June 29, 2011

Scale of The Universe

What might be visible with a hypothetical telescope capable of magnifying 14 million times (clockwise from upper left): Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon and the stars Sirius, Proxima Centauri, HD 209458, and Alpha Centauri.

What might be visible with a hypothetical telescope capable of magnifying 14 million times (clockwise from upper left): Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon and the stars Sirius, Proxima Centauri, HD 209458, and Alpha Centauri.

This photo essay puts in perspective the size and scope of the universe and what we can see from our tiny planet from distant stars to two light year wide galaxies. Click on the link for the full image gallery.

What might be visible with a hypothetical telescope capable of magnifying 14 million times (clockwise from upper left): Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon and the stars Sirius, Proxima Centauri, HD 209458, and Alpha Centauri.


June 22, 2011

Hypersonic Jet, ZEHST, Revealed At Paris Air Show

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 5:35 pm
ZEHST Hypersonic Jet

ZEHST Hypersonic Jet

A new hypersonic jet, dubbed ZEHST for Zero Emission Hypersonic Transportation, was revealed at the Paris Air Show on Sunday.

The plane, which debuted in mockup form, will reach speeds of 3,125 mph, or roughly four times the speed of sound (Mach 4), the Daily Mail reports.

Seen as an heir to the Concorde, the plane will be propelled by a mix of hydrogen and oxygen, making it virtually emission free.

The project is being overseen by Airbus’ parent company, EADS, based in Toulouse, France. EADS expects the planes to carry roughly 100 passengers, and expects that the aircraft will be able to launch for a regular runway, omitting the “sonic boom” noises of the Concorde.

Flights that once took hours will be cut to minutes. Flying from London to Istanbul could take 30 minutes, while flights to New York from London could take about an hour. More astonishing? A flight from London to Tokyo would take 2 hours.

Innovation and technology director of EADS, Jean Botti, told the Daily Mail: “It is not a Concorde but it looks like a Concorde, showing that aerodynamics of the 1960s were already very smart. The plane would fly just above the atmosphere, meaning it could fly at more than 3,000 mph.”

There are two major downsides to the project. David Kaminski-Morrow, an air transport editor, told the Daily Mail: “The real difficulty is the economic of making a completely new type of aircraft work. It will take billion to take it off the drawing board and into the skies. But will there be an appetite to build an aircraft that does not take an awful lot of passengers?” The other? Oh, yea, it’s about 40 years off.

Here’s to the future!


June 20, 2011

Japan builds world’s most powerful supercomputer

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Military, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 3:04 pm

K system knocks Tianhe-1A off number one spot in Top 500 list

A Japanese computer has taken first place on the Top 500 supercomputer list, ending China’s reign at the top after just six months. At 8.16 petaflops, the K computer is more powerful than the next five systems combined.

Japan's K Computer, soone to be number 1 in the world

Japan's K Computer, soone to be number 1 in the world

The K computer’s performance was measured using 68,544 SPARC64 VIIIfx CPUs each with eight cores, for a total of 548,352 cores, almost twice as many as any other system on the Top500 list. The computer is still under construction, and when it enters service in November 2012 will have more than 80,000 SPARC64 VIIIfx CPUs according to its manufacturer, Fujitsu.

Japan’s ascension to the top means that the Chinese Tianhe-1A supercomputer, which took the number 1 position in November last year, is now in second spot with its 2.57 petaflops. But China continues to grow the number of systems it has on the list, up from 42 to 62 systems. The change at the top also means that Jaguar, built for the US Department of Energy (DOE), is bumped down to third place.

China's Tianhe-1A, now number 2 in the world

China's Tianhe-1A, now number 2 in the world

Now number 3 in the world, Jaguar

Now number 3 in the world, Jaguar

The latest iteration of the bi-annual list was released Monday at the 2011 International Supercomputing Conference.

Unlike other recent supercomputers, the K computer doesn’t use graphics processors or other accelerators. It uses the most power, but is also one of the most energy efficient systems on the list, according to The supercomputer is installed at the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science (AICS) in Kobe. When complete, it is intended to run at over 10 petaflops.

This is the first time Japan has had the most powerful supercomputer since the country’s Earth Simulator was surpassed by the DOE’s IBM BlueGene/L and by Nasa’s Columbia in November 2004.

For the first time, all of the top 10 systems achieved performance over 1 petaflop, although they are the only systems on the list that reach that level. The US has five systems in the top 10, Japan and China have two each and France has one.

The DOE’s Roadrunner, the first system to break the petaflop barrier in June 2008, is now in tenth place. The performance of computers on the list is measured using the Linpack benchmark, a set of routines that solve linear equations.

The last system on the new list was at position 262 six months ago, meaning almost 48 percent of the list has changed in the last six months, and the turnover rate has steadily increased during the last few lists, according to which publishes the list. While performance at the top is advancing by leaps and bounds, movements lower down the list are more modest. The entry point for the top 100 increased to 88.92 teraflops from 75.76 teraflops six months ago.

IBM is the dominant manufacturer on the list with 213 systems in the Top 500, compared to HP with 153.

Intel continues to provide the processors for a majority of the systems on list, followed by AMD and IBM. Intel’s Westmere processors are now used by 178 systems, up from 56 systems 6 months ago.

The Top 500 list is compiled by Hans Meuer of the University of Mannheim, Erich Strohmaier and Horst Simon of NERSC/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Jack Dongarra of the University of Tennessee.


June 11, 2011

Heartbreaker: Major Setback in Quest for ‘God Particle’

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool — bferrari @ 12:45 pm
Powerful "skytracer" floodlights light up the 27-kilometre ring of the Large Hadron Collider of the CERN, European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Powerful "skytracer" floodlights light up the 27-kilometre ring of the Large Hadron Collider of the CERN, European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland.

The quest for the elusive Higgs boson seemed over in April, when an unexpected result from an atom smasher seemed to herald the discovery of the famous particle — the last unproven piece of the physics puzzle and one of the great mysteries scientists face today.

Researchers were cautious, however, warning that it would take months to verify the finding.

Their caution was wise.

Scientists with the Tevatron particle accelerator at Chicago’s Fermilab facility just released the results of a months-long effort by the lab’s brightest minds to confirm the finding. What did they find? Nothing.

“We do not see the signal,” Dmitri Denisov, staff scientist at Fermilab, told “If it existed, we would see it. But when we look at our data, we basically see nothing.”

“At this point I’d say the chances are 50/50 for the Higgs to exist at all,” he said.

The results — submitted Friday to the science journal Physical Review Letters — are a heartbreaking setback for scientists and armchair experimenters worldwide, who have been following the particle-physics treasure hunt like a baseball fan monitoring stats.

After all, the quest for the Higgs boson — called the “God Particle” because it is believed to be the fundamental particle of matter, the smallest piece of substance that gives all other matter weight — has been among the most prominent scientific pursuits of the last 20 years.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the multi-billion dollar, 17-mile long particle accelerator in Geneva was built in part to help prove the theoretical bit’s existence.

James Gilies, a spokesman for CERN, the agency that operates the LHC, told that it was still too soon for his group to release any analysis — and way too early for hopes to have been raised in the first place.

“Still too early to get excited, I’m afraid … I think this story will reach a  conclusion at the main summer conferences this year — end of July. By then, the LHC experiments will have analyzed enough data to be able to say something,” Gilies said.

Though disappointing, the results shouldn’t really come as a surprise, physicists say. The strange anomaly that led to the God Particle chatter was nothing like what physicists expected from the Higgs in the first place.

“I had known from the start. It could not be a Higgs, and it can’t be anything else either,” Tommaso Dorigo, an experimental particle physicist who works with both atom smashers, told Denisov agreed.

“It was never the way the Higgs boson was supposed decay. It was something completely different. It wasn’t even obtained by the group that was hunting for the Higgs!” he said.

So what was it, anyway? Something completely unknown and unexpected, Denisov said, which is what prompted Fermilab to drop everything and assign its top scientists to uncover an unfortunate truth: Someone forgot to carry a zero.

“Probably the way they are estimating standard model backgrounds is not correct,” he said. One minor mistake and the tantalizing signal disappears, in other words. “My suspicion is that one way or the other, they’re not modeling the standard background correctly.”

Despite the disappointing setback, the quest for the Higgs boson is nonetheless drawing to a close.

“I’m pretty confident that towards the end of 2012 we will have an answer to the Shakespeare question for the Higgs boson, to be, or not to be?” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of CERN, said at Britain’s Royal Society.

Denisov agrees that the next few months could be eye-opening. And for Fermilab and the Tevatron, which is scheduled to be shut down this summer, it has to be.

“We are planning to finish our data taking later this year, and Tevatron will be shut down,” he said. “It will either be seen at Tevatron in completely different decay models or at LHC or not at all.”

Fermilab closing its doors probably won’t end the Higgs hunt; the LHC is a more likely site for the discovery anyway, being newer, bigger, and ultimately better. And even Denisov was willing to admit that.

“It’s like a Ford Model T trying to compete with a Ferrari,” he joked.


June 9, 2011

Gargantuan Sun Explosion Rocks Astronomers

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Inner Solar System, Life, The Sun — bferrari @ 8:14 pm
A satellite view of the solar storm that erupted on the sun June 7. (NASA/GSFC, LMSAL and SDO/AIA)

A satellite view of the solar storm that erupted on the sun June 7. (NASA/GSFC, LMSAL and SDO/AIA)

A huge storm on the sun this week unleashed what some have called the most massive eruption of solar plasma ever seen. While that’s up for review, the solar storm has revealed a tantalizing glimpse at the inner workings of our nearest star, scientists say.

NASA astronomers said the huge June 7 solar eruption, called a coronal mass ejection, probably wasn’t the biggest ever, but it is notable both for its size and its perplexing behavior. Huge waves of plasma roared off the sun only to rain back down on the solar surface.

“We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before,” said Phillip Chamberlin, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a deputy project scientist on the agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite. “It’s a really exciting event. There are a lot of exceptions to it.”

[Video: Sun’s June 7 flare and eruption]

The solar storm occurred on Tuesday (June 7), and lasted about three hours. It produced a sudden brightening of the sun called a solar flare that was only a moderate, or Class M, event. However, it also let loose the coronal mass ejection, which is a cloud of charged particles that erupted into space from the surface of the sun.

Garganutuan Coronal Mass Ejection

Garganutuan Coronal Mass Ejection

Sun shower of plasma rain

Usually, coronal mass ejection material flies off into space, sometimes hurling toward Earth. But this time, a large majority of it fell back down to the solar surface. [Amazing New Sun Photos from Space]

“The particles that were shot off expanded to a very large volume, sort of a mushroom cloud, and then a lot fell back down to the sun,” Chamberlin said.

However, enough material was sent Earthward that skywatchers are expecting some extra-bright displays of the Northern Lights, or auroras, this week.

Why it happened this way, instead of the usual process of ejecting out into space, is still a mystery.

“We’re still trying to figure that one out,” Chamberlin told “That’s science. I don’t know. We’re stumped.”

Sun secrets revealed?

But the scientists are eagerly studying the event to attempt to understand the event. They are aided by video footage of the event from SDO, as well as NASA’s twin Stereo spacecraft orbiting the sun from points ahead of and behind Earth, providing multiple angles on the solar activity.

“We should get a good stereoscopic view and try to model this and understand what’s going on, why is there so much plasma raining down,” Chamberlin said.

Another mystery researchers are hoping to solve is why this super-powerful coronal mass ejection was paired with just a moderate solar flare. Experts aren’t sure about the connection between the two events, which usually seem to roughly correlate both in timing and strength.

“One of the big questions in solar science is the relationship between solar flares and coronal mass ejections,” Chamberlin said. “Can you have one without the other or are they really intimately tied? There are people in the field that will argue both ways.”

Watershed sun storm

Having such a unique event to investigate is sure to provide some new insights into the riddle, Chamberlin said.

In fact, he estimated that tens to hundreds of research papers would likely come out of just this one event, and a number of graduate students will likely do their entire Ph.D. research on this particular solar storm.

“The scientists are really excited, to the point where it’s kind of like a watercooler,” Chamberlin said. “Everybody here at Goddard is all talking with each other. We have a video wall and we’re just standing around looking at it, picking out new things.”

And it truly is a good time to be a solar scientist, because this event is just the beginning. The sun is waking up from a slump in its normal 11-year cycle of activity. A period of solar minimum, with few storms or flares, occurred a few years ago, and the sun is expected to reach maximum activity at the end of 2013.

“We’re going to get a lot more of these events coming up in the next couple years, probably bigger events as well,” Chamberlin said.


June 8, 2011

Catch the supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Supernova — bferrari @ 7:46 pm

If you haven’t yet seen the “new star” in one of our favorite galaxies, M51 in Ursa Major, I encourage you to do so on the next clear night. The supernova erupted in the Whirlpool Galaxy on May 31 and was first observed by French amateur astronomer Amédée Riou. A German astronomer, Thomas Griga, confirmed the observation the next day and soon thereafter the supernova, the third in M51 in the past 17 years, was widely known among astronomers.

The supernova, designated SN 2011dh, currently glows at about 14th magnitude, making a reasonably sized amateur instrument – a scope in the 10- to 12-inch range – necessary to see it. Imaging the supernova can be done with a much smaller telescope, of course.

The galaxy lies about 26 million light-years away, meaning the star actually exploded roughly 26 million years ago and that we are just seeing the flash of light now. It’s a relatively rare event in such a bright and well-known galaxy, and I encourage you to check it out.

I am posting two spectacular photos of the galaxy and the new supernova: a color shot that is quite breathtaking, and a reference image in black and white that shows the supernova’s position. Enjoy!


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