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  • richardmitnick 10:06 am on January 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , space.com, Superfast 'Cannonball' Star,   

    From UCSC via SPACE.com: “Strange Superfast ‘Cannonball’ Star Likely Blasted from Supernova” 

    UC Santa Cruz

    UC Santa Cruz

    January 25, 2016
    Sarah Lewin, Staff Writer at SPACE.com

    dwarf carbon star SDSS J1128

    A star with an unusual history is racing through the galaxy at breakneck speed — most likely blasted away by a supernova and carrying traces of the exploded star.

    The strange runaway star, which is rocketing along at more than 960,000 miles per hour (1.54 million kilometers per hour), is stained in carbon even though it’s too immature to have created the stuff itself, scientists said.

    Kathryn Plant, a senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), presented the new observations earlier this month at the American Astronomical Society’s 227th meeting in Kissimee, Florida. She and her co-authors said the star’s tremendous speed and its carbon signal could be linked.

    “You’re looking at this very, very, very rare star that’s moving at cannonball velocity,” study co-author Bruce Margon, an astronomer at UCSC, told Space.com. “That got us thinking — maybe there’s something about it being a dwarf carbon star that has to do with it having this crazy-high speed.”

    Their top guess is that the speedy star was in a binary system with another star that imbued it with carbon before dying in a massive supernova explosion, shooting the first star out and away. The situation may be similar for several other “cannonball” candidates the researchers have identified.

    That unusual carbon content is the key “extra clue” to the speedy stars’ origin, said Plant, the new work’s lead author.

    “For many stars, we can look at them and see how they’re moving now, but we often don’t have a lot of clues to what they might have been doing in the distant past,” she told Space.com. “Since [the star] carries this material mark, we have a clue to what it was doing in the past.”

    Perplexing stars

    The star in question, called SDSS J112801.67+004034.6 (SDSS J1128 for “short”), was originally measured through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey [SDSS] in March 2000.

    SDSS Telescope
    SDSS telescope at Apache Point, NM, USA

    Along with about 500 others found so far, it seems to fall into the strange stellar category of “dwarf carbon stars.” Different than a “white dwarf,” the super-dense remnant left at the end of a star’s life cycle, a dwarf carbon star appears to be in an early stage of evolution but contains a high level of carbon. That’s odd, because carbon is usually found shrouding red giants, which are in a much later stage.

    “The mere existence of these stars is kind of perplexing, because they are adolescent stars — they are stars at about the same evolutionary stage as our sun,” Margon said. “There shouldn’t be such a thing as a dwarf carbon star, because there’s no way for that star to have created carbon given where it is in its life cycle.”

    Instead, researchers theorize that each of these stars once orbited together with another star, a companion, which was in a later part of its life cycle and had already produced carbon. If the binary stars orbited closely enough, one star’s carbon could transfer to the other.

    The transfer of mass could happen peacefully over time — “a gentle wind puffed off for millions of years,” Margon said — but the two stars’ association might end on much more violent terms when the more mature star explodes into a supernova.

    Smoking guns

    SDSS J1128 first came to the researchers’ attention because of how quickly it was speeding away from Earth, which researchers calculated based on distortion in the wavelengths of light it put out in that first measurement. They followed up by measuring the star with Hawaii’s Keck Observatory in April 2015, and found that it was still moving away at about the same speed.

    Keck Observatory
    Keck Observatory Interior

    But not only that: After looking at the star’s location from surveys over many years (the earliest was in 1955), the research team realized that it was visibly sweeping across the sky as well, not just fleeing from Earth. That implied that the star was dimmer and close, rather than far away and very bright.

    Researchers know stars can pick up incredible speed by whipping around the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way’s center, so this was one of the first possible explanations for this star’s great velocity. But once the collaborators calculated its approximate location — between 3,000 and 10,000 light-years away — and its speed compared with the center of the galaxy, it became clear that the star was not on that type of trajectory.

    “Even though we don’t have one exact number, we can understand what it’s most likely doing,” Plant said. “We can rule out […] certain motions that are not possible, and that lets us conclude that it’s not coming from the center of the galaxy, which is one of the main questions we wanted to answer, and also lets us conclude that it is bound to the galaxy but it’s on an extremely eccentric orbit.”

    So they turned to the supernova possibility. Other stars’ speeds have occasionally been attributed to the driving force of a supernova, the researchers said, but evidence has not been conclusive.

    “This thing has a different set of smoking guns that are pointing towards that evidence,” Margon said. “It’s the thing science fiction emerges from: You have a peaceful star minding its own business, its companion goes ‘kerblooie’ and completely demolishes itself and shoots this thing off like a cannonball,” he added. “We’re advancing this as a candidate for that [scenario].”

    Not so alone

    To find out more about the high-speed star, researchers can take follow-up measurements to check for tiny variations in the speed at which it’s moving away from Earth, as well as more about its chemical composition. Ultimately, projects like Europe’s galaxy-mapping [ESA] Gaia mission could provide even more precise data about the star’s location, if it falls within the satellite’s view, the researchers said.

    ESA Gaia satellite

    The star is one of a few candidates the researchers found for this extreme motion — it had the fastest velocity of the bunch relative to Earth, but the others could prove even faster when measured in the context of the entire galaxy. Comparing the traits of all those “cannonball” stars could help solidify the supernova explanation or suggest another mechanism.

    “The fact that this is a super-high-velocity star isn’t going to go away,” Margon said. “The interpretation might change.”

    See the full article here .

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    The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

  • richardmitnick 7:59 am on January 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Mysteriously Powerful Particles from Solar Explosions Unveiled in New Study” 

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    January 25, 2016
    Calla Cofield

    Solar eruption 2012 by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory SDO
    A photo of a solar eruption from Oct. 14, 2012, as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory. Credit: NASA/SDO


    A couple of times a month — sometimes more, sometimes less — an explosion goes off on the surface of the sun, releasing energy that’s equal to millions of hydrogen bombs.

    Mind boggling as that number is, this tremendous energy output cannot explain how material that is spit out by these explosions gets ramped up to nearly the speed of light. It’s like expecting a golf cart motor to power a Ferrari.

    In a new study, researchers provide a first-of-its-kind look under the hood of these solar eruptions, taking specific aim at the physical process that accelerates the superfast particles.

    Explosions on the sun

    There are currently 18 NASA space missions dedicated to studying our nearest star and its effect on the solar system. Some of these satellites stare directly at the sun almost nonstop, providing a 24/7 stream of images of the sun’s swirling, churning surface.

    When a solar eruption happens, these satellites also see the incredibly bright flashes of light that are called solar flares. Occasionally, the eruptions also hurl a cloud of extremely hot and electrically charged gas (called plasma) out into space. The expelled plasma is called a coronal mass ejection, or CME for short.

    A solar explosion releases roughly the same amount of energy that would come from “millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs,” according to NASA, where one hundred megatons equal to one hundred million metric tons of TNT.

    While that certainly sounds impressive, it’s hard to imagine something so enormous. The best way to understand the colossal nature of these events might be to consider an image taken by NASA that shows a particularly massive CME. For comparison, a snapshot of the Earth (to scale) is placed next to this great, flaming ribbon. The planet looks like a daisy in the path of a flamethrower.

    A solar explosion releases roughly the same amount of energy that would come from “millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs,” according to NASA, where one hundred megatons equal to one hundred million metric tons of TNT.

    Shockingly fast

    When an airplane breaks the sound barrier — physically overtaking the sound waves traveling in front of it — it creates a shock wave, and a deafening sonic boom. The boom is evidence that the shock wave is a source of energy.

    Bin Chen, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is the lead author on a new research paper that provides the first solid observational evidence that ultraspeedy particles released during a solar eruption are accelerated by a kind of stationary shock wave called a “termination shock.”

    One of the intriguing elements of solar eruptions is that, unlike most explosions on Earth, they aren’t chemically driven. Rather, these sunshine bombs are detonated by a rapid release of magnetic energy. The same force that makes a magnet stick to a refrigerator or makes a compass needle point north is also responsible for these massive belches of light and material.

    The solar eruptions that create solar flares and CMEs occur when one of the sun’s magnetic-field lines break, and rapidly reconnects, near the surface. During the explosion, plasma is flung out into space, but others go back down toward the surface at incredibly high speeds, where they crash into more magnetic-field loops — kind of like a waterfall crashing into the surface of a pond. At the point of collision, a termination shock forms in the electrically charged plasma.

    “Charged particles that cross a [termination] shock can pick up the energy from the shock and get faster and faster. That’s how shock acceleration works,” Bin told Space.com.

    Chen and his coauthors saw evidence of this termination shock during a solar flare on March 3, 2012, using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico.

    Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA)

    The recently upgraded telescope was beneficial for two reasons. First, it detects radio waves, which means it isn’t overwhelmed by the brightest flashes of light emitted during a solar flare. But looking at a solar flare radio frequencies does reveal the particles accelerated by the termination shock.

    Second, the telescope can effectively take around 40,000 images per second. It does this by capturing thousands of radio frequencies at the same time. The frequencies are then separated into individual “images.” Chen told Space.com that in order to see termination shock in action, it was necessary to collect that many images for about 20 minutes.

    “So if you do the math, that’s millions and millions of images [you need] in order to extract the information,” Chen said. “That’s a new capability provided by the upgraded VLA.”

    Chen said the new findings don’t necessarily mean that termination shocks are responsible for accelerating particles in all solar flares. He said he and his colleagues would like to conduct further observations to find out if this is the case in all shocks, or only a subset.

    The termination shock explanation has been part of the “standard” solar-flare theory for years, but there hasn’t been “convincing” observational evidence to back it up, Chen said. Chen’s comment was confirmed by Edward DeLuca, a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which is part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (DeLuca works in the same department as Chen, but was not involved with the new research.)

    “[The new result] reveals that we’re on the right track with the standard-flare model,” DeLuca said.

    Look out for powerful particles

    All those NASA satellites studying the sun are not just working to create mesmerizing images; they’re also there to help protect Earth. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections pose a hazard to the planet. The particles they eject can damage satellites and solar panels, and could pose a serious threat to astronauts doing spacewalks outside the International Space Station, on the moon or Mars.

    They can even cause surges in power grids on the ground. In 1989, a CME caused a blackout across the entire province of Quebec, Canada.

    The superfast particles are of particular worry, because their high speeds mean they can penetrate more layers of material than their “slower” counterparts. When those particles penetrate a piece of solid-state equipment, they can cause a “bit flip” — which could not only damage the equipment but also change what it does.

    “If that little flip of the bit means a computer command that normally says, ‘keep taking snapshots of the sun,’ instead says ‘shut down the spacecraft,’ that’s bad,” Young said. “So a lot of times, if there is a large particle event, spacecraft operators will often put their spacecraft into what’s called a ‘safe mode.'”

    That reaction has to happen fast. Light can travel from the sun to the earth in 8 minutes, so the solar energetic particles can reach an orbiting satellite in about 10 to 20 minutes, Young said. Coronal mass ejections leave a little more time, but a delayed response can mean serious consequences.

    For that reason, scientists are trying to get better at predicting when solar flares and CME’s will occur and how intense they will be.

    DeLuca said the new understanding of termination shock will not, most likely, be immediately useful for improving forecasting of solar explosions. But it is a piece of the solar-flare puzzle, and he said it will be incorporated into “next-generation” solar-weather technology and prediction techniques. It’s one more step toward helping humans ride out the solar storm.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:02 pm on January 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Worldwide Telescope Network Will Take Best-Ever Images of Black Holes” 

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    January 08, 2016
    Calla Cofield

    Temp 1
    An image from a simulation showing how matter might be moved around in the extreme environment around a black hole. The simulations will be compared to observational data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope, which will be increasing its sensitivity in 2017 and 2018.
    Credit: Özel/Chan

    Get ready for your close-up, black holes: The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which will take some of the best images of black holes ever captured by humans, is ramping up its worldwide network of telescopes.

    Event Horizon Telescope map
    Event Horizon Telescope map. Credit U Arizona

    By 2018, the EHT will be an observatory that harnesses the power of nine telescopes around the world, including ones in Chile, Arizona, Hawaii, Antarctica and Greenland. These instruments will work together to get higher-resolution images than any of these scopes can achieve alone. The target of their observations will be black holes — scientists hope to see the material moving around these dark monsters, as well as the shadow of the black hole itself.

    Telescopes in The EHT:

    ALMA Array

    South Pole Telescope
    South Pole Telescope


    Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico
    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona
    U Arizona Submillimeter Telescope

    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California
    CARMA Array

    Harvard Smithsonian Submillimeter Array
    SMA Submillimeter Array

    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope

    Institute for Radio Astronomy Millimetrique (IRAM) telescopes in Spain and France
    IRAM 30m Radio telescope

    “One thing that could excite the public almost as much as a Pluto flyby would be a picture of a black hole, up close and personal,” Feryal Ӧzel, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Arizona, said during a talk here at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where a few thousand astronomers and astrophysicists have gathered to discuss the latest news in the field. (Ӧzel’s comment was made in reference to the massive public interest in the images captured by NASA’s New Horizons probe,

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    which flew by the dwarf planet last July.)

    Other telescopes have studied black holes in the past, but the goal of the EHT is to take images that surpass the resolution of any previous black-hole snapshots. With that information, scientists would be able to see the area around a black hole — a place where the pull of gravity is so extreme that very strange things happen.

    Temp 2
    Images made from simulations showing how matter might move around in the extreme environment around a black hole. Scientists hope to use the simulations to better understand observations taken by the Event Horizon Telescope.
    Credit: Özel/Chan

    For example, the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as Messier 87 has a massive, narrow jet of material, roughly 5,000 light-years long, spewing away from it.

    Messier object 87 by Hubble space telescope
    18 August 2009

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    In contrast, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way — Sagittarius A* — has very little matter around it and no jets.

    Sagittarius A*. This image was taken with NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Ellipses indicate light echoes. source
    23 July 2014

    NASA Chandra Telescope

    In galaxies known as active galactic nuclei (AGNs), black holes accelerate huge clouds of material around them, and radiate more light than the entire Milky Way galaxy. What leads to such a drastic difference between these objects? With EHT, Ӧzel said, scientists may finally be able to answer that question.

    “Is it the magnetic field structure that is different? Is it the spin that is different? Or is it something else about the accretion flow that is different?” Ӧzel said. “This will open a brand-new window into studying accretion physics.”

    And then there’s [Albert]Einstein. His theory of general relativity has been tested using observations in Earth’s solar system — for example, the way light bends around the sun — and beyond. But there are few cosmic environments as extreme as the one around a black hole, where the gravity can be millions of times stronger than it is around a star. As a result, the EHT will reveal the effects of gravity (which are described by the theory of relativity) “on scales that have never been probed before,” said Ӧzel, who is a scientist on the EHT project team and is leading some of the theoretical work that will be combined with the observations.

    “Get to the edge of a black hole, and the general relativity tests you can perform are qualitatively and quantitatively different,” Ӧzel said.

    Understandably, Ӧzel and other black-hole scientists are eager to start getting data from EHT. One of the major requirements of imaging black holes in such high resolution is to have a very large telescope. In fact, Ӧzel said that achieving the resolution of EHT effectively requires a telescope the size of the Earth.

    “Of course nobody would fund an Earth-sized telescope,” Ӧzel said. But the “next-best thing” is to combine observations from multiple telescopes on the surface of the Earth that are separated by very large distances, Ӧzel said [interferometry]. With this technique, scientists can observe an object in significantly higher resolution than the telescopes could achieve alone — effectively giving scientists an “Earth-size” telescope.

    The first data from the EHT project were collected in the mid-2000s, by three telescopes — one each in Hawaii, Arizona and California. The group collaborated to look at the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*. In 2014, the collaboration added the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to its array, and doubled its resolution, according to the EHT website.

    Six telescopes in the EHT array are already taking data, and a total of nine are expected to be contributing to the project by 2018, according to Shep Doeleman, principal investigator for EHT.

    Early in 2015, the collaboration added the South Pole Telescope to its array, which connected the other telescopes such that the EHT effectively spanned the entire Earth. In 2017, the EHT will be able to make observations with ALMA that will boost its sensitivity by a factor of 10, Doeleman told Space.com in an email. In 2018, an additional telescope will join the group from Greenland.

    “One of the innovative aspects of the EHT is that we use existing telescopes at the highest altitudes (where they are above most of the atmosphere) and outfit them with specialized instrumentation that enables us to link them together,” Doeleman said. “So we don’t build new dishes, and we leverage over a [billion dollars] of existing telescopes.”

    However, there are still obstacles, he noted. “Last year, one of the facilities participating in the EHT had to close due to lack of funding,” Doeleman said. “We can still do all the EHT [work] planned because new sites are coming online, but we remain ‘en guard’ for threats against EHT sites.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 10:57 am on January 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From Space.com: “Visible Light from a Black Hole Spotted by Telescope, a First” 

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    January 06, 2016
    Charles Q. Choi

    For the first time, astronomers have seen dim flickers of visible light from near a black hole, researchers with an international science team said. In fact, the light could be visible to anyone with a moderate-size telescope.

    These dramatically variable fluctuations of light are yielding insights onto the complex ways in which matter can swirl into black holes, scientists added. The researchers also released a video of the black hole’s light seen by a telescope. In a statement, they added that such light from an active black hole could be spotted by an observer with a 20-cm telescope.

    Temp 1
    This image still from a video by scientists studying the black hole V404 Cygni located about 7,800 light-years from Earth shows visible light that could be viewable by stargazers with a medium-size telescope. Credit: Michael Richmond/Rochester Institute Of Technology

    Anything falling into black holes cannot escape, not even light, earning black holes their name. However, as disks of gas and dust fall or accrete onto black holes — say, as black holes rip apart nearby stars — friction within these accretion disks can superheat them to 18 million degrees Fahrenheit (10 million degrees Celsius) or more, making them glow extraordinarily brightly.

    Scientists discovered accreting black holes in the Milky Way more than 40 years ago. Previous research suggested that the accretion disks of black holes can have dramatic effects on galaxies. For instance, streams of plasma known as relativistic jets that spew out from accreting black holes at near the speed of light can travel across an entire galaxy, potentially shaping its evolution. However, much remains unknown about how accretion works, since matter can behave in very complex ways as it spirals into black holes, said study lead author Mariko Kimura, an astronomer at Kyoto University in Japan, and her colleagues.

    To learn more about the mysterious process of accretion, researchers in the new study analyzed V404 Cygni, a binary system composed of a black hole about nine times the mass of the sun and a companion star slightly less massive than the sun. Located about 7,800 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, the swan, V404 Cygni possesses one of the black holes closest to Earth.

    After 26 years during which the system was dormant, astronomers detected an outburst of X-rays from V404 Cygni in 2015 that lasted for about two weeks. This activity from the accretion disk of V404 Cygni’s black hole briefly made it one of the brightest sources of X-rays seen in the universe.

    Following this outburst, the researchers detected flickering visible light from V404 Cygni, whose fluctuations varied over timescales of 100 seconds to 150 minutes. Normally, astronomers monitor black holes by looking for X-rays or gamma-rays.

    “We find that activity in the vicinity of a black hole can be observed in optical light at low luminosity for the first time,” Kimura told Space.com. “These findings suggest that we can study physical phenomena that occur in the vicinity of the black hole using moderate optical telescopes without high-spec X-ray or gamma-ray telescopes.”

    Similar variable flickering was seen in the X-ray emissions from another black hole system, GRS 1915+105, located about 35,900 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. GRS 1915+105 experiences high levels of accretion. As such, researchers previously suggested the system’s variable flickering was due to instabilities that can occur in accretion disks when they get very massive.

    However, the accretion rates at V404 Cygni are at least 10 times lower than those seen at other black hole systems that have similar oscillations. This suggests that high accretion rates are not the main factor behind this variable flickering, the researchers said.

    Instead, the scientists noted that in both V404 Cygni and GRS 1915+105, the black holes and their companion stars are relatively far apart, which permits a large accretion disk to form. In such large disks, matter from the outer disk might not flow in a steady manner to the inner disk near the black hole, the researchers said. As such, the researchers suggest that accretion onto these black holes can become unstable and fluctuate wildly. This sporadic activity, they said, could then explain the oscillating patterns of light from these black holes.

    The scientists said they hope that worldwide coordination will permit future research to better understand the nature of these extreme events.

    “Thanks to international cooperation, we could get extensive optical observational data in our research with 35 telescopes at 26 locations,” Kimura said. “We would like more people to join in optical observations of black-hole binaries.”

    Kimura and her colleagues detailed their findings in the Jan. 7 issue of the journal Nature.

    See the full article here . In the Nature article you can find the science team.

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  • richardmitnick 5:04 pm on January 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Direc imaging of an exoplanet, , Sara Seager, space.com   

    From space.com: “Direct Imaging: The Next Big Step in the Hunt for Exoplanets” 

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    December 31, 2015
    Nola Taylor Redd

    Temp 1
    This false-color composite image traces the motion of the planet Fomalhaut b, a world captured by direct imaging.
    Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)

    The hunt for planets around other stars is gaining speed. NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope revealed more than 4,600 planetary candidates over its brief lifetime [Kepler is still active as the K2 mission].

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    But what does the future hold for exoplanets? When almost 350 exoplanet scientists gathered in Hawaii earlier this month, Space.com asked several of them what they were most looking forward to. Many expressed enthusiasm over the progress made in the field of direct imaging.

    This image shows the light from three planets orbiting a star 120 light-years away. The planets’ star, called HR8799, is located at the spot marked with an “X.” This picture was taken using a small, 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) portion of the [Caltech] Palomar Observatory’s Hale Telescope, north of San Diego, Calif. This is the first time a picture of planets beyond our solar system has been captured using a telescope with a modest-sized mirror — previous images were taken using larger telescopes. The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants like Jupiter, but more massive. They orbit their host star at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and sun, respectively (Jupiter resides at about 5 times the Earth-sun distance).

    Caltech Palomar 200 inch Hale Telescope
    Caltech Palomar Hale Telescope interior
    Caltech Palomar Hale telescope

    Beta Pictoris
    This composite image represents the close environment of Beta Pictoris as seen in near infrared light. This very faint environment is revealed after a very careful subtraction of the much brighter stellar halo. The outer part of the image shows the reflected light on the dust disc, as observed in 1996 with the ADONIS instrument on ESO’s 3.6 m telescope; the inner part is the innermost part of the system, as seen at 3.6 microns with NACO on the Very Large Telescope. The newly detected source is more than 1000 times fainter than Beta Pictoris, aligned with the disc, at a projected distance of 8 times the Earth-Sun distance. Both parts of the image were obtained on ESO telescopes equipped with adaptive optics.

    ESO 3.6 Meter Telescpe
    ESO’s 3.6 m telescope at La Silla


    ESO VLT Interferometer
    ESO/VLT at Paranal

    “The new technique now is direct imaging,” Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Space.com.

    Sara Seager

    “It’s really like the start of a brand-new era of exoplanets.”
    “Not just stamp collecting”

    At its heart, the direct-imaging method resembles photography, whether via visible or infrared light. But photographing a planet isn’t easy, especially when it is literally outshone by its parent star. Scientists must use an instrument known as a coronagraph to block the light from the star, revealing the dimmer light reflected by a planet in its shadow.

    “It’s not just that you know that [the planets] are there, it’s that you can see it with your own eyes,” Thayne Currie, a research associate at Subaru Telescope, told Space.com.

    NAOJ Subaru Telescope

    Other methods of planet detection are indirect, meaning they find evidence of the planet’s presence, but often do not see the light it emits.

    “To me, [direct detection] means something fundamentally more special.”

    Although scientists have been taking pictures of stars since the early days of photography, the first directly imaged planet wasn’t discovered until 2004. That planet was orbiting a brown dwarf, an object sometimes known as a “failed star” because it never gets massive enough to begin fusing material in its core. As a result, brown dwarfs are far dimmer than stars like the sun. In 2008, scientists announced the discovery of Fomalhault b, a planet directly imaged in visible light and orbiting a full-grown star. The same day, a separate team announced the successful image of the star HD 8799 in the infrared — but instead of one world, this star boasts four.

    Since then, direct imaging has been growing by leaps and bounds, according to the scientists we spoke to.

    According to Currie, one of biggest benefits of direct imaging is the amount of information that can be revealed with the method.

    “It’s not just stamp collecting. We’re able to study these objects in exceptional detail,” he said. “We actually know more about these planets than we knew about Jupiter a hundred years ago.”

    Direct imaging allows astronomers to understand a planet’s orbit, the composition of its atmosphere and the probability it has clouds. Water, methane and carbon dioxide can all be detected with the technique.

    “The wealth of information you have is staggering,” Currie said.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:30 pm on January 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From space.com: “Time Warps and Black Holes: The Past, Present & Future of Space-Time” 

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    December 31, 2015
    Nola Taylor Redd

    Temp 1
    A massive object like the Earth will bend space-time, and cause objects to fall toward it. Credit: Science@NASA

    When giving the coordinates for a location, most people provide the latitude, longitude and perhaps altitude. But there is a fourth dimension often neglected: time. The combination of the physical coordinates with the temporal element creates a concept known as space-time, a background for all events in the universe.

    “In physics, space-time is the mathematical model that combines space and time into a single interwoven continuum throughout the universe,” Eric Davis, a physicist who works at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin and with the Tau Zero Foundation, told Space.com by email. Davis specializes in faster-than-light space-time and anti-gravity physics, both of which use Albert Einstein’s general relativity theory field equations and quantum field theory, as well as quantum optics, to conduct lab experiments.

    “Einstein’s special theory of relativity, published in 1905, adapted [German mathematician] Hermann Minkowski’s unified space-and-time model of the universe to show that time should be treated as a physical dimension on par with the three physical dimensions of space — height, width and length — that we experience in our lives,” Davis said.

    “Space-time is the landscape over which phenomena take place,” added Luca Amendola, a member of the Euclid Theory Working Group (a team of theoretical scientists working with the European Space Agency’s Euclid satellite) and a professor at Heidelberg University in Germany.

    ESA Euclid

    “Just as any landscape is not set in stone, fixed forever, it changes just because things happen — planets move, particles interact, cells reproduce,” he told Space.com via email.

    The history of space-time

    The idea that time and space are united is a fairly recent development in the history of science.

    “The concepts of space remained practically the same from the early Greek philosophers until the beginning of the 20th century — an immutable stage over which matter moves,” Amendola said. “Time was supposed to be even more immutable because, while you can move in space the way you like, you cannot travel in time freely, since it runs the same for everybody.”

    In the early 1900s, Minkowski built upon the earlier works of Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz and French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincare to create a unified model of space-time. Einstein, a student of Minkowski, adapted Minkowski’s model when he published his special theory of relativity in 1905.

    “Einstein had brought together Poincare’s, Lorentz’s and Minkowski’s separate theoretical works into his overarching special relativity theory, which was much more comprehensive and thorough in its treatment of electromagnetic forces and motion, except that it left out the force of gravity, which Einstein later tackled in his magnum opus general theory of relativity,” Davis said.

    Space-time breakthroughs

    In special relativity, the geometry of space-time is fixed, but observers measure different distances or time intervals according to their own relative velocity. In general relativity, the geometry of space-time itself changes depending on how matter moves and is distributed.

    “Einstein’s general theory of relativity is the first major theoretical breakthrough that resulted from the unified space-time model,” Davis said.

    General relativity led to the science of cosmology, the next major breakthrough that came thanks to the concept of unified space-time.

    “It is because of the unified space-time model that we can have a theory for the creation and existence of our universe, and be able to study all the consequences that result thereof,” Davis said.

    He explained that general relativity predicted phenomena such as black holes and white holes. It also predicts that they have an event horizon, the boundary that marks where nothing can escape, and the point of singularities at their center, a one dimensional point where gravity becomes infinite. General relativity could also explain rotating astronomical bodies that drag space-time with them, the Big Bang and the inflationary expansion of the universe, gravity waves, time and space dilation associated with curved space-time, gravitational lensing caused by massive galaxies, and the shifting orbit of Mercury and other planetary bodies, all of which science has shown true. It also predicts things such as warp-drive propulsions and traversable wormholes and time machines.

    “All of these phenomena rely on the unified space-time model,” he said, “and most of them have been observed.”

    An improved understanding of space-time also led to quantum field theory. When quantum mechanics, the branch of theory concerned with the movement of atoms and photons, was first published in 1925, it was based on the idea that space and time were separate and independent. After World War II, theoretical physicists found a way to mathematically incorporate Einstein’s special theory of relativity into quantum mechanics, giving birth to quantum field theory.

    “The breakthroughs that resulted from quantum field theory are tremendous,” Davis said.

    The theory gave rise to a quantum theory of electromagnetic radiation and electrically charged elementary particles — called quantum electrodynamics theory (QED theory) — in about 1950. In the 1970s, QED theory was unified with the weak nuclear force theory to produce the electroweak theory, which describes them both as different aspects of the same force. In 1973, scientists derived the quantum chromodynamics theory (QCD theory), the nuclear strong force theory of quarks and gluons, which are elementary particles.

    In the 1980s and the 1990s, physicists united the QED theory, the QCD theory and the electroweak theory to formulate the Standard Model of Particle Physics, the megatheory that describes all of the known elementary particles of nature and the fundamental forces of their interactions.

    The Standard Model of elementary particles (more schematic depiction), with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.

    Later on, Peter Higgs‘ 1960s prediction of a particle now known as the Higgs boson, which was discovered in 2012 by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, was added to the mix.

    Peter Higgs

    CERN CMS Higgs Event
    Higgs event in CMS at the CERN/LHC

    CERN CMS Detector

    CERN LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    LHC at CERN with map

    Experimental breakthroughs include the discovery of many of the elementary particles and their interaction forces known today, Davis said. They also include the advancement of condensed matter theory to predict two new states of matter beyond those taught in most textbooks. More states of matter are being discovered using condensed matter theory, which uses the quantum field theory as its mathematical machinery.

    “Condensed matter has to do with the exotic states of matter, such as those found in metallic glass, photonic crystals, metamaterials, nanomaterials, semiconductors, crystals, liquid crystals, insulators, conductors, superconductors, superconducting fluids, etc.,” Davis said. “All of this is based on the unified space-time model.”

    The future of space-time

    Scientists are continuing to improve their understanding of space-time by using missions and experiments that observe many of the phenomena that interact with it. The Hubble Space Telescope, which measured the accelerating expansion of the universe, is one instrument doing so.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA’s Gravity Probe B mission, which launched in 2004, studied the twisting of space-time by a rotating body — the Earth.

    NASA Gravity Probe B
    NASA Gravity Probe B

    NASA’s NuSTAR mission, launched in 2012, studies black holes. Many other telescopes and missions have also helped to study these phenomena.


    On the ground, particle accelerators have studied fast-moving particles for decades.

    “One of the best confirmations of special relativity is the observations that particles, which should decay after a given time, take in fact much longer when traveling very fast, as, for instance, in particle accelerators,” Amendola said. “This is because time intervals are longer when the relative velocity is very large.”

    Future missions and experiments will continue to probe space-time as well. The European Space Agency-NASA satellite Euclid, set to launch in 2020, will continue to test the ideas at astronomical scales as it maps the geometry of dark energy and dark matter, the mysterious substances that make up the bulk of the universe. On the ground, the LIGO and VIRGO observatories continue to study gravitational waves, ripples in the curvature of space-time.

    Caltech Ligo
    MIT/Caltech Advanced LIGO

    VIRGO interferometer EGO Campus
    VIRGO interferometer

    “If we could handle black holes the same way we handle particles in accelerators, we would learn much more about space-time,” Amendola said.

    Merging Black Holes

    Merging black holes create ripples in space-time in this artist’s concept. Experiments are searching for these ripples, known as gravitational waves, but none have been detected. Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

    Understanding space-time

    Will scientists ever get a handle on the complex issue of space-time? That depends on precisely what you mean.

    “Physicists have an excellent grasp of the concept of space-time at the classical levels provided by Einstein’s two theories of relativity, with his general relativity theory being the magnum opus of space-time theory,” Davis said. “However, physicists do not yet have a grasp on the quantum nature of space-time and gravity.”

    Amendola agreed, noting that although scientists understand space-time across larger distances, the microscopic world of elementary particles remains less clear.

    “It might be that space-time at very short distances takes yet another form and perhaps is not continuous,” Amendola said. “However, we are still far from that frontier.”

    Today’s physicists cannot experiment with black holes or reach the high energies at which new phenomena are expected to occur. Even astronomical observations of black holes remain unsatisfactory due to the difficulty of studying something that absorbs all light, Amendola said. Scientists must instead use indirect probes.

    “To understand the quantum nature of space-time is the holy grail of 21st century physics,” Davis said. “We are stuck in a quagmire of multiple proposed new theories that don’t seem to work to solve this problem.”

    Amendola remained optimistic. “Nothing is holding us back,” he said. “It’s just that it takes time to understand space-time.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:12 pm on December 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Rocky Planet Found Around Star with Least Metal Yet, space.com   

    From SPACE.com: “Rocky Planet Found Around Star with Least Metal Yet” 

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    December 25, 2015
    Jesse Emspak

    Temp 1
    Neptune-size planets like this one, drawn orbiting the star Gliese 436, may be able to form around stars that contain far less metal than previously thought. Credit: NASA

    How low can you go? Astronomers have found a star with an incredibly low concentration of heavy elements that still has a sizable planet around it — the most metal-poor star ever discovered with an orbiting, rocky planet.

    The planet found circling the unlikely star suggests that other Earths could be more common than once thought.

    A team led by Annelies Mortier, an exoplanet researcher at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, found the star, called HD175607, and its Neptune-size planet about 147 light-years from Earth, using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph in Chile.

    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla
    ESO HARPS at La Silla

    ESO LaSilla
    ESO/La Silla

    The star is a yellowish dwarf, with about 0.74 times the mass of the sun, and it contains fewer heavy elements than any other star of its kind that has rocky planets. The ratio of iron to hydrogen, for example, is only 23 percent that of the sun’s.

    To make planets, you need elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. In astronomical parlance, these elements are known as metals, even though they include substances like oxygen, silicon and carbon. Astronomers can measure a star’s metallicity, or the ratio of heavy elements to hydrogen, by looking at the wavelengths of light coming from the star and comparing its metal content to the surrounding regions of the galaxy. The metallicity of a star also tells you what was likely in the cloud of gas and dust that formed it in the first place.

    Researchers generally expect stars with high metallicity to be more likely to have giant planets like Jupiter — in fact, astronomers target such stars in order to boost the odds of seeing a planet, Mortier told Space.com in an email. But for rocky, Neptune-size planets and those that are smaller, that correlation doesn’t appear to hold. That’s why the HARPS is looking at low-metallicity stars to see how low that ratio can go before the star no longer has planets at all.

    “For Neptunes and Earthlike planets, it is not as clear yet what the role of metallicity is,” Mortier said.

    In this case, the star HD175607 appears to have a planet orbiting it at a distance that’s about a third of Mercury’s to the sun. It completes a “year” of orbit in 29 days and weighs between 7.88 and 10.08 times as much as Earth, putting it at about two-thirds the mass of Neptune — which has a mass that’s about 17 times that of Earth’s.

    Planets are hard to see to begin with; finding the one around HD 175607 took months of observations spread out over nine years. The researchers had a much easier time measuring the star’s metallicity.

    Knowing what kinds of stars to target would go far toward helping observers discover other Earths — and a big question that remains is what kinds of planets are around what kinds of stars, Mortier said.

    Jarrett Johnson, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has studied exoplanets and their relation to metallicity, told Space.com that this discovery of a rocky planet around a metal-poor star bodes well for finding more of them.

    “This is good news as it is evidence that lower and lower mass planets are being found around metal-poor stars, as more data is gathered with more powerful techniques [like HARPS],” he said.

    The discovery will also help refine models of planet formation. Currently, many scientists think that planets form when smaller objects group into bigger ones, which is called the core accretion model. In a 2012 study, Johnson worked out estimates of how much iron and other heavy elements had to be present to accrete planets, and new discoveries like this one could show whether those estimates are correct.

    The study was accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics in November.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:35 pm on December 13, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , space.com   

    From SPACE.com: “Giant ‘Hole’ in Sun Is 50 Earths Wide” 

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    October 15, 2015 [This was put up today 12.13.15]
    Sarah Lewin

    A photo of the sun from NASA’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory reveals an enormous coronal hole — a gap in the sun’s outer layer and magnetic field the size of 50 Earths. The image was captured Oct. Credit: NASA/SDO


    The sun has sprung a leak: A hole in the topmost layer of the sun and its magnetic field, the size of 50 Earths, is letting loose an ultrafast solar wind that has kicked off several nights of auroras down on Earth.

    A new image, from NASA’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory, reveals the enormous hole as it was Oct. 10, taken at an ultraviolet wavelength unseen by the human eye. To an ordinary observer, the gaping hole would be invisible, though you should NEVER stare at the sun because serious eye damage can result.

    The gap in the sun’s magnetic field lets out a stream of particles traveling at up to 500 miles (800 kilometers) per second, kindling a days-long geomagnetic storm upon hitting Earth.

    Coronal holes, like the one that materialized last week, normally form over the sun’s poles and lower latitudes, more often when the sun is at a less active point in its 11-year cycle. They are areas within the sun’s outermost layer, called its corona, which are lower-density and cooler — that, plus the weakened magnetic field, lets the plasma and charged particles that make up the corona stream out more easily in a solar wind. If aimed toward Earth, that spells the makings of a geomagnetic storm: a phenomenon that can affect power and navigation for satellites orbiting the Earth as well as radio communication.

    Temp 1
    A Solar Dynamics Observatory image published by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration reveals the huge coronal hole as it was yesterday [10.14.15]. Continuing its march solar west (to the right), the hole is still releasing an extra-fast solar wind in Earth’s direction. Credit: NASA/SDO

    Another side effect of a geomagnetic storm is enhanced northern lights: the glowing auroras that often form in the night sky over the northernmost reaches of the planet grow much brighter and can even extend much farther south than usual. (Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s [NOAA] Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, initially predicted auroras to be visible as far down as Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon, although they didn’t ultimately appear quite so low.) Geomagnetic storms and auroras can also be caused by other sun phenomena, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which both blast the corona’s material outward because of increased magnetic activity.

    As the coronal hole continues its slow march westward on the sun’s surface (to the right, from Earth’s perspective), solar winds will stay strong, NOAA officials said in a statement, which may lead to additional minor geomagnetic storming. Thus, bright auroras will likely continue — at least around the Arctic Circle.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:37 pm on November 29, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , space.com   

    From SPACE.com: “To Find Alien Worlds, First Look at Our Sun” 

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    November 18, 2015
    Elizabeth Howell, Discovery News

    Artist’s impression of exoplanet Kepler-186f, a planet similar in size to the Earth and orbiting in what could be the habitable zone of its parent star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

    One well-trusted method of finding an exoplanet is to see how much wobble it induces in its parent star. Right now, the state of the art precision for detecting planets a few dozen light-years away via this method is about one meter per second, which is produced by planets more massive than Earth. But if something disturbs the surface of the star — say, a sunspot — this can mess with the measurements and produce false positives.

    A team of researchers is hoping to get around this by doing a test study on our own sun. If it works out, their project will allow them to detect Venus orbiting the sun using this radial velocity technique. This will be a proof of concept for finding Earth-size or smaller planets around other stars.

    “We decided to build an instrument that was able to get radial velocity of the sun as if it was another star,” said Xavier Dumusque, an astrophysicist and data scientist at Geneva Observatory, in an e-mail to Discovery News. He co-led the study with David F. Phillips of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    “The sun is extremely close,” he added, “so we can resolve its surface and therefore see the different sunspots on its surface. By comparing resolved images of the sun and the radial velocity obtained with this new instrument, we hope to understand better the effect of sunspots on radial velocity measurements, and find optimal correction techniques applicable to other stars.”

    The European Southern Observatory 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile, posed under a time-lapse picture of the Milky Way. The HARPS-N instrument on this telescope is used to look for exoplanets. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

    A test run over seven days, using the HARPS-N instrument on a 3.6-meter telescope in Chile, showed promising results. They rigged a solar telescope to pass the sunlight of the entire disc (just like a distant star) into the instrument, which is generally used to hunt exoplanets by night. They then calibrated the light with an astro-comb, a device used by spectrographs to detect star wobbles. They plan to repeat this technique during every clear day for the next two to three years.

    “The first data obtained with this new instrument show that we reach a precision on the sun of 0.5 meters per second. We are therefore at the precision we wanted,” Dumusque wrote. “We also show that at first order, the radial velocity variation observed on the sun can be estimated using the full disc photometry (the total light emitted by the sun). This is not surprising because sunspots are darker than than the surface of the sun, and therefore induce a variation in photometry.”

    Venus crossing the sun’s disc in June 2012, from the perspective of the International Space Station. From afar, it is easy to confuse a transiting planet with a sunspot.
    Credit: NASA

    To be sure, planets that are Earth’s size and smaller have been detected around small stars very far away from us, usually using the Kepler space telescope — a prolific planet-hunting device.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    However, this proves a challenge for planets that are much closer to us and orbiting bright stars. Kepler looks at how much the light dims as the planet passes in front of a star. A small planet going across a bright star could slip by unnoticed.

    Precision measurements of stars and understanding how sunspots affect those measurements is one of the main challenges of using radial velocity to hunt planets close to Earth, Dumusque added. “Solving for this problem will allows us to detect planets extremely similar than Earth orbiting around bright stars. Those candidates will then be observed with the future generation of extremely large telescopes, to look for traces of life in their atmospheres.”

    There will be more observatories launching shortly to look for planets close to Earth’s size. Examples are the James Webb Space Telescope (2018), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite [TESS] (no later than 2018) and on Earth, the European Extremely Large Telescope, which should see first light in 2024.

    NASA Webb Telescope



    While these observatories still have to be tested, scientists are hoping we can start to see Earth-sized planetary atmospheres with at least some of the telescopes.

    The results have been accepted in Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available as a preprint on arxiv.org.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:32 am on November 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , space.com   

    From SPACE.com: ” To See Deep into Space, Start Deep Underground” 

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    November 25, 2015
    Constance Walter, Sanford Underground Research Facility

    The Davis Cavern on the 4850 Level of the Sanford Underground Research Facility was once home to Ray Davis’s Nobel Prize-winning solar neutrino experiment. The cavern has been enlarged, the walls coated in a spray-on concrete (shotcrete) and outfitted for the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment. Credit: Matthew Kapust, Sanford Underground Research Facility, © South Dakota Science and Technology Authority

    In 1969, Neil Armstrong fired my imagination when he took “a giant leap” onto the moon. I was 11 years old as I watched him take that first step, and like millions around the world, I was riveted to the screen. Today I wonder how I would have reacted if the news anchor had simply described this incredible moment. Would I have been so excited? So inspired? So eager to learn more? I don’t think so. It was seeing the story unfold that made it magical, that pulled me into the story.

    How we see the world impacts how we view it: That first glimpse of outer space sparked an interest in science. And although I didn’t become a scientist, I found a career in science, working with researchers at Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, explaining the abstract and highly complex physics experiments in ways the rest of us can appreciate. It isn’t always easy. Ever heard of neutrinoless double-beta decay? Probably not. If I told you this rare form of nuclear decay could go a long way in helping us understand some of the mysteries of the universe, would you get the picture? Maybe. The words are important, but an illustration or animation might give you a better idea.

    Kathryn Jepsen, editor-in-chief of the physics magazine Symmetry, captured this need for the visual in this way: In trying to create images for her readers, she is never sure if her intent is what readers “see” in their mind’s eye — so she works with illustrators, videographers and photographers to create the images she wants them to see. “Videos and animations show them exactly what we want to get across,” Jepsen said.

    And such visualizations can be profound. Take a look at this operatic animation from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Created using simulations run on the supercomputers at the National Center of Computational Sciences, it shows the expected operation of the ITER fusion reactor. The video clearly outlines the objectives of the experiment, but the animation allows greater understanding as to how the fusion reactor could be used to create energy.

    download the mp4 video here.

    Digging deep into science bedrock

    The Sanford Lab has many stories to tell: complex research experiments, a Nobel Prize, and a 126-year history as a mine, to name a few. We write stories for a newsletter called Deep Thoughts, the Sanford Lab website and other publications. But we don’t rely solely on words. Photographs and video play a big role in how we present the lab to the world.

    Researchers at Sanford Lab go deep underground to try to answer some of the most challenging physics questions about the universe. What is the origin of matter? What is dark matter and how do we know it exists? What are the properties of neutrinos? Going deep underground may help them answer these fundamental questions about the universe.

    Here’s how: Hold out your hand. On the Earth’s surface, thousands of cosmic rays pass through it every day. But nearly a mile underground, where these big physics experiments operate, it’s more than a million times quieter. The rock acts as a natural shield, blocking most of the radiation that can interfere with sensitive physics experiments. It turns out Sanford Lab is particularly suited to large physics experiments for another reason — the hard rock of the former Homestake Gold Mine is perfect for excavating the large caverns needed for big experiments.

    From 1876 to 2001, miners pulled more than 40 million ounces of gold and 9 million ounces of silver from the mine. In the beginning they mined with pickaxes, hammers and shovels — often in the dark with only candles for light. As they dug deeper, they brought wagons and mules underground to haul ore. Some animals were born, raised and died without ever seeing the sunshine. By the early 1900s, Homestake was using locomotives, drills and lights. By the early 1980s, the mine reached 8,000 feet, becoming the deepest gold mine in North America, with tunnels and drifts pocketing 370 miles of underground. At its heyday, Homestake employed nearly 2,000 people, but as gold prices plummeted and operation costs soared, the company began decreasing operations and reducing staff.

    Finally, in 2001, the Barrick Gold Corp., which owned the mine, closed the facility. Five years later, the company donated the property to South Dakota for use as an underground laboratory. That same year, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $70 million to the project. Since then, the state has committed more than $45 million in funds to the project. Early on, South Dakota received a $10 million Community Development Block Grant to help rehabilitate the aging facility.

    Part of the glamor of using Homestake to build a deep underground science laboratory was its history as a physics landmark. Starting in the mid-1960s, nuclear chemist Ray Davis operated his solar neutrino experiment 4,850 feet underground (designated the 4850 Level) of Homestake mine. Using a 100,000-gallon tank full of perchloroethylene (fluid used in dry cleaning), Davis looked for interactions between neutrinos and the chlorine atoms, believing they would change into argon atoms.

    Far from the mining activity, Davis worked for nearly three decades to prove the theory developed with his collaborator John Bahcall, professor of astrophysics in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. The two proposed that the mysteries of the sun could be examined by measuring the number of neutrinos arriving on Earth from the sun. By the 1970s, Davis proved the theory worked; however, there was a slight problem: Davis found only one-third of the neutrinos predicted based on the standard solar and particle physics model. This led to the solar neutrino problem.

    “The solar neutrino problem caused great consternation among physicists and astrophysicists,” Davis said years later. “My opinion in the early years was that something was wrong with the standard solar model; many physicists thought there was something wrong with my experiment.”

    Scientists at underground laboratories around the world wanted an answer to this riddle. Eventually, the mystery was solved by researchers in two separate experiments: one at SNOLab in Canada, the other at the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration in Japan.


    Super-Kamiokande experiment Japan

    As it turns out, neutrinos are pretty tricky characters, changing flavors as they travel through space, oscillating between electron, muon and tau neutrinos. Davis’s detector was only able to see the electron neutrino.

    In 2002, Davis’s groundbreaking research earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics — energizing physicists to lobby for a laboratory on the hallowed ground at the abandoned Homestake Mine. (This year, Takaaki Kajita of Super-Kamiokande and Arthur McDonald of SNOLab shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries of neutrino oscillation.)

    A one-of-a-kind (incredibly deep) hole

    Because of the site’s rich physics history and unique structure, South Dakota and many scientists lobbied to have a billion-dollar deep underground laboratory at the mine, as deep as 7,400 feet — and in 2007 the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) selected it as the preferred site for a proposed Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL).

    But in 2010, the National Science Board decided not to fund further design of DUSEL. Physicists, citizens and politicians immediately began seeking other funding sources, and in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agreed to support ongoing science operations at Sanford Lab, while investigating how to use the underground research facility for other longer-term experiments.

    Today, Sanford Lab hosts three large physics experiments nearly a mile underground on the 4850 Level.

    The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, is looking for dark matter, which makes up most of the matter in the universe, but has yet to be detected.

    We can’t see or touch dark matter, but we know it exists because of its gravitational effects on galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Scientists with LUX use a vessel filled with one-third of a ton of liquid xenon, hoping that when a weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP, strikes a xenon atom, detectors will recognize the signature. In October 2013, after an initial run of 80 days, LUX was named the most sensitive dark-matter detector in the world.

    LUX watertank just before it was filled with 70,000 gallons of deionized water. Credit: Matthew Kapust, Sanford Underground Research Facility, © South Dakota Science and Technology Authority

    The Majorana experiment brings us back to that obscure-sounding neutrinoless double-beta decay. Neutrinos, among the most abundant particles in the universe, are often called “ghost” particles because they pass through matter like it isn’t there. Scientists with the Majorana experiment hope to spot the rare neutrinoless double-beta decay phenomenon, which could reveal if neutrinos are their own antiparticles.

    The inner copper shielding for the Majorana Demonstrator experiment is actually made of two layers of copper. The outermost layer is the purest copper that can be purchased commercially. The inner layer of copper is the purest in the world. It was “grown” by electroforming in a lab underground at Sanford Lab. Credit: Matthew Kapust, Sanford Underground Research Facility, © South Dakota Science and Technology Authority

    The answer to this question could help us understand why humans — and, indeed, the universe — exist. Majorana needs an environment so clean it was built almost entirely out of copper, electroformed deep underground, and it uses dozens of detectors made of enriched germanium crystals (76Ge) in its quest. The detectors are built in an ultraclean “glove box,” which is purged periodically with nitrogen gas, to ensure not even a single speck of dust will touch the highly sensitive detectors. When completed, the strings of detectors are placed inside a copper vessel that goes into a layered shield for extra protection against the environment.

    CASPAR (Compact Accelerator System for Performing Astrophysical Research) researchers are studying the nuclear processes in stars. Essentially, the goal is to create the same reactions that happen in stars a bit “older” than our sun. If researchers can do that, it could help complete the picture of how the elements in our universe are built. The experiment is undergoing calibration tests and will go online in early 2016.

    CASPAR project

    But can you see the science?

    Do you have a picture in your mind of each of these experiments? Is it the right picture? It’s not easy. Writers want the public to clearly understand why the science is important. And so we look for images that will complement our stories.

    Delicate work assembling the Majorana cryostat is done inside a glovebox. The cryostat contains strings of hockey puck shaped germainium detectors. Credit: Matthew Kapust, Sanford Underground Research Facility, © South Dakota Science and Technology Authority

    Matt Kapust is the creative services developer at Sanford Lab (the two of us make up the entire communications team). Since 2009, Kapust has been documenting the conversion of the mine into a world-leading research laboratory, using photography and video to record each stage of construction and outfitting.

    “Video is one of the most important tools we have in our tool belt,” Kapust said. “As content developers, we need to find creative ways to explain esoteric science concepts to mainstream audiences in ways that get them excited about science.”

    Film is important for other reasons, as well. “Massive science projects like the ones we have at Sanford Lab are not privately funded, they are not corporate run,” Kapust said. “They are funded by the public and need public support. Film’s mass appeal allows us to tell the stories in new ways and generate that widespread support.”

    Sanford Lab receives $15 million year for operations each year from the DOE. In addition to the $40 million given to support the lab in 2007, South Dakota recently gave the lab nearly $4 million for upgrades to one of the shafts. The individual experiments receive millions of dollars in funding from NSF and DOE, and a proposed future experiment, the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility and associated Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE) is expected to cost $1 billion. All of this comes from taxpayers. And they want to know where their money is going — and why.

    Our stories, if we do them right, create excitement and spur the public’s collective imagination — I mean, we’re talking about possibly discovering the origins of the universe! When you think about it in those terms, a picture — or video — could be worth a million words, or a billion dollars.

    Nailing down neutrinos

    Kapust points to that billion-dollar experiment as an example. LBNF/DUNE, currently in the planning stages, will be an internationally designed, coordinated and funded collaboration that will attempt to unlock the mysteries of the neutrino.

    Billions of neutrinos pass through our bodies every second. Billions. They are formed in nuclear reactors, the sun (a huge nuclear reactor) and other stars, supernovae and cosmic rays as they strike the Earth’s atmosphere.

    In particular, researchers with LBNF/DUNE want to more fully understand neutrino oscillations, determine the mass of these ghostly particles, and solve the mystery of the matter/antimatter imbalance in the universe. To do this, they will follow the world’s highest-intensity neutrino beam as it travels 800 miles through the Earth, from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, to four massive detectors on the 4850 Level of Sanford Lab. And should a star go supernova while the experiment is running, the researchers could learn a lot more.

    Depiction of the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility/Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. Credit: Fermilab

    LBNF/DUNE will be one of the largest international megascience experiments to ever occur on U.S. soil. The sheer scale of the experiment is mind-boggling.

    For example, the detectors are filled with 13 million gallons of liquid argon, an element used in the SNOLab experiment that discovered neutrino oscillation. And more than 800,000 tons of rock will be excavated to create three caverns — two for the detectors and one for utilities. Each cavern will be nearly the length of two football fields.

    That will require a lot of blasting, and engineers at Sanford Lab want to document the test blasts for a couple of reasons: They want a graphic representation of what the blast will look like and they hope to catch any visual appearance of dust going down the drift. The huge experiment is being built near existing experiments and dust could have a negative impact. Capturing the event on video could help them determine better ways to blast the rock to route the dust away from other sensitive physics experiments. As the experiment moves forward, our team will document each stage. We can’t bring visitors underground, but we can show them our progress.

    Katie Yurkewicz, head of communications at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), said, “If words are our only tools, it can be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to get people to that ‘Aha!’ moment of understanding. Video and animations are invaluable in communicating those complex construction and physics topics.”

    In our field, it’s important to seek the expertise and interest of other communicators and the media. “We often rely on documentary filmmakers, news organizations and public broadcasting to help us tell our stories,” Kapust said, citing RAW Science, the BBC and South Dakota Public Broadcasting among those entities. “It’s important for us to be able to work with these groups because we have limited resources. We need the assistance and networking opportunities they offer.”

    download mp4 video here.

    In May 2015, a team from PRI’s Science Friday arrived at Sanford Lab to do a story about LUX and the search for dark matter. The team spent three days filming underground and on the surface. They interviewed scientists, students and administrators. The story was told on radio, of course, but the program also included a 17-minute video on Science Friday’s website. The radio program used sound, tone and words to great effect. But the video takes viewers onto the cage and down the shaft, into a modern, well-lit laboratory, and on a locomotive ride through the dark caverns of the underground. (Science Friday submitted the video for competition in the RAW Science Film Festival, which takes place Dec. 4-5 in Los Angeles.)

    Setting the scenes

    Producing film at Sanford Lab isn’t easy. Trips underground require careful planning, and even a trip action plan, part of a log that keeps track of everyone working underground. Should an emergency arise, the underground will be evacuated; the log ensures everyone gets to the surface safely. Because we are required to spend a lot of time underground, we undergo regular safety training that adds up to several hours a year.

    For every trip, we don restrictive clothing — hardhats as a safety measure and coveralls to keep dust from our clothing — then take an 11-minute ride in a dark cage, or elevator, to laboratories nearly a mile down. We lug our heavy lighting, sound and camera equipment with us, and shoot video in tight spaces. If we forget something, we can’t turn around and go back — the cage only runs at certain times of the day. Bringing our lunch is a definite must. Once underground, we enter the cart wash area, where we remove our coveralls, don clean hardhats, and clean all of the equipment with alcohol wipes — we don’t want to bring any dirt into the lab. Finally, we put booties over our shoes, then enter the laboratory area. One big perk? There’s an espresso machine and a panini press.

    Recently, we did a story about the innermost portion of the six-layered shield around the Majorana Demonstrator project. The shield gives the experiment extra protection from the radiation that permeates through the surrounding rock, especially radon, which can create noise in the experiment. The inner shield is special — it was made with ultrapure electroformed copper grown on the 4850 Level of Sanford Lab. We interviewed physicist Vincent Guiseppe, the mastermind behind the shield, inside the deeply buried class-100 clean room where all the work is done. Despite our precautions, we couldn’t go into the clean room without putting on a “bunny suit”: Tyvek clothing that includes a hood, booties, two pairs of gloves and a face mask, and we had to maneuver carefully as the research continued around us. It was a challenge, but it was worth it to get the story and a stunning image of the shield.

    Randy Hughes works in a cleanroom machine shop nearly one mile underground. He machines all the copper parts for the Majorana Demonstrator experiment. Credit: Matthew Kapust, Sanford Underground Research Facility, © South Dakota Science and Technology Authority

    While the lunar landing inspired my generation to look to the cosmos — and inspired me to want to fly to distant planets, see the Milky Way from a distant galaxy, and learn the secrets of the universe — none of us expected to be looking up from nearly a mile underground. But with the right mix of sights and stories, science is inspiring a new generation, while searching for answers to universal questions using tools that are only now reaching for the stars.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stem Education Coalition

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