News from Space: Mysterious Radio Waves Detected…

auriga_nebulaAccording to a story published on July 10 in The Astrophysical Journal, a radio burst was detected that may have originated outside of our galaxy. Apparently, these split-second radio bursts have heard before, but always with the same telescope – Parkes Observatory in Australia. Given that only this observatory was detecting these signals, there was debate about whether they were coming from inside our galaxy, or even from Earth itself.

However, this time the radio signals were detected by a different telescope – the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – which concluded that the bursts are coming from outside the galaxy. This is also the first time one of these bursts have been found in the northern hemisphere of the sky. Exactly what may be causing such radio bursts represents a major new enigma for astrophysicists.

Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics researcher at McGill University who participated in the research, explained:

Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin. The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect.

arecibo_arrayFast radio bursts are a flurry of radio waves that last a few thousandths of a second, and at any given minute there are only seven of these in the sky on average, according to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Their cause is unknown, and the possibilities range from black holes, to neutron stars coming together, to the magnetic field of pulsars (a type of neutron star) flaring up.

The pulse was detected on Nov. 2, 2012, at the Arecibo Observatory – a National Science Foundation-sponsored facility that has the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. While fast radio bursts last just a few thousandths of a second and have rarely been detected, the international team of scientists reporting the Arecibo finding estimate that these bursts occur roughly 10,000 times a day over the whole sky.

MaxPlanckIns_radiowavepulseThis astonishingly large number is inferred by calculating how much sky was observed, and for how long, in order to make the few detections that have so far been reported. Laura Spitler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany and the lead author of the new paper, was also the first person to note the event. As she explained:

The brightness and duration of this event, and the inferred rate at which these bursts occur, are all consistent with the properties of the bursts previously detected by the Parkes telescope in Australia.

The bursts appear to be coming from beyond the Milky Way, based on measurement of an effect known as plasma dispersion. Pulses that travel through the cosmos are distinguished from man-made ones by the effect of interstellar electrons, which cause radio waves to travel more slowly at lower radio frequencies. The burst detected by the Arecibo telescope has three times the maximum dispersion measure that would be expected from a local source.

Four_antennas_ALMAEfforts are now under way to detect radio bursts using radio telescopes that can observe broad swaths of the sky to help identify them. Telescopes under construction in Australia and South Africa as well as the CHIME telescope in Canada have the potential to detect fast radio bursts. Astronomers say these and other new facilities could pave the way for many more discoveries and a better understanding of this mysterious cosmic phenomenon.

For those hoping this was a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox – i.e. that the radio bursts might have been extra-terrestrial in origin – this news is a little disappointing. But in truth, its yet another example of the deeper mysteries of the universe at work. Much like our ongoing research into the world of elementary particles, every answer gives rise to new questions.

Sources: universetoday.com, kurzweilai.net

New from Space: Simulations and X-Rays Point to Dark Matter

center_universe2The cosmic hunt for dark matter has been turning up some interesting clues of late. And during the month of June, two key hints came along that might provide answers; specifically simulations that look at the “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day and recent studies involving galaxy clusters. In both cases, the observations made point towards the existence of Dark Matter – the mysterious substance believed to make up 85 per cent of the mass of the Universe.

In the former case, the clues are the result of new supercomputer simulations that show the evolution of our “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day. Physicists at Durham University, who are leading the research, say their simulations could improve understanding of dark matter due to the fact that they believe that clumps of the mysterious substance – or halos – emerged from the early Universe, trapping intergalactic gas and thereby becoming the birthplaces of galaxies.

universe_expansionCosmological theory predicts that our own cosmic neighborhood should be teeming with millions of small halos, but only a few dozen small galaxies have been observed around the Milky Way. Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said:

I’ve been losing sleep over this for the last 30 years… Dark matter is the key to everything we know about galaxies, but we still don’t know its exact nature. Understanding how galaxies formed holds the key to the dark matter mystery… We know there can’t be a galaxy in every halo. The question is: ‘Why not?’.

The Durham researchers believe their simulations answer this question, showing how and why millions of halos around our galaxy and neighboring Andromeda failed to produce galaxies. They say the gas that would have made the galaxy was sterilized by the heat from the first stars that formed in the Universe and was prevented from cooling and turning into stars. However, a few halos managed to bypass this cosmic furnace by growing early and fast enough to hold on to their gas and eventually form galaxies.

dark_matterThe findings were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth on Thursday, June 26. The work was funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the European Research Council. Professor Frenk, who received the Royal Astronomical Society’s top award, the Gold Medal for Astronomy, added:

We have learned that most dark matter halos are quite different from the ‘chosen few’ that are lit up by starlight. Thanks to our simulations we know that if our theories of dark matter are correct then the Universe around us should be full of halos that failed to make a galaxy. Perhaps astronomers will one day figure out a way to find them.

Lead researcher Dr Till Sawala, in the Institute for Computational Cosmology, at Durham University, said the research was the first to simulate the evolution of our “Local Group” of galaxies, including the Milky Way, Andromeda, their satellites and several isolated small galaxies, in its entirety. Dr Sawala said:

What we’ve seen in our simulations is a cosmic own goal. We already knew that the first generation of stars emitted intense radiation, heating intergalactic gas to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. After that, the gas is so hot that further star formation gets a lot more difficult, leaving halos with little chance to form galaxies. We were able to show that the cosmic heating was not simply a lottery with a few lucky winners. Instead, it was a rigorous selection process and only halos that grew fast enough were fit for galaxy formation.

darkmatter1The close-up look at the Local Group is part of the larger EAGLE project currently being undertaken by cosmologists at Durham University and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. EAGLE is one of the first attempts to simulate from the beginning the formation of galaxies in a representative volume of the Universe. By peering into the virtual Universe, the researchers find galaxies that look remarkably like our own, surrounded by countless dark matter halos, only a small fraction of which contain galaxies.

The research is part of a program being conducted by the Virgo Consortium for supercomputer simulations, an international collaboration led by Durham University with partners in the UK, Germany, Holland, China and Canada. The new results on the Local Group involve, in addition to Durham University researchers, collaborators in the Universities of Victoria (Canada), Leiden (Holland), Antwerp (Belgium) and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (Germany).

ESO2In the latter case, astronomers using ESA and NASA high-energy observatories have discovered another possible hint by studying galaxy clusters, the largest cosmic assemblies of matter bound together by gravity. Galaxy clusters not only contain hundreds of galaxies, but also a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. The gas is mainly hydrogen and, at over 10 million degrees celsius, is hot enough to emit X-rays. Traces of other elements contribute additional X-ray ‘lines’ at specific wavelengths.

Examining observations by ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra spaceborne telescopes of these characteristic lines in 73 galaxy clusters, astronomers stumbled on an intriguing faint line at a wavelength where none had been seen before. The astronomers suggest that the emission may be created by the decay of an exotic type of subatomic particle known as a ‘sterile neutrino’, which is predicted but not yet detected.

dark_matter_blackholeOrdinary neutrinos are very low-mass particles that interact only rarely with matter via the so-called weak nuclear force as well as via gravity. Sterile neutrinos are thought to interact with ordinary matter through gravity alone, making them a possible candidate as dark matter. As Dr Esra Bulbul – from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and lead author of the paper discussing the results – put it:

If this strange signal had been caused by a known element present in the gas, it should have left other signals in the X-ray light at other well-known wavelengths, but none of these were recorded. So we had to look for an explanation beyond the realm of known, ordinary matter… If the interpretation of our new observations is correct, at least part of the dark matter in galaxy clusters could consist of sterile neutrinos.

The surveyed galaxy clusters lie at a wide range of distances, from more than a hundred million light-years to a few billion light-years away. The mysterious, faint signal was found by combining multiple observations of the clusters, as well as in an individual image of the Perseus cluster, a massive structure in our cosmic neighborhood.

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.The implications of this discovery may be far-reaching, but the researchers are being cautious. Further observations with XMM-Newton, Chandra and other high-energy telescopes of more clusters are needed before the connection to dark matter can be confirmed. Norbert Schartel, ESA’s XMM-Newton Project Scientist, commented:

The discovery of these curious X-rays was possible thanks to the large XMM-Newton archive, and to the observatory’s ability to collect lots of X-rays at different wavelengths, leading to this previously undiscovered line. It would be extremely exciting to confirm that XMM-Newton helped us find the first direct sign of dark matter. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re certainly going to learn a lot about the content of our bizarre Universe while getting there.

Much like the Higgs Boson, the existence of Dark Matter was first theorized as a way of explaining how the universe appears to have mass that we cannot see. But by looking at indirect evidence, such as the gravitational influence it has on the movements and appearance of other objects in the Universe, scientists hope to one day confirm its existence. Beyond that, there is the mystery of “Dark Energy”, the hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and is believed to be behind accelerations in the expansion of the universe.

As with the discovery of the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model of particle physics, detecting these two invisible forces will at last confirm that the Big Bang and Cosmological theory are scientific fact – and not just working theories. When that happens, the dream of humanity finally being able to understand the universe (at both the atomic and macro level) may finally become a reality!

Source: sciencedaily.com, (2)

News From Space: Cosmic Inflation and Dark Matter

big bang_blackholeHello again! In another attempt to cover events that built up while I was away, here are some stories that took place back in March and early April of this year, and which may prove to be some of the greatest scientific finds of the year. In fact, they may prove to be some of the greatest scientific finds in recent history, as they may help to answer the most fundamental questions of all – namely, what is the universe made of, and how did it come to exist?

First up, in a development that can only be described as cosmic in nature (pun intended), back in March, astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center announced the first-ever observation of gravitational waves. This discovery, which is the first direct evidence of the Big Bang, is comparable to significance to CERN’s confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012. And there is already talk about a Nobel Prize for the Harvard crew because of their discovery.

big_bangThis theory, which states that the entire universe sprung into existence from a tiny spot in the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, has remained the scientific consensus for almost a century. But until now, scientists have had little beyond theory and observations to back it up. As the name would suggest, gravitational waves are basically ripples in spacetime that have been propagating outward from the center of the universe ever since the Big Bang took place.

Originally predicted as part of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916, these waves are believed to have existed since a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang took place, and have been propagating outward for roughly 14 billion years. The theory also predicts that, if we can detect some gravitational waves, it’s proof of the initial expansion during the Big Bang and the continued inflation that has been taking place ever since.

bicep2-640x425Between 2010 and 2012, the BICEP2 – a radio telescope situated at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station (pictured above) – the research team listened to the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). They were looking for hints of B-mode polarization, a twist in the CMB that could only have been caused by the ripples of gravitational waves. Following a lot of data analysis, the leaders announced that they found that B-mode polarization.

The work will now be scrutinized by the rest of the scientific community, of course, but the general consensus seems confident that it will stand up. In terms of scientific significance, the confirmation of gravitational waves would be the first direct evidence that the universe started out as nothing, erupted into existence 13.8 billion years ago, and has continued to expand ever since. This would confirm that cosmic inflation really exists and that the entire structure of the universe was decided in the beginning by the tiniest flux of gravitational waves.

planck-attnotated-580x372And that’s not only discovery of cosmic significance that was made in recent months. In this case, the news comes from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has been analyzing high-energy gamma rays emanating from the galaxy’s center since 2008. After pouring over the results, an independent group of scientists claimed that they had found an unexplained source of emissions that they say is “consistent with some forms of dark matter.”

These scientists found that by removing all known sources of gamma rays, they were left with gamma-ray emissions that so far they cannot explain. And while they were cautious that more observations will be needed to characterize these emissions, this is the first time that potential evidence has been found that may confirm that this mysterious, invisible mass that accounts for roughly 26.8% of the universe actually exists.

darkmatter1To be fair, scientists aren’t even sure what dark matter is made of. In fact, it’s very existence is inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter and gravitational lensing of background radiation. Originally, it was hypothesized to account for the discrepancies that were observed between the calculations of the mass of galaxies, clusters and entire universe made through dynamical and general relativistic means, and  the mass of the visible “luminous” matter.

The most widely accepted explanation for these phenomena is that dark matter exists and that it is most probably composed of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) that interact only through gravity and the weak force. If this is true, then dark matter could produce gamma rays in ranges that Fermi could detect. Also, the location of the radiation at the galaxy’s center is an interesting spot, since scientists believe that’s where dark matter would lurk since the insofar invisible substance would be the base of normal structures like galaxies.

fermi_gamma-raysThe galactic center teems with gamma-ray sources, from interacting binary systems and isolated pulsars to supernova remnants and particles colliding with interstellar gas. It’s also where astronomers expect to find the galaxy’s highest density of dark matter, which only affects normal matter and radiation through its gravity. Large amounts of dark matter attract normal matter, forming a foundation upon which visible structures, like galaxies, are built.

Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and lead author of the study, had this to say on the subject:

The new maps allow us to analyze the excess and test whether more conventional explanations, such as the presence of undiscovered pulsars or cosmic-ray collisions on gas clouds, can account for it. The signal we find cannot be explained by currently proposed alternatives and is in close agreement with the predictions of very simple dark matter models.

Hooper and his colleagues suggest that if WIMPs were destroying each other, this would be “a remarkable fit” for a dark matter signal. They again caution, though, that there could be other explanations for the phenomenon. Writing in a paper submitted to the journal Physical Review D, the researchers say that these features are difficult to reconcile with other explanations proposed so far, although they note that plausible alternatives not requiring dark matter may yet materialize.

CERN_LHCAnd while a great deal more work is required before Dark Matter can be safely said to exist, much of that work can be done right here on Earth using CERN’s own equipment. Tracy Slatyer, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the report, explains:

Dark matter in this mass range can be probed by direct detection and by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so if this is dark matter, we’re already learning about its interactions from the lack of detection so far.This is a very exciting signal, and while the case is not yet closed, in the future we might well look back and say this was where we saw dark matter annihilation for the first time.

Still, they caution that it will take multiple sightings – in other astronomical objects, the LHC, or direct-detection experiments being conducted around the world – to validate their dark matter interpretation. Even so, this is the first time that scientists have had anything, even tentative, to base the existence of Dark Matter’s on. Much like until very recently with the Big Bang Theory, it has remained a process of elimination – getting rid of explanations that do not work rather than proving one that does.

So for those hoping that 2014 will be the year that the existence of Dark Matter is finally proven – similar to how 2012 was the year the Higgs Boson was discovered or 2013 was the year the Amplituhedron was found – there are plenty of reasons to hope. And in the meantime, check out this video of a gamma-ray map of the galactic center, courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Center.


Sources:
extremetech.com, IO9.com, nasa.gov, cfa.harvard.edu, news.nationalgeographic.com

News From Space: Alpha Centauri’s “Superhabitable” World

alpha_centauri_newsScientists and astronomers have learned a great deal about the universe in recent years, thanks to craft like the Kepler space probe and the recently launched Gaian space observatory. As these and other instruments look out into the universe and uncover stars and exoplanets, it not only lets us expand our knowledge of the universe, but gives us a chance to reflect upon the meaning of this thing we call “habitability”.

Basically, our notions of what constitutes a habitable environment are shaped by our own. Since Earth is a life-sustaining environment from which we originated, we tend to think that conditions on another life-giving planet would have to be similar. However, scientists René Heller and John Armstrong contend that there might be a planet even more suitable in this galaxy, and in the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri B.

alpha_centauriBb1For those unfamiliar, Alpha Centauri A/B is a triple star system some 4.3 light years away from Earth, making it the closest star system to Earth. The nice thing about having a hypothetical “superhabitable” planet in this system is that it makes it a lot easier to indulge in a bit of a thought experiment, and will make it that much more easy to observe and examine.

According to the arguments put forward by Heller, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University, Hamilton; and Armstrong, of the Department of Physics, Weber State University in Ogden, this planet may be even more suitable for supporting life than our own. It all comes down to meeting the particulars, and maybe even exceeding them.

habitable_sunsFor example, a habitable planet needs the right kind sun – one that has existed and remained stable for a long time. If the sun in question is too large, then it will have a very short life; and if it’s too small, it might last a long time. But the planet will have to be very close to stay warm and that can cause all sorts of problems, such as a tidally locked planet with one side constantly facing the sun.

Our own sun is a G2-type star, which means it has been alive and stable for roughly 4.6 billion years. However, K-type dwarfs, which are smaller than the Sun, have lives longer than the age of the universe. Alpha Centauri B is specifically a K1V-type star that fits the bill with an estimated age of between 4.85 and 8.9 billion years, and is already known to have an Earth-like planet called Alpha Centauri B b.

alpha_centauriBb2As to the superhabitable planet, assuming it exists, it will be located somewhere between 0.5 and 1.4 astronomical units (46 – 130 million mi, 75 – 209 million km) from Alpha Centauri B. All things being equal, it will have a circular orbit 1. 85 AU (276 million km / 172 million miles) away, which would place it in the middle of the star’s habitable zone.

Also, for a planet to sustain life it has to be geologically active, meaning it has to have a rotating molten core to generate a magnetic field to ward off cosmic radiation and protect the atmosphere from being stripped away by solar winds. A slightly more massive planet with more gravity means more tectonic activity, so a better magnetic field and a more stable climate.

 

PlutoHowever, the most striking difference between the superhabitable world and Earth would be that the former would lack our continents and deep oceans – both of which can be hostile to life. Instead, Heller and Armstrong see a world with less water than ours, which would help to avoid both a runaway greenhouse effect and a snowball planet that an overabundance of water can trigger.

Our superhabitable planet might not even be in the habitable zone. It could be a moon of some giant planet further away. Jupiter’s moon Io is a volcanic hellhole due to tidal heating, but a larger moon that Heller and Armstrong call a “Super Europa” in the right orbit around a gas giant could heat enough to support life even if it’s technically outside the star’s habitable zone.

 

alien-worldAccording to Heller and Armstrong, this world would look significantly different from our own. It would be an older world, larger and more rugged, and would provide more places for life to exist. What water there was would be evenly scattered across the surface in the form of lakes and small, shallow seas. And, it would also be slightly more massive, which would mean more gravity.

This way, the shallow waters would hold much larger populations of more diverse life than is found on Earth, while the temperatures would be more moderated. However, it would be a warmer world than Earth, which also makes for more diversity and potentially more oxygen, which the higher gravity would help with by allowing the planet to better retain its atmosphere.

panspermia1Another point made by Heller and Armstrong is that there may be more than one habitable planet in the Alpha Centauri B system. Cosmic bombardments early in the history of the Solar System is how the Earth got its water and minerals. If life had already emerged on one planet in the early history of the Alpha Centauri B system, then the bombardment might have spread it to other worlds.

But of course, this is all theoretical. Such a planet may or may not exist, and may or may not have triggered the emergence of life on other worlds within the system. But what is exciting about it is just how plausible its existence may prove to be, and how easy it will be to verify once we can get some space probes between here and there.

Just imagine the sheer awesomeness of being able to see it, the images of a super-sized Earth-moon beamed back across light years, letting us know that there is indeed life on worlds besides our own. Now imagine being able to study that life and learning that our conceptions of this too have been limited. What a time that will be! I hope we all live to see it…

 

 

Sources: gizmag.com, universetoday.com

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.


9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.

antarctic_expedition

10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.

cloning

11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.


And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

News From Space: Gaia Lifts Off!

gaia_liftoffThis morning, the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission blasted off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on the head of a Soyuz rocket. This space observatory aims to study approximately 1 billion stars, roughly 1% of the Milky Way Galaxy, and create the most accurate map yet of the Milky Way. In so doing, it will also answer questions about the origin and evolution of our home Galaxy.

As the successor to the Hipparcos mission – an ESA astrometry satellite that was launched in 1989 and operated until 1993 – it is part of ESA’s Horizon 2000 Plus long-term scientific program. Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will observe each of the billion stars an average of 70 times each over the five years and measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition.

The Milky Way Shines on ParanalThe Soyuz VS06 launcher, operated by Arianespace, lifted off at 09:12 GMT (10:12 CET). About ten minutes later, after separation of the first three stages, the Fregat upper stage ignited, delivering Gaia into a temporary parking orbit at an altitude of 175 km. A second firing of the Fregat 11 minutes later took Gaia into its transfer orbit, followed by separation from the upper stage 42 minutes after liftoff.

Gaia is now en route towards an orbit around a gravitationally-stable virtual point in space called L2 Lagrange Point, some 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth.  Tomorrow, engineers will command Gaia to perform the first of two critical thruster firings to ensure it is on the right trajectory towards its L2 home orbit. About 20 days after launch, the second critical burn will take place, inserting it into its operational orbit around L2.

Gaia_spacecraftJean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General, had this to say about the launch:

Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA’s first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live.

ESA’s Gaia project scientist Timo Prusti expressed similar sentiments, highlighting how the Gaia mission’s ultimate purpose is to advance our understanding of the cosmos:

Along with tens of thousands of other celestial and planetary objects, this vast treasure trove will give us a new view of our cosmic neighbourhood and its history, allowing us to explore the fundamental properties of our Solar System and the Milky Way, and our place in the wider Universe.

By taking advantage of the slight change in perspective that occurs as Gaia orbits the Sun during a year, it will measure the stars’ distances and their motions across the sky. This motions will later be put into “rewind” to learn more about where they came from and how the Milky Way was assembled over billions of years from the merging of smaller galaxies, and into “fast forward” to learn more about its ultimate fate.

Gaia_galaxyThis is an especially ambitious mission when you consider that of the one billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances measured accurately. The mission will also study 500,000 distant quasars and will conduct tests of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. So as the mission continues and more data comes in, scientists and astronomers will be able to construct more detailed models of how the universe was created, and perhaps how it will end…

The current consensus is that the universe began with a creation event known as The Big Bang. However, the question of how it will end, either through a “Big Crunch” event – where the expansion of the universe will eventually cease and all matter will collapse back in on itself – or simply continue to expand until all stars and galaxies consume their fuel and burn out, remains something of a mystery.

Gaia_spacecraft2Personally, I call Big Crunch, mainly because I like to the think that our universe is one of many. Not just in the parallel dimension sense, but in the temporal sense as well. Like the city of Ilium (aka. Troy), existence as we know it is built upon the foundations of countless others, stretching backwards and forwards into infinity…

Deep stuff, man! In the meantime, enjoy this video of the Gaia’s mission’s liftoff, courtesy of the ESA:


Sources: universetoday.com, esa.int