Science & Technology

The Science Dispatches (17/06/18). Mars dust storms threaten Opportunity. Detecting young exoplanets. The LHC gets an upgrade. Positive science news from the Trump administration?

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The science dispatches for the second week in June 2018. Martian dust storms have halted the progress of NASA’s Opportunity rover. Researchers find a new way of detecting exoplanets around young stars. Work begins on an upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider. And President Trump’s pick for the head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, shows a positive change in attitude towards climate change. 

Continuing Dust storms on Mars Cause NASA to lose contact with the Opportunity Rover

NASA has lost contact with the Opportunity Rover (NASA)

Severe dust storms on Mars may have dommed NASA’s Opportunity rover. The storms which are not unusual on Mars, began at the end of May, causing NASA to take the decision to place the Opportunity Rover into its low-power mode, suspending all scientific activities. This disappointment was further compounded last weekend when NASA’s attempts to contact Opportunity failed.

NASA engineers believe that the rover may have gone into an emergency mode, a state in which, in order to conserve battery power the only mechanism operating is the mission timer. Opportunity uses this timer to periodically ‘wake’ to check conditions in its location, the Perseverance Valley region. Conditions in the area are the worst ever recorded on the surface of the planet according to NASA and this is preventing Opportunity from using its solar panels to recharge its batteries.

Imaging of the dust storm that enshrouds the Opportunity Rover preventing it from recharging its batteries (NASA)

The major danger facing Opportunity is that if its battery runs flat the mission timer will stop. This means the automatic ‘wake’ function will also fail. In this situation, Opportunity will have to rely on a more complex start-up mechanism. A light-activated start-up based on higher intensity light after the storm dissipates.

Opportunity has had an extremely successful operating run thus far. When it landed on Mars it was expected to function for only 90 days. Fifteen years later it is still sending data in relation to its primary mission; to categorise soil and rocks and to search for past evidence of flowing water on the planet.

If this is the end for the Opportunity rover it will go down in history as one of the most impressive achievements in space exploration. As it stands it holds the record for the most distance travelled by any land vehicle away from Earth, a staggering 45km.

Read more…

A New Method to Detect Exoplanets

Since the practice of astronomy began one of its primary objectives has been the detection of planets orbiting distant stars. Thus far the practice has mostly involved inferring the presence of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) by the effect they have on their parent star. This can include drops in luminosity as the planet passes between the star and our line of sight, or even the small wobble in the star’s orbit caused by gravitational interactions. But two papers published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Wednesday (13/06/18) have utilized the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope array and a new method to detect a trio of exoplanets around a new-born star.

An image of star system HD 163297 taken with the ALMA array showing the approximate location of one of the exoplanets discovered recently (ALMA)

New systems such as 4-million-year-old HD163296, the star system both teams observed which stands at 330 light-years from Earth, are surrounded by flattened discs of gas and dust known as protoplanetary discs from which planets are formed. The astronomers used disturbances in these discs to find exceptionally reliable evidence of orbiting exoplanets.

The two separate teams focused on the spectral emissions of carbon monoxide well-suited to detection by ALMA sensitivity. By examing shifts in the wavelength of the emission caused by the Doppler effect the teams were able to detect areas of the gas that were moving towards and away from Earth. This is caused by gas being pushed aside by the exoplanets as they orbit the young star. This change in velocity is revealed by a red or blue shift in the emitted spectra.

One of the teams discovered two Jupiter-sized planets circling HD163296 at 12 and 21 billion kilometres respectively, with the other team discovering a planet which they believe is twice this size orbiting at 39 billion kilometres.

This new technique allows astronomers to ake much more detailed assessments of the masses of exoplanets in young star-systems. It should also when applied to other young star-systems, give a better idea of the mechanisms that form planets from clouds of gas and dust.

Read More…

Work Begins on the LHC Upgrade

This week saw the commencement of work to extend the capabilities of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider under the French-Swiss border. The upgrade, which is estimated to come online in 2026, known as the HiLumi project will help the LHC probe deeper into processes that led to the formation of the early universe as well as probing mysteries such as the seeming gaps in the standard model of particle physics.

The LHC has been lauded for its part in the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012, but physicists have been somewhat disappointed that it has failed to reveal phenomena beyond what is known as the standard model of physics. Many had predicted that the LHC would also reveal signs of supersymmetry, a model that fills in gaps in the standard model by predicting partner particles. Thus far the LHC has failed to manifest these particles, but physicists hope the HiLumi project will amend that.

The LHC operates by using thousands of magnets to steer two beams of protons, travelling in opposite directions at near-light speed around a circular tunnel 72 km in length. At points along the tunnel, these beams are allowed to cross causing collisions between the particles that comprise them. The HiLumi project will increase the intensity of these beams of particles and thus make collisions much more frequent.

Currently, the LHC achieves approximately one billion roton-proton collisions. Project head Lucio Rossi predicts that the increase in collisions as a result of the upgrades will be by a factor of ten. An increase of ten in the rate of collisions also means a ten-fold increase in the amount of data that can be harvested and the greater chance of observing something rare. A striking example of this is the fact that the number of Higgs Bosons created by the LHC will increase from 1.2 million to 15 million.

Friday’s ground-breaking ceremony at the LHC (CERN)

The construction requires the excavation of an 80m shaft, a large hall and a 300m tunnel, the ground-breaking ceremony was held on Friday (15/06/18) and it is estimated that work will be completed by 2025.

Read more… 

And Finally…

Positive Science News From the Trump Administration

There hasn’t been much positive news to report on the state of science policy in the US since the inauguration of President Trump in 2017, especially if the science in question relates to climate change. This site amongst others has been heavily critical of many of Trump’s choices to fill science roles, highlighting an emerging pattern of complete lack of qualification and a general trend of employing vocal climate change deniers. This week saw some positive signs that at least one of these climate change deniers has had something of a change of heart.

Even NASA head Joe Bridenstine looks shocked that he’s changed his position on climate change (Youtube)

Joe Bridenstine, Trump’s pick to head NASA, told The Washington Post in an interview published on June 5th that his stance on climate change had “evolved”. He also stated that he now accepts that carbon-emissions as a result of human activity are the leading driver of global warming.

Bridenstine told the paper: “listened to a lot of testimony. I heard a lot of experts, and I read a lot. I came to the conclusion myself that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that we’ve put a lot of it into the atmosphere and therefore we have contributed to the global warming that we’ve seen. And we’ve done it in really significant ways.”

Whilst this doesn’t change the fact that Bridenstine is still seemingly under-qualified for the role as NASA head administrator, it is at least heartening that he can look at the evidence presented to him and the testimony of experts and change his position.

Read the interview…

Having now praised the Trump administration for a science-related issue, I retire for a long lie down in a darkened space much like the Opportunity Rover.

Think there are any major stories we’ve missed or want to suggest a story for next week’s dispatches? Leave a comment in the comment’s section. 

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