Researchers Studying Dark Energy Distribution Using Circular Aluminium Discs

A manhole like plate with holes punched in a certain distribution may be the key to understanding the greatest problem facing cosmology at the moment. David Schlegel plans to investigate the nature of Dark Energy and its effect on galaxies using aluminium discs, 2,200 in all, all with a specific set of holes punched in through them. These can be used to view a part of the sky using the 2.5-metre telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

One of the plates to be used for observation.

Looking at galaxies…

The scientists will then take spectrum from each of the galaxies. This will yield valuable information as to how fast they are moving away from us, giving hints about the effect of dark energy on these celestial congregations. The discs are to be used for looking at a particular section of the sky. Each hole, when looked through, allows the telescope to stare at only one galaxy. This will eventually collect data from as many as 1.5 million galaxies! The project began in 2009 and is all set to present its first set of data on the 11th of January.

David Schlegel, the principal investigator of the project, called Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), says:

The more galaxies we get, the better.

… And more than looking at galaxies

BOSS is doing more than just looking at galaxies and their recession speeds. Looking at galaxies and their distribution, the team has found signatures of clumping of galaxies. This is in contrary to the near-uniform distribution of galaxies that one might expect to see. This might be a remnant of a disturbance right after the Big Bang, whose signature just failed to wash away! In fact, it is believed that random quantum fluctuations, called Baryon Acoustic Oscillations, disturbed the uniform energy density distribution of the Universe, right after the inflationary phase, and this process seeded regions where matter could clump together. As more matter fell, gravity aided in the cascade-like process. These became galaxies. Whether there are fainter and less familiar structures contributing to the overall structure of the Universe, we just don’t know.

Cosmic filaments?

BigBOSS!!

BOSS takes over from the previous WiggleZ survey, which surveyed about 240,000 galaxies, as compared to BOSS’s 1.5 million. The BOSS team is already planning to get BigBOSS. This will be the ultimate megaproject, sampling about 20 million galaxies and peering deep into the Universe and seeing older and older structures!

How wonderful that this should come at a time, when the public perception was freshly filled accelerated expansion of the Universe, given that the Nobel Prize in 2011 was given for findings on the accelerated expansion of the Universe, using Type Ia supernovae. BOSS, and BigBOSS, will definitely do better!

Physicists Aim To Test Loop Quantum Gravity Using Black Holes

Both have been criticized for the lack of any experimental data. Now, one might be made or broken by a test. We are talking about the two theories of quantum gravity String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity – and the latter is all set to be tested. A French team intends to test the correctness of Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG) by simulating the expected signatures of the evaporation of a black hole.

An impression of an evaporating Black Hole (Courtesy: CernCourier)

The Difficult Job

The main problem in testing these two theories lies in the fact that one has to probe Planck scale physics and the high energy associated with that. However, Monte Carlo simulations show the way out, or so thinks the team of A.Barrau, T. Cailleteau, X.Cao, J.Diaz-Polo and J.Grain, whose paper appeared in Physical Review Letters.

The plan is daunting. They plan to observe black holes evaporating via the Hawking radiation mechanism and this should reveal critical signatures, if LQG is true. Also, bigger black holes and smaller ones give different signatures. The paper presents the simulations that they have done and what signatures in the radiation pattern they expect to see.

The tough job comes after that. LQG predictions indicate features in the black hole evaporation spectrum, but in order to get that one needs to look at a large number of black holes, so that the energy reconstruction can be done with as little error as possible.

Barrau’s team is also looking at signatures of LQG in the cosmic background radiation. But, that’s another story.

China Trying To Get An Astronaut On The Moon By 2025!

China is fast becoming the biggest threat’ to the American supremacy in space. They plan to put their very own astronaut on the Moon. The intention of a manned spacecraft to the Moon comes after the Chinese had revealed extravagant plans to build its own space station. An officially written white paper provides the future goals for the Chinese space program.

A more common scene? (Courtesy: The Washington Post)

China plans to enter the space exploration grand stage in three steps. The first one involves the said lunar mission. The next one involves replicating what NASA has done with the LRO, viz. putting a satellite around the moon. The last one involves returning lunar samples to study back to Earth.

The proposed Chinese space station

This is probably the worst news for NASA’s space program. It is still to recover from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet and is dependent heavily on the Russians for trips to and from the space station. Also, the weakening economy is not helping things.

The Chinese have a long way to go, though, before they can even begin to think about challenging the US supremacy. No hard deadline has been given, but unofficial word indicates that the Chinese would like to put up the space station by 2020 and the man on the Moon by 2025.

Ken Pounds, a researcher at Leicester University, UK, thinks this might be a blessing in disguise for the faltering US space program:

Assuming the Chinese are serious, which recent history suggests they are, then I believe the impact could be game-changing. “It is very unlikely the U.S. would not respond. That could breathe new life into their space exploration programme, which is currently going nowhere.

Space exploration is a great idea, but history tells us a grim and different story about two powers trying to outdo one another in that regard. Let us just hope that space remains a peaceful frontier for man, for ever!

Brief And Intense Meteor Shower To Set Sky Ablaze On Morning of 4th Jan.

Cosmic fireworks are all set to light up the night sky in the early hours of 4th Jan, 2012. A little known meteor shower, the Quadrantids, will set the sky ablaze during a brief, but intense meteor shower. Unfortunately, only Northern Hemisphere residents will be able to see the shower. The peak will be at about 3 AM EST in the morning. With the moon setting at about this time, skywatchers will be able to get a great view! The frequency of the showers is expected to cross 100 per hour for a very brief duration.

Streaks from the Quadrantid, taken from Alberta Canada (Courtesy: National Geographic)

Where to Look

The Quadrantids are named after an extinct constellation, Quadrans Muralis. It will be hedged in between the Draco constellation to the North, the Big Dipper and the Arcturus constellation further east. It will be close to the Pole Star, so if you can identify that you’ll be home dry! You can alternatively get a compass to point North and that’ll do it too!

The Location of the radiant in the sky (Courtesy: www.meteorshowersonline.com)

The showers will be visible best to the residents in the higher latitudes. North Americans and Canadians will be getting a brilliant view. The Quadrantids have been known to clock counts at even 200 per hour. However, the window of opportunity is really small about a matter of a few hours and only on one day. This is in contrast with the more famous Geminids and the Perseids, which can be seen for days.

Happy sky watching.

NASA Celebrates New Year By Putting Moon Gravity Probes In Orbit

The New Year got off to a great start for NASA as it managed to put the twin GRAIL probes in an orbit around the Moon. They are now set to beam each other radio signals, which will keep them synchronized in orbit and the distance from one probe to the other can be known to an error margin or a micron!

The GRAIL probes, before they were launched (Courtesy: NASA)

Measuring the gravity of the situation

The GRAIL probes are designed to accurately measure the Moon’s gravitational field strength. The technique is pretty simple really! When one of the probes passes close to a lunar region, which has high density, it will feel a greater gravitational pull. This will suddenly accelerate the probe and the distance between the two probes will decrease. This is how the density map of the moon can be prepared. Of course, it’s never as easy as this, is it?

Why map the moon anyway? The gravity map of Earth’s closest satellite can give us a good map of the composition of the moon. One of the mysteries that might be solved is why the two faces of the Moon look so very different; one is rolling flatlands, without any craters, while the other one is puckered with numerous craters.

The GRAIL probes will now descend and sink lower into its orbit, getting closer to the Moon’s surface. The data acquisition is supposed to start early March, when the probe is 34 miles above the lunar surface.

Getting young minds into the project

One of the best things about this mission is the attempt to get students into this thing. As Phil Plait writes in his blog, Bad Astronomy, there will be four cameras on each of the probes, called MoonKAM. These will get high resolution photos of the lunar surface and these can be used by middle school students. They may even request NASA to fly the probes over a particular area on the Moon. As Phil Plait puts it:

That’s very cool! … I’ll bet it’ll be an experience they’ll remember their whole lives.

I’m sure too! Being part of science is sometimes being like a detective, without the dirty work!

Year End Special: The Top Ten Science Stories Of 2011

No meteors crashed, no aliens descended. Yet, 2011 was by all means an eventful year! We take a tour of the geeky side of life, with a dash of science! Presenting below are the top 10 science stories in 2011. The list is completely the author’s choice and you are free to disagree with both the ordering and the content. Just let us know, if you do (or even if you don’t)!

Here goes…

Choice 10: Much ado about James Webb

The James Webb Telescope, a proposed super replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, has been under the weather and it has been hard going for NASA. There has been much talk about this telescope taking money out of the other NASA projects.

A mirror on the James Webb telescope. Isn't she a beauty!!

With several budget overruns and a similar number of missed deadlines, it was on the brink of extinction. We told you about the proposed plan to scrap the project altogether. It was then revived by further funding the project from the Senate.

Cannot miss article: How the US fund cuts affect Science

Choice 9: The Tevatron said Goodbye

The once biggest and baddest boy on the block, when it came to particle colliders, bid a timid goodbye this year, far overshadowed by the much more powerful LHC at CERN.

The LHC bids farewell to the Tevatron. (Look at the bottom-left box)

LHC will now carry the mantle of high energy physics research. However, the Tevatron will be missed. It was the first machine to clock 1 TeV energy scale.

Cannot miss article: The end of an era: Fermilab’s Tevatron shuts down A Tribute

Choice 8: Mission to Mars

Mars was a great place to visit for NASA, and not-so-great for Roskosmos this year. NASA launched the giant super hi-tech rover Curiosity’, which is set to replace the previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity is way more powerful and has a host of cool features.

The Curiosity Rover

On the other hand, Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, embarrassed itself with the failed attempt of putting Phobos-Grunt, a craft intended to be orbiting Phobos, the moon of Mars. The craft later made contact with Earth, but couldn’t be recovered!

Cannot miss article: The 10 Coolest Things about the Mars Rover Curiosity

Choice 7: To the Moon

Yeah, the ancients did think that the Moon could’ve been a not-so-smiling face, but we’ve been there, know better and wanted to go back. NASA decided to measure the gravitational field of the only natural satellite of Earth, and do so in style. Thus the GRAIL mission.

No, the moon’s still not habitable, but when it is, we’ll have Domino’s pizza there!

Oh, and yes, the moon did disappear twice this year. Here’re a collection of stunning images from across the world of the first eclipse in July (here) and from the second eclipse in December (here).

Cannot miss article: NASA releases never before seen photos of the moon showing previous moon missions

Choice 6: Planets outside our own Solar System

This has been a boom year for exoplanets! The Kepler Space Telescope found tonnes of planets orbiting other suns! The most promising of these have been Kepler 22b, the only planet found so far to lie in the Goldilocks zone. Further, we found two Earth sized planets around a sun-like star. For me, the best was the discovery of the planet which orbits two stars!

Cannot miss article:  Planet orbiting two stars a real-life Tatooine

Upcoming Underwater Neutrino Detector To Be Taller Than The Burj Khalifa!

The largest structure ever in the history of mankind is being built for the smallest particle of matter known to mankind. Called the KM3Net Telescope, the structure will be a neutrino detector, taller than the Burj Khalifa, but buried under 3200 meters of water! The whole structure is the latest in the series of larger and larger neutrino detectors and will be the product of a pan-European contribution. It will be the second largest structure in human history, second only to the Great Wall of China.

The neutrino detector (Courtesy: KM3Net)

The super-structure

The super-structure will consist of long cables, holding an optical modulus at the end of each. Each of these optical moduli is a standalone sensing unit, sensitive to light. It will consist of 31 photo-multiplier tubes (or PMTs), which are sensitive light-detectors. All of this will be sealed up as one unit inside a 17-inch glass sphere. The detector will consist of a huge number of such optical moduli!

The optical modulus

Why neutrinos are such a headache!

Neutrinos are notoriously hard to detect. They interact only via the weak force (which is also responsible for the decay of heavy nuclei) with other particles and no other force. They leave no trails in the conventional detector chambers, as they are not charged. They do not affect other matter gravitationally, as they are massless (or have extremely small mass!). In order to detect them, the best strategy is to let it hit a proton and convert it into a neutron. This liberates a positron (or anti-electron). The positron emitted travels at such high speeds that it emits radiation called Cherenkov radiation. (Cherenkov radiation is the radiation emitted by a charged particle when it moves faster then light in that medium. Thus, here the electrons/positrons have to move faster than light moves in water). This radiation is detected by the PMT’s. The radiation comes in the form of a cone. This is how the neutrino is indirectly detected.

The KM3Net project is also a Cherenkov type detector, like the famous T2K detector in Japan, which is the largest right now.

Tall, Taller – Tallest!

The whole structure will be taller than the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. But, this will not be noticed, because it will be underwater. The chamber will be filled with water, as it has a high density of protons. It is meant to detect neutrinos coming through the Earth, and through the sea-floor. This is possible, since neutrinos interact very weakly.

Sometimes mountains have to be moved before the truth can emerge.

The official website of the KM3Net here:  http://www.km3net.org/

Pen Removed From Woman’s Stomach After 25 Years Still Works!!

This is a modern, upgraded version of the Jonah myth. A British woman, who had accidentally swallowed a pen 25 years ago, got the foreign object removed today! Miraculously, the felt tip pen, with the bare tip, hadn’t done anything to her stomach lining. Possibly of equal wonder is the fact that the pen still works!

Twenty five years ago, the woman wanted a better look at her tonsils. She used a mirror and a pen, which slipped and went down the esophagus (food canal)! Doctors didn’t believe her when she went to get herself checked. Furthermore, X-rays didn’t show anything.

CT Scan!

Now, a CT scan proves her honesty. The following photo shows the pen clearly!

The CT scan clearly shows the pen inside the stomach. (Courtesy: BMJ Case Reports)

Doctors have requested her to get the object removed, since, even though it hasn’t caused any trouble to the stomach walls, the risk is just as high that it will rupture the stomach walls. The woman is 76 years old now.

After the pen was removed, doctors used it to write Hello’ on a pad of paper. Amazingly, it writes perfectly.

Hello to the world! After 25 years. (Courtesy: BMJ Case Reports)

The case report of this bizarre incident is reported here.

Doctors have looked at this strange case and have made the following observations: Plain abdominal X-Rays may not be very useful in determining the presence of ingested objects’ and that it may be worth believing in a patient’s account, no matter how ludicrous it is’.

I found the whale and Jonah more believable! But then, as Mark Twain had reminded us, truth need not be constrained by the limits of our imagination.

Discovered: Two Earth-Sized Planets Around A Sun-Like Star

Scientists report the finding of true two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star very similar to the sun, using the Kepler telescope. The discovery was announced today. Named Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f, these are the smallest planets ever to be discovered.

An artist's impression of Kepler 20e. Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The location and details

The stellar system is located 950 light years away from Earth. Both planets are about the size of Earth, with one of them being slightly smaller. This is important, since we now know that we can indeed detect planets the size of Earth in another stellar system. In the future, we might indeed stumble upon a planet, the size of the Earth, with conditions similar to our home.

The planets orbit the star a bit too close for comfort and the surface temperature is too hot to sustain the kind of life we know. It’s not a true twin of the Earth, but this does indeed bring us tantalizingly close to finding one.

+2 for Kepler

This is again a feather in the burgeoning cap of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which was recently lauded for finding a planet, called Kepler 22b, orbiting another star in the Goldilocks region.

Both Kepler 20e and 20f are rocky planets and have an estimated mass of 1.7 times and 3 times the mass of the Earth respectively. While Kepler 20e lies at a distance of 7.5 million km away from the sun, making it 20 times as close to the star as Earth (150 million km), Kepler 20f, does slightly better at 16.5 million km. Kepler 20e takes a mere 6.1 days to complete an orbit around the star, while Kepler 20f takes 19.6 days.

There is no possibility of liquid water, or even an atmosphere on either of the planets. However, astronomers are hoping that, given the plethora of exoplanets being discovered, one will turn out to be just right’ for life.

Night Photo Reveals Reality About North Korea

The ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, died yesterday and there have been hysterical reactions from the ‘subjects’. They have been wailing at the passing away of a great leader. Similar scenes were observed, when Kim Il Sung, the previous premier of N.Korea, died in 1994. Unfortunately for the North Koreans, the thin curtain of make belief doesn’t last too long, especially when aerial technology is so very advanced these days. The sentiments of the public are undoubtedly genuine, but the facts presented to them are invariably not. N. Korea is a dying republic, the country’s media has been hijacked and personal freedom is an alien concept. The South, along with the US, is not as great an enemy of the North Koreans as the leaders ruling the thin strip of land.

Crisis. Untold.

One of the most defining images that has caught this sentiment is the distribution of power throughout N.Korea at night. Here is the dramatic image that was snapped from a satellite and it should speak volumes without me having to spell out anything at all! The lone bright spot is Pyongyang, the capital.

A look at the distribution of lights in the Korean Peninsula at night. The only bright spot in the northern half is Pyongyang.

Now, with the passing away of their leader, N.Korea is suddenly again in the political eye of the world. The grossly misnamed ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (DMZ), lying between the two Koreas has been religiously maintained by both the countries. It is one of the most heavily militarized stretches of land on Earth, wrote Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, part of, probably, the most definitive journalistic essay on North Korea. Across the waist of the Korean Peninsula lies a wasteland, roughly following the 38th Parallel, and packed with a titanic concentration of potential violence. Unfortunately, for N.Korea, this means sucking out every bit of resource from every other part of the governance, just to keep itself at the brink of war with its much advanced and US-backed southern counterpart. The DMZ has been a constant source of conflict and tension between the two countries and, with China tacitly supporting the North and the US openly supporting the South, it is a tinderbox.

Hope?

Here is a second image, similar to the one before. This was taken by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite.

A similar image of the two Koreas. Taken by the DMSP.

This is both sad and dangerous; sad because of the obvious reasons and dangerous because the citizens of this unfortunate country have been brainwashed into seeing beyond this most obvious misery.

As a human being, I find it abhorrent to wish for the death of some other fellow human, but on this occasion, I hope that the death of the leader of a forsaken country will be an opportunity, albeit a slight one.

Best Wishes!