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

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

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

Team Creates Negative Effective Mass In The Lab

Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

When it comes to objects and force, Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion are pretty straightforward. Apply force to an object in a specific direction, and the object will move in that direction. And unless there’s something acting against it (like gravity or air pressure) it will keep moving in that direction until something stops it. But when it comes to “negative mass”, the exact opposite is true.

As the name would suggest, the term refers to matter whose mass is opposite that of normal matter. Until a few years ago, negative mass was predominantly a theoretical concept and had only been observed in very specific settings. But according to a recent study by an international team of researchers, they managed to create a fluid with a “negative effective mass” under laboratory conditions for the first time .

To put it in the simplest terms, matter can have a negative mass in the same way that a particle can have a negative charge. When it comes to the Universe that we know and study on a regular basis, one could say that we have encountered only the positive form of mass. In fact, one could say that it is the same situation with matter and antimatter. Theoretical physics tells us both exist, but we only see the one on a regular basis.

. Credit: shock.wsu.edu

As Dr. Michael McNeil Forbes – a Professor at Washington State University, a Fellow at the Institute for Nuclear Theory, and a co-author on the study – explained in a WSU press release:

“That’s what most things that we’re used to do. With negative mass, if you push something, it accelerates toward you. Once you push, it accelerates backwards. It looks like the rubidium hits an invisible wall.”

According to the team’s study, which was recently published in the Physical Review Letters (under the title “Negative-Mass Hydrodynamics in a Spin-Orbit–Coupled Bose-Einstein Condensate“), a negative effective mass can be created by altering the spin-orbit coupling of atoms. Led by Peter Engels – a professor of physics and astronomy at Washington State University – this consisted of using lasers to control the behavior of rubidium atoms.

They began by using a single laser to keep rubidium atoms in a bowl measuring less than 100 microns across. This had the effect of slowing the atoms down and cooling them to just a few degrees above absolute zero, which resulted in the rubidium becoming a Bose-Einstein condensate. Named after Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein (who predicted how their atoms would behave) these types of condensates behaves like a superfluid.

Velocity-distribution data (3 views) for a gas of rubidium atoms, confirming the discovery of a new phase of matter, the Bose–Einstein condensate. Credit: NIST/JILA/CU-Boulder

Basically, this means that their particles move very slowly and behave like waves, but without losing any energy. A second set of lasers was then applied to move the atoms back and forth, effectively changing the way they spin. Prior to the change in their spins, the superfluid had regular mass and breaking the bowl would result in them pushing out and expanding away from their center of mass.

But after the application of the second laser, the rubidium rushed out and accelerated in the opposite direction – consistent with how a negative mass would. This represented a break with previous laboratory experiments, where researchers were unable to get atoms to behave in a way that was consistent with negative mass. But as Forbes explained, the WSU experiment avoided some of the underlying defects encountered by these experiments:

“What’s a first here is the exquisite control we have over the nature of this negative mass, without any other complications. It provides another environment to study a fundamental phenomenon that is very peculiar.”

And while news of this experiment has been met with fanfare and claims to the effect that the researchers had “rewritten the laws of physics”, it is important to emphasize that this research has created a “negative effective mass” – which is fundamentally different from a negative mass.

Artist’s rendering of an outburst on an ultra-magnetic neutron star, also called a magnetar.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

As Sabine Hossenfelder, a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, wrote on her website Backreaction in response to the news:

“Physicists use the preamble ‘effective’ to indicate something that is not fundamental but emergent, and the exact definition of such a term is often a matter of convention. The ‘effective radius’ of a galaxy, for example, is not its radius. The ‘effective nuclear charge’ is not the charge of the nucleus. And the ‘effective negative mass’ – you guessed it – is not a negative mass. The effective mass is merely a handy mathematical quantity to describe the condensate’s behavior.”

In other words, the researchers were able to get atoms to behave as a negative mass, rather than creating one. Nevertheless, their experiment demonstrates the level of control researchers now have when conducting quantum experiments, and also serves to clarify how negative mass behaves in other systems. Basically, physicists can use the results of these kinds of experiments to probe the mysteries of the Universe where experimentation is impossible.

These include what goes on inside neutron stars or what transpires beneath the veil of a event horizon. Perhaps they could even shed some light on questions relating to dark energy.

Further Reading: Physical Review Letters, WSU

How Can We Save The Sun?

Remember the movie Sunshine, where astronomers learn that the Sun is dying? So a plucky team of astronauts take a nuclear bomb to the Sun, and try to jump-start it with a massive explosion. Yeah, there’s so much wrong in that movie that I don’t know where to start. So I just won’t.

Seriously, a nuclear bomb to cure a dying Sun?

Here’s the thing, the Sun is actually dying. It’s just that it’s going to take about another 5 billion years to run of fuel in its core. And when it does, Cillian Murphy won’t be able to restart it with a big nuke.

But the Sun doesn’t have to die so soon. It’s made of the same hydrogen and helium as the much less massive red dwarf stars. And these stars are expected to last for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years.

Is there anything we can do to save the Sun, or jump-start it when it runs out of fuel in the core?

First, let me explain the problem. The Sun is a main sequence star, and it measures 1.4 million kilometers across. Like ogres and onions, the Sun is made of layers.

The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

The innermost layer is the core. That’s the region where the temperature and pressure is so great that atoms of hydrogen are mashed together so tightly they can fuse into helium. This fusion reaction is exothermic, which means that it gives off more energy than it consumes.

The excess energy is released as gamma radiation, which then makes its way through the star and out into space. The radiation pushes outward, and counteracts the inward force of gravity pulling it together. This balance creates the Sun we know and love.

Outside the core, temperatures and pressures drop to the point that fusion can no longer happen. This next region is known as the radiative zone. It’s plenty hot, and the photons of gamma radiation generated in the core of the Sun need to bounce randomly from atom to atom, maybe for hundreds of thousands of years to finally escape. But it’s not hot enough for fusion to happen.

Outside the radiative zone is the convective zone. This is where the material in the Sun is finally cool enough that it can move around like a lava lamp. Hot blobs of plasma pick up enormous heat from the radiative zone, float up to the surface of the Sun, release their heat and then sink down again.

The only fuel the Sun can use for fusion is in the core, which accounts for only 0.8% of the Sun’s volume and 34% of its mass. When it uses up that hydrogen in the core, it’ll blow off its outer layers into space and then shrink down into a white dwarf.

The radiative zone acts like a wall, preventing the mixing convective zone from reaching the solar core.

If the Sun was all convective zone, then this wouldn’t be a problem, it would be able to go on mixing its fuel, using up all its hydrogen instead of this smaller fraction. If the Sun was more like a red dwarf, it could last much longer.

GJ1214b, shown in this artist’s view, is a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Red dwarf stars burn for much longer than our Sun. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

In order to save the Sun, to help it last longer than the 5 billion years it has remaining, we would need some way to stir up the Sun with a gigantic mixing spoon. To get that unburned hydrogen from the radiative and convective zones down into the core.

One idea is that you could crash another star into the Sun. This would deliver fresh fuel, and mix up the Sun’s hydrogen a bit. But it would be a one time thing. You’d need to deliver a steady stream of stars to keep mixing it up. And after a while you would accumulate enough mass to create a supernova. That would be bad.

But another option would be to strip material off the Sun and create red dwarfs. Stars with less than 35% the mass of the Sun are fully convective. Which means that they don’t have a radiative zone. They fully mix all their hydrogen fuel into the core, and can last much longer.

Imagine a future civilization tearing the Sun into 3 separate stars, each of which could then last for hundreds of billions of years, putting out only 1.5% the energy of the Sun. Huddle up for warmth.

But if you want to take this to the extreme, tear the Sun into 13 separate red dwarf stars with only 7.5% the mass of the Sun. These will only put out .015% the light of the Sun, but they’ll sip away at their hydrogen for more than 10 trillion years.

Stick the Earth in the middle and you'd have some very odd sunsets, not to mention orbital dynamics. Created with Universe Sandbox ²
Stick the Earth in the middle and you’d have some very odd sunrises and sunsets, not to mention orbital dynamics. Created with Universe Sandbox ²

But how can you get that hydrogen off the Sun? Lasers, of course. Using a concept known as stellar lifting, you could direct a powerful solar powered laser at a spot on the Sun’s surface. This would heat up the region, and generate a powerful solar wind. The Sun would be blasting its own material into space. Then you could use magnetic fields or gravity to direct the outflows and collect them into other stars. It boggles our imagination, but it would be a routine task for Type III Civilization engineers on star dismantling duty.

So don’t panic that our Sun only has a few billion years of life left. We’ve got options. Mind bendingly complicated, solar system dismantling options. But still… options.

Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?

For generations, human beings have fantasized about the possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life. And with our ongoing research efforts to discover new and exciting extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in distant star systems, the possibility of actually visiting one of these worlds has received a real shot in the arm. Unfortunately, given the astronomical distances involved, not to mention the cost of mounting an expedition, doing so presents numerous significant challenges.

However, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Foundation – an international organization committed to exploration and scientific research –  is determined to mount an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, our closest stellar neighbor, in the coming years. With the backing of such big name sponsors as Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking, his latest initiative (named “Project Starshot“) aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system to search for planets and signs of life.

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