May 1, 2016

Newly Discovered Star Has an Almost Pure Oxygen Atmosphere

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Wierd — bferrari @ 5:25 pm
An artist's depiction of white dwarf stars Sirius A and B.

An artist’s depiction of white dwarf stars Sirius A and B.

A newly discovered star is unlike any ever found. With an outermost layer of 99.9 percent pure oxygen, its atmosphere is the most oxygen-rich in the known universe. Heck, it makes Earth’s meager 21 percent look downright suffocating.

The strange stellar oddity is a radically new type of white dwarf star, and was discovered by a team of Brazilian astronomers led by Kepler de Souza Oliveira at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. The star is unique in the known pool of 32,000 white dwarf stars, and is the only known star of any kind with an almost pure oxygen atmosphere. The new white dwarf has a mouthful of a name—SDSSJ124043.01+671034.68—but has been nicknamed ‘Dox’ (pronounced Dee-Awks) by Kepler’s team. The discovery was reported today in a paper in the journal Science.


“This white dwarf was incredibly unexpected,” says Kepler, “And because we had no idea anything like it could even exist, that made it all the more difficult to find.”

Missing Gas

Here’s a quick refresher: White dwarfs like Dox are the antiques of the cosmos. They’re the hyper-dense husks left over when stars largely sputter out of hydrogen and helium fuel. All but the largest 3 percent of stars end up as white dwarfs. Although Dox is only slightly bigger than our home planet, it’s 60 percent the mass of our sun.

Boris Gänsicke, an astronomer at the University of Warwick, in the UK, who was not involved in Dox’s discovery, confirms that the “exotic white dwarf… has an almost pure oxygen atmosphere, diluted only by traces of neon, magnesium, and silicon,” he writes in an essay accompanying the Science paper. “This chemical composition is unique among known [white dwarfs] and must arise from an extremely rare process.”

So, what makes Dox’s oxygen rich atmosphere so unexpected? Kepler explains that Dox presents more than a couple mysteries. For one, almost all other white dwarfs in the sky have an atmosphere thick with light elements like hydrogen and helium. These light elements are the final dregs of the star’s elemental fusion fuel that survived the star’s earlier life-cycle. Simply because of their weight, these light elements naturally float to the top of white dwarfs.

“What happened to all these light elements?” asks Kepler “How did they all get stripped away?”

Kepler also explains that although traces of heavier elements like carbon and oxygen can be detected in about one out of every five white dwarfs, it’s never quite like this. A white dwarf’s atmosphere is never purely one element, and is often diluted in a pool of lighter elements. Perhaps most perplexing, when oxygen atoms are found, they’re spied in far heavier white dwarfs. Smaller white dwarfs evolve from smaller stars, which don’t fuse together atoms into oxygen as they collapse. By all calculations, Dox would have had to be roughly double its weight to have even forged oxygen atoms in its earlier life. “You have to wonder where this oxygen even came from,” says Kepler.

In short, by simply being so weird, Dox completely defies our general, scientific understanding of how stars evolve and eventually form into white dwarfs. But Kepler suggests that maybe this shouldn’t be all that surprising. That’s because, he argues, scientists have often ignored the wacky results that can come about when stars grow and evolve while locked in a binary dance with other stars—rather than alone.

“I think the main problem is that we [astronomers] have dedicated the last 50 years to calculate the evolution of stars that are not interacting with each other, when at least 30 percent of stars interact with a binary companion,” he says.

Kepler believes Dox looks so strange because of an unlikely binary origin-story. His rough theory goes like this:

At some point Dox may have been a larger white dwarf, locked in a twirling ballet with another star much like our own Sun. These two stars were about the same distance apart as the Sun and Venus are. As Dox’s dance partner started to sputter out of Hydrogen fuel, it formed what’s called a red giant. It expanded rapidly—becoming so big that it actually engulfed the white dwarf in its outermost layer of gas. Kepler believes Dox would have started siphoning off the red giant’s gas onto itself. At some point during that siphoning process, “when it reached a few million degrees, it exploded. That explosion threw all types of matter out. That’s when [Dox] might have lost all its hydrogen and helium. This type of situation is known to have happened with other stars, although it’s never been seen to leave just oxygen,” he says.

The World’s Most Boring Job

Dox was discovered in a data mountain of 4.5 million individual star observations, collected over the last 15 years by a New Mexico observatory in a project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It was found by way of a process so grueling that its initial discoverer—one of Kepler’s undergraduate students Gustavo Ourique—deserves a mention.

Ourique was looking for strange, new types of white dwarfs in a data pile of 300,000 possible observations. These observations are simple graphs about what colors of light came from each pinpoint source (called a spectral graph). Because a computer isn’t easily programmed with such a vague task as “find something weird and cool,” Ourique was challenged with the grunt-work task of physically looking at printed out pages of all 300,000 graphs.

“After a few months he could filter a one or two thousand each day, like reading a book” says Kepler. Yeah, but what a heartbreakingly boring book. That is, at least until it gets thrilling, because after half a year of scanning, and toward the end of the 300,000 graphs, Ourique came across Dox. Because of it’s oxygen atmosphere, Dox’s spectral graph looked truly unique, and he brought it to Kepler.

Ourique, man, you are a hero.


April 19, 2016

Large Hadron Collider results may hint at a new era of physics

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Wierd — bferrari @ 2:00 pm
The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) tunnel. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) tunnel. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

Are we about to enter a new era of physics?  Data collected by the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland may have identified particle activity that doesn’t fit the standard laws of physics.

The analysis by scientists including physicists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN) could have huge scientific implications.

“There are some indications that physicists working at the LHC accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva may see the first traces of physics beyond the current theory which describes the structure of matter,” said the IFJ PAN, in a recent press release.

The structure of matter is described by a theoretical framework called The Standard Model, which identifies the roles played by different particles. Boson particles, for example, are carriers of forces, whereas photons are related to electromagnetic interactions. Matter is formed by particles called fermions.

However, scientists, analyzing data collected by the LHCb experiment in 2011 and 2012, noticed an anomaly in the decay of a particle called a B Meson. According to the research, the traditional method for determining the particle’s decay may lead to false results.

Related: Science breakthrough? Physicists may have discovered Higgs boson relative

Could the anomaly hint at a new understanding of the Universe? Scientists are certainly intrigued by the anomaly. To put it in terms of the cinema, where we once only had a few leaked scenes from an much-anticipated blockbuster, the LHC has finally treated fans to the first real trailer,” said Professor Mariusz Witek of IFJ PAN, in the release.

Witek notes that the framework used to describe the structure of matter poses plenty of questions for scientists. “The Standard Model cannot explain all the features of the Universe,” he said. “It doesn’t predict the masses of particles or tell us why fermions are organized in three families. How did the dominance of matter over antimatter in the universe come about? What is dark matter? Those questions remain unanswered.”

To further illustrate his point, the Professor notes that gravity isn’t even included in the Standard Model.

However, scientists caution that more research is needed on the B Meson anomaly. “We can’t call it a discovery. Not yet,” said the IFJ PAN.

CERN spokesman Arnaud Marsollier told that the B Meson data, which first emerged last year, are not conclusive. “More data are needed before we can tell anything significant on this, so we will have to wait for the LHC to restart (soon),” he explained via email, noting the importance of patience when recording and analyzing data. “Science needs time!” he added.

Related: Revamped Large Hadron Collider set to restart

CERN is currently starting powering tests on the huge particle accelerator. “Beams should be back by the end of the month or early April, and collisions sometimes next month if everything goes as planned,” said Marsollier.

Oxford University Physics Professor Guy Wilkinson, who serves as the spokesman for the LHCb experiment, told that CERN’s B Meson data is “extremely interesting,” but noted that it could be a couple of years before scientists perform a full analysis. “When we analyse this new sample in a year or two we will be able to make a fresh and, I hope, more categorical statement on this topic,” he explained, via email.

The 17-mile LHC was built between 1998 and 2008 to help scientists test some theories of particle and high-energy physics and advance understanding of physical laws.

In 2012 the Collider won global acclaim with the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson  particle, which explains the behavior of other particles. Physicists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert were subsequently awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.


February 26, 2016

Explaining EmDrive, the ‘physics-defying’ thruster even NASA is puzzled over


Even if you don’t keep up with developments in space propulsion technology, you’ve still probably heard about the EmDrive. You’ve probably seen headlines declaring it the key to interstellar travel, and claims that it will drastically reduce travel time across our solar system, making our dreams of people walking on other planets even more of a reality. There have even been claims that this highly controversial technology is the key to creating warp drives.

These are bold claims, and as the great cosmologist and astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” With that in mind, we thought it’d be helpful to break down what we know about the enigmatic EmDrive, and whether it is, in fact, the key to mankind exploring the stars.

So without further ado, here’s absolutely everything you need to know about the world’s most puzzling propulsion device.


What is the EmDrive?

See, the EmDrive is a conundrum. First designed in 2001 by aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer, the technology can be summed up as a propellantless propulsion system, meaning the engine doesn’t use fuel to cause a reaction. Removing the need for fuel makes a craft substantially lighter, and therefore easier to move (and cheaper to make, theoretically). In addition, the hypothetical drive is able to reach extremely high speeds — we’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months.

We’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months. The issue is, the entire concept of a reactionless drive is inconsistent with Newton’s conservation of momentum, which states that within a closed system, linear and angular momentum remain constant regardless of any changes that take place within said system. More plainly: Unless an outside force is applied, an object will not move.


Reactionless drives are named as such because they lack the “reaction” defined in Newton’s third law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” But this goes against our current fundamental understanding of physics: An action (propulsion of a craft) taking place without a reaction (ignition of fuel and expulsion of mass) should be impossible. For such a thing to occur, it would mean an as-yet-undefined phenomenon is taking place — or our understanding of physics is completely wrong.

How does the EmDrive “work?”

Setting aside the potentially physics-breaking improbabilities of the technology, let’s break down in simple terms how the proposed drive operates. The EmDrive is what is called an RF resonant cavity thruster, and is one of several hypothetical machines that use this model. These designs work by having a magnetron push microwaves into a closed truncated cone, then push against the short end of the cone, and propel the craft forward.

This is in contrast to the form of propulsion current spacecraft use, which burn large quantities of fuel to expel a massive amount of energy and mass to rocket the craft into the air. An often-used metaphor for the inefficacy of this is to compare the particles pushing against the enclosure and producing thrust to the act of sitting in a car and pushing a steering wheel to move the car forward.

While tests have been done on experimental versions of the drive — with low energy inputs resulting in a few micronewtons of thrust (about as much force as the weight of a penny) — none of the findings have ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal. That means that any and all purportedly positive test results, and the claims of those who have a vested interest in the technology, should be taken with a very big grain of skepticism-flavored salt. It’s likely that the thrust recorded was due to interference or an unaccounted error with equipment.

Until the tests have been verified through the proper scientific and peer-reviewed processes, one can assume the drive does not yet work. Still, it’s interesting to note the number of people who have tested the drive and reported achieving thrust:

  • In 2001, Shawyer was given a £45,000 grant from the British government to test the EmDrive. His test reportedly achieved 0.016 Newtons of force and required 850 watts of power, but no peer review of the tests verified this. It’s worth noting, however, that this number was low enough that it was potentially an experimental error.
  • In 2008, Yang Juan and a team of Chinese researches at the Northwestern Polytechnical University allegedly verified the theory behind RF resonant cavity thrusters, and subsequently built their own version in 2010, testing the drive multiple times from 2012 to 2014. Tests results were purportedly positive, achieving up yo 750 mN (millinewtons) of thrust, and requiring 2,500 watts of power.
  • In 2014, NASA researchers, tested their own version of an EmDrive, including in a hard vacuum. Once again, the group reported thrust (about 1/1,000 of Shawyer’s claims), and once again, the data was never published through peer-reviewed sources. Other NASA groups are skeptical of researchers’ claims, but in their paper, it is clearly stated that these findings neither confirm nor refute the drive, instead calling for further tests.
  • In 2015, that same NASA group tested a version of chemical engineer Guido Fetta’s Cannae Drive (née Q Drive), and reported positive net thrust. Similarly, a research group at Dresden University of Technology also tested the drive, again reporting thrust, both predicted and unexpected.
  • Yet another test by a NASA research group, Eagleworks, in late 2015 seemingly confirmed the validity of the EmDrive. The test corrected errors that had occurred in the previous tests, and surprisingly, the drive achieved thrust. However, the group has not yet submitted their findings for peer review. It’s possible that other unforeseen errors in the experiment may have cause thrust (the most likely of which is that the vacuum was compromised, causing heat to expand air within it testing environment and move the drive). Whether the findings are ultimately published or not, more tests need to be done. That’s exactly what Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory intend to do. For EmDrive believers, there seems to be some hope.

Implications of a working EmDrive

It’s easy to see how many in the scientific community are wary of EmDrive and RF resonant cavity thrusts altogether. But on the other hand, the wealth of studies raises a few questions: Why is there such a interest in the technology, and why do so many people wish to test it? What exactly are the claims being made about the drive that make it such an attractive idea? While everything from atmospheric temperature-controlling satellites, to safer and more efficient automobiles have been drummed up as potential applications for the drive, the real draw of the technology — and the impetus for its creation in the first place — is the implications for space travel.


Spacecraft equipped with a reactionless drive could potentially make it to the moon in just a few hours, Mars in two to three months, and Pluto within two years. These are extremely bold claims, but if the EmDrive does turn out to be a legitimate technology, they may not be all that outlandish. And with no need to pack several tons-worth of fuel, spacecraft become cheaper and easier to produce, and far lighter.
For NASA and other such organizations, including the numerous private space corporations like SpaceX, lightweight, affordable spacecraft that can travel to remote parts of space fast are something of a unicorn. Still, for that to become a reality, the science has to add up.

Shawyer is adamant that there is no need for pseudoscience or quantum theories to explain how EmDrive works. Instead, he believes that current models of Newtonian physics offer an explanation, and has written papers on the subject, one of which is currently being peer reviewed. He expects the paper to be published sometime this year. While in the past Shawyer has been criticized by other scientists for incorrect and inconsistent science, if the paper does indeed get published, it may begin to legitimize the EmDrive and spur more testing and research.

Spacecraft equipped with a reactionless drive could potentially make it to the Moon in just a few hours.

Despite his insistence that the drive behaves within the laws of physics, it hasn’t prevented him from making bold assertions regarding EmDrive. Shawyer has gone on record saying that this new drive produced warp bubbles which allow the drive to move, claiming that this is how NASA’s test results were likely achieved. Assertions such as these have garnered much interest online, but have no clear supporting data and will (at the very least) require extensive testing and debate in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community — the majority of which remain skeptical of Shawyer’s claims.

Colin Johnston of the Armagh Planetarium wrote an extensive critique of the EmDrive and the inconclusive findings of numerous tests. Similarly, Corey S. Powell of Discovery wrote his own indictment of both Shawyer’s EmDrive and Fetta’s Cannae Drive, as well as the recent fervor over NASA’s findings. Both point out the need for greater discretion when reporting on such instances. Professor and mathematical physicist, John C. Baez expressed his exhaustion at the conceptual technology’s persistence in debates and discussions, calling the entire notion of a reactionless drive “baloney.” His impassioned dismissal echoes the sentiments of many others.

Shawyer’s EmDrive has been met with enthusiasm elsewhere, including the website — where information about the most recent Eagleworks’ tests was first posted — and the popular journal New Scientist, which published a favorable and optimistic paper on EmDrive. (The editors later issued a statement that, despite enduring excitement over the idea, they should have shown more tact when writing on the controversial subject.)

Clearly, the EmDrive and RF resonant cavity thruster technology have a lot to prove. There’s no denying that the technology is exciting, and that the number of “successful” tests are interesting, but one must keep in mind the physics preventing the EmDrive from gaining any traction, and the rather curious lack of peer-reviewed studies done on the subject. If the EmDrive is so groundbreaking (and works), surely people like Shawyer would be clamoring for peer-reviewed verification.

A demonstrably working EmDrive could open up exciting possibilities for both space and terrestrial travel — not to mention call into question our entire understanding of physics. However, until that comes to pass, it will remain nothing more than science fiction.

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January 24, 2016

Particles could reveal clues to how Egypt pyramid was built

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Planets, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:29 am
FILE - This file Aug. 19, 2011 photo shows the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Coralie Carlson, File)

FILE – This file Aug. 19, 2011 photo shows the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Coralie Carlson, File)

CAIRO — An international team of researchers said Sunday they will soon begin analyzing cosmic particles collected inside Egypt’s Bent Pyramid to search for clues as to how it was built and learn more about the 4,600-year-old structure.

Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, said that plates planted inside the pyramid last month have collected data on radiographic particles known as muons that rain down from the earth’s atmosphere.

The particles pass through empty spaces but can be absorbed or deflected by harder surfaces. By studying particle accumulations, scientists may learn more about the construction of the pyramid, built by the Pharaoh Snefru.

“For the construction of the pyramids, there is no single theory that is 100 percent proven or checked; They are all theories and hypotheses,” said Hany Helal, the institute’s vice president.

“What we are trying to do with the new technology, we would like to either confirm or change or upgrade or modify the hypotheses that we have on how the pyramids were constructed,” he said.

The Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, just outside Cairo, is distinguished by the bent slope of its sides. It is believed to have been ancient Egypt’s first attempt to build a smooth-sided pyramid.

The Scan Pyramids project, which announced in November thermal anomalies in the 4,500 year-old Khufu Pyramid in Giza, is coupling thermal technology with muons analysis to try to unlock secrets to the construction of several ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Tayoubi said the group plans to start preparations for muons testing in a month in Khufu, the largest of the three Giza pyramids, which is known internationally as Cheops.

“Even if we find one square meter void somewhere, it will bring new questions and hypotheses and maybe it will help solve the definitive questions,” said Tayoubi.


June 23, 2014

NASA moving ahead with asteroid-capture plan, wants to grab one in 2019

Filed under: Asteroids, Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Moons, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 1:50 pm
This undated handout two-picture combo of artist conceptions provided by NASA/JPL Caltech shows what NASA says are good candidates for a mission to capture an asteroid, haul it to the moon for astronauts to visit.(AP Photo/NASA/JPL Caltech)

This undated handout two-picture combo of artist conceptions provided by NASA/JPL Caltech shows what NASA says are good candidates for a mission to capture an asteroid, haul it to the moon for astronauts to visit.(AP Photo/NASA/JPL Caltech)

When NASA said last year it was planning to capture an asteroid, park it close to the moon and later send astronauts to explore it, many people had to check the calendar to confirm the space agency wasn’t simply demonstrating it had a sense of humor.

Well, make no mistake, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is certainly real, and the agency recently offered a progress report on its ambitious plan, which essentially involves grabbing a space rock using a robotic spacecraft before putting it in a stable orbit around the moon.

The process of getting hold of the asteroid has been likened to popping it into a bag with a drawstring

“You bag it,” NASA’s Donald Yeomans said. “You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.”

The space agency is currently in the middle of deciding which of two missions to go with – the first idea is to “fully capture” a small asteroid in open space, while the second is to collect a “boulder-sized sample” from a much bigger asteroid.


The mission, whichever it decides to go for, is on schedule to take place just five years from now, in 2019, with NASA planning to make its final decision on which asteroid to capture a year earlier.

In the meantime, concept studies are set to take place over a six-month period, beginning this July, in which the agency will work on refining key concepts and technologies for its grand mission.

“With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new techniques to protect Earth from asteroids,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a release.

2011 MD

So far, nine asteroids have been selected as candidates for ARM, with each ticking the boxes for orbit type and size. The sun-orbiting Spitzer space telescope has identified one asteroid in particular – 2011 MD – as having the ideal characteristics for the full-capture mission. Spitzer’s data shows 2011 MD to be about 20 feet in size, fitting nicely within NASA’s desire for a rock no larger than 32 feet. Once secured in a stable orbit, the agency plans to send astronauts to explore the asteroid some time in the 2020s.

“Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Closer study of these objects challenge our capabilities for future exploration and will help us test ways to protect our planet from impact.”

NASA has said it thinks there are some 4,700 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) flying around ‘near’ Earth, with each one big enough to ruin our day should it score a direct hit. PHAs are defined by NASA as any space rock currently within five million miles of Earth with a diameter greater than 330 feet.


January 2, 2014

Photos from Shackleton’s expedition found in Antarctica ice

Filed under: Cool, Wierd — bferrari @ 12:18 pm
This recovered image shows Alexander Stevens, the chief scientist and geologist of the Ross Sea Party, on the deck of the Aurora in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. (ANTARCTIC HERITAGE TRUST, WWW.NZAHT.ORG)

This recovered image shows Alexander Stevens, the chief scientist and geologist of the Ross Sea Party, on the deck of the Aurora in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. (ANTARCTIC HERITAGE TRUST, WWW.NZAHT.ORG)

Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators recently made a stunning discovery: a box of 22 exposed but unprocessed negatives, frozen in a block of ice for nearly one hundred years.

The negatives were recovered from a corner of a supply hut that British explorer Robert Falcon Scott established to support his doomed expedition to the South Pole from 1910-1913. Scott and his men reached the South Pole but died on the trip home.

The hut was next used by the Ross Sea Party of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition after they were stranded on Ross Island when their ship, the Aurora, blew out to sea.

This party is believed to have left behind the undeveloped negatives.



October 8, 2013

Massive laser inching closer to mastering fusion power

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 2:15 pm
A service system lift allows technicians to access the target chamber interior at the National Ignition Facility for inspection and maintenance. (LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY)

A service system lift allows technicians to access the target chamber interior at the National Ignition Facility for inspection and maintenance. (LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY)

Researchers have reportedly taken one small yet giant step towards “perfect power” — fusion, the process that powers the sun and may ultimately solve the world’s energy problems.

Fusion is similar to fission, where atoms are split releasing massive amounts of energy. But instead of being torn apart, fusion welds atoms together. It’s a perfect power because more energy is released than used, and a sort of holy grail for physicists.

To attempt it, scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California use an ultrapowerful laser system, which melds 192 laser beams into a single incredible burst of energy that heats and compress a capsule of hydrogen fuel to the point at which fusion take place.

The result of a late September test: the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction was greater than the amount of energy used, the BBC reported.

Reached on the phone by, a NIF spokeswoman was unable to comment on the record due to the government slimdown.

The achievement was just one small part of the reaction needed to achieve fusion, a state NIF labels “ignition.” But along with other successes, it moves the chains closer to the ultimate goal.

In mid-August, the National Ignition Facility passed another milestone: The facility was activated for 14 billionths of a second and its power pointed at a tiny capsule of fuel. They generated approximately 350 trillion watts of power — hundreds of times more than the entire United States consumes at any given instant.

“We’re working in a place where no human has ever gone before,” Ed Moses, principle associate director for NIF and Photon Science, told at the time. “We’re working on the bleeding edge of fusion physics.”

In the August test, NIF dialed down the laser beam’s power and tweaked it, for tremendous results.

We lowered the energy a tiny bit — about 5 percent — but more important, we changed the shape of the energy pulse. We moved energy from the back of the pulse to the front. We got three times the energy out,” Moses told

“Our goal is to get fusion burn — more energy out than we put in.”

The September success was likely due to a similar tweak to the energy pulse.

Because the laser is on for the merest fraction of a second, it costs little to operate — between $5 and $20 per blast. Still, the cost of the facility has raised temperatures in Washington. The gigantic laser lab was built in California for $3.5 billion in 2008, and ran up approximately $1.5 billion more in operating costs over the past five years.

Despite the latest success, ignition hasn’t happened, and NIF’s managers admitted to Congress in December of 2012 that they can’t guarantee that it will ever succeed.

“At present, it is too early to assess whether or not ignition can be achieved at the National Ignition Facility,” wrote Thomas P. D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in a report requested by Congress last year.

Congress had given the facility until the end of 2012 to achieve its goal of ignition. The NNSA report proposed instead a three-year program to better understand why the actual implosion does not agree with scientific models.

And three years may not be enough. “The three-year plan culminates in a comprehensive review at the end of FY 2015. At that time, NNSA will have an assessment of the likelihood and schedule for achieving ignition,” the report said.


March 17, 2013

6 Mind Blowing Things Nobody Taught You About Black Holes

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts, Supernova, Wierd — bferrari @ 7:02 pm

Black holes are what happens when the universe divides by zero and eats anything that tries to notice. They’re cosmological grizzly bears: an inevitable result of nature that is majestic and terrifying to every species intelligent enough to comprehend them.

Black holes happen when reality has an overflow error: you put too much stuff in one place, and it breaks both the stuff and the place with gravity. Gravity is usually the responsible older sibling of the universe, always pulling things together. Black holes are where gravity goes full Al Capone, calls a meeting of all the fundamental forces of existence and makes a big showy spectacle of crushing them. It doesn’t just crush matter; it crushes the quantum laws that define matter, stomps them all into a compacted nugget until matter stops existing so much. It simply overrides reality.

And yet, most people treat them like cosmic vacuum cleaners. Science fiction characters are worse at understanding black holes than they are at aiming laser weapons, and the coverage they get in most schools only encourage students to kill themselves with trampolines and bowling balls. That’s a shame, since black holes are literally the ultimate everything, so we’re looking at how cool they are.

#6. They’re the Brightest Things in the Sky

“Black hole” is as simple and descriptive a title as “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and equally misleading. The one thing everybody knows about black holes is that not even light can escape, meaning they’re pictured as the interstellar equivalent of open manhole covers: pitch-black doom awaiting the unwary. But black holes are often the brightest points in the sky.

A black hole.

A black hole.

What people forget is that while there is an “event horizon” boundary inside of which light can’t escape, there’s also an “entire rest of the universe” where it can, often in galaxy-blinding quantities. When a rotating black hole consumes a cloud of interstellar gas, the material is drawn into a spiral, like fluid swirling down the plughole of existence … which is actually what’s cosmologically happening.

The hair around the universe's plughole is ENTIRE GALAXIES.

The hair around the universe’s plughole is ENTIRE GALAXIES.

Meteors light up because a thin layer of gas is being compressed by plummeting space rock and further heated by friction. When gas clouds fall into a black hole, the whole thing is being compressed, plummeting, and being heated by friction. The consumed cloud is its own meteor and atmosphere, and both are burning with cosmic fire. They get so hot, they don’t just glow white, they glow X-ray, converting 10 percent of their total mass into pure energy. For comparison, fusion warheads only convert 0.5 percent of their mass into energy. Understand: Black holes create a place where dropping something releases 20 times more energy than thermonuclear detonation. And our galaxy’s central black hole, Sagittarius A*, will be doing that this year.
Black holes can glow so brightly that they defeat their own gravity. Supermassive black holes can reach the Eddington limit, where continuum radiation force defeats the otherwise irresistible gravitational attraction. (That sentence contains more band names and anime series subtitles than anything else I’ve ever written.) The radiation becomes so intense that it blows away the incoming material. And this isn’t radiation as in “nuclear”; this is radiation as in “light.” As in “move toward the light, except in the real heavens, the light can be so intense that it shoves you back.”

Click here to read the next five!

Higgs boson discovery confirmed

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 6:38 pm

Subatomic ‘God particle’ would explain why matter has mass

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). The event could also be due to known standard model background processes.

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). The event could also be due to known standard model background processes.

A new subatomic particle discovered at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator is indeed a much sought-after Higgs boson, scientists confirmed Thursday.

That discovery could help to answer fundamental questions about the Big Bang and how the universe came to be.

“To me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is,” said Joe Incandela, spokesperson for CMS, in a statement. CMS is one of the two experimental efforts at the Large Hadron Collider near the French-Swiss border that have been hunting for the elusive particle.

The statement accompanied the release of the latest results from both CMS and ATLAS, the LHC’s other Higgs boson-hunting experiment, at the Moriond physics conference in the Italy.

RELATED: 6 reasons why the ‘God particle’ matters
According to the Standard Model of Physics, the prevailing theory explaining the physical laws of nature, the Higgs boson imparts mass to other particles. The Higgs boson, nicknamed “the God particle” is the only particle in the Standard Model of Physics that had never been observed.

However, Higgs bosons also exist in some other models of physics that have been proposed, and it is not yet possible to rule out one of the lightest Higgs bosons that exist in a theory called supersymmetry, said Richard Teuscher, the deputy spokesperson for the Canadian scientists involved in ATLAS. Supersymmetry allows for the existence of multiple Higgs bosons, while the Standard Model allows for only one.

The results released Thursday by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that runs the LHC, include an analysis of all the data collected by CMS and ATLAS in 2012.

Back in July, CERN announced that researchers had found a Higgs-like particle with the right mass to be a Higgs boson, but stopped short of saying they had discovered a Higgs boson.

At that time, Teuscher said in an interview from CERN, researchers had collected only 65 per cent of the 2012 data. With the data gathered during the rest of the year, they were able to reduce the margin of error in the signals and measure not only the mass of the particle, but some other characteristics that are key to identifying it.

For example, researchers have been able to measure a property called spin, and based on that, they have just about ruled out the possibility that the particle they’re seeing is something called a graviton, said Teuscher, an associate professor of physics at the University of Toronto and a research scientist with the Canadian Institute of Particle Physics.

“It’s a beginning. And it so far looks like a Standard Model Higgs,” he said. “But there’s still many properties that we just don’t have the data [for] yet. And there might still be surprises in the future.”

The researchers are hoping to get that better data when the LHC is back up and upgraded to run at a higher energy in 2015, following a two-year shut-down that started late last year. In the meantime, they are continuing to analyze data that was already collected and are upgrading their particle detectors.

The ATLAS and CMS experiments hunt for the Higgs boson by smashing larger particles together at high speeds so that they break apart into smaller particles. Some of those particles decay into even smaller particles. Detectors look for signals left by the particles, and reconstruct what happened in a way that is similar to the way police reconstruct a vehicle collision based on the evidence at the scene. The two experiments use different techniques and detectors to home in on different kinds of signals.

Initially, with just a small amount of data, the signals had a large margin of error, giving a somewhat “blurry” picture of what the researchers may have found. However, the error decreases and the signals come into sharper focus as more and more data is gathered.


March 8, 2013

It’s a date! Millionaire Dennis Tito to send couple on manned Mars mission on Jan. 5, 2018

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Mars, Space Exploration, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 9:45 am
An artist's illustration of the Inspiration Mars Foundation's spacecraft for a 2018 mission to Mars by a two-person crew. The private Mars mission would be a flyby trip around the Red Planet. (Inspiration Mars Foundation)

An artist’s illustration of the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s spacecraft for a 2018 mission to Mars by a two-person crew. The private Mars mission would be a flyby trip around the Red Planet. (Inspiration Mars Foundation)

A maverick millionaire obsessed with space travel vowed to send a manned mission to Mars, even announcing the date the rocket carrying one man and one woman would set off for the Red Planet: Jan. 5, 2018.

On that date, a preferably married couple yet to be chosen will enter a tiny space capsule for the longest date in history — rocketing into the heavens and the record books, promised Dennis Tito, the brains behind The Inspiration Mars Foundation and the American businessman who paid about $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001 aboard a Russian spacecraft.



“This is humanity’s first flight out to Mars, and humanity should be represented by both genders,” Dennis Tito said.

“We hope that we can find a married couple. When you’re out that far and the Earth is a tiny blue pinpoint, you’re going to need someone you can hug. What better solution to the psychological problems you’re going to encounter with that isolation?” Read more


After a trip of about 140 million miles, the brave couple will be the first humans ever to peer out a window at Mars — but not set foot there.

Their spacecraft will not stop on the surface of the planet, instead orbiting around the Red Planet at a distance of 100 miles out before using the planet’s gravity to slingshot back to the Earth, he said.

“This will be a Lewis and Clark mission to Mars,” explained Taber MacCallum, CEO for space development company Paragon and one of the scientists working on the Inspiration Mars program.

Why now? Why 2018?
f we don’t seize the moment, we may miss the opportunity to explore Mars, the group claims. That’s because the Jan. 2018 deadline is a hard one: According to a 1996 paper that inspired the private project, the planets only come together perfectly for a mission like this once every 15 years. And while the next window is just five short years away, the follow-up won’t be until 2031.

“The planets realign every 15 years, and who wants to wait for 2031?” Tito said. “By that time, we might have company.”

Tito himself won’t be flying on this mission; rather, it will be an unnamed, middle-aged crew consisting of a man and a woman.

“I will not be one of the crew members. And if I were 30 years younger, I still would not be,” Tito said. Instead mechanically trained (and likely much younger) astronauts will pilot the craft on its mission.


‘This will be a Lewis and Clark mission to Mars.’

– Taber MacCallum chief technology officer for space development company Paragon


The trip is relatively straightforward, according to the various presenters at the event, akin to a low-earth orbit trip in complexity. But due to the distances involved, there are obvious, glaring risks to the 501-day mission.

“It’s 1.4 years, no chance for abort. If something goes wrong, there’s no chance of coming back … and we’re going to re-enter at record speeds, 14.2 kilometers per second,” explained MacCallum. The trip is conceptually feasible, he said, but the technical details to make it happen have yet to be completed. There are a wealth of spacecraft being developed at present, giving them a wealth of options, however.

He called it a demonstration that could lead to further exploration of Mars.

“We’re trying to be a stepping stone toward that” he said. But “a program of record is really needed to make that happen.”

How will astronauts make it to Mars?
Technology aside, will people be able to survive such a mission however, trapped in a tiny capsule and breathing the same air day in and day out, month after month, all the way to Mars and back?

Absolutely, explained Jonathan Clark , chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars — and the medical officer for Felix Baumgartner’s recent dramatic plunge from space.

“This is going to be the Apollo 8 moment for the next generation,” he said. “It’s about inspiring our children, particularly my son. To me this really strikes a deep personal note.”

To keep the crew alive in deep space, where we have limited experience, he would rely on past experience working in micro gravity. Radiation may be an issue, he said. Clark said individual genomic analysis of the astronauts would allow them to tailor protection to the mission. And other advanced studies and research would be necessary to protect the astronauts, whom he said would be “middle-aged.”

“Do we have our work cut out for us? Yes, absolutely,” he said. Beyond merely sustaining the crew, the team will be challenged by the psychological stress of such a mission.

“It’s a really long road trip, you’re jammed into an RV that goes the equivalent of 32,000 times around the Earth…and they’ll have about 3,000 pounds of dehydrated food that they’ll get to rehydrate with the same water they drank two days ago,” explained Jane Poynter, also of Paragon and also a member of the project.

A system that provides all of the basic needs of the crew already exists, she said, based on the system in place on the International Space Station, though it is simpler and more robust.

It’s important that we have a man and woman on the mission, she said, because they reflect humanity. And having both genders reflect should serve further to inspire the next generation to look to the stars — and open their science text books.

“Getting a tweet from a female astronaut, from Mars, and looking down at what she’s seeing and describe it for us? And then turning around and looking back at Earth and describing that tiny dot that she’s seeing? These two astronauts will take all of us along on the ride,” Poynter said.

The cost of the mission is still not determined, Tito explained, although reports say it could cost as much as $1 billion. But it will clearly be a money-loser for the former NASA scientist, who founded the investment firm Wilshire Associates that eventually made him a millionaire.

“This is not a commercial mission,” he said. “Let me guarantee, I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier because of the inspiration they will get from this mission.” But the mission will be cheap, he stressed.

“This is really chump change compared to what we’ve heard before.”

The team already has a signed space act agreement with NASA, and says they will launch the craft from Moffitt Field at NASA’s Ames facility in California. The space agency on Wednesday applauded the goals of Inspiration Mars.

“This type of private sector effort is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama Administration’s overall space policy,” said NASA spokesman David Steitz, in a statement posted on

“It’s a testament to the audacity of America’s commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America’s citizen-explorers.”


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