was refused. Now Sofia, separately, also began to petition the courts.

Valery remained stuck in suspended animation, watching in frustration as science and technology leaped ahead at lightning speed. His outlook was bleak – or so it seemed.

Unbeknownst to Valery, people around the world were working, many specifically on his behalf, for the release of Soviet Jews. Just after he became a refusenik, the US government sent the Soviets a letter requesting that 12 scientists be freed. His name was on that list. The request was denied, as were others that followed year after year.

In July 1988, Sofia and Valery had a second son, Matvey. Just a few months later, Sofia was granted an exit visa and told to gather her sons and leave immediately. They were flown to Rome, where they remained in a displaced persons camp for almost a year.

Meanwhile, human rights groups were stepping up their campaign for the refuseniks. A New York law firm took on Valery’s case. It collaborated with a lawyer in England, Roger Selby, who took the lead. Now, in addition to appealing on the grounds of human rights, Valery’s supporters argued that the Soviets were keeping a father separated from his children. They bombarded the Kremlin with legal briefs and the media with stories.

In a Jan. 17, 1989, letter to then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Selby wrote: “This is a particularly sad case where a boy of 6 and a baby have been separated from their father, and both I and they shall be grateful for any pressure that you and your colleagues in Government may bring to enable an exit visa to be granted to Mr. Spitkovsky with all possible speed.” Selby continued to press British officials in advance of a visit by Gorbachev. At last, Thatcher wrote Selby: “You will be pleased to note that Mr. Spitkovsky’s case will be raised during Mr. Gorbachev’s visit in April.”

The Soviets were under pressure from other quarters as well. After Valery’s plight was raised at a January 1989 human rights conference in Vienna, delegates sent letters to Moscow demanding his release.

Back in London, developments were moving swiftly. During his visit, Gorbachev met with Thatcher and attended a state dinner with Queen Elizabeth. Valery was told that even the queen spoke up for him, but there is no documented support of that. However, something must have happened in London. Within days, Valery received a call from the secretary of the Royal Society in London, the world’s oldest scientific academy, which had also been working for his release. The secretary said to expect to hear something within the next two weeks. Exactly two weeks later, the KGB contacted Valery and told him to leave the country.

In May 1989, he flew to Rome – arriving just a few weeks after Sofia and the boys had left for the States. But his 12-year ordeal was over; Valery was finally free.

Next week: High hopes collide with reality.

About the sources

This article is based on documents and letters found in Valery Spitkovsky’s home, including a brief biography. It is also drawn from conversations over the years with Spitkovsky and recent interviews with his family, friends and colleagues.

April 26, 2011

In First U.S. Flight, ‘JetMan’ Will Fly Through Grand Canyon –

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:48 am

In First U.S. Flight, ‘JetMan’ Will Fly Through Grand Canyon

And to think Evel Knievel couldn’t get a permit.

“JetMan” Yves Rossy, the Swiss aviator, engineer, and PopSci favorite whose jet-powered wing has carried him across the English Channel and Lake Geneva, is planning yet another jet-winged feat, his first on U.S. soil. On May 6, Rossy plans to fly through the Grand Canyon in Arizona, notching what is sure to be a number of “firsts” for both Rossy and the Canyon.

The exact point of Rossy’s flight has yet to be revealed, but we do know that it will take place somewhere in the Western Grand Canyon area and that during his flight Rossy will pass within 700 feet of onlookers as he negotiates his way through the canyon.

For the uninitiated, Rossy flies a novel jet-powered wing of his own design that straps directly onto his back–his body serves as a kind of rudder to control the thing–and provides thrust via four small engines. While the thrust is significant (Rossy can climb to some degree), it’s not enough to get him off the ground, so he has to climb to elevation aboard a plane before jumping and going airborne.

That means on Friday, May 6, Yves Rossy is going to jump out of a plane into the Grand Canyon and then fly through it with jet motors strapped to his back before parachuting to safety. So yeah, it’s going to be cooler than the time you went to the Grand Canyon with your grandparents when you were six. Way cooler.

via In First U.S. Flight, ‘JetMan’ Will Fly Through Grand Canyon –

April 24, 2011

U.S. to take back ‘world’s fastest computer’ title

20-petaflop behemoth, Titan, to oust China as No. 1 when it debuts in 2012

Titan - 20 Petaflop behemouth

Titan - 20 Petaflop behemouth

American geeks may soon celebrate taking back the crown for “fastest supercomputer in the world.” A U.S. national lab plans to unveil a “Titan” supercomputer in 2012 that would dwarf the computing speeds of the latest record holder from China, as well as all previous competitors.

The new computing behemoth is designed to crunch 20,000 trillion calculations (20 petaflops) per second, according to PhysOrg. That handily beats China’s Tianhe-1A supercomputer, which can do 2,500 trillion calculations (2.5 petaflops) per second.

Such calculations look staggering on a human scale. It would take 120 billion people with 120 billion calculators 50 years to do what the Titan supercomputer might do in a day.

The $100 million Titan is expected to take on the task of calculating complex energy systems for the U.S. Department of Energy. Once completed by Cray Computers, it would join its somewhat slower cousins at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Supercomputers get their super speed from many interconnected processing boxes. That requires the latest interconnect systems that allow for the fastest-possible data transfer among the different boxes. In this case, Titan would use the Gemini XE interconnect that debuted last year.

But the Titan may not be alone in 2012. IBM also plans to unveil its own 20 petaflop machine, called Sequoia, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in that year. Sequoia would focus on simulations of nuclear explosions for the purpose of eliminating real-world nuke testing.

Countries such as Japan and China continue to build blazingly fast supercomputers, and so there’s no guarantee as to how long the U.S. may retain its anticipated supercomputing crown. For now, U.S. computer scientists can focus on whether they can keep coming up with superlative names for their supercomputers: Jaguar, Kraken and Titan are taken.



April 19, 2011

Mystery Atom Discovery Has Physicists Abuzz

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:45 am
A proton-proton collision at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN laboratory in Geneva that produced more than 100 charged particles. (CERN)

A proton-proton collision at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN laboratory in Geneva that produced more than 100 charged particles. (CERN)

In a development physicists are calling “huge,” “tantalizing” and “unexpected,” researchers have measured a signal that could herald a new kind of particle or force of nature.

Yet the finding is not yet conclusive, and leaves many researchers skeptical.

The discovery comes from an atom smasher called the Tevatron at the Fermilab physics laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Inside the accelerator there, particles are ramped up to near the speed of light as they race around a 4 mile (6.3 km) ring. When two particles collide, they disintegrate into other exotic particles in a powerful outpouring of energy. [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]

Scientists analyzed thousands of these collisions, and found a suspicious pattern in about 250 more cases than predicted. In these instances, the products of the collision between a proton and its antimatter partner, the antiproton, were different than expected.


“The whole physics world is buzzing with this result,” physicist David Kawall of the University of Massachusetts Amherst told LiveScience.

The discovery, first reported in the New York Times, was announced online Tuesday (April 5) when the researchers posted a preview version of their research paper on the preprint site

“This is huge — an unexpected discovery which could completely transform high-energy physics, and cosmology as well, as the two fields are joined at the hip,” astrophysicist Michael S. Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at The University of Chicago, wrote in an email to LiveScience. “But there is one big IF — if it holds up and is not explained by standard model physics.”

Many researchers echoed that caveat — the discovery could be significant, but it’s too soon to tell, because more data is required to confirm that the Tevatron’s pattern is more than just a statistical anomaly.

“The statistical significance of the signal is interesting, but not compelling,” said physicist Eugene W. Beier of the University of Pennsylvania. “The experimenters need more data. If the signal does hold up at the five standard deviation level, it is an indication of something beyond the range of what we expected.”

The level of statistical significance in the data now is just over three standard deviations, which means that the chance of it being a random anomaly is less than 1 in 1,000. Thus, the finding is significant, and merits investigation, but is not conclusive, researchers say. If enough further measurements are made, and the pattern holds up to five standard deviations, more physicists would likely be convinced.

“I am not convinced,” said Syracuse University physicist Sheldon Stone. “It relies on a detailed estimate of the backgrounds and small changes could wipe out the result.”

Colliding matter and antimatter

The Tevatron has been colliding protons and antiprotons since the 1980s, and has made many significant findings already, including the 1995 discovery of the top quark, an exotic version of the fundamental particles that make up protons and neutrons.

“This tantalizing result from the CDF collaboration could certainly be game changing,” said Gavin Salam, a physicist at the CERN research lab in Geneva, Switzerland. “If it is confirmed, it would be the first time that a new particle was observed in a collider experiment since the top quark was discovered at Fermilab in 1995.”

In the new finding, scientists at the Tevatron’s Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) experiment found that the particle collisions produced a higher-than-predicted incidence of a certain pattern of byproducts: one heavy particle called a W boson, and two jets of lightweight particles with a total energy that was unexpected.

The energy of the jets could indicate that they come from a never-before-seen subatomic particle, scientists say. One of the most avidly sought theoretical particles is the so-called Higgs boson, the particle thought to bestow mass on other particles. Yet the signal the Tevatron team found does not quite match what’s expected for the Higgs.

“It would be nothing like a standard Higgs boson, as the production rate is far too high,” said Rutgers University physicist Matt Strassler. “Beyond that, it is hard to say; we simply don’t have enough information yet.”

And because particles are tied to the forces of nature, the discovery could even indicate a fundamental force in addition to the known four: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

“If this is in fact the first hint of new physics to be confirmed by other measurements with higher statistics, it would be very exciting,” said physicist Jamie Nagle of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Exactly how exciting depends on what new physics it turns out to be — which cannot be determined from these results alone.”

The finding could also be a vindication for the Tevatron, which is planned to close in September 2011 for budget reasons. While it was once the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet, it has recently been surpassed by the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

If the Tevatron’s discovery represents a real event, and not a blip of statistics, it will likely also be seen in the LHC. Until then, many scientists say they will reserve judgment.

For now, though, the excitement certainly continues.

“I have spent the better part of the day discussing the viability of these results and possible explanations with colleagues from around the world,” said Cornell University physicist Csaba Csaki. “If it indeed turns out to be the signal of a new particle, it would be extremely important, potentially ‘game-changing.’ However at this point I would be extremely cautious about declaring the discovery of a new particle. While the result should definitely be taken seriously, a lot more work has to be done before this can be accepted as a fact.”

*   Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature
*   8 Shocking Things We Learned From Stephen Hawking’s Book
*   Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings


Quantum Leap: Scientists Teleport Bits of Light

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:35 am
Physicists used this complex lab setup to teleport quantum packets of light from one place to another.

Physicists used this complex lab setup to teleport quantum packets of light from one place to another.

Our world is getting closer to “Star Trek” every day.

Scientists announced Wednesday they’ve been able to teleport special bits of light from one place to another — “Beam me up, Scotty,” in other words. The advance doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll ever be able to teleport people, unfortunately, but it does represent some pretty mind-bending physics.

Teleportation requires taking advantage of a quirk of quantum physics called entanglement. Two particles can be bonded so that even when separated by large distances, they communicate instantly, and what happens to one affects the other. (It’s a situation so bizarre Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.”)

To teleport light, researchers led by Noriyuki Lee of the University of Tokyo had to destroy it in one place, and re-create it in another. This mirrors the teleportation process on “Star Trek,” where transporters scan a person, atom by atom, and dismantle him, only to rebuild the person by configuring a different set of atoms in exactly the same pattern in another place.

Lee and his team accomplished this by linking a packet of light to one half of a pair of entangled particles. They then destroyed the light and the particle it was linked to, leaving only the lone particle of the entangled pair. The remaining particle retains the link with its entangled partner, though, including information about the light, which enabled the researchers to rebuild the light in the exact configuration at the other location.

The scientists reported their experiment in the April 15 issue of the journal Science.

Schrödinger’s cat

This actually isn’t the first time physicists have teleported particles or light in this way. What differentiates the new research is that this time they teleported something much more complicated. This teleported light wasn’t just any light — it was in a special quantum state called a Schrödinger’s-cat state.

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment invented by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to describe a truth about quantum mechanics: that some properties of particles are not decided until an outsider forces them to choose by measuring them.

Schrödinger envisioned a cat inside a box that contained a small amount of a radioactive substance. Within an hour, there would be a 50 percent chance the substance would decay, releasing poison into the box, and a 50 percent chance the substance would not decay and no poison would be released.

According to the rules of quantum mechanics, the cat is neither dead nor alive until the box is opened and an outside observer “measures” the situation. While the box remains closed, the whole system is suspended in a state of uncertainty where the cat is both dead and alive.

Schrödinger intended the story to sound a bit ridiculous — he was using it to highlight how bizarre the ideas of quantum mechanics would be if extended beyond particles to the macro world of everyday objects.

Nonetheless, the strange situation remains a fundamental part of the theory of quantum mechanics, and experiments verify that particles really do seem to exist in these suspended states of multiple possibilities until forced into one situation or another by measurements.

Teleporting the cat

Just like a cat that is both alive and dead, light can be in a Schrödinger’s-cat state by having two opposite phases at the same time. A light wave’s phase is akin to whether a jump rope is up or down at a certain position. Not until a direct measurement is taken would this light be forced to choose between these two contradictory conditions.

This light is in a particular quantum-mechanical arrangement that couldn’t be described with the classical physics used to understand the larger, macro world, including basic light waves.

“It can’t be presented classically — it would be an oscillation both up and down, which makes no sense,” said physicist Philippe Grangier of France’s Institut d’Optique, who was not involved in the new research, but who wrote an accompanying essay on the finding in the same issue of Science.

Grangier said the experiment was an advancement in physicists’ abilities to both make complicated Schrödinger’s-cat states in light, and to teleport objects. Yet there’s still a long way to go before anything more complicated can be teleported.

“There is not at present a way to teleport even a bacteria,” Grangier told LiveScience. “For a real cat I don’t think this will be possible in any possible future.”

Nonetheless, the new advance could help physicists work toward superfast quantum computers and other applications that come from being able to manipulate things on the quantum scale.

“We are really learning how to manage the quantum world,” Grangier said. “And this is a long and painful process, especially for experimentalists like me. All these things, just a few years ago they were just ideas. Now they are turning into experimental realities.”

*   Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature
*   Infographic: Strange Quarks and Muons, Oh My! Nature’s Tiniest Particles Dissected
*   Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings


April 12, 2011

NASA Announces Final Homes for Space Shuttles

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Government Policies, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 3:52 pm
April 7: This image provided by the Adler Planetarium shows a proposal for a space shuttle exhibit in Chicago.

April 7: This image provided by the Adler Planetarium shows a proposal for a space shuttle exhibit in Chicago. (AP/Adler Planetarium)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida –  A teary NASA chief announced the final resting places for America’s storied shuttle program Tuesday.

Twenty-one museums and centers around the country put in bids for the space shuttles, massive mementos of 30 years of American spaceflight that are expected to be just as big tourist attractions in the years to come. The announcement came on the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight — and coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first historic first flight.

Fighting back tears, NASA chief Charlie Bolden announced that Atlantis will remain where it is, in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, where its storied history can be shared with as many people as possible over the coming decades, Bolden said. The California Science Center will get Endeavour, he announced, while a Virginia branch of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will get Discovery.

New York City will be the new home of space shuttle Enterprise, the prototype shuttle used for test flights more than three decades ago. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand said Tuesday that Enterprise will go to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

Each museum plans to highlight the unique display in a special way. For example, the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar of the Smithsonian museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., said Discovery would occupy a central position in a space hangar — surrounded by scores of other major artifacts. The museum also houses the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Mercury Friendship 7 capsule, and the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia.

Discovery flew 39 missions, including satellite deliveries, Defense Department projects and trips to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Russian space station Mir. It retired after having spent a total of 365 days in space

The news was bittersweet for many fans of the space program.

“While it is disappointing to see our Shuttle fleet retire, I am excited to welcome home the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is scheduled to make its 33rd and final launch, and the Shuttle program’s culminating launch, this summer,” said Florida congressman Bill Posey (R-Rockledge).

“Since 1985, Atlantis has performed such missions as launching satellites, deploying the Magellan probe to Venus and the Galileo probe to Jupiter; ferrying crew and cargo to Space Station Mir and the International Space Station; and performing the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope,” Posey said in a statement. “The Space Shuttles are indeed an iconic piece of American history.”

With 21 museums jockeying for ownership of the shuttles, the announcement was bound to ruffle some feathers.

“Like many Texans, I am disappointed with NASA’s decision to slight the Johnson Space Center as a permanent home for one of the Space Shuttle Orbiters,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a statement — clearly dejected that Texas was not selected. “Houston has played a critical role throughout the life of the space shuttle, but it is clear political favors trumped common sense and fairness in the selection of the final locations for the orbiter fleet. ”

Rep. Pete Olson echoed those sentiments: “Disappointment doesn’t begin to describe my reaction to this announcement,” he said in a statement issued Tuesday. ‘”While Houston deserves the honor of a shuttle orbiter, the bigger priority is ensuring a strong human space flight program centered at Johnson Space Center. I remain committed to providing NASA with a strong human space flight program. This is an issue near and dear to my heart.

But the announcements of their final resting places doesn’t mean the shuttle mission is over — two rocket launches still remain, Bolden cautioned.

“Stay focused,” he told crowds at Kennedy Space Center. “We’ve got two more flights to do so that we can safely fly out the shuttle.”

“You’ve done an incredible job. You should feel incredibly proud. I know I do,” Bolden said.


April 7, 2011

Mine in Mojave Desert May Hold Key to Beating China in the Race for Raw Materials

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Government Policies, Military — bferrari @ 5:14 pm
Rare-earth oxides -- a group of rare elements used in everything from cell phones to U.S. missile systems. (USDA/Peggy Greb)

Rare-earth oxides -- a group of rare elements used in everything from cell phones to U.S. missile systems. (USDA/Peggy Greb)

In the middle of California’s Mojave Desert about an hour outside of the Las Vegas strip, business is booming — literally — as detonations reveal the lifeblood of America’s technical security.

Molycorp has begun mining again at its Mountain Pass facility after about a decade of inactivity, extracting valuable and concentrated ore that holds 15 rare earth elements, used in everything from cell phones to U.S. missile systems.

In recent years, the Chinese have flooded, and thus cornered, about 97 percent of the world market of rare earth metals, and now thanks to high-tech demand and new Chinese restrictions on exports, the price of some of these rare earth elements has skyrocketed as much as 500 percent in the last year alone.

“The supply of rare earths predominantly comes from China, and China needs most of the rare earths they produce for their own consumption,” Molycorp mine manager Rocky Smith said. “So all of the people of the United States and Europe and Japan, they’re going to have to find another source of these valuable rare earths, and that’s one of the main reasons this operation is so important.”

Molycorp has also developed a better way to extract and then process the elements, doing it in a more affordable and environmentally friendly way. CEO Mark Smith says that the new techniques in mining are allowing them to not only better serve the environment, but at the same time get more minerals than ever before out of the rock. Water, for example, that used to go into storage ponds is now being re-used, and the dirt left over reclaimed.

“We can now produce the same amount of product for our customers using less than half the ore we did 10 years ago, and that’s a phenomenal improvement in a very short period of time,” Smith said.

Rare earth elements got their name back in the late 1800s because it was thought they were tough to find, but that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact these elements, with names like cerium and dysprosium, are found everywhere, just not in high concentrations.

In layman’s terms, they are mostly found scattered, like throwing a handful of sand on a driveway. Here at the Mountain Pass facility, it would be more like rocks thrown across the driveway, which means it makes sense to mine at this location, one of only three such concentrations in the world.

Right now, Molycorp is turning out about 3,000 metric tons of the stuff a year, but the compnay is going to up that to 5,000 metric tons annually by the end of 2011. The goal is to crank out 40,000 metric tons yearly by the end of 2013. At that point, they estimate they’ll have swiped about 30 percent of the Chinese market share.

“Every ounce of rare earth that is used in anything in the Department of Defense, mission guidance systems, the night vision goggles, just as an example, every computer they use, that’s all made with 100 percent Chinese rare earth material today,” Smith said.

Rare earths are a set of seventeen chemical elements that are grouped together in the periodic table because of their great chemical similarity. Specifically, the fifteen lanthanides are essential to making hundreds of high-tech products, from wind turbines to jet engines, laptop computers to hybrid cars, and now the Chinese are choking off supply.

“In 1982, the premier of China said publicly that the Middle East may have oil but China has rare earths, and that shows you back in 1982 that the Chinese really understood the basic foundational economic value of rare earths to their country,” Smith said.

It’s clear that while this California mine exists thanks to geological luck, what Molycorp is doing here not only affects its bottom line, but also our national economic and military security.


April 2, 2011

New Image Is Worth 1,235 Potential Alien Planets

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 9:21 am
This illustration shows all 1,235 of the potential alien planet candidates NASA's Kepler mission has found to date. The planets are pictured crossing front of their host stars, which are all represented to scale.

This illustration shows all 1,235 of the potential alien planet candidates NASA's Kepler mission has found to date. The planets are pictured crossing front of their host stars, which are all represented to scale. (Jason Rowe and Kepler team)

Click on photo for larger version.

A photo may be worth 1,000 words, but a new depiction of NASA’s Kepler mission is worth 1,235 potential alien planets. Created by a devoted mission scientist, the image takes stock of the Kepler observatory’s prolific planet-hunting results so far.

The illustration shows all of Kepler’s candidate planets — which await confirmation by follow-up observations — crossing the face of their host stars. This provides scale, and it’s also a nod to Kepler’s planet-hunting strategy: The spacecraft detects alien worlds by measuring the telltale dips in a star’s brightness that occur during these planetary “transits.” [See the alien planet graphic]

The graphic is the brainchild of scientist Jason Rowe, who created it in an attempt convey Kepler’s exoplanet discoveries to the masses in a clear, concise manner.

“The graphic itself has been great to show to people. There is lots of interesting astrophysics that one can present,” Rowe, a member of the Kepler team at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, told “My favorite one so far is that planets can be just as big as some of the smallest stars.” [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]

In Rowe’s graphic, the parent stars of Kepler’s potential alien worlds are arranged by size, with the largest at the top left of the diagram and the smallest at the bottom right. For reference, our own sun is shown sitting by itself, just beneath the top row. Both Jupiter and Earth are depicted transiting the sun in the illustration, researchers said.

To create the graphic, Rowe wrote a program with scientific plotting software, creating synthetic stellar images that were properly scaled to one another. [Kepler Observatory by the Numbers]

NASA launched the $600 million Kepler observatory in March 2009 to seek out planets circling alien stars.

To do that, the spacecraft is staring continuously at a single patch of the sky, watching for tiny changes in the amount of light coming from every star it sees. Astronomers use other telescopes to follow up Kepler’s findings in order to confirm whether or not the candidate stars do, in fact, host exoplanets.

To date, Kepler has discovered 1,235 possible planets, with 54 of those candidates located within the so-called “Goldilocks zone” — that just-right range of distances around a star in which liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface.

Based on the amazing wealth of planet candidates from Kepler, astronomers have estimated that our Milky Way galaxy could hold as many as 50 billion alien planets, with 2 billion of those perhaps being about the size of Earth.


Sun Fades Away in Spectacular Eclipse Photo

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, The Sun — bferrari @ 9:17 am
Incredible Sun

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory snapped this view of the sun fading into shadow as it slips behind the Earth from the spacecraft's vantage point on March 29, 2011. The image was taken during SDO's so-called eclipse season, when it flies behind Earth for up to 72 minutes of each day. (NASA/GSFC/SDO)

A powerful NASA solar observatory has snapped an amazing view of the sun, a photo that shows the star partially obscured by the Earth.

The photo, obtained Tuesday (March 29) by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, was taken during the spacecraft’s so-called eclipse season – a period of the year when the satellite slips behind Earth for up to 72 minutes of every day. [See the stunning sun photo]

Sometimes, as the spacecraft swings behind the Earth, the probe is able to catch views of the planet as it blocks the sun. The result is an eerie view in which the sun’s bright disk gradually fades from view.

The image is a striking departure from other SDO photos that show the moon eclipsing the sun, known as lunar transits, which cut a crisp shadowy bite out of the star. [Amazing New Sun Photos From Space]

“Earth’s shadow has a variegated edge due to its atmosphere, which blocks the sun light to different degrees depending on its density,” NASA scientists explained in a photo description. “Also, light from brighter spots on the sun may make it through, which is why some solar features extend low into Earth’s shadow.”

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory experiences two eclipses seasons every year. The observatory was launched last year and is equipped with several high-definition cameras to beam back stunning views of the sun in different wavelengths.

The $850 million solar observatory is expected to last five years.


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