Astronomers Have Tracked Down the Source of High Energy Cosmic Rays to Regions Within the Milky Way Itself

This image of the supernova remnant SN 1987A was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in January 2017 using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Since its launch in 1990 Hubble has observed the expanding dust cloud of SN 1987A several times has helped astronomers get a better understanding of these cosmic explosions. Supernova 1987A is located in the centre of the image amidst a backdrop of stars. The bright ring around the central region of the exploded star is material ejected by the star about 20 000 years before the actual explosion took place. The supernova is surrounded by gaseous clouds. The clouds’ red colour represents the glow of hydrogen gas. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Using a new observatory, a team of Chinese astronomers have found over a dozen sources of ultra-high energy cosmic rays. And those sources aren’t from some distant, exotic corner of the cosmos. They come from our own backyard.

Continue reading “Astronomers Have Tracked Down the Source of High Energy Cosmic Rays to Regions Within the Milky Way Itself”

The Universe is Constantly Bathing you in Radiation. Incredibly, This Could be Used for Medical Diagnosis

Walk into any modern hospital, and you’ll find a medical imaging department. Medical imaging uses x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other arcane-sounding methods like positron emission tomography (PET) to image the body’s interior for analysis and diagnosis. To a non-specialist, these techniques can sound almost otherwordly. But in one way or another, these technologies rely on natural phenomena, including radiation, to do their thing.

Now a new study suggests that the Universe’s naturally occurring radiation could be used in medical imaging and could be particularly useful when it comes to COVID-19. The type of radiation in question is cosmic rays.

Continue reading “The Universe is Constantly Bathing you in Radiation. Incredibly, This Could be Used for Medical Diagnosis”

Balloon-Based Cosmic Ray Observatory is Now on its Second Trip Around Antarctica

In 2012, the balloon-borne observatory known as the Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (SuperTIGER) took to the skies to conduct high-altitude observations of Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs). Carrying on in the tradition of its predecessor (TIGER), SuperTiger set a new record after completing a 55-day flight over Antarctica – which happened between December of 2012 and January of 2013.

On December 16th, 2019, after multiple launch attempts, the observatory took to the air again and passed over Antarctica twice in the space of just three and a half weeks. Like its predecessor, SuperTIGER is a collaborative effort designed to study cosmic rays – high-energy protons and atomic nuclei – that originate outside of our Solar System and travel through space at close to the speed of light.

Continue reading “Balloon-Based Cosmic Ray Observatory is Now on its Second Trip Around Antarctica”

When it Comes to Gamma Radiation, the Moon is Actually Brighter Than the Sun

The eerie, hellish glow coming from the Moon may seem unreal in this image, since it’s invisible to our eyes. But instruments that detect gamma rays tell us it’s real. More than just a grainy, red picture, it’s a vivid reminder that there’s more going on than meets human eyes.

It’s also a reminder that any humans that visit the Moon need to be protected from this high-energy radiation.

Continue reading “When it Comes to Gamma Radiation, the Moon is Actually Brighter Than the Sun”

Science Laden SpaceX Dragon Set for Aug. 14 ISS Launch, Testfire Inaugurates Triad of August Florida Liftoffs: Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests horizontally at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 13 Aug. 2017 while being processed for liftoff of the Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 14 Aug. 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A triad of August liftoffs from the Florida Space Coast inaugurates Monday, Aug. 14 with a science laden commercial SpaceX Dragon bound for the International Space Station (ISS) – loaded with over 3 tons of NASA science, hardware and supplies including a cosmic ray detector, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease and lung tissue, vegetable seeds, mice and much more, following a successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 booster on Thursday.

“Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test at 9:10 a.m. EDT, Aug 10. (1310 GMT) “—targeting August 14 launch from Pad 39A for Dragon’s next resupply mission to the @Space_Station.”

Check out our photos & videos herein of the Aug. 10 static first test of the Falcon 9 first stage that paves the path to blastoff – as witnessed live by Ken Kremer and Jeff Seibert.

The triple headed sunshine state space spectacular kicks off with Monday’s lunchtime launch of the next unmanned SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter to the ISS from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, now targeted for Aug. 14 at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

The closely spaced trio of space launches marches forward barely 4 days later with liftoff of NASA’s amazingly insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat slated for Friday morning Aug. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Lastly, a week after TDRS-M and just 11 days after the SpaceX Dragon an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket is due to blastoff just before midnight Aug. 25 and carry the ORS 5 mission to orbit for the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program. The Minotaur IV utilizes three stages from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs formerly aimed at the Russians.

Of course getting 3 rockets off the ground from 3 different companies is all highly dependent on Florida’s hugely fickle hurricane season weather and the ever present reality of potential technical glitches, errant boaters and more – possibly resulting in a domino effect of cascading launch scrubs.

And sandwiched in between the Florida Space Coast blastoffs is the Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ on Monday, Aug. 21 – for the first time in 99 years!

Although KSC and central Florida are not within the path of totality, the sun will still be about 85% obscured by the Moon.

So if you’re looking for bang for the space buck, the next two weeks have a lot to offer space and astronomy enthusiasts.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Watch this video of the Aug. 10 static hotfire test:

Video Caption: Hot fire test of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for it launching the NASA CRS-12 Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex. 20 mice are also onboard. This will support dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-12 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning noon on Aug. 14 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.

SpaceX will also offer their own live webcast beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch at about 12:16 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at –

You can also watch the launch live at SpaceX hosted Webcast at –

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Tuesday, Aug. 15 with NASA TV coverage starting about 11:30 a.m. EDT.

The weather looks decent at this time with a 70% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 14 are cumulus clouds and the potential for precipitation in the flight path.

The odds remain at 70% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 15.

Everything is currently on track for Monday’s noontime launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the NASA contracted SpaceX CRS-12 resupply mission to the million pound orbiting lab complex.

However since the launch window is instantaneous there is no margin for error. In case any delays arise during the countdown due to technical or weather issues a 24 hour scrub to Tuesday will result.

The lunchtime launch coincidently offers a convenient and spectacular opportunity for fun for the whole family as space enthusiasts flock in from around the globe.

Plus SpaceX will attempt a land landing of the 156 foot tall first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 some 8 minutes after liftoff – thus a double whammy of space action !!– punctuated by multiple loud sonic booms at booster landing time that will figuratively knock your socks off.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/

To date SpaceX has successfully recovered 13 boosters; 5 by land and 8 by sea, over the past 18 months. It’s a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the high cost of access to space.

The recent BulgariaSat-1 and Iridium-2 missions counted as the eighth and ninth SpaceX launches of 2017.

CRS-12 marks the eleventh SpaceX launch of 2017 and will establish a new single year record.

In contrast to the prior CRS-11 mission which flew a recycled Dragon, the CRS-12 Dragon is newly built.

The CRS-12 Dragon will be the last newly built one, says NASA. The remaining SpaceX CRS mission will utilize reused spaceships.

The Falcon 9 is also new and will attempt a land landing back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1).

If the Aug. 14 launch occurs as scheduled, the Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later and deploy its life giving solar arrays. Dragon then begins a 2 day orbital chase of the station via a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that bring the commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with the space station on Aug. 16.

Dragon will be grappled with the station’s Canadian built robotic arm at approximately 7 a.m. EDT on Aug. 16 by astronauts Jack Fischer of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency). It then will be installed on the Harmony module.

The Dragon spacecraft will spend approximately one month attached to the space station, returning to Earth in mid-September with results of earlier experiments.

Dragon CRS-12 is SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ships launched on Feb 19 and June 3, 2017 on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 missions to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

Cargo Manifest for CRS-12:

TOTAL CARGO: 6415.4 lbs. / 2910 kg

• Science Investigations 2019.4 lbs. / 916 kg
• Crew Supplies 485 lbs. / 220 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 747.4 lbs. / 339 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 66.1 lbs. / 30 kg
• Computer Resources 116.8 lbs. / 53 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg
• Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg

The CREAM instrument from the University of Maryland will be stowed for launch inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. Astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to pluck it from the trunk and attach it to the exposed porch of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Here is a NASA description of CREAM:

The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument, attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, measures the charges of cosmic rays ranging from hydrogen to iron nuclei. The data collected from the CREAM instrument will be used to address fundamental science questions on the origins and history of cosmic rays. CREAM’s three-year mission will help the scientific community build a stronger understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe.

The LRRK2 experiment seeks to grow larger crystals of the protein to investigate Parkinson’s disease and help develop new therapies:

Here is a NASA description of LRRK2:

Crystallization of Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) under Microgravity Conditions (CASIS PCG 7) will use the orbiting laboratory’s microgravity environment to grow larger versions of this important protein, implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, researchers will look to take advantage of the station’s microgravity environment which allows protein crystals to grow larger and in more perfect shapes than earth-grown crystals, allowing them to be better analyzed on Earth. Defining the exact shape and morphology of LRRK2 would help scientists to better understand the pathology of Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies against this target.

Watch this Michael J. Fox video describing the LRRK2 crystallization experiment:

Video Caption: ISS National Lab SpaceX CRS-12 Payload Overview: Michael J. Fox Foundation. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is sending an experiment to the ISS National Lab to investigate the LRRK2 protein, a key target in identifying the makeup of Parkinson’s disease.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 12-14: “SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply vessel atop Falcon 9 rocket and delivering 3 tons of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Liftoff occurred 3 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Cancer Risk for a Human Mars Mission Just Got a Lot Worse

Astronauts hoping to take part in a crewed mission to Mars might want to pack some additional rad tablets! Long before NASA announced their proposal for a “Journey to Mars“, which envisions putting boots on the Red Planet by the 2030s, mission planners have been aware that one of the greatest risks for such a mission has to do with the threat posed by cosmic and solar radiation.

But according to a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this threat is even worse than previously thought. Using a predictive model, this study indicates that astronauts that are the surface of Mars for extended periods of time could experience cell damage from cosmic rays, and that this damage will extend to other healthy cells – effectively doubling the risk of cancer!

The study, which was led by UNLV scientist Dr. Francis Cucinotta, was published in the May issue of Scientific Reports – under the title of Non-Targeted Effects Models Predict Significantly Higher Mars Mission Cancer Risk than Targeted Effects Models“. Building on conventional models that predict that DNA damage caused by radiation leads to cancer, their model looked at how such damage could spread throughout the body.

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

Galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) are one of the greatest hazards posed by space exploration. These particles, which originate from beyond our Solar System, are basically atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their surrounding electrons, thanks to their high-speed journey through space. In the cases of iron and titanium atoms, these have been known to cause heavy damage to cells because of their very high rates of ionization.

Here on Earth, we are protected from these rays and other sources of radiation thanks to our protective magnetosphere. But with missions that would take astronauts well beyond Earth, they become a much greater threat. And given the long-term nature of a mission to Mars, mitigation procedures and shielding are being investigated quite thoroughly. As Cucinotta explained in a UNLV press statement:

“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable. Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”

Previous studies have indicated that the effects of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays include cancer, central nervous system effects, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes. However, until now, the damage these rays cause was thought to be confined to those cells that they actually traverse – which was based on models that deal with the targeted effects of radiation. 

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

For the sake of their study, Dr. Cucinotta and Dr. Eliedonna Cacao (a Chemical Engineer at UNLV) consulted the mouse Harderian gland tumor experiment. This is the only extensive data-set to date that deals with the non-targeted effects (NTEs) of radiation for a variety of particles. Using this model, they tracked the effects of chronic exposure to GCRs, and determined that the risks would be twice as high as those predicted by targeted effects models.

“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” Cucinotta explained. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”

Naturally, any indication that there could be an elevated risk calls for additional research. As Cucinotta and Cacao indicated in their study, “The scarcity of data with animal models for tissues that dominate human radiation cancer risk, including lung, colon, breast, liver, and stomach, suggest that studies of NTEs in other tissues are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere.”

These studies will of course need to happen before any long-term space missions are mounted beyond Earth’s magnetosphere. In addition, the findings also raise undeniable ethical issues, such as whether or not these risks could (or should) be waived by space agencies and astronauts. If in fact we cannot mitigate or protect against the hazards associated with long-term missions, is it even right to ask or allow astronauts to take part in them?

In the meantime, NASA may want to have another look at the mission components for the Journey to Mars, and maybe contemplate adding an additional layer or two of lead shielding. Better to be prepared for the worst, right?

Further Reading: UNLV, Nature

Space Station-Based Experiment Might Have Found Evidence of Dark Matter Destroying Itself

Since it was first proposed in the 1960s to account for all the “missing mass” in the Universe, scientists have been trying to find evidence of dark matter. This mysterious, invisible mass theoretically accounts for 26.8% of the baryonic matter (aka. visible matter) out there. And yet, despite almost fifty years of ongoing research and exploration, scientists have not found any direct evidence of this missing mass.

However, according to two new research papers that were recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters, we may have gotten our first glimpse of dark matter thanks to an experiment aboard the International Space Station. Known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), this a state-of-the-art particle physics detector has been recording cosmic rays since 2011 – which some theorize are produced by the annihilation of dark matter particles.

Like its predecessor (the AMS), the AMS-02 is the result of collaborative work and testing by an international team composed of 56 institutes from 16 countries. With sponsorship from the US Department of Energy (DOE) and overseen by the Johnson Space Center’s AMS Project Office, the AMS-02 was delivered to the ISS aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on May 16th, 2011.

Artist’s impression of the AMS-02 instrument. Credit: NASA/JSC

Ostensibly, the AMS-02 is designed to monitor cosmic rays to see how much in the way of antiprotons are falling to Earth. But for the sake of their research, the two science teams also been consulted the data it has been collecting to test theories about dark matter. To break it down, the WIMPs theory of dark matter states that it is made up of Weakly-Interacted Massive Particles (WIMPS), protons and antiprotons are the result of WIMPs colliding.

By monitoring the number of antiprotons that interact with the AMS-02, two science teams (who were working independently of each other) hoped to infer whether or not any of the antiprotons being detected could be caused by WIMP collisions. The difficulty in this, however, is knowing what would constitute an indication, as cosmic rays have many sources and the properties of WIMPs are not entirely defined.

To do this, the two teams developed mathematical models to predict the cosmic ray background, and thus isolate the number of antiprotons that AMS-02 would detect. They further incorporated fine-tuned estimates of the expected mass of the WIMPs, until it fit with the AMS-02 data. One team, led by Alessandro Cuoco, was made up of researchers from the Institute for Theoretical Particle Physics and Cosmology.

Using computer simulations, Cuoco and his colleagues examined the AMS-02 data based on two scenarios – one which accounted for dark matter and one which did not. As they indicate in their study, they not only concluded that the presence of antiprotons created by WIMP collisions better fit the data, but they were also able to constrain the mass of dark matter to about 80 GeV (about 85 times the mass of a single proton or antiproton).

According to supersymmetry, dark-matter particles known as WIMPs annihilate each other, creating a cascade of particles and radiation. Credit: Sky & Telescope / Gregg Dinderman.

As they state in their paper:

“[T]he very accurate recent measurement of the CR antiproton flux by the AMS-02 experiment allows [us] to achieve unprecedented sensitivity to possible DM signals, a factor ~4 stronger than the limits from gamma-ray observations of dwarf galaxies. Further, we find an intriguing indication for a DM signal in the antiproton flux, compatible with the DM interpretation of the Galactic center gamma-ray excess.”

The other team was made up of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Nanjing University, the University of Science and Technology of China, and the National Center for Theoretical Sciences. Led by Ming-Yang Cui of Nanjing University, this team made estimates of the background parameters for cosmic rays by using prior data from previous boron-to-carbon ratio and proton measurements.

These measurements, which determine the rate at which boron decays into carbon, can be used to guage the distance that boron molecules travel through space. In this case, they were combined with proton measurements to determine background levels for cosmic rays. They incorporated this data into a Bayesian Analysis framework (i.e. a statistical model used to determine probabilities) to see how many antiprotons could be attributed to WIMP collisions.

The results, as they state it in their paper were quite favorable and produced similar mass estimates to the study led by Cuoco’s team. “Compared with the astrophysical background only hypothesis, we find that a dark matter signal is favored,” they write. “The rest mass of the dark matter particles is ?20 – 80 GeV.”


The AMS being delivered to the ISS by the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2011. Credit: NASA

What’s more, both scientific teams obtained similar estimates when it came to cross-section measurements of dark matter – i.e. the likelihood of collisions happening based on how densely dark matter is distributed. For example, Cuoco’s team obtained a cross-section estimate of 3 x 10-26 per cm³ while Cui’s team obtained an estimate that ranged from 0.2 5 × 10-26 per cm³.

The fact that two scientific teams, which were operating independently of each other, came to very similar conclusions based on the same data is highly encouraging. While it is not definitive proof of dark matter, it is certainly a step in the right direction. At best, it shows that we are getting closer to creating a detailed picture of what dark matter looks like.

And in the meantime, both teams acknowledge that further work is necessary. Cuoco and his team also suggest what further steps should be taken. “Confirmation of the signal will require a more accurate study of the systematic uncertainties,” they write, “i.e., the antiproton production cross-section, and the modeling of the effect of solar modulation.”

While scientists have attempted to find evidence of dark matter by monitoring cosmic rays in the past, the AMS-02 stands apart because of its extreme sensitivity. As of May 8th, the spectrometer has conducted measurements on 100 billion particles. As of the penning of this article, that number has increased to over 100,523,550,000!

Further Reading: PBS Nova Next, Ars Technica, Physical Review Letters, (2)

Colonizing the Inner Solar System

Colonizing The Inner Solar System

Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.

This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.

This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX.  In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.

At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.

But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.

Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000.  Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.

Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.

If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.

And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.

The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.

One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.

We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.

We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.

We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.

Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.

With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.

But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.

High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.

Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.

It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.

With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.

Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.

So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.

Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.

Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.

In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.

One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.

Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.

Artist's concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center

Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.

So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?

The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.

Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.

Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.

Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.

Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.

However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.

But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.

As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.

One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.

A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.

Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.

Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.

Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.

By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.

When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.

Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.

The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.

But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.

But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.

Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA's Johnson Space Center
Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.

Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.

The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.

We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.

One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.

These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.

The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.

And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.

These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.

There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.

Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.

The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.

The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA
The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA

Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.

Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.

Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.

Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.

The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.

That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.

Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. The explorers have descended to the surface of Phobos in a small "excursion" vehicle, and they are navigating with the aid of a personal spacecraft, which fires a line into the soil to anchor the unit. The astronaut on the right is examining a large boulder; if the boulder weighed 1,000 pounds on Earth, it would weigh a mere pound in the nearly absent gravity field of Phobos. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)
Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.

We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.

According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.

Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.

What is Carbon Dating?

Here on Earth, Carbon is found in the atmosphere, the soil, the oceans, and in every living creature. Carbon 12 – aka. C-12, so-named because it has an atomic weight of 12 – is the most common isotope, but it is by no means the only one. Carbon 14 is another, an isotope of carbon that is produced when Nitrogen (N-14) is bombarded by cosmic radiation.

This process causes a proton to be displaced by a neutron, effectively turning atoms of Nitrogen it into an isotope of carbon – known as”radiocarbon”. It is naturally radioactive and unstable, and will therefore spontaneously decay back into N-14 over  a period of time. This property makes it especially useful in a process known as “radiocarbon dating”, or carbon dating for short.

Origin of Radiocarbon:

Radiocarbon enters the biosphere through natural processes like eating and breathing. Plants and animals absorb both C-12 and C-14 in the course of their natural lifetimes simply by carrying out these basic functions. When they die, they cease to consume them, and the isotope of C-14 begins to revert back to its Nitrogen state at an exponential rate due to its radioactive decay.

Comparing the remaining C-14 of a sample to that expected from atmospheric C-14 allows the age of the sample to be estimated. In addition, scientists know that the half-life of radiocarbon is 5,730 years. This means that it takes a sample of radiocarbon 5,730 years for half of it to decay back into nitrogen.

After about 10 half-lives, the amount of radiocarbon left becomes too minuscule to measure and so this technique isn’t particularly reliable for dating specimens which died more than 60,000 years ago – i.e. during the late Middle Paleolithic (aka. Old Stone Age) period.

History of Development:

Experiments that would eventually lead to carbon dating began in the 1939s, thanks to the efforts of the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. At the time, researchers were attempting to determine if any of the elements common to organic matter had isotopes with half-lives long enough to be of value in biomedical research.

By 1940, the half-life of Carbon 14 was determined, as was the mechanism through which it was created (slow neutrons interacting with Nitrogen in the atmosphere). This contradicted previous work, which held that it was the product of deuterium (H², or heavy hydrogen) and Carbon 13.

A hydrogen atom is made up of one proton and one electron, but its heavy form, called deuterium, also contains a neutron. HDO or heavy water is rare compared to normal drinking water, but being heavier, more likely to stick around when the lighter form vaporizes into space. Credit: NASA/GFSC
A hydrogen atom is made up of one proton and one electron, but its heavy form, called deuterium, also contains a neutron. Credit: NASA/GFSC

During World War II, Willard Libby – a chemist and graduate of Berkeley – read a paper by W. E. Danforth and S. A. Korff (published in 1939) which predicted that C 14 would be created in the atmosphere due to interactions between nitrogen and cosmic rays. From this, Libby came up with the idea of measuring the decay of C 14 as a method of dating organic material.

In 1945, Libby moved to the University of Chicago, where he began the work that would lead to the development of radiocarbon dating. In 1946, he published a paper in which he speculated that C 14 might exist within organic material alongside other carbon isotopes.

After conducting experiments, which measured C-14 in methane derived from sewage samples, Libby and his colleagues were able to demonstrate that organic matter contained radioactive C-14. This was followed by experiments involving wood samples for the tombs of two Egyptian kings, for which the age was known.

Their results proved accurate, with allowances for a small margin of error, and were published in 1949 in the journal Science. In 1960, Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. Since that time, carbon dating has been used in multiple fields of science, and allowed for key transitions in prehistory to be dated.

Diagram showing how radiocarbon dating works. Credit:
Diagram showing how radiocarbon dating works. Credit:

Limits of Carbon Dating:

Carbon dating remains limited for a number of reasons. First, there is the assumption that the ratio of C-12 to C-14 in the atmosphere has remained constant, when in fact, the ratio can be affected by a number of factors. For instance, C-14 production rates in the atmosphere, which in turn are affected by the amount of cosmic rays penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere.

This is itself affected by things like the Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects cosmic rays. Furthermore, precise measurements taken over the last 140 years have shown a steady decay in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. This means there’s been a steady increase in radiocarbon production (which would increase the ratio).

Another limitation is that this technique can only be applied to organic material such as bone, flesh, or wood, and can’t be used to date rocks directly. On top of that, the addition of Carbon 12 will throw off the ration, thus leading to inaccurate assessments of a sample’s age.

This is where anthropogenic factors come into play. Since fossil fuels have no Carbon 14 content, the burning of gasoline, oil, and other hydrocarbons – and in greater and greater quantity over the course of the past century and a half – has diluted the C-14 content of the atmosphere.

On the other hand, atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons during the 1950s and 1960s is likely to have increased the Carbon 14 content of the atmosphere. In fact, research has been conducted which suggests that nuclear tests may have doubled the concentration of C-14 in this time, compared to natural production by cosmic rays.

Nevertheless, it remains the most accurate means of dating the scientific community has discovered so far. Until such time that another method becomes available – and one that produces smaller margins of error – it will remain the method of choice for archeology, paleontology, and other branches of scientific research.

We have written many articles about Carbon Dating for Universe Today. Here’s How Do We Know How Old Everything Is?, How Old is the Universe?, How Old is the Solar System?, How Long has Humans been on Earth?

If you’d like more info on Carbon Dating, check out NASA’s Virtual Dating: Isochron and Radiocarbon – Geology Labs On-line, and here’s a link to USGS Radiometric Dating Page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about How Carbon Dating Works. Here’s Episode 122: How Old is the Universe? and Episode 164: Inside the Atom.


What Causes the Northern Lights?

Have you ever seen the beautiful auroral displays in the high latitudes? These are the Northern and Southern Lights. But what dark physics wizardry is going on to make this happen?

If you live in the high latitudes, like Alaska, or New Zealand, you’ve probably had a chance to see an aurora. Here in Canada, we call them the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis, but the lucky folks in the far southern latitudes see them too. On a good night, you can see flickering sheets of light that dance across the night sky, producing an amazing display of colors. You can see green, red and even yellow and purple ghostly displays.

So what causes the Northern Lights? They’re produced as our planet moves through the chemtrails emanating from the womp-rat sized exhaust ports of Planet X. Originating in the Bush-Cheney administration during a failed co-invasion attempt of the lizard people from the hollow part of the flat earth and aliens from John Carpenter’s THE THING. They cause diabetes, gluten sensitivity, itchy bun noodles and homeopathy and herald the coming of the Grand Nagus of MMA-UFC-ENTJ-LOL-WTF-BBQ. That is, if you believe everything you read on the internet.

Auroras are in fact caused by interactions between energetic particles from the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth is filled with liquid metal, and it rotates inside turning our planet into a giant magnet. Invisible magnetic field lines travel from the Earth’s northern magnetic pole to its southern magnetic pole. This is why compasses point north, they’re following the field lines produced by this giant metallic spinning goo core. Or as I like to call it “The Planetary Shield Generator”, which should not be confused with the giant whirling metallic debris field orbiting the Earth which is our “Alien Invasion Shield”. Which you can learn about in another episode.

So why would we need a Planetary Shield, you might ask? It is because we are perpetually under assault by our great enemy, the Sun. Our Sun is constantly releasing a flurry of energetic particles right at us. These particles are electrically charged and driven to Earth by the Solar Wind. When they encounter the Earth’s magnetic field, they’re forced into a spiral along the magnetic field lines. Eventually they collide with an oxygen or nitrogen atom in the Earth’s atmosphere and release photons of light.

An intense aurora on September 12, 2014 in central Maine. Credit: Mike Taylor
An intense aurora on September 12, 2014 in central Maine. Credit: Mike Taylor

So, thanks to the spinning magnet goo core, our planetary shield converts these particles into beautiful night time displays. Although there can be auroras almost any night in the highest latitudes, we see the most brilliant auroral displays after large flares on the Sun. The most powerful flares blast a hail of particles that’s so intense, auroral displays can be seen at mid and even low-latitudes. It sounds dangerous, but we’re perfectly safe here, beneath our protective atmosphere and magnetic field.

You might be amazed to know that auroral displays can even make sounds. People have reported crackling noises coming from the sky during an aurora. Even though the auroras themselves are at very high altitudes, the particle interactions can happen just a few hundred meters above the ground. People have reported hearing claps and crackles during an aurora, and this has been verified by microphones placed by scientists. If you could get high up into the atmosphere, I’m sure the sounds would be amazing.

The interactions between the Sun and our planet are just another gift we get from the night sky. If you’ve never seen an aurora with your own eyes, you really need to add them to your bucket list. Organize a trip to northern Europe or Alaska and get a chance to see this amazing display of nature.

Have you ever been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights? Tell us a story in the comments below.