Saturday, 30 June 2012

Hubble Spots a Bright Spark in a Nearby Spiral Galaxy

A new image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a detailed view of the spiral arms on one side of the galaxy Messier 99. Messier 99 is a so-called grand design spiral, with long, large and clearly defined spiral arms -- giving it a structure somewhat similar to the Milky Way.

Lying around 50 million light-years away, Messier 99 is one of over a thousand galaxies that make up the Virgo Cluster, the closest cluster of galaxies to us. Messier 99 itself is relatively bright and large, meaning it was one of the first galaxies to be discovered, way back in the 18th century. This earned it a place in Charles Messier's famous catalog of astronomical objects.

In recent years, a number of unexplained phenomena in Messier 99 have been studied by astronomers. Among these is the nature of one of the brighter stars visible in this image. Cataloged as PTF 10fqs, and visible as a yellow-orange star in the top-left corner of this image, it was first spotted by the Palomar Transient Facility, which scans the skies for sudden changes in brightness (or transient phenomena, to use astronomers' jargon). These can be caused by different kinds of event, including variable stars and supernova explosions.

What is unusual about PTF 10fqs is that it has so far defied classification: it is brighter than a nova (a bright eruption on a star's surface), but fainter than a supernova (the explosion that marks the end of life for a large star). Scientists have offered a number of possible explanations, including the intriguing suggestion that it could have been caused by a giant planet plunging into its parent star.

This Hubble image was made in June 2010, during the period when the outburst was fading, so PTF 10fqs's location could be pinpointed with great precision. These measurements will allow other telescopes to home in on the star in future, even when the afterglow of the outburst has faded to nothing.

A version of this image of Messier 99 was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures Competition by contestant Matej Novak. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition is now closed and the winners will be announced soon.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mysterious 'Pulse' On Earth Seemed To 'Answer' Sun's Solar Blast

The 'answering' pulse shouldn't have happened at all. Scientists are now analysing the data using a satellite which scans an range of bizarre particles invisible to other spacecraft - PAMELA, a European spacecraft dedicated to watching rays from space May 17th's solar flare: Neutron monitors all round the world lit up in response to the blast for the first time in six years, despite the fact it was an M-Class, or moderate, flare. Now scientists are trying to unravel what happened - and why our planet 'pulsed' in response. Neutron monitors all round the world lit up in response to the blast for the first time in six years, despite the fact it was an M-Class, or moderate, flare. After an unusually long quiet period, the sun unleashed a solar flare on May 17 this year - but scientists are now puzzling over what happened on Earth.

James Ryan, an astrophysicist at the UNH Space Science Center mentioned, ‘This solar flare was most unimpressive and the associated CME was only slightly far more energetic. Launched in 2006 and devoted to learning cosmic rays, just two weeks prior to the most recent blast from the Sun PAMELA was retasked to focus on solar physics due to the Sun’s ever-growing activity '

Scientists are now analysing the information making use of a satellite which scans an array of bizarre particles invisible to other spacecraft - PAMELA, a European spacecraft dedicated to watching rays from space. And seeking at it optically, it was remarkably dim, it was, all things deemed, a ninety-eight pound weakling of solar events.

For decades, there has been strong debate as to what complicated processes make the very energetic particles that are registered on the ground is it the shockwave in front of a CME or do the particles come from the solar flare itself?

The most latest event will let the study of the evolution of the flare from minimal to substantial energies without having interruption.

‘The PAMELA satellite gives us with a bridge that has by no means existed prior to,’ says Ryan, ‘a bridge in between solar energetic particles measured by other spacecraft and those made on the ground by neutron monitors, like the one we’ve operated right here in Durham for decades. Spanning that gap has opened up new opportunities.’

In the new book, The 7th Protocol, the author discusses energy transfer flux events between the Earth and the Sun and how this phenomenon will engender catastrophic changes on Earth as the planet’s magnetic field weakens further.

From the expose: "Early in the solar system’s history, a series of violent apocalyptic explosions occurred in interplanetary space that have never been fully documented or explained by science. Phaeton, the giant planet between Jupiter and Mars exploded. Moons were crushed and planets were overturned in the celestial upheaval. The amount of energy released in the series of mysterious blasts was equal to the power of 10 Earth Suns. There is no force known to modern science that could account for the widespread devastation scattered over a region of space encompassing some 7.4 billion kilometers yet the tantalizing clues about the possible causes for the event are there and have been uncovered by our astrophysical investigation. In the ruins on far-flung moons, on distant scarred planets, and on Earth, we found evidence and prophetic warnings that this ‘unthinkable’ cosmic event will happen again."

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

NSE fusion program moves beyond plasma, towards practical power-plant issues

And MIT NSE’s long-standing fusion program is extending its leadership role in advancing the technology towards practical use. Dennis Whyte, NSE’s fusion team is beginning a strategic pivot into the next stage of development, with a focus on interdisciplinary knowledge needed for the creation of functioning power plants And today, explains Prof. Nuclear fusion is a seemingly ideal energy source: carbon-free, fuel derived largely from seawater, no risk of runaway reactors, and minimal waste issues. With the world’s energy supply chain facing intense environmental, economic, and political pressures, fusion’s appeal is growing and international collaboration is accelerating. NSE’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PFSC), home of one of just three US tokamak fusion reactors, has been a focal point of fusion research since its founding in 1976, developing substantial basic knowledge about creating and maintaining fusion reactions.

“We’re basically making energy by creating a star,” explains Whyte. Hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, the leading fuel candidates, ionize into a plasma when heated; their fusion creates a helium isotope and a neutron, while releasing nuclear energy. The next stage, he explains, will require an evolution beyond the traditional focus on plasma physics, and towards practical power-plant issues that arise out of the need to maintain a continuous, self-sustaining “burning plasma. At those temperatures, the natural repellence of nuclei to one another is sometimes overcome, allowing them to fuse. ” This includes developing a better understanding of how materials behave under intense neutron and plasma bombardment Fusion reactors, like PFSC’s ALCATOR C-Mod, rely on the same mechanism that powers stars — collisions between atomic nuclei at extremely high temperatures (over 100 million degrees). ”

Whyte says fusion researchers have substantially solved the first of the three problems. “For power generation, the star has to turn on, and stay on for a year at a time, and we need a way to extract the energy it creates.

Neutron bombardment creates big challenges, displacing every single atom within exposed material 20 times in a year. Moreover, surface atoms would be displaced by plasma particles about a billion times annually. “The environment is constantly making and remaking the material,” says Whyte. “Amazingly, we think we can make this work, by developing an understanding not just of the plasma and the materials, but of their interaction. We have the leading effort here in that area.”

Whyte notes that in order to make fusion a reality, “we need to start thinking about fusion like nuclear engineers, building reliable power plants…it’s going to take a whole new generation of scientists who understand plasma physics, materials science, nuclear science, and other issues at a very deep level. That’s what I find very exciting about our efforts and our students — they bridge this entire spectrum. I’m proud to have Ph.D. students who are not working on plasma physics — they’re using advanced nuclear detection methods to prove what’s happening to materials surfaces inside ALCATOR, and developing some of the very first studies of reactor materials at elevated temperatures.”

These efforts, which draw heavily on NSE’s expanded computational modeling capabilities and collaborations with other Institute departments and centers, extend a long history of MIT contributions to international fusion development, including the 15-billion-euro ITER demonstration reactor currently under construction in France. One of the most ambitious technological endeavors in the world, ITER is designed to produce output of 500MW from input of 50MW, and prove fusion power’s feasibility. The ITER reactor chamber will be essentially a scaled-up version of the ALCATOR chamber, including an MIT-developed vertical diverter structure that allows for heat energy extraction (the third of the three basic challenges).

In the big picture, points out Whyte, continued development of nuclear energy as a trustworthy power source is essential to the future of the planet. “We can never make fusion as simple as fission,” he says, “but we have to make it a viable option on the table for mankind. I don’t see any other choice. It might be really hard, but it's worth the effort.”

Sunday, 24 June 2012

New Small Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Reaches Record Efficiency

Individual homes and entire neighborhoods could be powered with a new, small-scale solid oxide fuel cell system that achieves up to 57 percent efficiency, significantly higher than the 30 to 50 percent efficiencies previously reported for other solid oxide fuel cell systems of its size, according to a study published in this month's issue of Journal of Power Sources.

The smaller system, developed at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, uses methane, the primary component of natural gas, as its fuel. The entire system was streamlined to make it more efficient and scalable by using PNNL-developed microchannel technology in combination with processes called external steam reforming and fuel recycling. PNNL's system includes fuel cell stacks developed earlier with the support of DOE's Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance.

"Solid oxide fuels cells are a promising technology for providing clean, efficient energy. But, until now, most people have focused on larger systems that produce 1 megawatt of power or more and can replace traditional power plants," said Vincent Sprenkle, a co-author on the paper and chief engineer of PNNL's solid oxide fuel cell development program. "However, this research shows that smaller solid oxide fuel cells that generate between 1 and 100 kilowatts of power are a viable option for highly efficient, localized power generation."

Sprenkle and his co-authors had community-sized power generation in mind when they started working on their solid oxide fuel cell, also known as a SOFC. The pilot system they built generates about 2 kW of electricity, or how much power a typical American home consumes. The PNNL team designed its system so it can be scaled up to produce between 100 and 250 kW, which could provide power for about 50 to 100 American homes.

Goal: Small and efficient

Knowing the advantages of smaller SOFC systems (see the "What is an SOFC?" sidebar below for more information), the PNNL team wanted to design a small system that could be both more than 50 percent efficient and easily scaled up for distributed generation. To do this, the team first used a process called external steam reforming. In general, steam reforming mixes steam with the fuel, leading the two to react and create intermediate products. The intermediates, carbon monoxide and hydrogen, then react with oxygen at the fuel cell's anode. Just as described in the below sidebar, this reaction generates electricity, as well as the byproducts steam and carbon dioxide.

Steam reforming has been used with fuel cells before, but the approach requires heat that, when directly exposed to the fuel cell, causes uneven temperatures on the ceramic layers that can potentially weaken and break the fuel cell. So the PNNL team opted for external steam reforming, which completes the initial reactions between steam and the fuel outside of the fuel cell.

The external steam reforming process requires a device called a heat exchanger, where a wall made of a conductive material like metal separates two gases. On one side of the wall is the hot exhaust that is expelled as a byproduct of the reaction inside the fuel cell. On the other side is a cooler gas that is heading toward the fuel cell. Heat moves from the hot gas, through the wall and into the cool incoming gas, warming it to the temperatures needed for the reaction to take place inside the fuel cell.

Efficiency with micro technology

The key to the efficiency of this small SOFC system is the use of a PNNL-developed microchannel technology in the system's multiple heat exchangers. Instead of having just one wall that separates the two gases, PNNL's microchannel heat exchangers have multiple walls created by a series of tiny looping channels that are narrower than a paper clip. This increases the surface area, allowing more heat to be transferred and making the system more efficient. PNNL's microchannel heat exchanger was designed so that very little additional pressure is needed to move the gas through the turns and curves of the looping channels.

The second unique aspect of the system is that it recycles. Specifically, the system uses the exhaust, made up of steam and heat byproducts, coming from the anode to maintain the steam reforming process. This recycling means the system doesn't need an electric device that heats water to create steam. Reusing the steam, which is mixed with fuel, also means the system is able to use up some of the leftover fuel it wasn't able to consume when the fuel first moved through the fuel cell.

The combination of external steam reforming and steam recycling with the PNNL-developed microchannel heat exchangers made the team's small SOFC system extremely efficient. Together, these characteristics help the system use as little energy as possible and allows more net electricity to be produced in the end. Lab tests showed the system's net efficiency ranged from 48.2 percent at 2.2 kW to a high of 56.6 percent at 1.7 kW. The team calculates they could raise the system's efficiency to 60 percent with a few more adjustments.

The PNNL team would like to see their research translated into an SOFC power system that's used by individual homeowners or utilities.

"There still are significant efforts required to reduce the overall cost to a point where it is economical for distributed generation applications," Sprenkle explained. "However, this demonstration does provide an excellent blueprint on how to build a system that could increase electricity generation while reducing carbon emissions."

The research was supported by DOE's Office of Fossil Energy.

What is an SOFC?

Fuel cells are a lot like batteries in that they use anodes, cathodes and electrolytes to produce electricity. But unlike most batteries, which stop working when they use up their reactive materials, fuel cells can continuously make electricity if they have a constant fuel supply.

SOFCs are one type of fuel cell that operate at higher temperatures -- between about 1100 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit -- and can run on a wide variety of fuels, including natural gas, biogas, hydrogen and liquid fuels such as diesel and gasoline that have been reformed and cleaned. Each SOFC is made of ceramic materials, which form three layers: the anode, the cathode and the electrolyte. Air is pumped up against an outer layer, the cathode. Oxygen from the air becomes a negatively charged ion, O2- , where the cathode and the inner electrolyte layer meet. The ion moves through the electrolyte to reach the final layer, the anode. There, the oxygen ion reacts with a fuel. This reaction creates electricity, as well as the byproducts steam and carbon dioxide. That electricity can be used to power homes, neighborhoods, cities and more.

The big advantage to fuel cells is that they're more efficient than traditional power generation. For example, the combustion engines of portable generators only convert about 18 percent of the chemical energy in fuel into electricity. In contrast, some SOFCs can achieve up to 60 percent efficiency. Being more efficient means that SOFCs consume less fuel and create less pollution for the amount of electricity produced than traditional power generation, including coal power plants.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Burning planet leaves dust in its wake

The scientists, led by Dr Jon Jenkins from the SETI Institute, were using NASA's planet hunting Kepler space telescope when the unusual light curve readings were discovered org, shows the unusual discovery was made after researchers detected strange luminosity readings from a star 1500 light years away. Astronomers have for the first time, found a rocky planet that's slowly being vapourised by the blistering heat of the star it's orbiting. Their report in the Astrophysical Journal and available through the prepress website Arxiv.

"Only after eliminating all other possibilities were we able to conclude that the unusual light readings are most likely caused by a long comet-like debris trail behind a disintegrating planet not much bigger than Mercury. "

"Then things started clicking into place and all the lights went green. "We first had to rule out a range of possible scenarios like binary planets in complicated orbits blocking out some of the star's light," he says. "

The planet is circling extremely closely to an orange dwarf star called KIC-12557548, taking just 15 hours to complete each orbit Jenkins says working out what they were seeing involved an extensive process of elimination.

The star has a surface temperature of about 4200°C.

The planet's surface is estimated to be as high as 1800°C, hot enough to melt and evaporate rocks leaving a trail of submicron-sized dust grains, most likely pyroxene or aluminium oxide.

"We worked out the planet's size (about a tenth the mass of Earth) by determining how big it had to be to still remain in one piece, and yet be small enough to leave such a huge dust and debris trail," says Jenkins.

"That's why this is still somewhat of a hypothesis."

"The team are now actively seeking to make complementary observations with other telescopes and facilities to see whether we can nail this down for certain."

Exogeology in action

Jenkins says that while there may be other rocky planets undergoing a similar process, they are quiet fortunate to be able to see this one. Astronomers already know of gas giants, often called hot Jupiters, which are slowly evaporating as they orbit too close to their host stars, but this is the first time it has been detected occurring to a rocky planet. "The physics are different here, so this would be the first example of exogeology," says Jenkins. "We may well be seeing the end of evolution of a planetary system in progress, and that would be very exciting". "We have a number of examples of super Earths in short period orbits," he says.

"Kepler 10b and Corot 7b are both in 20 hour orbits around their host stars, snd we know both those stars are much hotter than KIC-12557548."

"So we may just be lucky to be seeing this happening around a star cool enough to allow dust grains to form."

"If this star was hotter, the dust grains would evaporate too quickly for a smoke trail to form."

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Astronomers: "It's Now Or Never"

Astronomers are gearing for one the rarest events in the Solar System: an alignment of Earth, Venus and the Sun that will not be seen for another 105 years.

The celestial ballet known as the Transit of Venus is one of the most eagerly-awaited events in skywatching, an episode that has advanced the frontiers of knowledge, sometimes with dramatic consequences.

“For centuries, the Transit of Venus has been one of the great moments for astronomers,” said Claude Catala, head of the Paris Observatory. “2012 will not be an exception to the rule. It is a one-off opportunity.”

“It’s now or never,” the British magazine Physics World told its readers.

“It will be an event well worth watching, as the next Transit of Venus will not occur until December 2117, when most of us will be long gone.”

In a transit, Venus passes between Earth and the Sun, appearing through the telescope as a tiny black spot that, for some six and a half hours, crawls in a line over the fiery face of the Sun.

On the evening of June 5, North America, Central America and the northern part of South America will get to see the start of the transit — clear skies permitting — until those regions go into sunset.

All of the transit will be visible in East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Europe, the Middle East and South Asia will get to see the end stages of the eclipse as they go into sunrise on June 6.

But West and Southwest Africa, and most of South America, will not get a view, although people there can catch the event on a webcast.

Only six Transits of Venus have ever been recorded — quite simply because before the phenomenon was predicted by the 17th-century German mathematician Johannes Kepler, no-one knew where to look or had the lenses to do so.

Transits occur in truly weird combinations, either in a June or a December. When one happens, another one happens in the same month eight years later.

Then there is a wait.

A very long wait.

A pair of December transits follows a June pair after 105 years, while a June pair comes 121 and a half years after a December pair.

For example, there was a transit in December 1882; the next one was in June 2004, which will be followed this year on June 5-6, depending on the dateline; astronomers will then have to be patient until December 2117, which will be followed by another transit in December 2125.

In the 18th century, scientists realised that by timing the event from different locations, the transits of 1761 and 1769 could be triangulated and give the distance between Earth and the Sun — “the noblest problem in astronomy,” for it would at last place mankind in the cosmos.

Britain and France, the two superpowers at the time, jockeyed for the glory, dispatching missions to far-flung places.

Among them were British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who were attacked by French warships just after they left Plymouth and headed back to port.

Discouraged, they wanted to cancel the trip — but ventured back out to sea after a receiving a now-legendary letter from the Royal Society, the British scientific academy which was sponsoring them.

To give up would “bring an indelible Scandal upon their Character, and probably end in their utter Ruin,” the letter said stonily.

Drama was also in store for the 1769 transit, when Britain sent James Cook to Tahiti to view the event from there.

After his mission, Cook opened the instructions for the secret — and most important — part of his expedition: to search for and map for the Crown a mysterious “southern continent,” which turned out to be New Zealand and eastern Australia.

For astronomers today, the Transit of Venus offers a chance to gain insights into the planet’s notoriously thick, cloudy atmosphere, and use the refraction of sunlight to finetune techniques for hunting planets orbiting distant stars.

One of the most useful exercises will be to compare observations of the transit made by Earth-based telescopes, orbitaltelescopes and robot probes, including Europe’s Venus Express.

“This way we get different measurements with which to calibrate our methods for analysing exoplanets orbiting other stars,” said Thomas Widemann, of the Laboration of Space Studies and Astrophysics Instrumentation, or LESIA, in Paris.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Astronomer Insists There's A Planet X Four TimesThe Size Of Earth Lurking At The Edge Of Our Solar System

The evidence for 'Planet X' - the mysterious hypothesised planet on the edge of our solar system - has taken a new turn thanks to the mathematics of a noted astronomer. Rodney Gomes, an astronomer at the National Observatory of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, says the irregular orbits of small icy bodies beyond Neptune imply that a planet four times the size of Earth is swirling around our sun in the fringes of the solar system

Planet X - perhaps mis-named now that Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet - has been widely hypothesised for decade, but has never been proven.

Gomes measured the orbits of 92 Kuiper belt objects - small bodies and dwarf planets - and said that six objects appeared to be tugged off-course compared to their expected orbits.

The hypothetical planet - four times the size of Earth - will float beyond Neptune and Pluto and cause disturbances in the Kuiper belt of asteroids.

Alternatively an object the size of Mars on an irregular orbit that bought it to within five billion miles of the sun - close to Neptune's orbit - could be the solution. He told astronomers at the American Astronomical Society on Tuesday that the most likely reason for the irregular orbits was a 'planetary-mass solar companion' - a distant body of planet size that is powerful enough to move the Kuiper belt objects. However, due to the distances involved, it will be tough to for Earthbound astronomers to catch a glimpse of the hypothetical newest member of our solar system He suggested the planet would be four times bigger than Earth - around the size of Nepture and would be 140 billion miles from the sun, or about 1,500 times further than the Earth.

Even non-planet Pluto is hard to spot thanks to the distances involved.

The Kuiper belt lies on the outskirts of our solar system, and calculations imply a planet also lurks out there.

The solar system as we know it, showing (l-r), Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune

While other astronomers are on the astronomical fence, they have applauded his methods.

Rory Barnes, from the University of Washington told National Geographic that Gomes 'has laid out a way to determine how such a planet could sculpt parts of our solar system.

'So while, yes, the evidence doesn't exist yet, I thought the bigger point was that he showed us that there are ways to find that evidence.

'I don't think he really has any evidence that suggests it is out there.'

Hal Levison, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said: 'It seems surprising to me that a [solar] companion as small as Neptune could have the effect he sees.

'[But] I know Rodney, and I'm sure he did the calculations right.'

The previous ninth planet, Pluto, is one of the largest of the Kuiper belt dwarf planets, at some 1,400 miles wide.

It got downgraded by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 for failing to meet all the criteria of a 'planet', namely that its mass is not sufficient enough to clear its orbit of surrounding objects.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Best Time to Study the Cosmos Was More Than 13 Billion Years Ago

By observing the large-scale cosmic wrinkles now, we can learn about the initial conditions of the universe. New calculations by Harvard theorist Avi Loeb show that the ideal time to study the cosmos was more than 13 billion years ago, just about 500 million years after the Big Bang. But is now really the best time to look, or would we get better information billions of years into the future -- or the past? Those began as small perturbations of matter that grew over time, like ripples in a pond, as the universe expanded. "I'm glad to be a cosmologist at a cosmic time when we can still recover some of the clues about how the universe started," Loeb said The farther into the future you go from that time, the more information you lose about the early universe. 7-billion-year history. The universe is a marvelously complex place, filled with galaxies and larger-scale structures that have evolved over its 13 billion years .

However, in the older and more evolved universe, matter has collapsed to make gravitationally bound objects. In the young universe the cosmic horizon is closer to you, so you see less. Since information about the early universe is lost when the first galaxies are made, the best time to view cosmic perturbations is right when stars began to form The two effects counter each other -- the first grows better as the second grows worse. He found that the best time to study cosmic perturbations was only 500 million years after the Big Bang. Two competing processes define the best time to observe the cosmos. This "muddies the waters" of the cosmic pond, because you lose memory of initial conditions on small scales. The timing is not coincidental. This is also the era when the first stars and galaxies began to form. As the universe ages, you can see more of it because there's been time for light from more distant regions to travel to you. Loeb asked the question: When were viewing conditions optimal?

But it's not too late. Modern observers can still access this nascent era from a distance by using surveys designed to detect 21-cm radio emission from hydrogen gas at those early times. These radio waves take more than 13 billion years to reach us, so we can still see how the universe looked early on.

"21-centimeter surveys are our best hope," said Loeb. "By observing hydrogen at large distances, we can map how matter was distributed at the early times of interest."

The accelerating universe makes the picture bleak for future cosmologists. Because the expansion of the cosmos is accelerating, galaxies are being pushed beyond our horizon. Light that leaves those distant galaxies will never reach Earth in the far future. In addition, the scale of gravitationally unbound structures is growing larger and larger. Eventually they, too, will stretch beyond our horizon. Some time between 10 and 100 times the universe's current age, cosmologists will no longer be able to observe them.

"If we want to learn about the very early universe, we'd better look now before it is too late!" Loeb said.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Superflares found on Sun-like stars

Scientists previously theorised a close-flying Jupiter-sized planet would be needed to ground a super-flaring stars' magnetic fits. The finding, published in the journal Nature, culled from 120 days of observations of 83,000 stars, is the first to detail how often and how energetic flares on other stars can be. For the size flares our Sun experiences, magnetic reconnection occurs within the Sun itself, with one twisted magnetic field snapping and then linking up to another - releasing energy in the process as a solar flare. Kepler, whose prime mission is to look for planets transiting the face of their parent stars, should have found big, close-by planets (so-called "hot-Jupiters") circling about 10 per cent of the superflaring stars. Instead the team, led by Kyoto University astronomer Hiroyuki Maehara, found none Scientists have found superflares more than 1 million times more powerful than flares generated by the Sun occurring on stars being studied by NASA's Kepler space telescope. But the 365 superflares found by scientists crunching Kepler data need another explanation, says astrophysicist Bradley Schaefer, of Louisiana State University. The discovery, however, raises a question about how the massive outbursts, believed to be caused by complex magnetic interactions, can physically occur.

"Maehara's point that the 365 superflares don't show hot-Jupiters is a pretty strong argument against the hot-Jupiter theory," says Schaefer. "No one has proposed any alternative."

Maehara thinks they could be caused by starspots much larger than any sunspot found on the sun.

"However it is not well understood why and how such large starspots are formed on solar-type stars," he says.

"This very much is a mystery and a challenge for classic astrophysics," says Schaefer.

Scientists don't believe our sun has ever generated such a superflare. If one had, it likely would have triggered enough chemical change in the atmosphere to set off a mass-extinction of life on Earth. The only mass extinctions in geologic record have been tied to asteroid strikes, volcanic activity and related climatic change.

Ironically, a superflaring star may be a good place to look for habitable planets, Schaefer adds.

"Superflares might provide the high-energy radiation required to create organic molecules, so perhaps superflare systems are a good place to look for alien life that has evolved to avoid the effects of the huge flares," he says.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Every Black Hole Contains A New Universe

This may sound strange, but it could actually be the best explanation of how the universe began, and what we observe today. The top bottle symbolizes a black hole, the connected necks represent a wormhole and the lower bottle symbolizes the growing universe on the just-formed other side of the wormhole. Credit: Courtesy of Indiana University

Our universe may exist inside a black hole. It's a theory that has been explored over the past few decades by a small group of physicists including myself Nikodem Poplawski displays a "tornado in a tube".

What caused inflation to end? What is the source of the mysterious dark energy that is apparently causing the universe to speed up its expansion? For example: What started the big bang? The theory of inflation, a super-fast expansion of space proposed in recent decades, fills in many important details, such as why slight lumps in the concentration of matter in the early universe coalesced into large celestial bodies such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies. And it draws upon two central theories in physics It eliminates the notion of physically impossible singularities in our universe. Successful as it is, there are notable unsolved questions with the standard big bang theory, which suggests that the universe began as a seemingly impossible "singularity," an infinitely small point containing an infinitely high concentration of matter, expanding in size to what we observe today. The idea that our universe is entirely contained within a black hole provides answers to these problems and many more. But these theories leave major questions unresolved.

The first is general relativity, the modern theory of gravity. However, quantum mechanics and general relativity are currently separate theories; physicists have been striving to combine the two successfully into a single theory of "quantum gravity" to adequately describe important phenomena, including the behavior of subatomic particles in black holes. A 1960s adaptation of general relativity, called the Einstein-Cartan-Sciama-Kibble theory of gravity, takes into account effects from quantum mechanics. This variation of general relativity incorporates an important quantum property known as spin. Particles such as atoms and electrons possess spin, or the internal angular momentum that is analogous to a skater spinning on ice It describes the universe at the largest scales. The second is quantum mechanics, which describes the universe at the smallest scales, such as the level of the atom. Any event in the universe occurs as a point in space and time, or spacetime. A massive object such as the Sun distorts or "curves" spacetime, like a bowling ball sitting on a canvas. The sun's pull of the planets appears to us as the force of gravity. The Sun's gravitational dent alters the motion of Earth and the other planets orbiting it. It not only provides a step towards quantum gravity but also leads to an alternative picture of the universe.

In this picture, spins in particles interact with spacetime and endow it with a property called "torsion." To understand torsion, imagine spacetime not as a two-dimensional canvas, but as a flexible, one-dimensional rod. Bending the rod corresponds to curving spacetime, and twisting the rod corresponds to spacetime torsion. If a rod is thin, you can bend it, but it's hard to see if it's twisted or not.

At the center of spiral galaxy M81 is a supermassive black hole about 70 million times more massive than our sun. Full Credit: X-ray: NASA / CXC / Wisconsin /D.Pooley & CfA / .Zezas; Optical: NASA/ESA/CfA/A.Zezas; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA

Spacetime torsion would only be significant, let alone noticeable, in the early universe or in black holes. In these extreme environments, spacetime torsion would manifest itself as a repulsive force that counters the attractive gravitational force coming from spacetime curvature. As in the standard version of general relativity, very massive stars end up collapsing into black holes: regions of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape.

This process would further increase the mass inside the black hole. The immensely high gravitational energy in this densely packed state would cause an intense production of particles, since energy can be converted into matter. The result of this recoil matches observations of the universe's shape, geometry, and distribution of mass Nonetheless, matter would still be packed together in a highly dense state. The increasing numbers of particles with spin would result in higher levels of spacetime torsion. The rapid recoil after such a big bounce could be what has led to our expanding universe. The repulsive torsion would stop the collapse and would create a "big bounce" like a compressed beach ball that snaps outward. Initially, gravitational attraction between particles would overcome torsion's repulsive forces, serving to collapse matter into a smaller region of space. Here is how torsion would play out in the beginning moments of our universe inside a black hole. But eventually torsion would become very strong and prevent matter from compressing into a point of infinite density.

In turn, the torsion mechanism suggests an astonishing scenario: every black hole would produce a new, baby universe inside. If that is true, then the first matter in our universe came from somewhere else. So our own universe could be the interior of a black hole existing in another universe. Just as we cannot see what is going on inside black holes in the cosmos, any observers in the parent universe could not see what is going on in ours.

The motion of matter through the black hole's boundary, called an "event horizon," would only happen in one direction, providing a direction of time that we perceive as moving forward. The arrow of time in our universe would therefore be inherited, through torsion, from the parent universe.

Torsion could also explain the observed imbalance between matter and antimatter in the universe. Because of torsion, matter would decay into familiar electrons and quarks, and antimatter would decay into "dark matter," a mysterious invisible form of matter that appears to account for a majority of matter in the universe.

Finally, torsion could be the source of "dark energy," a mysterious form of energy that permeates all of space and increases the rate of expansion of the universe. Geometry with torsion naturally produces a "cosmological constant," a sort of added-on outward force which is the simplest way to explain dark energy. Thus, the observed accelerating expansion of the universe may end up being the strongest evidence for torsion.

Torsion therefore provides a theoretical foundation for a scenario in which the interior of every black hole becomes a new universe. It also appears as a remedy to several major problems of current theory of gravity and cosmology. Physicists still need to combine the Einstein-Cartan-Sciama-Kibble theory fully with quantum mechanics into a quantum theory of gravity. While resolving some major questions, it raises new ones of its own. For example, what do we know about the parent universe and the black hole inside which our own universe resides? How many layers of parent universes would we have? How can we test that our universe lives in a black hole?

The last question can potentially be investigated: since all stars and thus black holes rotate, our universe would have inherited the parent black hole’s axis of rotation as a "preferred direction." There is some recently reported evidence from surveys of over 15,000 galaxies that in one hemisphere of the universe more spiral galaxies are "left-handed," or rotating clockwise, while in the other hemisphere more are "right-handed," or rotating counterclockwise. In any case, I believe that including torsion in geometry of spacetime is a right step towards a successful theory of cosmology.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Giant Black Hole Kicked out of Home Galaxy

The galaxy at the center of a new image contains an X-ray source, CID-42, with exceptional properties. After combining data from several telescopes -- including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory -- researchers think that CID-42 contains a massive black hole being ejected from its host galaxy at several million miles per hour.

The main panel is a wide-field image of CID-42 and its surroundings taken by the Canada-French-Hawaii Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope in optical light. The galaxy is located nearly 4 billion light years from Earth. The outlined box on the main panel represents the more localized view of CID-42 that is shown in the three separate boxes on the right-hand side of the graphic. At the top is an image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The X-ray emission is concentrated in a single source, corresponding to one of the two sources seen in deep observations by Hubble, which is shown in the middle inset box. The bottom inset shows how the X-rays align with the optical data in the two insets above.

The precise location of this source was recently obtained using Chandra's High Resolution Camera, giving an important clue in telling astronomers what is happening within this galaxy. Previous Chandra observations had detected a bright X-ray source likely caused by super-heated material around one or more supermassive black holes. However, they could not distinguish if the X-rays came from one or both of the optical sources because Chandra was not pointed directly at CID-42, giving an X-ray source that was less sharp than usual.

The new data help to clarify the situation. Researchers think that CID-42 is the byproduct of two galaxies that have collided, producing the distinctive tail seen in the upper part of the optical image inset. A simulation by co-author Laura Blecha shows more details of how this spectacular event was thought to unfold.

When this galaxy collision occurred, the supermassive black holes in the center of each galaxy also collided. The two black holes then merged to form a single black hole, that recoiled from gravitational waves produced by the collision, giving the newly merged black hole a sufficiently large kick for it to eventually escape from the galaxy. In this scenario, the source with the X-rays is the black hole being ejected from the galaxy. The other optical source is thought to be the bright star cluster that was left behind at the center of the galaxy.

With the higher resolution Chandra data a new feature was discovered in CID-42, a small extension to the lower right of the source. This could be a jet from the black hole or stars forming near it.

There are two other possible, but less likely, explanations for the optical data detected in CID-42. Both would involve the presence of a second supermassive black hole in CID-42, requiring X-ray emission from a second source to be heavily obscured.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Super volcanoes have super short fuse

A new study has found volcanic super-eruptions capable of ending entire civilisations may have far shorter fuses than previously thought.

Super eruptions are hundreds of times more powerful than conventional volcanic eruptions such as Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull which grounded airlines across Europe in 2010.

The Indonesian Toba super eruption 73,000 years ago, plunged the planet into a volcanic winter that scientists believe may have decimated the human population down to just a few thousand breeding pairs.

Scientists led by assistant professor Guilherme Gualda from Vanderbilt University in the United States, found existing dating methods overestimate the lifetimes of giant magma chambers fuelling super eruptions.

These huge pancake-shaped molten rock pools can be forty kilometres across and five kilometres deep.

In the beginning, the magma in these pools is largely free from crystals and bubbles. But over time, these crystals and bubbles gradually form, progressively changing the magma's physical and chemical properties in a process that halts when an eruption takes place.

"Instead of lasting for hundreds of thousands of years, our study suggests that when these exceptionally large magma pools form, they can't exist for long before erupting, possibly just a few thousands or even hundreds of years," says Gualda.

Gualda and colleagues studied the remnants of the Bishop Tuff, Long Valley super-eruption in east-central California, 760,000 years ago.

Reporting in the journal PLoS ONE, Gualda found the magma chamber had a life span of between 500 and 3000 years from formation to eruption.

When it blew, it covered half of the North American continent with smouldering ash.
Getting the age right

Gualda found conventional dating methods using zircon crystals, which rely on the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, overestimate magma chamber life spans.

"Zircon is tough and doesn't want to melt once it crystallises; it's actually telling us about the how long the system's been around and the changes that take place in the crust before the magma chamber forms," says Gualda.

Instead, the researchers turned to quartz will remelts, telling scientists how long the magma body existed.

To determine the age of the quartz, Gualda and colleagues sectioned individual crystals to examine the different layering in a micron-sized version of studying tree rings.

"We found quartz crystallisation indicating far shorter time spans than zircon," says Gualda.

"This brings these events from geologic time scales of hundreds of thousands of years, down to historic time scales of hundreds to thousands of years."

As far as geologists can tell, no giant magma bodies capable of producing super eruptions currently exist.

Gualda and colleagues believe this may be because these magma bodies exist for only relatively short periods of time, rather than persisting for hundreds of thousands of years as previously thought.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Giant Galaxy-Packed Filament Revealed

The filament connects two clusters of galaxies that, along with a third cluster, will smash together and give rise to one of the largest galaxy superclusters in the universe. "We are excited about this filament, because we think the intense star formation we see in its galaxies is related to the consolidation of the surrounding supercluster," said Kristen Coppin, a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at McGill and lead author of a new paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters The filament is the first structure of its kind spied in a critical era of cosmic buildup when colossal collections of galaxies called superclusters began to take shape. The glowing galactic bridge offers astronomers a unique opportunity to explore how galaxies evolve and merge to form superclusters. A McGill-led research team using the Herschel Space Observatory has discovered a giant, galaxy-packed filament ablaze with billions of new stars.

The intergalactic filament, containing hundreds of galaxies, spans 8 million light-years and links two of the three clusters that make up a supercluster known as RCS2319. RCS2319 is the subject of a huge observational study, led by Professor Tracy Webb and her group at McGill's Department of Physics. "This luminous bridge of star formation gives us a snapshot of how the evolution of cosmic structure on very large scales affects the evolution of the individual galaxies trapped within it," said Jim Geach, a co-author also based at McGill. ) This emerging supercluster is an exceptionally rare, distant object whose light has taken more than seven billion years to reach us. (The Herschel Space Observatory is a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions. Dust obscures much of the star-formation activity in the early universe, but telescopes like Herschel can detect the infrared glow of this dust as it is heated by nascent stars. It was not until astronomers trained Herschel on the region, however, that the intense star-forming activity in the filament became clear. Previous observations in visible and X-ray light had found the cluster cores and hinted at the presence of a filament.

By studying the filament, astronomers will be able to explore the fundamental issue of whether "nature" versus "nurture" matters more in the life progression of a galaxy. "Is the evolution of a galaxy dominated by intrinsic properties such as total mass, or do wider-scale cosmic environments largely determine how galaxies grow and change? Researchers chalk up the blistering pace of star formation in the filament to the fact that galaxies within it are being crunched into a relatively small cosmic volume under the force of gravity. " Geach asked. "The role of the environment in influencing galactic evolution is one of the key questions of modern astrophysics. The amount of infrared light suggests that the galaxies in the filament are cranking out the equivalent of about 1,000 solar masses (the mass of our sun) of new stars per year. "A high rate of interactions and mergers between galaxies could be disturbing the galaxies' gas reservoirs, igniting bursts of star formation," said Geach. For comparison's sake, our Milky Way galaxy is producing about one solar mass-worth of new stars per year. "

The galaxies in the RCS2319 filament will eventually migrate toward the center of the emerging supercluster. Over the next seven to eight billion years, astronomers think RCS2319 will come to look like gargantuan superclusters in the local universe, like the nearby Coma cluster. These advanced clusters are chock-full of "red and dead" elliptical galaxies that contain aged, reddish stars instead of young ones.

"The galaxies we are seeing as starbursts in RCS2319 are destined to become dead galaxies in the gravitational grip of one of the most massive structures in the universe," said Geach. "We're catching them at the most important stage of their evolution."

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Viruses used to power tiny device

The virus-based electrode produced a small current - enough to flash "1" on a liquid-crystal display

Scientists use DNA to make virus

Scientists in the US have developed a way to generate electricity using viruses.

The researchers built a generator with a postage stamp-sized electrode and based on a small film of specially engineered viruses.

When a finger tapped the electrode, the viruses converted the mechanical energy into electricity.

The research by a team in California has been published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Materials that can convert mechanical energy into electricity are known as "piezoelectric".

"More research is needed, but our work is a promising first step toward the development of personal power generators, actuators for use in nano-devices, and other devices based on viral electronics," said Dr Seung-Wuk Lee at the University of California, Berkeley.

The virus used in the research was an M13 bacteriophage, which attacks bacteria but is benign to humans. The Berkeley team used genetic engineering techniques to add four negatively charged molecules to one end of the corkscrew-shaped proteins that coat the virus.

These additional molecules increased the charge difference between the proteins' positive and negative ends, boosting the voltage of the virus.

Another advantage of using viruses for such tasks is that they arrange themselves into an orderly film that enables the generator to work. This attribute, known as "self-assembly" is much sought after in the field of nanotechnology.

The scientists enhanced the system by stacking films composed of single layers of the virus on top of each other. They found that a stack about 20 layers thick exhibited the strongest piezoelectric effect.

For the demonstration, they took a multilayered film of viruses measuring 1 sq cm and sandwiched it between two gold-plated electrodes. These were connected by wires to a liquid-crystal display.

When pressure was applied to the generator, it was able to produce up to a quarter of the voltage of a common battery. This was enough current to flash the number "1" on the display.

This isn't much, but Dr Lee said he was hopeful of improving on the "proof-of-principle" device.

The researchers claim their advance could help lead to tiny devices that harvest electrical energy from the vibrations of everyday tasks such as shutting a door or climbing stairs.

One of our most loyal fans Scott Ryan found this story.