Astronomy Cast Ep. 465: Exploiting Interfering Light

Electromagnetic radiation, also known as “light” is pretty handy for astronomers. They can use it to directly and indirectly observe stars, nebula, planets and more. But as you probably know, light can act like a wave, creating interference patterns tto teach us even more about the Universe.

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Could Space Travelers Melt As They Accelerate Through Deep Space?

Forty years ago, Canadian physicist Bill Unruh made a surprising prediction regarding quantum field theory. Known as the Unruh effect, his theory predicted that an accelerating observer would be bathed in blackbody radiation, whereas an inertial observer would be exposed to none. What better way to mark the 40th anniversary of this theory than to consider how it could affect human beings attempting relativistic space travel?

Such was the intent behind a new study by a team of researchers from Sao Paulo, Brazil. In essence, they consider how the Unruh effect could be confirmed using a simple experiment that relies on existing technology. Not only would this experiment prove once and for all if the Unruh effect is real, it could also help us plan for the day when interstellar travel becomes a reality.

To put it in layman’s terms, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity states that time and space are dependent upon the inertial reference frame of the observer. Consistent with this is the theory that if an observer is traveling at a constant speed through empty vacuum, they will find that the temperature of said vacuum is absolute zero. But if they were to begin to accelerate, the temperature of the empty space would become hotter.

According to the theory of the Unruh effect, accelerating particles are subject to increased radiation. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

This is what William Unruh – a theorist from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver – asserted in 1976. According to his theory, an observer accelerating through space would be subject to a “thermal bath” – i.e. photons and other particles – which would intensify the more they accelerated. Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to measure this effect, since no spacecraft exists that can achieve the kind of speeds necessary.

For the sake of their study – which was recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters under the title “Virtual observation of the Unruh effect” – the research team proposed a simple experiment to test for the Unruh effect. Led by Gabriel Cozzella of the Institute of Theoretical Physics (IFT) at Sao Paulo State University, they claim that this experiment would settle the issue by measuring an already-understood electromagnetic phenomenon.

Essentially, they argue that it would be possible to detect the Unruh effect by measuring what is known as Larmor radiation. This refers to the electromagnetic energy that is radiated away from charged particles (such as electrons, protons or ions) when they accelerate. As they state in their study:

“A more promising strategy consists of seeking for fingerprints of the Unruh effect in the radiation emitted by accelerated charges. Accelerated charges should back react due to radiation emission, quivering accordingly. Such a quivering would be naturally interpreted by Rindler observers as a consequence of the charge interaction with the photons of the Unruh thermal bath.”

Diagram of the experiment to test the Unruh effect, where electrons are injected into a magnetic field and subjected to lateral and vertical pulls. Credit: Cozzella, Gabriel (et al.)

As they describe in their paper, this would consist of monitoring the light emitted by electrons within two separate reference frames. In the first, known as the “accelerating frame”, electrons are fired laterally across a magnetic field, which would cause the electrons to move in a circular pattern. In the second, the “laboratory frame”, a vertical field is applied to accelerate the electrons upwards, causing them to follow a corkscrew-like path.

In the accelerating frame, Cozzella and his colleagues assume that the electrons would encounter the “fog of photons”, where they both radiate and emit them. In the laboratory frame, the electrons would heat up once vertical acceleration was applied, causing them to show an excess of long-wavelength photons. However, this would be dependent on the “fog” existing in the accelerated frame to begin with.

In short, this experiment offers a simple test which could determine whether or not the Unruh effect exists, which is something that has been in dispute ever since it was proposed. One of the beauties of the proposed experiment is that it could be conducted using particle accelerators and electromagnets that are currently available.

On the other side of the debate are those who claim that the Unruh effect is due to a mathematical error made by Unruh and his colleagues. For those individuals, this experiment is useful because it would effectively debunk this theory. Regardless, Cozzella and his team are confident their proposed experiment will yield positive results.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit:

“We have proposed a simple experiment where the presence of the Unruh thermal bath is codified in the Larmor radiation emitted from an accelerated charge,” they state. “Then, we carried out a straightforward classical-electrodynamics calculation (checked by a quantum-field-theory one) to confirm it by ourselves. Unless one challenges classical electrodynamics, our results must be virtually considered as an observation of the Unruh effect.”

If the experiments should prove successful, and the Unruh effect is proven to exist, it would certainly have consequences for any future deep-space missions that rely on advanced propulsion systems. Between Project Starshot, and any proposed mission that would involve sending a crew to another star system, the added effects of a “fog of photons” and a “thermal bath” will need to be factored in.

Further Reading: arXiv, ScienceMag

Protecting Juno’s Heart

Juno computer generated image. NASA/JPL-CalTech

Each new probe we launch into space follows a finely-tuned, predetermined trajectory that opens up a new avenue of understanding into our solar system and our universe. The results from each probe shapes the objectives of the next. Each probe is built with maximum science in mind, and is designed to answer crucial questions and build our understanding of astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, and planetary studies.

The Juno probe is no different. When it arrives at Jupiter in July 2016, it will begin working on a checklist of scientific questions about Jupiter.

But there’s a problem.

upiter's structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)
Jupiter’s structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)

Jupiter is enormous. And at it’s heart is a chunk of ice and rock, or so we think. Surrounding that is an enormous region of liquid metallic hydrogen. This core is 10 to 20 times as massive as Earth’s, and it’s rotating. As it rotates, it generates a powerful magnetic field that draws in particles from the sun, then whips them into a near-light-speed frenzy. This whirlwind of radiation devastates anything that gets too close.

Enter the tiny Juno spacecraft, about the size of a bus. Juno has to get close to Jupiter to do its work—within 5,000km (3,100 miles) above the cloud tops—and though it’s designed to weave its way carefully past Jupiter’s most dangerous radiation fields, its orbits will still expose it to the paper-shredder effect of those fields. There’s no way around it.

Juno Project Scientist Steve Levin, and Dave Stevenson from Caltech explain Juno’s orbiting pattern in this short video:

The most vulnerable part of Juno is the sensitive electronics that are the heart and brains of the spacecraft. Jupiter’s extreme radiation would quickly destroy Juno’s sensitive systems, and the Juno designers had to come up with a way to protect those components while Juno does its work. The solution? The titanium vault.

Technician's install Juno's titanium vault. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS)
Technician’s install Juno’s titanium vault. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS)

All kinds of materials and methods have been employed to protect spacecraft electronics, but this is the first time that titanium has been tried. Titanium is renowned for its light weight and its strength. It’s used in all kinds of demanding manufacturing applications here on Earth.

The titanium vault won’t protect Juno’s heart forever. In fact, some of the components are not expected to last the length of the mission. The radiation will slowly degrade the titanium, as high velocity particles punch microscopic holes in it. Bit by bit, radiation will perforate the vault, and the electronics within will be exposed. And as the electronic systems stop functioning, one by one, Juno will slowly become brain-dead, before plunging purposefully into Jupiter.

But Juno won’t die in vain. It will answer important questions about Jupiter’s core, atmospheric composition, planetary evolution, magnetosphere, polar auroras, gravitational field, and more. The spacecraft’s onboard camera, the Junocam, also promises to capture stunning images of Jupiter. But beyond all that, Juno—and its titanium vault—will show us how good we are at protecting spacecraft from extreme radiation.

Juno is still over 160 million km (100 million miles) from Jupiter and is fully functional. Once it arrives, it will insert itself into orbit and begin to do its job. How well it can do its job, and for how long, will depend on how effectively the titanium vault shields Juno’s heart.

Radio Waves

Radio waves are electromagnetic waves, or electromagnetic radiation, with wavelengths of about a centimeter or longer (the boundary is rather fuzzy; microwaves and terahertz radiation are sometimes considered to be radio waves; these have wavelengths as short as a tenth of a millimeter or so). In other words, radio waves are electromagnetic radiation at the lowest energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Radio waves were predicted two decades or so before they were generated and detected; in fact, the historical story is one of the great triumphs of modern science.

Many years – centuries even – of work on electrical and magnetic phenomena, by many scientists, culminated in the work of James Clerk Maxwell. In 1865 he published a set of equations which describe everything known about electricity and magnetism (electromagnetism) up till that time (the next major advance was the work of Planck and Einstein – among others – some four decades or so later, involving the discovery of photons, or quantized electromagnetic radiation). Maxwell’s equations, as they are now called, predicted that there should be a kind of wave of interacting electrical and magnetic fields, which is self-propagating, and which travels at the speed of light.

In 1887, Heinrich Hertz created radio waves in his lab, and detected them after they’d travelled a short distance … exactly as Maxwell had predicted! It wasn’t long before practical applications of this discovery were developed, leading to satellite TV, cell phones, GPS, radar, wireless home networks, and much, much, more.

For Universe Today readers, the discovery of radio waves lead to radio astronomy. Interestingly, theory again preceded observation … several scientists – Planck among them – predicted that the Sun should emit radio waves (be a source of radio waves), but the Sun’s radio emission was not detected until 1942 (by Hey, in England), nearly a decade after celestial radio waves were detected and studied, by Jansky (and Reber, among others).

Here are some other webpages, or websites, with more on radio waves: Radio Waves (NASA), How Radio Waves Are Produced (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), and Radio Waves & Electromagnetic Fields (an interactive simulation from the University of Colorado).

Universe Today stories on radio waves? Sure! Device Makes Radio Waves Travel Faster Than Light, Magnetar Crackles with Radio Waves, and All-Sky Radio Image in 60 Seconds, No Moving Parts. And that’s just a sample.

Astronomy Cast episodes covering radio waves? Sure! Radio Astronomy, and Across the Electromagnetic Spectrum are two particularly good ones.


Gamma Waves

“Gamma wave” is not, strictly speaking, a standard scientific term … at least not in physics, and this is rather curious (the standard physics term is “gamma ray”).

The part of the electromagnetic spectrum ‘to the left’ (high energy/short wavelength/high frequency) is called the gamma ray region; the word ‘ray’ was in common use at the time of the discovery of this form of radiation (‘cathode rays’, ‘x-rays’, and so on); by the time it was discovered that gamma rays (and x-rays) are electromagnetic radiation (and that cathode rays, beta radiation, and alpha radiation, is not), the word ‘ray’ was well-entrenched. On the other hand, radio waves were discovered as a result of a new theory of electromagnetism … Maxwell’s equations predict the existence of electromagnetic waves (and that’s exactly what Hertz discovered, in 1886).

Paul Villard is credited with having discovered gamma radiation, in 1900, though it was Rutherford who gave them the name “gamma rays”, in 1903 (Rutherford had discovered alpha and beta rays in 1899). So when, and how, was it discovered that gamma rays are, in fact, gamma waves (just like radio waves, only with much, much, much shorter wavelengths)? In 1914; Ernest Rutherford and Edward Andrade used crystal diffraction to measure the wavelength of gamma rays emitted by Radium B (which is the radioactive isotope of lead, 214Pb) and Radium C (which is the radioactive isotope of bismuth, 214Bi).

We usually think of electromagnetic radiation in terms of photons, a term which arises from quantum physics; for astronomy (which is almost entirely based on electromagnetic radiation/photons), however, instruments and detectors are nearly always more easily understood in terms of whether they detect waves (e.g. radio receivers) or particles (e.g. scintillators). In gamma ray astronomy, in all instruments used to date, the particle nature of gamma rays is key (for direct detection anyway; Cherenkov telescopes work quite differently!). Can the circle be closed? Is it possible to use crystal diffraction (or something similar) – as Rutherford and Andrade did – and the wave nature of gamma rays, to build gamma ray astronomical instruments? Yes … and the next generation of gamma ray observatories might include just such instruments!

NASA has some good background material on gamma rays as electromagnetic radiation, and gamma ray astronomy: for example, Gamma Rays, and Electromagnetic Spectrum.

Universe Today has a few stories related to the wave nature of gamma rays; for example INTEGRAL Dissects Super-Bright Gamma Ray Burst, and Watching Gamma Rays from the Safety of Earth. Here’s some information on alpha radiation.

Astronomy Cast episodes Gamma Ray Astronomy, Detectors, and Electromagnetism give good background too.