We Have Ignition! Fusion Breakthrough Raises Hopes — and Questions

A color-enhanced image shows the inside of a preamplifier support structure at the National Ignition Facility. (LLNL Photo / Damien Jemison)

For the first time ever, physicists have set off a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that released more energy than what was put into the experiment.

The milestone laser shot took place on Dec. 5 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The fact that there was a net energy gain qualified the shot, in technical terms, as ignition. “Reaching ignition in a controlled fusion experiment is an achievement that has come after more than 60 years of global research, development, engineering and experimentation,” said Jill Hruby, under secretary of energy for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

However, officials acknowledged that it’s still likely to be decades before commercial fusion power becomes a reality. They said the most immediate impact of the breakthrough will be felt in the field of national security and the stewardship of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

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The Technique for Detecting Meteors Could be Used to Find Dark Matter Particles Entering the Atmosphere

A perseid meteor, streaking across the night sky. Image credit: Andreas Möller
A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky, leaving a glowing ionized trail. Image credit: Andreas Möller, licensed under

Researchers from Ohio State University have come up with a novel method to detect dark matter, based on existing meteor-detecting technology. By using ground-based radar to search for ionization trails, similar to those produced by meteors as they streak through the air, they hope to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a super-sized particle detector. The results of experiments using this technique would help researchers to narrow down the range of possible characteristics of dark matter particles.

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Nature’s Ultra-Rare Isotopes Can’t Hide from this New Particle Accelerator

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at the University of Michigan will study rare isotopes that last only fractions of a second. Image Credit: FRIB/University of Michigan.

A new particle accelerator at Michigan State University is producing long-awaited results. It’s called the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and it was completed in January 2022. Researchers have published the first results from the linear accelerator in the journal Physics Review Letters.

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IceCube Senses Neutrinos Streaming From an Active Galaxy 47 Million Light-Years Away

This is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the Messier 77 spiral galaxy. Scientists working with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory detected neutrinos emanating from the galaxy's core. Image Credit: By NASA, ESA & A. van der Hoeven - http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1305/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25328266

Researchers using the IceCube Neutrino Observatory have detected neutrinos emanating from the energetic core of an active galaxy millions of light-years away. Neutrinos are difficult to detect, and finding them originating from the galaxy is a significant development. What does the discovery mean?

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Pulsars are Blasting out Cosmic Rays With a Million Billion Electronvolts

Distant past supernovae could be linked by cosmic ray particles to climate change on Earth and changes in biodiversity. Courtesy: Henrik Svensmark, DTU Space.
Distant past supernovae could be linked by cosmic ray particles to climate change on Earth and changes in biodiversity. Courtesy: Henrik Svensmark, DTU Space.

We are living in an exciting time, where next-generation instruments and improved methods are leading to discoveries in astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science, and cosmology. As we look farther and in greater detail into the cosmos, some of the most enduring mysteries are finally being answered. Of particular interest are cosmic rays, the tiny particles consisting of protons, atomic nuclei, or stray electrons that have been accelerated to near the speed of light. These particles represent a major hazard for astronauts venturing beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field.

At the same time, cosmic rays regularly interact with our atmosphere (producing “showers” of secondary particles) and may have even played a role in the evolution of life on Earth. Due to the way they carry an electric charge, which scrambles their path as they travel through the Milky Way’s magnetic field, astronomers have been hard-pressed to find where cosmic rays originate. But thanks to a new study that examined 12 years of data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, scientists have confirmed that the most powerful originate from shock waves caused by supernova remnants.

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LHC Scientists Find Three Exotic Particles — and Start Hunting for More

Pentaquark structure
The new pentaquark, illustrated here as a pair of standard hadrons loosely bound in a molecule-like structure, is made up of a charm quark and a charm antiquark and an up, a down and a strange quark (CERN Illustration)

Physicists say they’ve found evidence in data from Europe’s Large Hadron Collider for three never-before-seen combinations of quarks, just as the world’s largest particle-smasher is beginning a new round of high-energy experiments.

The three exotic types of particles — which include two four-quark combinations, known as tetraquarks, plus a five-quark unit called a pentaquark — are totally consistent with the Standard Model, the decades-old theory that describes the structure of atoms.

In contrast, scientists hope that the LHC’s current run will turn up evidence of physics that goes beyond the Standard Model to explain the nature of mysterious phenomena such as dark matter. Such evidence could point to new arrays of subatomic particles, or even extra dimensions in our universe.

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The Dream of Faster-than-Light (FTL) Travel: Dr. Harold “Sonny” White and Limitless Space

Ever since astronomers found that Earth and the Solar System are not unique in the cosmos, humanity has dreamed of the day when we might explore nearby stars and settle extrasolar planets. Unfortunately, the laws of physics impose strict limitations on how fast things can travel in our Universe, otherwise known as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Per this theory, the speed of light is constant and absolute, and objects approaching it will experience an increase in their inertial mass (thereby requiring more mass to accelerate further).

While no object can ever reach or exceed the speed of light, there may be a loophole that allows for Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel. It’s known as the Alcubierre Warp Metric, which describes a warp field that contracts spacetime in front of a spacecraft and expands it behind. This would allow the spacecraft to effectively travel faster than the speed of light while not violating Relativity or causality. For more than a decade, Dr. Harold “Sonny” White has been investigating this theory in the hopes of bringing it closer to reality.

Previously, Dr. White pursued the development of an Alcubierre Warp Drive with his colleagues at the Advanced Propulsion Physics Research Laboratory (NASA Eagleworks) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In 2020, he began working with engineers and scientists at the Limitless Space Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, outreach, research grants, and the development of advanced propulsion methods – which they hope will culminate in the creation of the first warp drive!

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Why Believing in the Multiverse Isn’t Madness

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness"
Doctor Strange is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." (Marvel Entertainment)

What is the multiverse? The idea that the universe we inhabit is just one of many parallel universes gets a superhero shout-out in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the latest movie based on Marvel comic-book characters.

And in the opinion of Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, giving some screen time to the multiverse isn’t such a bad thing — even if the plot has some horror-movie twists.

“I think it’s really good if some of these ideas are brought out in a variety of different ways,” Greene says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the realm where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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Large Hadron Collider Restarts, Shooting Protons at Record Energy Levels

LHC tunnel
A ring of magnets runs through the Large Hadron Collider's 17-mile-round (27-kilometer-round) tunnel. (CERN Photo / Samuel Joseph Herzog)

Europe’s Large Hadron Collider has started up its proton beams again at unprecedented energy levels after going through a three-year shutdown for maintenance and upgrades.

It only took a couple of days of tweaking for the pilot streams of protons to reach a record energy level of 6.8 tera electronvolts, or TeV. That exceeds the previous record of 6.5 TeV, which was set by the LHC in 2015 at the start of the particle collider’s second run.

The new level comes “very close to the design energy of the LHC, which is 7 TeV,” Jörg Wenninger, head of the LHC beam operation section and LHC machine coordinator at CERN, said today in a video announcing the milestone.

When the collider at the French-Swiss border resumes honest-to-goodness science operations, probably within a few months, the international LHC team plans to address mysteries that could send theories of physics in new directions.

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Weird! Measurement of W Boson Doesn’t Match Standard Model of Physics

CDF at Fermilab
The Collider Detector at Fermilab recorded high-energy particle collisions from 1985 to 2011. (Fermilab Photo)

A decade ago, physicists wondered whether the discovery of the Higgs boson at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider would point to a new frontier beyond the Standard Model of subatomic particles. So far, that’s not been the case — but a new measurement of a different kind of boson at a different particle collider might do the trick.

That’s the upshot of fresh findings from the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, one of the main experiments that made use of the Tevatron particle collider at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab in Illinois. It’s not yet time to throw out the physics textbooks, but scientists around the world are scratching their heads over the CDF team’s newly reported value for the mass of the W boson.

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