Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have just kicked off the 2017 season. We left Season 2 with LHC providing collisions at the unprecedented energy of 13 TeV (Tera Electron Volts), almost double the collision energy of its Season 1 run that led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Operations for the new season are now re-starting with just a few proton bunches per beam, but the operators who control the most powerful collider in the world will soon increase the number of proton bunches and will also more tightly focus the size of the beams at the interaction points. In a few weeks, over a billion collisions will be produced every second at the heart of the experiments. In this new season, the LHC physicists plan to continue improving their knowledge of known phenomena while also probing the unknown.
Records are made to be broken, as the expression goes, but rarely are records left so thoroughly in the dust. In 2015, stunned astronomers witnessed a cosmic explosion about 200 times more powerful than a typical Supernova event. At its peak intensity, SN 2015L exhibited 570 billion times the luminosity of the Sun. If that statistic does not impress, consider that this luminosity level is approximately 20 times the entire output of the 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. This record breaking blast is thought to be an example of a Superluminous Supernova (or Hypernova), a recently discovered and supremely rare variety of explosion unleashed by certain stars when they die. Scientists are frankly at a loss to explain what sorts of stellar scenarios might be responsible for these types of extreme events.
In 1900, an extraordinary mechanism was found by Greek sponge divers at the bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera, situated between Crete and mainland Greece. Two years later, on May 17, 1902, Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais, discovered that this corroded chunk of metal pulled from the water was a rather fascinating technological artifact. It turned out to be part of the Antikythera Mechanism -- an ancient analog astronomical computer. For many decades, scientific investigation failed to yield much progress. However, research over the last 50 years has begun to reveal its secrets. The machine dates from around the end of the Second Century BC, and is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world. Nothing as complex was to be created by human hands for at least the next 1000 years.
Smaller than stars, but bigger than giant planets, brown dwarfs are too small to sustain the hydrogen fusion process that fuels stars and allows them to remain hot and bright for a long period of time. So after formation, brown dwarfs slowly cool down and contract over time. The contraction usually ends after a few hundred million years, although the cooling is continuous. But sometimes, what is thought to be a brown dwarf is actually a planet -- or at least planet-like. A team at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC has discovered that what astronomers had previously thought was one of the closest brown dwarfs to our own Sun is in reality a Planetary Mass Object.
Continuing on its path through the outer regions of the Solar System, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has now traveled half the distance from Pluto, its storied first target, to 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) that it will fly past on January 1, 2019. The spacecraft reached that milestone on April 3, 2017 when it was 486.19 million miles (782.45 million kilometers) beyond Pluto -- the same distance to MU69. I suppose that when you're making history at 32,000 miles per hour, time moves faster and distances start to shrink.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft is back in contact with Earth after its successful first-ever dive through the narrow gap between the planet Saturn and its rings on April 26, 2017. The spacecraft is in the process of beaming back science and engineering data collected during its passage. With this first dive, Cassini begins the "Grand Finale" of a remarkable mission that started in 1997. During this final chapter, Cassini will loop around Saturn approximately once per week, making a total of 22 dives between the rings and the planet. The spacecraft is now on a trajectory that will eventually plunge it into Saturn's atmosphere -- and end Cassini's mission -- on September 15, 2017.
So what is Dark Energy? Well, the simple answer is that we don't know. It seems to contradict much of our understanding about the way we think the Universe works. The strangeness of Dark Energy is perplexing. It shows us that there is a gap in our knowledge that needs to be filled. But what if there is an alternative explanation for this enigmatic Dark Energy? What if it does not exist at all? That is what a Hungarian-American team of researchers is starting to conclude. They believe that they can explain the observed acceleration of the Universe without the need for Dark Energy. If their findings are upheld, it could have a significant impact on the direction of future research in physics.
A groundbreaking new optical device, developed at New Jersey Institute of Technology's (NJIT) Big Bear Solar Observatory is designed to correct images of the Sun that are distorted by multiple layers of atmospheric turbulence. This next generation adaptive optics device is providing scientists with the most precisely detailed, real-time pictures to date of solar activity occurring across vast stretches of the Sun's surface.
Three decades ago, astronomers spotted one of the brightest exploding stars in more than 400 years. The titanic supernova, called Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), blazed with the power of 100 million suns for several months following its discovery on February 23, 1987. Since that first sighting, SN 1987A has continued to fascinate astronomers with its spectacular light show. Located in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud, it was the nearest supernova explosion observed in hundreds of years and provided the best opportunity yet for astronomers to study the phases before, during, and after the death of a star. Recent data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter-Submillimeter Array (ALMA) indicates that SN 1987A has passed an important threshold as the supernova shock wave blasts through the dense ring of gas initially expelled by the pre-supernova star.
A surprising new class of X-ray pulsating variable stars has been discovered by a team of Villanova University astronomers. New X-ray observations obtained by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory reveal that the star known as "d Cephei," the bright prototype of all Classical Cepheids, is actually a periodic pulsed X-ray source. At a distance of 890 light years away, this star, after which all Cepheids are named, is also one of the closest. Cepheids are among the most astronomically important objects in the Universe, for by measuring the pulsation periods and brightness of Cepheids, astronomers can measure distances to other galaxies.
Astronomers are borrowing principles applied in biology and archaeology to build a family tree of the stars in our galaxy. By studying chemical signatures found in the stars, they are piecing together evolutionary trees looking at how the stars formed and how they are connected to each other. The signatures act as a proxy for DNA sequences. It's akin to chemical tagging of stars and forms the basis of a discipline astronomers refer to as Galactic Archaeology.
The holographic universe, an idea first suggested in the 1990s, is one where all the information that makes up our 3D "reality" (plus time) is contained on a 2D surface. The idea is similar to that of an ordinary hologram on a credit card, where a three dimensional image is encoded on the two dimensional card. A team of UK, Canadian, and Italian theoretical physicists have now provided what is believed to be the first observational evidence that our universe could indeed be a vast and complex hologram. They have found substantial evidence supporting a holographic explanation of the universe -- In fact, as much evidence as currently exists for traditional explanations based on the widely accepted theory of cosmic inflation.
First of all, I must apologize for the deliberately provocative and over-hyped title for this News Item. I got all wrapped-up in the sensationalism surrounding any mention of our new President Trump and I just couldn't resist. FACT #1 - President Trump has been in office for about a month. FACT #2 - Some scientists (including some prominent NASA scientists) are proposing a new definition for "Planet" that would reinstate Pluto as a planet. What I deliberately left out of the title is FACT #3 - The two statements are totally unrelated to each other. But face it -- You are reading this because you fell for a cheap trick referred to as a "Post-Hoc Fallacy," where you as a reader infer a cause and effect for two facts simply because they occurred about the same time and are presented together. But enough of this -- Back to the News Item. If this new definition is accepted by the IAU, then Pluto may once again be a planet.
The nature of dark matter has long been questioned, but the recent discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has renewed interest in the possibility that dark matter could actually consist of primordial black holes in the mass range of 10 to 1000 solar masses. Could dark matter be made of these intermediate-mass black holes that formed at the beginning of the Universe? A recent study takes a new look at this question and concludes... Probably not.
By analyzing the gas motion of an extraordinarily fast moving cosmic cloud in a corner of the Milky Way, astronomers have detected hints of a wandering black hole hidden in the cloud. Millions of lone black holes are believed to be zipping through the Milky Way, although only a few dozen have been found to date.
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