September 23, 2011

Strange Particles May Travel Faster Than Light

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 7:05 am
The Gran Sasso National Laboratory of the Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics, located nearly a mile below the surface of the Gran Sasso mountain about 60 miles outside of Rome, detects tiny particles called neutrinos.

The Gran Sasso National Laboratory of the Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics, located nearly a mile below the surface of the Gran Sasso mountain about 60 miles outside of Rome, detects tiny particles called neutrinos.

Nothing goes faster than the speed of light. At least, we didn’t think so.

New results from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland seem to break this cardinal rule of physics, calling into question one of the most trusted laws discovered by Albert Einstein.

Physicists have found that tiny particles called neutrinos are making a 454-mile (730-kilometer) underground trip faster than they should — more quickly, in fact, than light could do. If the results are confirmed, they could throw much of modern physics into upheaval.

The results come from the OPERA experiment, which sends sprays of neutrinos from CERN in Geneva to the INFN Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy. After analyzing the results from 15,000 particles, it seems the neutrinos are crossing the distance at a velocity 20 parts per million faster than the speed of light.

By making use of advanced GPS systems and atomic clocks, the researchers were able to determine this speed to an accuracy of less than 10 nanoseconds (.00000001 seconds). [Countdown: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]

Realizing full well how scandalous the results will be if they are borne out, the scientists behind OPERA, led by Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern, have decided to make their data public, in hopes of inviting scrutiny that could make sense of such radical findings. The scientists also intend to gather more data and further analyze their measurements in order to establish them more fully, or refute them. Their results will be published Friday (Sept. 23) on the physics preprint site ArXiv.

Previous studies have found that certain materials can travel faster than light through a medium. For example, certain particles are able to move more swiftly than light when travelling through water or oil. However, nothing should be able to move faster than light through a vacuum.

“It’s thought to be an absolute speed limit,” said Michael Peskin, a theoretical physicist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif. “Quantum filed theory, the mathematical theory on which basically all results in particle physics are based, has the property that signals cannot travel faster than the speed of light through a vacuum. It’s really an absolute prohibition.”

Peskin is not part of the OPERA team, and hasn’t yet seen data from the new findings.

This cosmic speed limit, 299,792,458 meters per second (about 700 million miles an hour), forms the backbone of Einstein’s seminal Theory of Special Relativity, published in 1905. To rewrite this law would have broad-ranging implications, including even the possibility of time travel.

CERN plans to discuss the findings Friday during a public seminar that will be broadcast at


September 16, 2011

NASA unveils its chosen Shuttle successor

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:23 am

Basically a big shuttle which you throw away each time

If at first you can't afford it ...

If at first you can't afford it ...

A similarly disposable and likewise liquid-fuelled upper stage will employ J-2X engines derived from the Apollo programme which sent men to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s. NASA thinks that the first SLS test flight might come as early as 2017, and that an initial ability to hoist 70 tonnes into orbit could be gradually increased to 130 tonnes, somewhat more than the mighty Saturn Vs of yesteryear.

According to NASA:

The SLS rocket will incorporate technological investments from the Space Shuttle Program and the Constellation Program in order to take advantage of proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce development and operations costs. It will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system …

This specific architecture was selected, largely because it utilizes an evolvable development approach, which allows NASA to address high-cost development activities early on in the program and take advantage of higher buying power before inflation erodes the available funding of a fixed budget. This architecture also enables NASA to leverage existing capabilities and lower development costs by using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for both the core and upper stages.

It won’t have escaped space-savvy readers that SLS bears a strong resemblance to the Ares V heavy lifters planned under the now defunct Constellation plans. These were axed by the incoming Obama administration after Congress refused to provide enough cash, though the Orion deep-space craft remained for no very obvious reason. On the face of it, it’s hard to see why NASA thinks it can now afford to build SLS.

“We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year,” contends NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued US leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” says NASA head Charles Bolden. “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA.”

In fact President Obama stated last year that the choice of a new heavy lifter would be made in 2015, and that he wanted something new, not recycled shuttle/Apollo kit:

In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there.

At the time it was obvious that NASA and the established US rocket industry were upset and worried by Obama’s decision to push back the decision on the heavy lifter, and to open up the task of carrying crews and supplies to the International Space Station to new players.

In particular it was obvious that Obama had been chatting to famous techbiz visionary Elon Musk, founder of upstart rocket firm SpaceX. In just eight years SpaceX has come from nowhere to successfully test-fly a rocket and capsule (Falcon 9 and Dragon) which seem quite capable of carrying astronauts into orbit. Musk has also said he will fly a Falcon-9 derived falcon Heavy in 2014 which will be the most powerful rocket then in existence, able to haul 54 tonnes to orbit.

That’s not in the 70-130 tonne class required for deep space missions. But it’s also well known that Musk has engineers working on new Merlin 2 engines. Rockets based on these could easily match – or beat – the planned SLS for lift: and based on a comparison between current SpaceX prices and those of the existing US rocket biz, they would be enormously cheaper. This would be partly because they use much more modern technology (being all-new designs), partly because they use cheap and easy-to-handle kerosene fuel instead of cryogenic hydrogen, and partly because SpaceX is not burdened with the huge workforces and costs of the sprawling established rocket base (the fledgling firm has only recently passed 1,000 employees).

Provided Musk can actually do what he says – reliably deliver cargoes and then crews to the ISS, and fly the biggest rocket in the USA by 2014, all at very low cost – in 2015 it would seem a no-brainer to cancel the almost certainly still-cripplingly-expensive SLS and instead order Merlin-2 based superlifters from Musk.

But that won’t seem like a good idea to huge numbers of employees at NASA, Lockheed and Boeing who would build and fuel up and operate the SLS as they have the Shuttle and other existing lifters for decades. Thus it won’t and doesn’t seem like a good idea to many Washington politicians, who have been instrumental in assembling the SLS proposals and in the insistence that somehow NASA can afford SLS when it couldn’t afford Ares V.

With that sort of political clout behind it, and with no certainty that Obama will even be in the White House come 2015, there has to be a chance that the SLS does indeed represent the future of US manned spaceflight: thus, the foreseeable future of manned flight beyond Earth orbit.

Given the past history of the Shuttle and Apollo before it, those who want to see human beings fly further, sooner and more often might easily find that a depressing prospect.


September 13, 2011

‘Super-Earth,’ 1 of 50 Newfound Alien Planets, Could Potentially Support Life

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life — bferrari @ 2:34 pm

More than 50 new alien planets — including one so-called super-Earth that could potentially support life — have been discovered by an exoplanet-hunting telescope from the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The newfound haul of alien planets includes 16 super-Earths, which are potentially rocky worlds that are more massive than our planet. One in particular – called HD 85512 b – has captured astronomers’ attention because it orbits at the edge of its star’s habitable zone, suggesting conditions could be ripe to support life.

The exoplanet findings came from observations from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher instrument, or HARPS. The HARPS spectrograph is part of ESO’s 11.8-foot (3.6-meter) telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. [Illustration and video of alien planet HD 85512 b]

“The harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our sun,” HARPS team leader Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland said in a statement. “And even better — the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating.”

The potentially habitable super-Earth, officially called HD 85512 b, is estimated to be only 3.6 times more massive than Earth, and its parent star is located about 35 light-years away, making it relatively nearby. HD 85512 b was found to orbit at the edge of its star’s habitable zone, which is a narrow region in which the distance is just right that liquid water could exist given the right conditions. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]

“This is the lowest-mass confirmed planet discovered by the radial velocity method that potentially lies in the habitable zone of its star, and the second low-mass planet discovered by HARPS inside the habitable zone,” said exoplanet habitability expert Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston.

Further analysis of HD 85512 b and the other newfound exoplanets will be able to determine more about the potential existence of water on the surface.

“I think we’re in for an incredibly exciting time,” Kaltenegger told reporters in a briefing today (Sept. 12). “We’re not just going out there to discover new continents — we’re actually going out there to discover brand new worlds.” [Infographic: Alien Planet HD 85512 b Holds Possibility of Life]


The HARPS spectrograph is designed to detect tiny radial velocity signals induced by planets as small as Earth if they orbit close to their star.

Astronomers used HARPS to observe 376 sunlike stars. By studying the properties of all the alien planets detected by HARPS so far, researchers found that approximately 40 percent of stars similar to the sun is host to at least one planet that is less massive than the gas giant Saturn.

In other words, approximately 40 percent of sunlike stars have at least one low-mass planet orbiting around it. On the other hand, the majority of alien planets with a mass similar to Neptune appear to be in systems with multiple planets, researchers said.

Astronomers have previously discovered 564 confirmed alien planets, with roughly 1,200 additional candidate worlds under investigation based on data from the Kepler space observatory, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

You can follow staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. senior writer Clara Moskowitz (@ClaraMoskowitz) contributed to this report. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Invisible World Discovered

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Wierd — bferrari @ 2:32 pm
Kepler-19bc The "invisible" world Kepler-19c, seen in the foreground of this artist's conception, was discovered solely through its gravitational influence on the companion world Kepler-19b - the dot crossing the star's face. Kepler-19b is slightly more than twice the diameter of Earth, and is probably a "mini-Neptune." Nothing is known about Kepler-19c, other than that it exists. (David A. Aguilar (CfA))

Kepler-19bc The "invisible" world Kepler-19c, seen in the foreground of this artist's conception, was discovered solely through its gravitational influence on the companion world Kepler-19b - the dot crossing the star's face. Kepler-19b is slightly more than twice the diameter of Earth, and is probably a "mini-Neptune." Nothing is known about Kepler-19c, other than that it exists. (David A. Aguilar (CfA))

Cambridge, MA – Usually, running five minutes late is a bad thing since you might lose your dinner reservation or miss out on tickets to the latest show. But when a planet runs five minutes late, astronomers get excited because it suggests that another world is nearby.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has spotted a planet that alternately runs late and early in its orbit because a second, “invisible” world is tugging on it. This is the first definite detection of a previously unknown planet using this method. No other technique could have found the unseen companion.

“This invisible planet makes itself known by its influence on the planet we can see,” said astronomer Sarah Ballard of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Ballard is lead author on the study, which has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

“It’s like having someone play a prank on you by ringing your doorbell and running away. You know someone was there, even if you don’t see them when you get outside,” she added.

Both the seen and unseen worlds orbit the Sun-like star Kepler-19, which is located 650 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The 12th-magnitude star is well placed for viewing by backyard telescopes on September evenings.

Kepler locates planets by looking for a star that dims slightly as a planet transits the star, passing across the star’s face from our point of view. Transits give one crucial piece of information – the planet’s physical size. The greater the dip in light, the larger the planet relative to its star. However, the planet and star must line up exactly for us to see a transit.

The first planet, Kepler-19b, transits its star every 9 days and 7 hours. It orbits the star at a distance of 8.4 million miles, where it is heated to a temperature of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Kepler-19b has a diameter of 18,000 miles, making it slightly more than twice the size of Earth. It may resemble a “mini-Neptune,” however its mass and composition remain unknown.

If Kepler-19b were alone, each transit would follow the next like clockwork. Instead, the transits come up to five minutes early or five minutes late. Such transit timing variations show that another world’s gravity is pulling on Kepler-19b, alternately speeding it up or slowing it down.

Historically, the planet Neptune was discovered similarly. Astronomers tracking Uranus noticed that its orbit didn’t match predictions. They realized that a more distant planet might be nudging Uranus and calculated the expected location of the unseen world. Telescopes soon observed Neptune near its predicted position.

“This method holds great promise for finding planets that can’t be found otherwise,” stated Harvard astronomer and co-author David Charbonneau.

So far, astronomers don’t know anything about the invisible world Kepler-19c, other than that it exists. It weighs too little to gravitationally tug the star enough for them to measure its mass. And Kepler hasn’t detected it transiting the star, suggesting that its orbit is tilted relative to Kepler-19b.

“Kepler-19c has multiple personalities consistent with our data. For instance, it could be a rocky planet on a circular 5-day orbit, or a gas-giant planet on an oblong 100-day orbit,” said co-author Daniel Fabrycky of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

The Kepler spacecraft will continue to monitor Kepler-19 throughout its mission. Those additional data will help nail down the orbit of Kepler-19c. Future ground-based instruments like HARPS-North will attempt to measure the mass of Kepler-19c. Only then will we have a clue to the nature of this invisible world.

NASA Ames Research Center is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system, and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

September 5, 2011

Electric motor made from a single molecule

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 7:56 am
The butyl methyl sulphide molecule whips round an axis defined by its single sulphur atom (blue)

The butyl methyl sulphide molecule whips round an axis defined by its single sulphur atom (blue)

Researchers have created the smallest electric motor ever devised.

The motor, made from a single molecule just a billionth of a metre across, is reported in Nature Nanotechnology.

The minuscule motor could have applications in both nanotechnology and in medicine, where tiny amounts of work can be put to efficient use.

Tiny rotors based on single molecules have been shown before, but this is the first that can be individually driven by an electric current.

“People have found before that they can make motors driven by light or by chemical reactions, but the issue there is that you’re driving billions of them at a time – every single motor in your beaker,” said Charles Sykes, a chemist at Tufts University in Massachusetts, US.

“The exciting thing about the electrical one is that we can excite and watch the motion of just one, and we can see how that thing’s behaving in real time,” he told BBC News.
Miniature uses

The butyl methyl sulphide molecule was placed on a clean copper surface, where its single sulphur atom acted as a pivot.

The tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope – a tiny pyramid with a point just an atom or two across – was used to funnel electrical charge into the motor, as well as to take images of the molecule as it spun.

It spins in both directions, at a rate as high as 120 revolutions per second.

But averaged over time, there is a net rotation in one direction.

By modifying the molecule slightly, it could be used to generate microwave radiation or to couple into what are known as nano-electromechanical systems, Dr Sykes said.

“The next thing to do is to get the thing to do work that we can measure – to couple it to other molecules, lining them up next to one another so they’re like miniature cog-wheels, and then watch the rotation propagation down the chain,” he said.

As well as forming a part of the tiniest machines the world has ever seen, such minute mechanics could be useful in medicine – for example, in the controlled delivery of drugs to targeted locations.

But for the moment, Dr Sykes and his team are in contact with the Guinness Book of World Records to have their motor certified as the smallest ever.


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