Star Formation Simulated in the lab, Using Lasers, of Course

Illustration of the evolution of a massive cloud which indicates the importance of SNR propagation in forming new stars. CREDIT: Albertazzi et al.

The vacuum of space isn’t really a vacuum. A vacuum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a space absolutely devoid of matter.” However, even empty space has some matter in it. This matter, in the form of dust and gas, tends to collect into what are called molecular clouds. Without anything interfering with them they continue to float as a cloud.

When something happens to interrupt the balance of the molecular cloud, some of that dust and gas starts clumping together. As more and more of this dust and gas clump together gravity takes over and starts forming stars. One way that the balance of a molecular cloud can be interfered with is by a supernova remnant, the remains of an exploded star. Plasma jets, radiation, and other clouds can also interact with these clouds.

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Lasers Recreate the Conditions Inside Galaxy Clusters

Galaxies don’t exist in a vacuum. Ok, maybe they do (mostly, since even interstellar space has some matter in it). But galaxies aren’t normally solitary objects. Multiple galaxies interacting gravitationally can form clusters. These clusters can interact with each other, forming superclusters. Our own galaxy is part of a group of galaxies called the Local Group. This Local Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is in turn a part of a group of superclusters called the Laniakea Supercluster.

Mixed in with all of these galaxies is a lot of heat, with extremely high temperatures comparable to the core of our Sun, around 10 million Kelvin (27 million degrees Fahrenheit). This temperature is so hot that hydrogen atoms cannot exist, and instead of gas a plasma forms of protons and electrons. This is a problem for physicists though, who say it shouldn’t be that hot.

As Gianluca Gregori, a professor of physics at University of Oxford and one author of a new paper detailing an experiment to recreate the conditions inside a galaxy cluster, puts it: “The reason why the gas inside the galaxy cluster should have cooled down is simply due to the fact that the cluster has existed for a very long time (for a time which is comparable to the age of the Universe). So, if we assume thermal conduction works in the normal way, we would have expected the initial hot core to have dissipated its heat by now. But observations shows it has not.”

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Laser-Powered Sails Would be Great for Exploring the Solar System too

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

Between the exponential growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) and missions planned for the Moon in this decade, it’s generally agreed that we are living in the “Space Age 2.0.” Even more ambitious are the proposals to send crewed missions to Mars in the next decade, which would see astronauts traveling beyond the Earth-Moon system for the first time. The challenge this represents has inspired many innovative new ideas for spacecraft, life-support systems, and propulsion.

In particular, missions planners and engineers are investigating Directed Energy (DE) propulsion, where laser arrays are used to accelerate light sails to relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light). In a recent study, a team from UCLA explained how a fleet of tiny probes with light sails could be used to explore the Solar System. These probes would rely on a low-power laser array, thereby being more cost-effective than similar concepts but would be much faster than conventional rockets.

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A Powerful new Laser Will Enhance Adaptive Optics

In some applications, bigger lasers mean better lasers.  That is the case in astronomy, where lasers are used for everything from telescope calibration to satellite communication.  The European Southern Observatory (ESO) and some of its commercial partners have developed a laser 3 times more powerful than the existing industry standard.  With that increased power level, the new system has the potential to dramatically improve the way telescopes deal with one of the most fundamental problems in ground-based astronomy – atmospheric turbulence.

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Forget About Interstellar Flights. Tiny Light Sails Could be Used to Explore the Solar System Today

Solar sails have been receiving a lot of attention lately.  In part that is due to a series of high profile missions that have successfully proven the concept. It’s also in part due to the high profile Breakthrough Starshot project, which is designing a solar sail powered mission to reach Alpha Centauri. But this versatile third propulsion system isn’t only useful for far flung adventures – it has advantages closer to home as well.  A new paper by engineers at UCLA defines what those advantages are, and how we might be able to best utilize them.

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Ground-Based Lasers Could Push Space Debris off Collision-Course Orbits

Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) are finding new uses for the laser-based technology that sharpens telescope imagery – called adaptive optics – and it just might help mitigate the world’s growing space debris problem. Purpose-built lasers could give derelict satellites a slight ‘push’ of photons, imparting just enough energy to change the debris’s orbit and prevent an impending collision.

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New Receiver Will Boost Interplanetary Communication

Illustration of the concept using light signals rather than radio. Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology

If humans want to travel about the solar system, they’ll need to be able to communicate. As we look forward to crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, communication technology will pose a challenge we haven’t faced since the 1970s.

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This Laser Powered Rover Could Stay in the Shadows on the Moon and Continue to Explore

The ESA's Rover Autonomy Testbed being tested at Tenerife. Image Credit: Fernando Gandía/GMV

The craters on the Moon’s poles are in permanent shadow. But they’re also intriguing locations, due to deposits of water ice and other materials. The ESA is developing the idea for a rover that can explore these areas with power provided by lasers.

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The Ant Nebula Actually has Intense Laser Emissions Coming From its Core

From ground-based telescopes, the so-called "ant nebula" (Menzel 3, or Mz 3) resembles the head and thorax of a garden-variety ant. This dramatic NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, showing 10 times more detail, reveals the "ant's" body as a pair of fiery lobes protruding from a dying, Sun-like star. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

When low- to middleweight stars like our Sun approach the end of their life cycles they eventually cast off their outer layers, leaving behind a dense, white dwarf star. These outer layers became a massive cloud of dust and gas, which is characterized by bright colors and intricate patterns, known as a planetary nebula. Someday, our Sun will turn into such a nebula, one which could be viewed from light-years away.

This process, where a dying star gives rise to a massive cloud of dust, was already known to be incredibly beautiful and inspiring thanks to many images taken by Hubble. However, after viewing the famous Ant Nebula with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory, a team of astronomers discovered an unusual laser emission that suggests that there is a double star system at the center of the nebula.

The study, titled “Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey (HerPlaNS): hydrogen recombination laser lines in Mz 3“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Isabel Aleman of the University of São Paulo and the Leiden Observatory, and included members from the Herschel Science Center, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Royal Observatory of Belgium and multiple universities.

The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The Ant Nebula (aka. Mz 3) is a young bipolar planetary nebula located in the constellation Norma, and takes its name from the twin lobes of gas and dust that resemble the head and body of an ant. In the past, this nebula’s beautiful and intricate nature was imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The new data obtained by Herschel also indicates that the Ant Nebula beams intense laser emissions from its core.

In space, infrared laser emissions are detected at very different wavelengths and only under certain conditions, and only a few of these space lasers are known. Interestingly enough, it was astronomer Donald Menzel – who first observed and classified the Ant Nebula in 1920 (hence why it is officially known as Menzel 3 after him) – who was one of the first to suggest that lasers could occur in nebula.

According to Menzel, under certain conditions natural “light amplification by the stimulated emissions of radiation” (aka. where we get the term laser from) would occur in space. This was long before the discovery of lasers in laboratories, an occasion that is celebrated annually on May 16th, known as UNESCO’s International Day of Light. As such, it was highly appropriate that this paper was also published on May 16th, celebrating the development of the laser and its discoverer, Theodore Maiman.

As Isabel Aleman, the lead author of a paper, described the results:

“When we observe Menzel 3, we see an amazingly intricate structure made up of ionized gas, but we cannot see the object in its center producing this pattern. Thanks to the sensitivity and wide wavelength range of the Herschel observatory, we detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination line laser emission, which provided a way to reveal the nebula’s structure and physical conditions.”

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI
Artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

“Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered,” she added.

The kind of laser emission they observed needs very dense gas close to the star. By comparing observations from the Herschel observatory to models of planetary nebula, the team found that the density of the gas emitting the lasers was about ten thousand times denser than the gas seen in typical planetary nebulae, and in the lobes of the Ant Nebula itself.

Normally, the region close to the dead star – in this case, roughly the distance between Saturn and the Sun – is quite empty because its material was ejected outwards after the star went supernova. Any lingering gas would soon fall back onto it. But as Professor Albert Zijlstra, from the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics and a co-author on the study, put it:

“The only way to keep such dense gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a disc. In this nebula, we have actually observed a dense disc in the very center that is seen approximately edge-on. This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal. The disc suggests there is a binary companion, because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction. The laser gives us a unique way to probe the disc around the dying star, deep inside the planetary nebula.”

The planetary nebula Abell 39. According to a new study, our Sun will similarly become a luminous planetary nebula by the end of its life cycle. Credit: WIYN/NOAO/NSF

While astronomers have not yet seen the expected second star, they are hopeful that future surveys will be able to locate it, thus revealing the origin of the Ant Nebula’s mysterious lasers. In so doing, they will be able to connect two discoveries (i.e. planetary nebula and laser) made by the same astronomer over a century ago. As Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel project scientist, added:

“This study suggests that the distinctive Ant Nebula as we see it today was created by the complex nature of a binary star system, which influences the shape, chemical properties, and evolution in these final stages of a star’s life. Herschel offered the perfect observing capabilities to detect this extraordinary laser in the Ant Nebula. The findings will help constrain the conditions under which this phenomenon occurs, and help us to refine our models of stellar evolution. It is also a happy conclusion that the Herschel mission was able to connect together Menzel’s two discoveries from almost a century ago.”

Next-generation space telescopes that could tell us more about planetary nebula and the life-cycles of stars include the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Once this telescope takes to space in 2020, it will use its advanced infrared capabilities to see objects that are otherwise obscured by gas and dust. These studies could reveal much about the interior structures of nebulae, and perhaps shed light on why they periodically shoot out “space lasers”.

Further Reading: University of Manchester, ESA, MNRAS

China Has a Plan to Clean Up Space Junk with Lasers

Artist's impression of a laser removing orbital debris, based on NASA pictures. Credit: Fulvio314/NASA/Wikipedia Commons

Orbital debris (aka. space junk) is one of the greatest problems facing space agencies today. After sixty years of sending rockets, boosters and satellites into space, the situation in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has become rather crowded. Given how fast debris in orbit can travel, even the tiniest bits of junk can pose a major threat to the International Space Station and threaten still-active satellites.

It’s little wonder then why ever major space agency on the planet is committed to monitoring orbital debris and creating countermeasures for it. So far, proposals have ranged from giant magnets and nets and harpoons to lasers. Given their growing presence in space, China is also considering developing giant space-based lasers as a possible means for combating junk in orbit.

One such proposal was made as part of a study titled “Impacts of orbital elements of space-based laser station on small scale space debris removal“, which recently appeared in the scientific journal Optik. The study was led by Quan Wen, a researcher from the Information and Navigation College at China’s Air Force Engineering University, with the help of the Institute of China Electronic Equipment System Engineering Company.

Graphic showing the cloud of space debris that currently surrounds the Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/JSC

For the sake of their study, the team conducted numerical simulations to see if an orbital station with a high-powered pulsed laser could make a dent in orbital debris. Based on their assessments of the velocity and trajectories of space junk, they found that an orbiting laser that had the same Right Ascension of Ascending Node (RAAN) as the debris itself would be effective at removing it. As they state in their paper:

“The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency. It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser.”

This is not the first time that directed-energy has been considered as a possible means of removing space debris. However, the fact that China is investigating directed-energy for the sake of debris removal is an indication of the nation’s growing presence in space. It also seems appropriate since China is considered to be one of the worst offenders when to comes to producing space junk.

Back in 2007, China conducted a anti-satellite missile test that resulted in the creation over 3000 of bits of dangerous debris. This debris cloud was the largest ever tracked, and caused significant damage to a Russian satellite in 2013. Much of this debris will remain in orbit for decades, posing a significant threat to satellites, the ISS and other objects in LEO.

The chip in the ISS’ Cupola window, photographed by astronaut Tim Peake. Credit: ESA/NASA/Tim Peake

Of course, there are those who fear that the deployment of lasers to LEO will mean the militarization of space. In accordance with the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, which was designed to ensure that the space exploration did not become the latest front in the Cold War, all signatories agreed to “not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.”

In the 1980s, China was added to the treaty and is therefore bound to its provisions. But back in March of 2017, US General John Hyten indicated in an interview with CNN that China’s attempts to develop space-based laser arrays constitutes a possible breach of this treaty:

“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret. They’re building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies…We cannot allow that to happen.”

Such concerns are quite common, and represent a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to the use of directed-energy platforms in space. While orbital lasers would be immune to atmospheric interference, thus making them much more effective at removing space debris, they would also lead to fears that these lasers could be turned towards enemy satellites or stations in the event of war.

As always, space is subject to the politics of Earth. At the same time, it also presents opportunities for cooperation and mutual assistance. And since space debris represents a common problem and threatens any and all plans for the exploration of space and the colonization of LEO, cooperative efforts to address it are not only desirable but necessary.

 

Further Reading: Newsweek, Optik