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12 December 2017

Life's building blocks observed in spacelike environment

Where do the molecules required for life originate? It may be that small organic molecules first appeared on earth and were later combined into larger molecules, such as proteins and carbohydrates. But a second possibility is that they originated in space, possibly within our solar system. A new study, published this week in the Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP Publishing, shows that a number of small organic molecules can form in a cold, spacelike environment full of radiation.

Investigators at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada have created simulated space environments in which thin films of ice containing methane and oxygen are irradiated by electron beams. When electrons or other forms of radiation impinge on so-called molecular ices, chemical reactions occur and new molecules are formed. This study used several advanced techniques including electron stimulated desorption (ESD), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and temperature programmed desorption (TPD).

The experiments were carried out under vacuum conditions, which both is required for the analysis techniques employed and mimics the high vacuum condition of outer space. Frozen films containing methane and oxygen used in these experiments further mimic a spacelike environment, since various types of ice (not just frozen water) form around dust grains in the dense and cold molecular clouds that exist in the interstellar medium. These types of icy environments also exist on objects in the solar system, such as comets, asteroids and moons.

All of these icy surfaces in space are subjected to multiple forms of radiation, often in the presence of magnetic fields, which accelerate charged particles from the stellar (solar) wind toward these frozen objects. Previous studies investigated chemical reactions that might occur in space environments through the use of ultraviolet or other types of radiation, but this is a first detailed look at the role of secondary electrons.

Copious amounts of secondary electrons are produced when high-energy radiation, such as X-rays or heavy particles, interact with matter. These electrons, also known as low-energy electrons, or LEES, are still energetic enough to induce further chemistry. The work reported this week investigated LEEs interacting with icy films. Earlier studies by this group considered positively charged reaction products ejected from ices irradiated by LEEs, while the work reported this week extended the study to include ejected negative ions and new molecules that form but remain embedded in the film.

The research group found that a variety of small organic molecules were produced in icy films subjected to LEEs. Propylene, ethane and acetylene were all formed in films of frozen methane. When a frozen mixture of methane and oxygen was irradiated with LEEs, they found direct evidence that ethanol was formed.

Indirect evidence for many other small organic molecules, including methanol, acetic acid and formaldehyde was found. In addition, both X-rays and LEEs produced similar results, although at different rates. Thus, it is possible that life's building blocks might have been made through chemical reactions induced by secondary electrons on icy surfaces in space exposed to any form of ionizing radiation.

02 December 2017

Pluto, Other Faraway Worlds May Have Buried Oceans

Our solar system may harbor many more potentially habitable worlds than scientists had thought.

Subsurface oceans could still slosh beneath the icy crusts of frigid, faraway worlds such as the dwarf planets Pluto and Eris, kept liquid by the heat-generating tug of orbiting moons, according to a new study. 

"These objects need to be considered as potential reservoirs of water and life," lead author Prabal Saxena, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. "If our study is correct, we now may have more places in our solar system that possess some of the critical elements for extraterrestrial life."

Underground oceans are known, or strongly suspected, to exist on a number of icy worlds, including the Saturn satellites Titan and Enceladus and the Jovian moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. These oceans are kept liquid to this day by "tidal heating": The powerful gravitational pull of these worlds' giant parent planets stretches and flexes their interiors, generating heat via friction. 

The new study suggests something similar may be going on with Pluto, Eris and other trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs).

Many of the moons around TNOs are thought to have coalesced from material blasted into space when objects slammed into their parent bodies long ago. That's the perceived origin story for the one known satellite of Eris (called Dysnomia) and for Pluto's five moons (as well as for Earth's moon). 

Such impact-generated moons generally begin their lives in relatively chaotic orbits, team members of the new study said. But over time, these moons migrate to more-stable orbits, and as this happens, the satellites and the TNOs tug on each other gravitationally, producing tidal heat.

Saxena and his colleagues modeled the extent to which this heating could warm up the interiors of TNOs — and the researchers got some intriguing results.

"We found that tidal heating can be a tipping point that may have preserved oceans of liquid water beneath the surface of large TNOs like Pluto and Eris to the present day," study co-author Wade Henning, of NASA Goddard and the University of Maryland, said in the same statement.

As the term "tipping point" implies, there's another factor in play here as well. It's been widely recognized that TNOs could harbor buried oceans thanks to the heat produced by the decay of the objects' radioactive elements. But just how long such oceans could persist has been unclear. This type of heating peters out eventually, as more and more radioactive material decays into stable elements. And the smaller the object, the faster it cools down.

Tidal heating may do more than just lengthen subsurface oceans' lives, researchers said.

26 November 2017

Space dust may transport life between worlds: cosmic speciation

Life on our planet might have originated from biological particles brought to Earth in streams of space dust, a study suggests.

Fast-moving flows of interplanetary dust that continually bombard our planet’s atmosphere could deliver tiny organisms from far-off worlds, or send Earth-based organisms to other planets, according to the research.

The dust streams could collide with biological particles in Earth’s atmosphere with enough energy to knock them into space, a scientist has suggested.
Such an event could enable bacteria and other forms of life to make their way from one planet in the solar system to another and perhaps beyond.

The finding suggests that large asteroid impacts may not be the sole mechanism by which life could transfer between planets, as was previously thought.

The research from the University of Edinburgh calculated how powerful flows of space dust – which can move at up to 70 km a second – could collide with particles in our atmospheric system.

It found that small particles existing at 150 km or higher above Earth’s surface could be knocked beyond the limit of Earth’s gravity by space dust and eventually reach other planets.

The same mechanism could enable the exchange of atmospheric particles between distant planets.

 Some bacteria, plants and small animals called tardigrades are known to be able to survive in space, so it is possible that such organisms – if present in Earth’s upper atmosphere – might collide with fast-moving space dust and withstand a journey to another planet.

The study, published in Astrobiology, was partly funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

“The proposition that space dust collisions could propel organisms over enormous distances between planets raises some exciting prospects of how life and the atmospheres of planets originated. The streaming of fast space dust is found throughout planetary systems and could be a common factor in proliferating life,” says Professor Arjun Berera.


A new species can evolve in as few as two generations, researchers have found, shattering the orthodox position that speciation is a process that occurs slowly over a long time.

Ironically, the case study that led to this startling conclusion – detailed in a paper in the journal Science – concerns the finches of the Galapagos islands, the very collection of birds that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory regarding the role of natural selection in evolution.

A team of researchers led by Leif Andersson from Uppsala University, in Sweden, report the emergence of a new species of finch, dubbed Big Bird, arising from an initial cross breeding between two species, the large cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris) and the medium ground finch (Geospiz fortis). From a first chance encounter, a new lineage which boasts a unique beak shape, unique vocalisations, and the inability to breed with other finch species emerged.

The Big Bird today comprises only about 30 individuals – all fiercely inbred, but meeting the definition of distinct species, nonetheless.

The case study is watertight because the set-up for the foundation mating between the two originator species was observed by a pair of scientists from Princeton University, who were visiting the Galapagos island of Daphne Major at the time.

The year was 1981 and evolutionary biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant had been studying the finches of the island group. When they noticed a strange bird with a largish beak and unusual song on Daphne Major, therefore, they knew immediately it was not one of the three finch species native to the place.

"We didn’t see him fly in from over the sea, but we noticed him shortly after he arrived,” recalls Peter Grant. “He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major.”

It turned out the intruder was from a species resident on Espanola Island, more than 100 kilometres away. Unable to return and thus find a mate from its own species, the finch somehow managed to mate successfully with a local girl.

Isolation is a critical step in speciation. The successful interbreeding would never have happened had not the male finch been somehow massively blown off course and – remarkably – found landfall on another tiny speck in the Pacific. Thus, if not for outrageous fortune, the cactus finch and the ground finch would not have challenged another fundamental definition of “species” – the inability to produce fertile offspring with a member of a different species.

For the resultant offspring, however, the results were potentially dire. The baby finches were neither one nor the other, and developed with beaks and calls that were unmatched among the resident species. Like isolated populations of humans have occasionally been known to do, therefore, and perhaps equally unwisely, they turned for attention to their own siblings.

The Grants, having taken an initial blood sample from the outsider, continued to monitor the little population of Big Birds, taking blood from the subsequent six generations.

Now, Andersson and his colleagues from Uppsala have analysed the DNA collected from each of those generations. They conclude that the Big Birds quickly developed unique structural characteristics with which they were able to forge an entirely new environmental niche that did not put them in competition with the more numerous resident finch species.

“It is very striking that when we compare the size and shape of the Big Bird beaks with the beak morphologies of the other three species inhabiting Daphne Major, the Big Birds occupy their own niche in the beak morphology space,” says co-author Sangeet Lamichhaney.

“Thus, the combination of gene variants contributed from the two interbreeding species in combination with natural selection led to the evolution of a beak morphology that was competitive and unique.”

He adds that a naturalist visiting Great Daphne today and unaware of the Big Birds’ history would have no reason to think the species was anything but ancient and firmly rooted on the island.

With only small numbers and a shallow genepool, of course, there is no guarantee of the new species’ robust and continued survival. Andersson notes that this type of emergence may have happened many times before, the results lost after a few generations to extinction.

“We have no indication about the long-term survival of the Big Bird lineage, but it has the potential to become a success, and it provides a beautiful example of one way in which speciation occurs,” he says.

19 November 2017

ESO's Journey to the Most Remote Galaxy in the Observable Universe

An international team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope high in the mountains of Chile measured the distance to the most remote galaxy so far. This is the first time that astronomers have been able to confirm that they are observing a galaxy as it was in the era of reionization — when the first generation of brilliant stars was making the young Universe transparent and ending the cosmic Dark Ages.

A team of astronomers used ESO's Very Large Telescope, the VLT, to confirm that a galaxy that had previously been spotted in images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is in fact the most distant object that is ever been identified in the Universe.

Studying these first galaxies is extremely difficult; they are very faint and small and by the time their dim light gets to Earth it falls mostly in the infrared part of the spectrum because it has been stretched by the expansion of the Universe.

To make matters worse, at this very early time, less than a billion years after the Big Seed, the Universe was not completely transparent. It was filled with hydrogen which acted kind of like a fog and absorbed the ultraviolet radiation from the young galaxies. This is the first time that ESO astronomers managed to obtain spectroscopic observations of a galaxy from the era of reionization, in other words from the time when the Universe was still clearing out the hydrogen fog.

Despite the difficulties of finding these early galaxies, the new Wide Field Camera 3 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope discovered several very good candidate objects earlier in 2010.

They were thought to be galaxies shining in the early Universe at redshifts greater than eight, but confirming the distances to such faint and remote objects is an enormous challenge and can only reliably be done using spectroscopy from very large ground-based telescopes.

The team was excited to find that if you combine the huge light collecting power of the VLT, with the sensitivity of its infrared spectroscopic instrument, SINFONI, and if you then use a very long exposure time you just might be able to detect the faint glow from one of these very remote objects and then go on to measure its distance.

A 16 hour exposure with the VLT and SINFONI of the galaxy UDFy-38135539 did indeed show the very faint glow from hydrogen at a redshift of 8.6, which means that this light left the galaxy when the Universe was only about 600 million years old. This is the most distant galaxy ever reliably confirmed.

One of the puzzling things about this discovery is that the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the galaxy does not actually seems to be strong enough to be able to clear out the hydrogen fog around the galaxy.

So one possible explanation is that there must be other galaxies, probably fainter and less massive neighbors, that helped ionize the hydrogen in the region of space around the galaxy, thus making it transparent.

Without this additional help the brilliant light from the main galaxy would have been trapped in the surrounding hydrogen fog and it could not have even started its 13 billion-year journey towards Earth.

17 November 2017

Zimbabweimerica: Leipzig University considers firing law professor over call for ‘White Europe’

“cosmopolitan” and “international” = no-go zones for Whites

“xenophobic” = opposing White genocide

“intolerant” = advocating self-preservation

"opinions” = beliefs you may not assert

Welcome to Zimbabweimerica, Whitey.

“We will now begin investigations and examine the employment law measures against Professor Rauscher,” announced Dr. Zaius.



16 November 2017

Scientists Have Discovered a New Planet Close to Earth. Here’s Why It's So Exciting

If life is lurking somewhere in space, it’s done an awfully good job of hiding itself so far. But the jig may be up now that we have a better idea of where to look. That’s clearer than ever with the announcement in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics of a newly discovered exoplanet orbiting an otherwise unremarkable star named Ross 128. Not only is the planet precisely the kind of place that could support biology, it’s located right down the street by cosmic standards — just 11 light-years from Earth.

The new world, prosaically named Ross 128 b, was discovered by a European telescope in the Chilean desert that looks for planets by what’s known as the radial velocity method. Even worlds orbiting the nearest stars are impossible to see by conventional telescopes. That’s partly because the planets are so tiny, in relative terms, and partly because the glare from the star washes out the view of anything nearby, much the way the glare from a streetlight makes it impossible to see a moth fluttering next to it.

Instead, astronomers look for the tiny wobble in the star that’s caused by the gravitational tugging of an orbiting body. If you know how to read the wobble you can learn a lot about the planet that’s causing it, and in this case that analysis is yielding some happy surprises.

According to the five-nation team of researchers who made the new discovery, Ross 128 b is no bigger than 1.35 times the size of Earth — very much the kind of planet that would have a solid surface where life could emerge. It orbits its parent star once every 9.9 days — an exceedingly fleeting year caused by the fact that the planet is 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. That ought to make the planet blisteringly hot, except that Ross 128 is a red dwarf, a far smaller, far cooler star than our yellow, so-called Class G star.

Even orbiting so close, Ross 128 b could thus have a surface temperature that averages about 269 degrees K, which sounds nasty until you realize that that comes out to about 73 degrees F (23 degrees C). What’s more, the planet rotates relatively slowly, meaning that if it has an atmosphere — by no means a sure thing — it would not have flung it off the way a rapidly spinning planet would over time.

But it’s something else in the nature of the star, not the planet, that makes the new announcement especially promising. We know of only one planet in the universe — our own — that harbors life, and so it has always made scientific sense to concentrate our search for extraterrestrial biology on planets circling sunlike stars. Those stars, however, are relatively rare, while red dwarfs make up perhaps 75% of all of the stars in the galaxy. Simple probability, then, says that they might be a far better place to go looking for living planets, provided those planets cuddle up close to the star’s hearth the way Ross 128 b does.

This is not the first time astronomers have discovered precisely this kind of Earth-like planet orbiting comfortably close to a red dwarf. Just last summer, a team of researchers who also used the wobble method discovered a planet orbiting an even closer red dwarf; indeed that dwarf, Proxima Centauri, is closer to Earth than any star in the cosmos, just 4.2 light-years away.

But the planet, Proxima Centauri b, faces some challenges Ross 128 b doesn’t. Red dwarfs can be volatile, sending out periodic flares that could blowtorch any atmosphere on a nearby planet off into space and destroy any life that might survive with their lethal levels of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. In 2016, a team from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory detected 66 separate flare events on Proxima Centauri. That would not necessarily be fatal to life on the nearby planet, but it wouldn’t do it any favors either. Ross 128, by contrast, appears to be a quieter star, with less frequent flaring — which is characteristic of more mature red dwarfs, further along in their life cycles.

31 October 2017

NASA finds 20 potentially habitable worlds 'hiding in plain sight'

Stargazers have discovered 20 worlds "hiding in plain sight" which they believe could be habitable.

Analysis of data from the Kepler space telescope revealed a list of planets that orbit stars like our own sun.

Each potential new world comes with varying orbit times, including one that takes the equivalent of 395 Earth days to circle its star and another which takes just 18.

The exoplanet with a 395-day year is one of the most exciting, according to Jeff Coughlin, the Kepler team leader who helped analyse the data.

It is about 97 per cent the size of Earth but colder and more like our tundra regions.

Despite its chilly climate, it is still warm and large enough to hold liquid water - which is vital for life.

Coughlin told New Scientist: "If you had to choose one to send a spacecraft to, it’s not a bad option."

The planets will form part of an investigation from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Earlier this year the Kepler spacecraft has detected 219 new exoplanet candidates – and ten could be habitable.

There are around 4,034 observed potential planets in our galaxy, according to Nasa's Ames Research Center.

The centuries-old hunt for other worlds like our own was recently rejuvenated thanks to the Kepler Telescope, which is currently orbiting Earth.

Scientists have spotted thousands of contenders after sifting through data collected by the instrument.

They are hoping to find terrestrial planets - around one half to twice the size of our planet and in the habitable zone.

The Kepler telescope began observing a fixed point in the Milky Way back in 2009 but suffered a technical glitch that put an end to its work in 2013.

A second mission was launched again in 2014 and will continue to send data back until 2018.

There are high hopes that humans will soon colonise Mars, in our very own solar system.

Tesla billionaire has made public his bold plans to send humans to Mars by 2024.

29 October 2017

Fireworks in Space: NASA’s Twins Study Explores Gene Expression

How Do Human Genes Act In Space?

NASA’s Twins Study preliminary results have revealed that space travel causes an increase in methylation, the process of turning genes on and off, and additional knowledge in how that process works.

“Some of the most exciting things that we’ve seen from looking at gene expression in space is that we really see an explosion, like fireworks taking off, as soon as the human body gets into space,” Twins Study Principal Investigator Chris Mason, Ph.D., of Weill Cornell Medicine, said. “With this study, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This happens as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth.”

When retired twin astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in March 2016, the Twins Study research intensified with investigators collecting samples from him and his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. The researchers began combining the data and reviewing the enormous amount of information looking for correlations.

“This study represents one of the most comprehensive views of human biology,” Mason said. “It really sets the bedrock for understanding molecular risks for space travel as well as ways to potentially protect and fix those genetic changes.”

Final results for the Twins Study are expected to be published in 2018.

NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel. HRP enables space exploration by reducing the risks to astronaut health and performance using ground research facilities, the International Space Station, and analog environments. This leads to the development and delivery of a program focused on: human health, performance, and habitability standards; countermeasures and risk mitigation solutions; and advanced habitability and medical support technologies. HRP supports innovative, scientific human research by funding more than 300 research grants to respected universities, hospitals and NASA centers to over 200 researchers in more than 30 states.

18 October 2017

Astronomers strike gold, witness massive cosmic phenomenon

Scientists witness huge cosmic crash, make major discoveries

By closely observing two stars in outer space, and watching as the stars crashed into each other, back in August, scientists in the U.S. and Europe say they've now been able to unlock multiple secrets.

It was a faint signal, but it told of one of the most violent acts in the universe, and it would soon reveal secrets of the cosmos, including how gold was created.

Forbes estimated that the collision created an estimated $10 octillion in gold, which is $10 billion, billion, billion.

What they witnessed in mid-August and revealed Monday was the long-ago collision of two neutron stars — a phenomenon California Institute of Technology's David H. Reitze called "the most spectacular fireworks in the universe."

The crash happened 130 million years ago, while dinosaurs still roamed on Earth, but the signal didn't arrive on Earth until Aug. 17 after traveling 130 million light-years. A light-year is 5.88 trillion miles.

"We already knew that iron came from a stellar explosion, the calcium in your bones came from stars and now we know the gold in your wedding ring came from merging neutron stars," said University of California Santa Cruz's Ryan Foley.

Measurements of the light and other energy emanating from the crash have helped scientists explain how planet-killing gamma ray bursts are born, how fast the universe is expanding, and where heavy elements like platinum and gold come from.

"This is getting everything you wish for," said Syracuse University physics professor Duncan Brown, one of more than 4,000 scientists involved in the blitz of science that the crash kicked off. "This is our fantasy observation."

It started in a galaxy called NGC 4993, seen from Earth in the Hydra constellation. Two neutron stars, collapsed cores of stars so dense that a teaspoon of their matter would weigh 1 billion tons, danced ever faster and closer together until they collided, said Carnegie Institution astronomer Maria Drout.

The crash, called a kilonova, generated a fierce burst of gamma rays and a gravitational wave, a faint ripple in the fabric of space and time, first theorized by Albert Einstein.

"This is like a cosmic atom smasher at a scale far beyond humans would be capable of building," said Andy Howell, a staff scientist at the Las Cumbres Observatory. "We finally now know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object and it's a kilonova."

Signals were picked up within 1.7 seconds of each other, by NASA's Fermi telescope, which detects gamma rays, and gravity wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state that are a part of the LIGO Laboratory , whose founders won a Nobel Prize earlier this month. A worldwide alert went out to focus telescopes on what became the most well-observed astronomical event in history.

Before August, the only other gravity waves detected by LIGO were generated by colliding black holes. But black holes let no light escape, so astronomers could see nothing.

This time there was plenty to see, measure and analyze: matter, light, and other radiation. The Hubble Space Telescope even got a snapshot of the afterglow.

Finding where the crash happened wasn't easy. Eventually scientists narrowed the location down to 100 galaxies, began a closer search of those, and found it in the ninth galaxy they looked at.

It is like "the classic challenge of finding a needle in the haystack with the added challenge that the needle is fading away and the haystack is moving," said Marcelle Soares-Santos, an astrophysicist at Brandeis University.

"The completeness of this picture from the beginning to the end is unprecedented," said Columbia University physics professor Szabolcs Marka. "There are many, many extraordinary discoveries within the discovery."

The colliding stars spewed bright blue, super-hot debris that was dense and unstable. Some of it coalesced into heavy elements, like gold, platinum and uranium. Scientists had suspected neutron star collisions had enough power to create heavier elements, but weren't certain until they witnessed it.

"We see the gold being formed," said Syracuse's Brown.

Calculations from a telescope measuring ultraviolet light showed that the combined mass of the heavy elements from this explosion is 1,300 times the mass of Earth. And all that stuff — including lighter elements — was thrown out in all different directions and is now speeding across the universe.

Perhaps one day the material will clump together into planets the way ours was formed, Reitze said — maybe ones with rich veins of precious metals.

The crash also helped explain the origins of one of the most dangerous forces of the cosmos — short gamma ray bursts, focused beams of radiation that could erase life on any planet that happened to get in the way. These bursts shoot out in two different directions perpendicular to where the two neutron stars first crash, Reitze said.

Luckily for us, the beams of gamma rays were not focused on Earth and were generated too far away to be a threat, he said.

Scientists knew that the universe has been expanding since the Big Seed. By using LIGO to measure gravitational waves while watching this event unfold, researchers came up with a new estimate for how fast that is happening, the so-called Hubble Constant. Before this, scientists came up with two slightly different answers using different techniques. The rough figure that came out of this event is between the original two, Reitze said.

The first optical images showed a bright blue dot that was very hot, which was likely the start of the heavy element creation process amid the neutron star debris, Drout said. After a day or two that blue faded, becoming much fainter and redder. And after three weeks it was completely gone, she said.

This almost didn't happen. Eight days after the signal came through, the LIGO gravitational waves were shut down for a year's worth of planned upgrades. A month later the whole area where the crash happened would have been blocked from astronomers' prying eyes by the sun.

Scientists involved with the search for gravitational waves said this was the event they had prepared for over more than 20 years.

The findings are "of spectacular importance," said Penn State physicist Abhay Ashtekar, who wasn't part of the research. "This is really brand new."

Almost all of the discoveries confirmed existing theories, but had not been proven — an encouraging result for theorists who have been trying to explain what is happening in the cosmos, said France Cordova, an astrophysicist who directs the National Science Foundation.

"We so far have been unable to prove Einstein wrong," said Georgia Tech physics professor Laura Cadonati. "But we're going to keep trying."

11 October 2017

There's Another Big Gravitational Wave Announcement on The Way

LIGO and Virgo have announced that they're going to be holding a big press conference on Monday, 16 October at 10am EDT at the Press Club in Washington DC.

"The gathering will begin with an overview of new findings from LIGO, Virgo and partners that span the globe," the National Science Foundation announcement reads, "followed by details from telescopes that work with the LIGO and Virgo collaborations to study extreme events in the cosmos."

Gravitational waves were officially confirmed publicly for the first time in February 2016, when LIGO announced that it had detected the phenomenon caused by a collision between two black holes. Since then, gravitational waves have been detected three more times.

The most recent announcement was in September, when LIGO announced that its collaboration with interferometer Virgo had allowed a much more precise triangulation of the signal.

Prior to that announcement, speculation was flying that the discovery was a collision between two neutron stars, with visuals from optical telescopes.

This time, we're hesitant to make any speculation, other than it seems big. Representatives from 70 other observatories around the world will be at the event, and simultaneous briefings will also be taking place in London and Munich.

There will be two separate panel discussions at the main event, too. The first panel consists of directors and spokespersons from LIGO, Virgo and NASA.

The second panel includes people like David Sand, Nial Tanvir, Eleonora Troja and Andy Howell, who have all performed research into supernovas, and Marcelle Soares-Santos, who is pioneering the Dark Energy Survey's search for an optical counterpart to gravitational wave events.

We're getting pretty excited, you guys. Read more about the announcement here, and tune back into ScienceAlert for the big news on Monday!

09 October 2017

Half the universe’s missing matter has just been finally found

The missing links between galaxies have finally been found

This is the first detection of the roughly half of the normal matter in our universe – protons, neutrons and electrons – unaccounted for by previous observations of stars, galaxies and other bright objects in space.

You have probably heard about the hunt for dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to permeate the universe, the effects of which we can see through its gravitational pull. But our models of the universe also say there should be about twice as much ordinary matter out there, compared with what we have observed so far.

Two separate teams found the missing matter – made of particles called baryons rather than dark matter – linking galaxies together through filaments of hot, diffuse gas.

“The missing baryon problem is solved,” says Hideki Tanimura at the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France, leader of one of the groups. The other team was led by Anna de Graaff at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Because the gas is so tenuous and not quite hot enough for X-ray telescopes to pick up, nobody had been able to see it before.

“There’s no sweet spot – no sweet instrument that we’ve invented yet that can directly observe this gas,” says Richard Ellis at University College London. “It’s been purely speculation until now.”

So the two groups had to find another way to definitively show that these threads of gas are really there.

Both teams took advantage of a phenomenon called the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect that occurs when light left over from the Big Seed passes through hot gas. As the light travels, some of it scatters off the electrons in the gas, leaving a dim patch in the cosmic microwave background – our snapshot of the remnants from the birth of the cosmos.

Stack ‘em up

In 2015, the Planck satellite created a map of this effect throughout the observable universe. Because the tendrils of gas between galaxies are so diffuse, the dim blotches they cause are far too slight to be seen directly on Planck’s map.

Both teams selected pairs of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that were expected to be connected by a strand of baryons. They stacked the Planck signals for the areas between the galaxies, making the individually faint strands detectable en masse.

Tanimura’s team stacked data on 260,000 pairs of galaxies, and de Graaff’s group used over a million pairs. Both teams found definitive evidence of gas filaments between the galaxies. Tanimura’s group found they were almost three times denser than the mean for normal matter in the universe, and de Graaf’s group found they were six times denser – confirmation that the gas in these areas is dense enough to form filaments.

“We expect some differences because we are looking at filaments at different distances,” says Tanimura. “If this factor is included, our findings are very consistent with the other group.”

Finally finding the extra baryons that have been predicted by decades of simulations validates some of our assumptions about the universe.

“Everybody sort of knows that it has to be there, but this is the first time that somebody – two different groups, no less – has come up with a definitive detection,” says Ralph Kraft at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.

“This goes a long way toward showing that many of our ideas of how galaxies form and how structures form over the history of the universe are pretty much correct,” he says.

Journal references: arXiv, 1709.05024 and 1709.10378v1

05 October 2017

3-D quantum gas atomic clock offers new dimensions in measurement

JILA's three-dimensional (3-D) quantum gas atomic clock consists of a grid of light formed by three pairs of laser beams. Multiple lasers of various colors are used to cool the atoms, trap them in a grid of light, and probe them for clock operation. A blue laser beam excites a cube-shaped cloud of strontium atoms. Strontium atoms fluorescence strongly when excited with blue light, as seen in the upper right corner behind the vacuum window. Credit: G.E. Marti/JILA

JILA physicists have created an entirely new design for an atomic clock, in which strontium atoms are packed into a tiny three-dimensional (3-D) cube at 1,000 times the density of previous one-dimensional (1-D) clocks. In doing so, they are the first to harness the ultra-controlled behavior of a so-called "quantum gas" to make a practical measurement device.

With so many atoms completely immobilized in place, JILA's cubic quantum gas clock sets a record for a value called "quality factor" and the resulting measurement precision. A large quality factor translates into a high level of synchronization between the atoms and the lasers used to probe them, and makes the clock's "ticks" pure and stable for an unusually long time, thus achieving higher precision.

Until now, each of the thousands of "ticking" atoms in advanced clocks behave and are measured largely independently. In contrast, the new cubic quantum gas clock uses a globally interacting collection of atoms to constrain collisions and improve measurements. The new approach promises to usher in an era of dramatically improved measurements and technologies across many areas based on controlled quantum systems.

The new clock is described in the Oct. 6 issue of Science.

"We are entering a really exciting time when we can quantum engineer a state of matter for a particular measurement purpose," said physicist Jun Ye of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Ye works at JILA, which is jointly operated by NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder.

The clock's centerpiece is an unusual state of matter called a degenerate Fermi gas (a quantum gas for Fermi particles), first created in 1999 by Ye's late colleague Deborah Jin. All prior atomic clocks have used thermal gases. The use of a quantum gas enables all of the atoms' properties to be quantized, or restricted to specific values, for the first time.

"The most important potential of the 3-D quantum gas clock is the ability to scale up the atom numbers, which will lead to a huge gain in stability," Ye said. "Also, we could reach the ideal condition of running the clock with its full coherence time, which refers to how long a series of ticks can remain stable. The ability to scale up both the atom number and coherence time will make this new-generation clock qualitatively different from the previous generation."

Until now, atomic clocks have treated each atom as a separate quantum particle, and interactions among the atoms posed measurement problems. But an engineered and controlled collection, a "quantum many-body system," arranges all its atoms in a particular pattern, or correlation, to create the lowest overall energy state. The atoms then avoid each other, regardless of how many atoms are added to the clock. The gas of atoms effectively turns itself into an insulator, which blocks interactions between constituents.

The result is an atomic clock that can outperform all predecessors. For example, stability can be thought of as how precisely the duration of each tick matches every other tick, which is directly linked to the clock's measurement precision. Compared with Ye's previous 1-D clocks, the new 3-D quantum gas clock can reach the same level of precision more than 20 times faster due to the large number of atoms and longer coherence times.

JILA's 3-D quantum gas atomic clock offers new dimensions in measurement

The experimental data show the 3-D quantum gas clock achieved a precision of just 3.5 parts error in 10 quintillion (1 followed by 19 zeros) in about 2 hours, making it the first atomic clock to ever reach that threshold (19 zeros). "This represents a significant improvement over any previous demonstrations," Ye said.

The older, 1-D version of the JILA clock was, until now, the world's most precise clock. This clock holds strontium atoms in a linear array of pancake-shaped traps formed by laser beams, called an optical lattice. The new 3-D quantum gas clock uses additional lasers to trap atoms along three axes so that the atoms are held in a cubic arrangement. This clock can maintain stable ticks for nearly 10 seconds with 10,000 strontium atoms trapped at a density above 10 trillion atoms per cubic centimeter. In the future, the clock may be able to probe millions of atoms for more than 100 seconds at a time.

Optical lattice clocks, despite their high levels of performance in 1-D, have to deal with a tradeoff. Clock stability could be improved further by increasing the number of atoms, but a higher density of atoms also encourages collisions, shifting the frequencies at which the atoms tick and reducing clock accuracy. Coherence times are also limited by collisions. This is where the benefits of the many-body correlation can help.

The 3-D lattice design—imagine a large egg carton—eliminates that tradeoff by holding the atoms in place. The atoms are fermions, a class of particles that cannot be in the same quantum state and location at once. For a Fermi quantum gas under this clock's operating conditions, quantum mechanics favors a configuration where each individual lattice site is occupied by only one atom, which prevents the frequency shifts induced by atomic interactions in the 1-D version of the clock.

JILA researchers used an ultra-stable laser to achieve a record level of synchronization between the atoms and lasers, reaching a record-high quality factor of 5.2 quadrillion (5.2 followed by 15 zeros). Quality factor refers to how long an oscillation or waveform can persist without dissipating. The researchers found that atom collisions were reduced such that their contribution to frequency shifts in the clock was much less than in previous experiments.

"This new strontium clock using a quantum gas is an early and astounding success in the practical application of the 'new quantum revolution,' sometimes called 'quantum 2.0'," said Thomas O'Brian, chief of the NIST Quantum Physics Division and Ye's supervisor. "This approach holds enormous promise for NIST and JILA to harness quantum correlations for a broad range of measurements and new technologies, far beyond timing."

Depending on measurement goals and applications, JILA researchers can optimize the clock's parameters such as operational temperature (10 to 50 nanokelvins), atom number (10,000 to 100,000), and physical size of the cube (20 to 60 micrometers, or millionths of a meter).

Atomic clocks have long been advancing the frontier of measurement science, not only in timekeeping and navigation but also in definitions of other measurement units and other areas of research such as in tabletop searches for the missing "dark matter" in the universe.

23 September 2017

There Are Biophotons in the Brain. Is Something Light-Based Going On?

Over the last 100 years, scientists have realized, first in rats, that neurons in mammalian brains were capable of producing photons, or "biophotons." The photons appear, though faintly, within the visible spectrum, running from near-infrared through violet, or between 200 and 1,300 nanometers. The question is why? 

In biology, of course, “why” is an iffy question that presupposes intent, that is, some conscious designer at work. In fact, many traits just are, due to random mutation, and have simply never been selected out. It’s unknown so far if biophotons just are. But scientists have some exciting suspicions, and a recently published paper asks a tantalizing question: Are there optical communication channels in the brain? If the answer is yes, what’s being communicated? The very notion opens the conversation to a whole other level of operation in the brain that could even be on a previously undiscovered entangled quantum level.

The team wanted to know whether or not there existed an infrastructure over which light could travel from one place to another in the brain across the distances required, focusing on myelinated axons. Axons are the fibers that carry a neuron’s electrical signal outward; myelinated axons are covered in myelin, a fatty substance that electrically insulates the axon.

They modeled such axons, doing computations on how light would behave as the fibers bent, lost or gained thickness in their biophoton-absorbing myelin coating, or how they’d behave when crossing each other. The team concluded that light conduction across myelinated axons is feasible.

The axons could pass between 46% and 96% of the light they receive over a distance of 2 millimeters, the average length of a human brain’s axons, the percentage depending on bending, sheath thickness, etc. They also worked out that, though rat brains can pass just one biophoton per neuron a minute, human brains, with many more neurons, could convey more than a billion biophotons per second. All together, the researchers conclude, “This mechanism appears to be sufficient to facilitate transmission of a large number of bits of information, or even allow the creation of a large amount of quantum entanglement.” So there's what could act as an entire network for light-based communication in place. But we don’t know what, if anything, it’s doing. The researchers proposed a set of in vitro and in vivo experiments for others to perform that could confirm their findings.

Meanwhile, did they say “entanglement?” Given the presence here of photons, the possibility has to cross one’s mind, since they go hand in hand, as it were, with entanglement. In the paper, the scientists are intrigued in particular with the interactions between photons and nuclear spins — the way nuclei turn causes different chemical effects — and how that affects things like magnetoreception in animals.

Given that there’s some distance between the biophotons and nuclear spins, the scientists wonder if there’s entanglement involved, saying, “for individual quantum communication links to form a larger quantum network with an associated entanglement process involving many distant spins, the nuclear spins interfacing with different axons must interact coherently. This, most likely, requires close enough contact between the interacting spins. The involvement of synaptic junctions between individual axons may provide such a proximity mechanism.” And since some people think entanglement could be behind whatever process it is that produces consciousness, well, where is this going to lead?

Researchers demonstrate quantum teleportation of patterns of light

The core element of our quantum repeater is a cube of glass. We put two independent photons in, and as long as we can detect two photons coming out the other sides we know that we can perform entanglement swapping. 

Nature Communications today published research by a team comprising Scottish and South African researchers, demonstrating entanglement swapping and teleportation of orbital angular momentum ‘patterns’ of light. This is a crucial step towards realizing a quantum repeater for high-dimensional entangled states.

Quantum communication over is integral to security and has been demonstrated in and fibre with two-dimensional states, recently over distances exceeding 1200 km between satellites. But using only two states reduces the information capacity of the photons, so the link is secure but slow. To make it secure and fast requires a higher-dimensional alphabet, for example, using patterns of light, of which there are an infinite number. One such pattern set is the (OAM) of light. Increased bit rates can be achieved by using OAM as the carrier of information. However, such photon states decay when transmitted over long distances, for example, due to mode coupling in fibre or turbulence in free space, thus requiring a way to amplify the signal. Unfortunately such “amplification” is not allowed in the quantum world, but it is possible to create an analogy, called a quantum repeater, akin to optical fibre repeaters in classical optical networks.

An integral part of a is the ability to entangle two photons that have never interacted – a process referred to as “entanglement swapping”. This is accomplished by interfering two photons from independent entangled pairs, resulting in the remaining two photons becoming entangled. This allows the establishment of entanglement between two distant points without requiring one photon to travel the entire distance, thus reducing the effects of decay and loss. It also means that you don’t have to have a line of sight between the two places.

Alphabet of OAM modes. OAM modes are sometimes called twisted light as the light appears as a ring with a vortex in the middle. The light can be twisted once, twice, three times and so on to create a high-dimensional alphabet. Credit: Wits University

An outcome of this is that the information of one can be transferred to the other, a process called teleportation. Like in the science fiction series, Star Trek, where people are “beamed” from one place to another, information is “teleported” from one place to another. If two photons are entangled and you change a value on one of them, then other one automatically changes too. This happens even though the two photons are never connected and, in fact, are in two completely different places.

In this latest work, the team performed the first experimental demonstration of entanglement swapping and teleportation for orbital angular momentum (OAM) states of light. They showed that quantum correlations could be established between previously independent photons, and that this could be used to send information across a virtual link. Importantly, the scheme is scalable to higher dimensions, paving the way for long-distance with high .

Schematic of the experiment. Four photons are created, one pair from each entanglement source (BBO). One from each pair (B and C) are brought together on a beam splitter. When all four photons are measured in together one finds that photons A and D, which previously where independent, are now entangled. Credit: Wits University


Present communication systems are very fast, but not fundamentally secure. To make them secure researchers use the laws of Nature for the encoding by exploiting the quirky properties of the quantum world. One such property is entanglement. When two particles are entangled they are connected in a spooky sense: a measurement on one immediately changes the state of the other no matter how far apart they are. Entanglement is one of the core resources needed to realise a quantum network.

Yet a secure communication link over long distance is very challenging: Quantum links using patterns of light languish at short distances precisely because there is no way to protect the link against noise without detecting the photons, yet once they are detected their usefulness is destroyed. To overcome this one can have a repeating station at intermediate distances – this allows one to share information across a much longer without the need for the information to physically flow over that link. The core ingredient is to get independent photons to become entangled. While this has been demonstrated previously with two-dimensional states, in this work the team showed the first demonstration with OAM and in high-dimensional spaces.


More here.