All posts by Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Failed Russian Mars Spacecraft Phobos-Grunt Crashes Into The Pacific Ocean

The Phobos-Grunt Mars Moon spacecraft has hit water! According to Russian defense ministry reports, the re-entering satellite fragmented and fell into the Pacific Ocean about 1,250 km west of Wellington Island, an island to the west of the Patagonian Ice Field, Chile. The crash took place at 18:45 CET, say several sources.

More details from our previous report:

The craft…

There was initial panic and both Roskosmos and NASA played crucial roles in assuring the public that the fears were unfounded. The fears of a toxic nuclear fuel spill were allayed by statements by NASA on their website.

Initial reports indicate that no spill has taken place. There have also been no reports of any debris falling on habited areas.

… And the dreams surrounding it.

The spacecraft was supposed to land on Mars’ moon, Phobos, in order to study the satellite. It was supposed to collect soil samples and return to Earth. Unfortunately for the $170 billion craft, it failed right during the launch and was stuck in orbit for a long time. It had even gone off the radar. After several unsuccessful attempts at locating and communicating with the craft, it was finally found. Several attempts were made by both Russian and American scientists to bring the craft safely back to Earth or to steer it to its original mission. All efforts failed. Left with no options and a potentially dangerous craft hanging mid-air, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, along with NASA, decided to send the craft to a watery grave.

Russian Mars Moon Probe Phobos-Grunt To Crash Into Atlantic Ocean Tomorrow Amid Widespread Concerns

It’s just at the stage of concern at the moment, but the time when it’ll suddenly change to panic is not far away. The doomed Russian Mars spacecraft Phobos-Grunt, is scheduled to plunge into the water tomorrow. The problem is that no one knows where it’ll hit.

Estimated location: South of Buenos Aires, in the Atlantic Ocean near Falkland Islands.

Estimated time of impact: 8:22 PM GMT


What could have been! Artist's impression of the craft on Phobos, a moon of Mars. (Courtesy:

The craft had been launched on November 9th, but got stuck in orbit soon afterwards. There were several attempts made to get it working, but nothing came of those. Now, the Russian space agency wants to bring it down permanently.

Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, added to this atmosphere of confusion with a wrong prediction. They had initially said that it would fall somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but later retracted that statement and said that it would hit somewhere in the Atlantic. Its official statement, as told to Interfax:

Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere over Argentina and have its fragments splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The latest estimate by Roscosmos showed that the craft will descend somewhere south of Buenos Aires, but that puts the Falkland Islands in some danger of being hit. The time of the crash was supposedly Sunday afternoon, but Roscosmos modified that to late evening, with the new time being 1622 GMT.

Serious Concerns

The concerns arise from two main sources.

Large Size

Firstly, the craft is quite big. It is dwarfed only by the Mir Space Station when it comes to objects that have been pulled down from orbit and plunged into the ocean. The craft is big enough to allow about 20-30 pieces of debris, each weighing more than 200 kg, to survive the fall and hit earth.

Nuclear spill

Secondly, the big fear is that of a toxic nuclear spill. The craft was packed with enough nuclear fuel to take it to Mars. Obviously, in just 2 months only a fraction has been burnt up. NASA has, however, played down the fears saying that the fuels batteries are made of aluminum instead of titanium. Aluminum will rupture and allow the fuel to be burnt during freefall. NASA reported on its official website:

According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth.

(Mr. Johnson refers to Nicholas Johnson, one of NASA’s chief scientists).

Roscosmos has promised to keep all concerned nations and the United Nations posted on developments about the craft.

An embarrassing setback

The Phobos-Grunt mission represents a serious setback for the Russian space agency, which is well past its peak. The mission was quite ambitious, and success would’ve been glorious, especially in the backdrop of the retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet. However, the Russians seem quite ill-equipped to seize this golden moment provided by History.

The craft might end tomorrow, but the embarrassment will live on for quite some time.

Size Of A Byte : Less Than 100 Atoms, Courtesy IBM!

Data storage units, as thin as a few strands of hair, may soon be on the cards. IBM and the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL) have come up with a new size of the byte and it’s the world’s smallest data storage unit. The storage unit – one bit – comprises just 12 atoms! The byte – or 8 bits – thus comprises just 96 atoms, far less than the 500 million atoms that normal hard drives of today take!

A bit! Two arrays of anti-ferromagnetic ordered iron atoms, as seen by spin-polarized imaging techniques using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (Courtesy: DESY/ Helmholtz Research Association)


This amazing fabrication comes from the IBM Almaden research Center in San Jose, California. They made up two rows of iron atoms, each row being six atoms long. Each atom was placed carefully on the substrate using a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM). This formed one byte. The team then made 8 such structures. Each byte covers just 4 nm x 16 nm area (nm = nanometer; 1 nm = One billionths of a meter).

Using Spin States

The storage is done using the spin states of the ferromagnetic iron atoms. The two states – 0 and 1 – representing on and off respectively, are simulated by the spin being either parallel or anti-parallel to a certain direction. The state can be changed using the STM, employing a tiny electric pulse. Thus data can be written into and also read out of these tiny atomic magnetic units. The electric pulse, only a few nano amperes strong, can only be stable at very low temperatures like 5 Kelvin or minus 268 degrees Celsius.

The revolutionary idea, as compared to the conventional storage devices, is the use of anti-ferromagnetic order of the adjacent iron atoms. This means that two neighboring toms will have two different states of spin – one will be ‘up’ and the other ‘down’. This will make the bulk material non-magnetic.

Building bottoms-up starting from single atoms is by no mean task! Only a very few research facilities in the world have been able to master the wizardry. But, why 12 atoms? Sebastian Loth, who migrated from IBM to CFEL and is the lead of the study explains it:

Beneath this threshold quantum effects blur the stored information.

There is a long way to go for these atomic devices to be made available for public use.

The paper highlighting this new fabrication appeared on Science (link) on 13th January, 2012.

Info obtained from:

Enjoy Mars As Seen Through 20,000 High-Resolution Images And Even In 3D!

You may have known Mars, but you’ve never seen it like this! It’s really a scientific tool, but the non-Mars specialists are free to have some fun with it! The Hi-resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). It is an awesomely cool science project involving imaging every square inch of Mars, with a resolution of 25 cm per pixel! The camera is built by the University of Arizona and mounted aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Over the last five and half years, it has returned over 20,620 images till date.  We give you the link below.
Dunes on Mars! No that's not shimmering water.

Addictive Mars!

Make sure you have time when you start browsing through these! It’s extremely addictive and I found myself trying to look at the dunes, then the craters, then the frosted plains, then the translucent ice on domes, then… The list is virtually endless. Go to any of the images and you’ll get numerous download options. Don’t try JP2 formats – it’s for people who want to work with the images and thus they are extremely big (a photo can measure 300 MB in size!). Try the jpeg format, which provides a compressed form of the image. RGB worked best for me. There is a ‘Science Theme’, which links it under a particular tab. Click that and you’ll be provided information on that particular theme, which you’re welcome to either relish or gobble up. You might even notice the ‘stereo pair’ reference, and I’ll explain what they are in a moment.

Downloads and a whole new dimension!

You can download a chunk of the most high resolution images by clicking ‘Updates’ right at the top of the screen. On the right, you should see download options in various resolutions. A click is all you need to take possession of masterpieces!

If you unintentionally click on the ‘Anaglyphs’ tag at the top of the screen, you’ve just discovered something awesome! You’ll see two images, which form ‘stereo pairs’. Combined and with the help of a 3D glass, you can see the images in 3D!! Yes, you read it right – the Martian topography in 3D in the comfort of your own room!

An example of dunes on Mars, which will appear in 3D!

Just one word of advice while using this database: make sure you have fun! Afterall, it’s Mars!

Inferred: 160 Billion Alien Worlds Out There!

No, we haven’t found life outside Earth as yet, but we have definitely improved our prospects. A growing number of telescopes has fuelled a burgeoning number of exoplanet discoveries, led primarily by the Kepler Space Telescope, which has detected 2330 long-period planets (planets having a period of more than a few days) till date. It has performed really well as compared to ground based telescopes, but there are plans to either upgrade it or replace it with a better model. According to Kepler, the count in the Milky Way now turns out to be 1.6 planets per star, and there being 100 billion stars, the count is 160 billion planets just within our galaxy!

An exoplanet (artist's impression). There are 160 billion of them, at least!

Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler works using a very simple principle. It monitors the light coming from certain stars over a period of a number of months. The data is then sent to ground based command centers, which analyse the data and look for the presence of any periodic dimming and brightening events. Any such periodic changes in the brightness of a star suggests that there is another body circling it, which periodically eclipses the star just a bit during its transit. This method also helps the telescope pick up periodic wobbles of the parent star. Observing the wiggles this causes in the spectral lines of the star, scientists can infer not only the presence of an alien planet, but also pinpoint its mass and orbital period.

Earth-like objects

Very recent observations by Kepler show a marked rise in the number of Earth-like rocky planets being discovered. These might not be of the same size of the Earth, or they might not orbit their stars at the optimal ‘Goldilocks’ distance, but they are not gas giants. This is important, since gas giants are not presumed to hold liquid water or harbor any kind of life form.

The study leading to this estimate of the number of exoplanets was led by Arnaud Cassan from the Paris Institute of Astrophysics and their work appeared in the January 12th issue of Nature.

Contact  may not have been such a far-fetched movie after all!

Chandra, Spitzer and VLT Find Large Galaxy Cluster From Very Early Universe

A composite image reveals a thing of utter beauty! The Chandra X-Ray Telescope, the Spitzer and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have stitched together an image of a large Galaxy cluster that dates back right to the Early Universe, when galaxy formation was just starting to happen. The composite image is given below.

Image 1: The El Gordo Galaxy - the composite image. Blue represents the X-Rays, while the red and orange represent infrared and optical. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/JPL/ESO)

Enter the Fat Man

Named El Gordo, Spanish for ‘fat man’, this structure appears bloated in X-Ray and infrared images. The most interesting structure is the core, which is extremely bright in X-Rays. Chandra has mapped the central part and has come up with two distinct tail-like structures, indicating that two previously large structures have merged to form the El Gordo.

The object is located in the constellation Pheonix, but this is a very difficult constellation to spot, being both very faint and extremely southerly. El Gordo is located 7.17 billion light years from Earth, which is way further than the well-known Bullet Cluster that lies about 4 billion light years away.

Stitching together to form an image

The following two images are the ones obtained by Spitzer and VLT (Image 2) and by Chandra (Image 3).

Image 2: The El Gordo in Optical and Infrared frequencies. The data has been obtained from Spitzer (IR) and VLT (Optical). (Courtesy: Optical - ESO/VLT; IR - NASA/JPL)
Image 3: The El Gordo in X-Ray. Data obtained by the Chandra X-Ray Telescope. Notice the two distinct tails and the very X-Ray hot core. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Hughes et al)

The composite image (Image 1) is made by combining data from the Chandra X-Ray Telescope, which gives the X-Ray data, the Spitzer telescope, which provides the infra-red (i.e. thermal) data and the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which maps the optical frequencies. The infrared and X-Rays are false coloured, with the X-Rays being represented by blue and the infrared by orange and red. The El Gordo’s central region is blue in the X-Ray, indicating that some violent X-Ray generating processes are afoot.

Dark Matter ripping out hot gases

El Gordo also shows signatures of gas which have been dispersed by dark matter, not unlike the Bullet cluster. Dark matter has not been stopped by collision, due to feeble interactions with the mass outside, but the hot gas has been. Dark matter has then ripped apart the hot gas and this forms the halo, which is incandescent in both Optical and X-ray frequencies, and presumably even in Radio. In fact, the X-Ray emitting hot gas, forming the halo-like structure around El Gordo, account for more than 90% of the visible mass of the galaxy cluster as compared to just about 1-3% contribution from actual stars. The number of stars is, however, massive – there are about 4 quadrillion (a million billion) of them!

Stephen Hawking Too Unwell To Attend Own Birthday Celebration

The birthday boy had to miss out on his birthday since he was “unwell” and the situation doesn’t look too rosy. He was in the hospital and was discharged last Friday. Sunday was too early for him to get out of bed rest. He has defied death for more than 40 years now, given that at an age of 28 he was told that he wouldn’t live for more than 6 months.

We wish a very happy birthday to Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking

The value of words

Repeated illnesses like pneumonia have robbed him of his voice. Now he can barely more a muscle of his cheek. This creates pressure differences on a nearby sensor and this lets him choose particular letters, words or phrases on a computerized system to which he is wired. These are then put together and the composition is read out using a computerized voice. However, old age is threatening to seize even this meager resource he has. Deterioration of cheek muscle is making him harder to compose his spoken words. This is the reason why he always asks for questions to be submitted before an event, so that he may compose the answers beforehand. On a certain occasion during his TED Talk, he took 7 minutes to compose a sentence as an answer to a question from the audience, which wasn’t submitted to him beforehand.


Hawking’s 70th birthday will be marked by the opening of a new exhibition of his achievements at the London’s Science Museum on the 20th of January.

Hang in there Stephen, like you always have.

Kepler Receives First Images; Looks To Be From An Alien Civilization, But Isn’t

The 100-m Green Bank Telescope in Virginia has just picked up a strange radio signal, originating from KOI 817 (with KOI standing for Kepler Object of Interest) that looks as if an alien civilization is transmitting to us. SETI is excited as this is the type of radio signal it would expect from an alien civilization.

The signal that Green Bank picked up.

Not from an alien world

However, before the excitement can get too wild, SETI says that this signal is definitely terrestrial, rather than extraterrestrial. The signals have “terrestrial radio frequency interference” or RFI. Right now, the signals are a great source for SETI astronomers to study radio-frequencies, should they encounter a radio-emitting alien civilization.

The radio signals are narrow in frequency range (photo above), much narrower than anything that would be produced by an astrophysical radio source. The frequency of the signals is also perfect! Even the Doppler shift is just right, with the frequency decreasing at the precise rate expected from the relative motion of the transmitter and the receiver. A team from UC Berkeley has this to say:

These signals look similar to what we think might be produced from an extraterrestrial technology. They are narrow in frequency, much narrower than would be produced by any known astrophysical phenomena, and they drift in frequency with time, as we would expect because of the Doppler effect imposed by the relative motion of the transmitter and the receiving radio telescope

The Kepler satellite

Kepler has been remarkably successful in detecting exoplanets. It has achieved much success by looking at ‘transits’, or the passage of planets in front of their suns. Kepler needs four transits to confirm the existence of an alien planet. This takes around 3.5 years.

So, tantalizing it might seem, but it’s just not true. Kepler has not yet found alien life, leave alone intelligent alien life. But the search continues…

Reference and more info here:
Berkeley link:

Birthday Boy Stephen Hawking Finds Women “A Complete Mystery”

The man closest to death enjoys life to the hilt! Stephen Hawking, one of the foremost authorities in the world on gravitational physics and a pioneer in the field of black holes, turns 70 tomorrow (8th January)! He is known for thinking deep about the greatest mysteries of the cosmos. And he thinks the most about that great mystery of all mysteries – “Women. They are a complete mystery”, he says.

You’ve probably heard all about his disabilities and his crippling motor neuron disease. I won’t tell you any of that! I’ll rather talk about his life – the one thing that makes him more lively than most of the completely-able.

Heavyweights! Edward Witten (centre), Nobel Laureate David Gross (left) and Stephen Hawking (right) in the garden in Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India, during Strings Conference, 2001.

Hawking and His Science

Hawking has been a pioneer in the study of black holes. No course on black holes, or even on gravitational physics, can conclude without his name being mentioned. He has contributed immensely to the worldwide discussion on the famous Black Hole information paradox and then did remarkable work in interpreting the meaning of Black Hole entropy. How can Black Holes, an inevitable conclusion of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, be compatible with the second law of thermodynamics, which says that disorder of the Universe should always increase? What happens to disorder present in a box of hot gas, when you throw it in a black hole? Isn’t the disorder of the Universe decreasing, since you cannot see inside a black hole?

The ingenious and inevitable conclusion of ‘Hawking radiation’, the mechanism due to which black holes can evaporate, bears his name. Even Black Holes die! Hawking’s spirit doesn’t!

Hawking and his Fame


Hawking is not shy of the limelight. His first book – A Brief History of Time – a smash hit best-seller, which set a record for being the No.1 book on the Amazon best-selling list for the longest time, was written when he was in dire financial straits. The book fed on the fascination of the layman for what lies beyond, but who is too ill-equipped to know. It discusses length scales in the Universe, Penrose diagrams and curvatures, all the while speaking to the audience which might not have a major in physics. And, wonder of wonders, it gets the message across. Since then, Hawking has penned many popular books – ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’, ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, ‘A Briefer History of time’ and ‘The Grand Design’, the last two being co-authored by physicist Leonard Mlodinow. These have propelled Hawking to a stature of the icon of science for the public and an inspiration for the masses.

Hawking has even been to the International Space Station to experience microgravity!

Hawking is famously naughty. If he doesn’t like anything that was said to him, he often drives his wheelchair over their feet. More than the grimace due to the slight pain, Hawking likes the expression of utter astonishment on the face of the victim. His regret: he has never ridden over the foot of Margaret Thatcher! His bravado, often bordering on madness, especially given his physical condition, is a constant source of joy for him, especially when people scurry around worrying that he might be injured in some way.

And worrisome it was, when Hawking had contracted pneumonia from a visit to CERN in 1985. It was nearly fatal and he had to lose whatever little remained of his voice to tracheotomy. Hawking remained as unfazed as ever!

Hawking and his God

If anything, his voice has gotten louder! His metaphorical use of the word ‘God’ in “A Brief History of Time” had allowed certain religious apologists to claim that even Hawking believes in some sort of divine providence. Hawking has since not only shut them up, but invited their ire. He famously said that “Heaven is a fairy tale” and that the Universe can do without a designer. His ex-wife Jane said that during their divorce proceedings he said that he was an atheist. Hawking never publicly said that, but his stance on religion can be gauged from the statement he made in 2010:

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

For a man who has been afflicted with too much suffering and yet who describes himself as lucky, since his imposed slow life-style allows him to spend a lot of time pondering over the questions, heaven cannot possibly be an attractive proposition; he is too alive now! Alive enough to ponder of the greatest questions and posit answers to them. Especially the greatest question of all: Women.

A very happy birthday, Stephen Hawking. 

“Time Cloak” Makes A Hole In Time; Makes Events Invisible

Time has finally been punched through, even though for a very short period of time. Scientists, using the technology for making invisibility cloaks’, have bent light in a tight circle, creating a time cloak. The effect lasts for 40 trillionths of a second.

The art of invisibility

This is the basic idea: If you can make sure that light doesn’t scatter off or reflect of a certain object, that object is invisible. Now, assume that an event occurs, but the lights are switched off at that precise point of time. You don’t register that event. What researchers mean to do is to create this gap in the continuum of light, which then becomes akin to making a small hole in time itself.

Cornell physicist and study co-author Alex Gaeta explains better:

Imagine that you could divert light in time slow it down, speed it up so that you create a gap in the light beam in time. In this case, any event that occurs at that instant of time won’t lead to scattering of light. It appears as if the event never occurred.

He goes on splendidly:

If a device would perhaps speed up a portion of the beam and slow down another portion of it so that there is an instant of time with no beam. You could pass through, and then [on the other side of the event] the device would do the opposite—speed up the part that had been slowed and slow the part that had been sped up. That would put the beam of light back together, so to speak, so that the detector never recognizes that anything has happened.


Bending light in the temporal dimension

Gaeta and colleagues have used a device called a time lens’. It bends light, not in spatial directions, but in temporal direction. It uses the trick described above, only with higher sophistication and precision to create gaps in the continuum.

Tweaking time with light might be more than just a gimmick in terms of technological value. It might be used in cryptography, using the time lens to create gaps in codes, passed through optical fibres and then reverse them using a second laser source. The information can be sent and received perfectly, but during the transit, it will be highly coded.

Making the hole in space and time a bit bigger and more stable is the current focus. Also, the team is looking to make a three dimensional hole in space (along with the one in time) and this will require great synchronization from six different lasers, rather than just the two used for the one-dimensional case.