NASA’s Hubble space telescope has detected plasma balls roughly twice the size of Mars being ejected near a dying star at speeds so rapid, it would take them only 30 minutes to travel from Earth to the Moon.
This mysterious ‘cannon fire’ has been detected in the region once every 8.5 years for at least the past 400 years, but this is the first time it’s ever been seen in action, and researchers think they might finally know where it’s coming from.
The star in question, called V Hydrae, is a bloated red giant that’s 1,200 light-years away, and it’s dying. It’s already shed at least half of its mass into space in its final death throes, and is now exhausting the rest of its nuclear fuel as it burns out – hardly a likely source of super hot, giant blobs of charged gas.
But the new Hubble data provide researchers with some insight into the strange phenomenon, and it turns out that these plasma cannonballs might explain another space mystery – planetary nebulae.
Planetary nebulae aren’t like regular nebula, which are the birthplace of stars. Instead, they’re swirling rings of glowing gas that are expelled by dead or dying stars. Each one is unique, but no one has been able to explain how they form.
Now NASA researchers suggest that the cannonballs may play a key role.
“We knew this object had a high-speed outflow from previous data, but this is the first time we are seeing this process in action,” said lead researcher Raghvendra Sahai, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
“We suggest that these gaseous blobs produced during this late phase of a star’s life help make the structures seen in planetary nebulae.”
To figure this out, the team pointed the Hubble telescope at V Hydrae over an 11-year period, between 2002 and 2013.
This allowed them to capture the latest cannonball eruption back in 2011, using spectroscopy imaging to reveal information on the plasma’s velocity, temperature, location, and motion.
They were able to show a whole string of the huge plasma balls erupting from the region, each with a temperature of more than 9,400 degrees Celsius (17,000 degrees Fahrenheit) – almost twice as hot as the surface of the Sun.
While the team monitored these news cannonballs, they also mapped the distribution of old plasma blobs fired out as long ago as 1986, some of which were already 60 billion km (37 billion miles) away from V Hydrae.
These plasma balls cool down and expand the further they get until they’re no longer detectable by Hubble.
So where are they coming from? Based on all this new data, the NASA team modelled several scenarios, and the one that made the most sense is that the cannonballs are being launched by an unseen companion star that orbits close to V Hydrae every 8.5 years, but isn’t seen by Hubble.
The model suggests that as the companion star enters V Hydrae’s outer atmosphere, it gobbles up all the material that V Hydrae is shedding in its death throes, and this material then settles around the companion star as an accretion disk that shoots out balls of plasma.
The researchers have recreated what that would look like below. Step 1 is the two stars orbiting each other. Step 2 shows the companion star orbiting into the red giant’s bloated atmosphere and sucking up its material into an accretion disk.
In steps 3 and 4, blobs of hot plasma are being ejected from this accretion disk. This happens every 8.5 years as the companion star orbits into V Hydrae’s atmosphere.
Not only could this explain the strange balls, it could also explain how bloated dying stars turn into beautiful, glowing planetary nebulae within just 200 to 1,000 years – which is an astronomical blink of an eye.
Hubble has captured images of planetary nebulae with a range of knotty structures with them, which looked a lot like jets of material ejected from accretion discs. But red giants don’t have accretion discs, so it never quite made sense. Now it’s possible that the knotty structures are produced by hidden companion stars.
“This model provides the most plausible explanation,” said Sahai.
Another surprise from the study was that the plasma balls aren’t fired in the same direction every 8.5 years, it flip-flops slightly from side to side and back and forth, suggesting that there’s a wobble in the accretion disk.
This wobble means that sometimes the cannonballs would be shot out in front of V Hydrae (from Hubble’s perspective) and sometimes behind, and could explain why the star is obscured from view every 17 years.
“This discovery was quite surprising, but it is very pleasing as well because it helped explain some other mysterious things that had been observed about this star by others,” said Sahai.
More research is needed to verify this new hypothesis, and figure out the ultimate fate of the potential companion star and V Hydrae. But NASA will be watching closely to see what happens as the red giant eventually turns into a beautiful planetary nebula. There are worse ways to go.
The universe is much bigger than previously thought so the sky should be filled with stars – the reason it isn’t was put forward two centuries ago to explain ‘Olbers Paradox’.
A theory that explains why it gets dark at night – dismissed by scientists for 200 years – has been proved right by new research using images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
German astronomer Heinrich Olbers famously pondered the “dark sky paradox”: if there was an infinite number of stars in the universe, how could it get dark at night as every point in the sky would contain a star.
He suggested clouds of hydrogen could be blocking the light.
But later astronomers estimated there were actually 100 to 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe – not enough to fill the sky – so this theory was not needed to explain why it gets dark.
However, astronomers have now calculated there are about two trillion galaxies after using the Hubble to look back some 13 billion years to the dawn of the universe.
And Professor Christopher Conselice, a Nottingham university astrophysicist, who took part in the Hubble study, said: “The extra factor of 10 or more [times the number of galaxies] is able to fill in the sky with stars.
“But most of that light, or all of the light from the most distant galaxies, is being absorbed by hydrogen gas which is between us and them.
“That was one of the ideas Mr Olbers had suggested, but people discounted that and we kind of brought that back as a solution to the problem.”
Professor Conselice said the existence of the clouds of hydrogen had been demonstrated by other astronomers by examining the spectrum of light.
“We just didn’t know there were galaxies behind that hydrogen wall,” he said.
In addition to the galaxies that cannot be seen for this reason, there could be more that we cannot observe because they are so far away the universe is not old enough for the light to have had time to reach Earth.
“The honest answer is, possibly, but we don’t know,” Professor Conselice said.
“There could be multiple universes, there could be stuff behind what’s called the horizon, the limit we can see, which is basically the amount of distance light could have travelled since the beginning of the universe.”
In fact, recent studies skew in the opposite direction, having found that certain vitamins may be bad for you. Several have been linked with an increase in certain cancers, for example, while others have been tied to a rise in the risk of kidney stones.
So here are the vitamins and supplements you should take – and the ones you should avoid:
Multivitamins: Skip them – you get everything you need with a balanced diet.
For decades, it was assumed that multivitamins were critical to overall health. Vitamin C to “boost your immune system”, Vitamin A to protect your vision, Vitamin B to keep you energized.
Not only do you already get these ingredients from the food you eat, but studies suggest that consuming them in excess can actually cause harm.
A large 2011 study of close to 39,000 older women over 25 years found that women who took them in the long term actually had a higher overall risk of death than those who did not.
Vitamin D: Take it – it helps keep your bones strong and it’s hard to get from food.
Vitamin D isn’t present in most of the foods we eat, but it’s a critical ingredient that keeps our bones strong by helping us absorb calcium.
Getting sunlight helps our bodies produce it as well, but it can be tough to get enough in the winter. Several recent study reviews have found that people who took Vitamin D supplements daily lived longer, on average, than those who didn’t.
Antioxidants: Skip them – an excess of these has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and you can eat berries instead.
Vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidants found in plentiful form in many fruits – especially berries – and veggies, and they’ve been touted for their alleged ability to protect against cancer.
But studies suggest that when taken in excess, antioxidants can actually be harmful. A large, long-term study of male smokers found that those who regularly took Vitamin A were more likely to get lung cancer than those who didn’t.
And a 2007 review of trials of several different types of antioxidant supplements put it this way: “Treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.”
Vitamin C: Skip it – it probably won’t help you get over your cold, and you can eat citrus fruits instead.
The Vitamin C hype – which started with a suggestion from chemist Linus Pauling made in the 1970s and has peaked with Airborne and Emergen-C – is just that: hype.
So get your Vitamin C from your food instead. Strawberries are packed with the nutrient.
Vitamin B3: Skip it and eat salmon, tuna, or beets instead.
A large 2014 study of more than 25,000 people with heart disease found that putting people on long-acting doses of Vitamin B3 to raise their levels of ‘good’, or HDL, cholesterol didn’t reduce the incidence of heart attacks, strokes, or deaths.
Plus, people in the study who took the B3 supplements were more likely than those taking a placebo to develop infections, liver problems, and internal bleeding.
Probiotics: Skip them – the science isn’t advanced enough yet for them to have a significant benefit, and you can eat yogurt instead.
Probiotics – pricey bacterial supplements that can cost upward of $1 per pill but are found naturally in smaller amounts in yogurt and other fermented foods – have become a big business with a market of roughly US $23.1 billion in 2012.
The idea behind them is simple: Support the trillions of bacteria blossoming in our gut which we know play a crucial role in regulating our health.
But putting that idea into actual practice has been a bit more complicated. So far, the effects of probiotics have been all over the map. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. So rather than shelling out for a pill that promises to be a cure-all, snack on a parfait.
Zinc: Take it – it’s one of the only ingredients linked to shortening a cold.
Unlike Vitamin C, which studies have found likely does nothing to prevent or treat the common cold, zinc may actually be worth it. The mineral seems to interfere with the replication of rhinoviruses, the bugs that cause the common cold.
In a 2011 review of studies of people who’d recently gotten sick, researchers looked at those who’d started taking zinc and compared them with those who just took a placebo. The ones on the zinc had shorter colds and less severe symptoms.
Vitamin E: Skip it – an excess has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and you can eat spinach instead.
The antioxidant Vitamin E was popularized for its alleged ability to protect against cancer. But a large 2011 study of close to 36,000 men found that the risk of prostate cancer actually increased among the men taking Vitamin E compared to the men taking a placebo.
And a 2005 study linked high doses of Vitamin E with an overall higher risk of death. So if you’re looking for more Vitamin E, make yourself a fresh spinach salad and skip the pill. Dark greens like spinach are rich with this stuff.
Folic acid: Take it if you’re pregnant, or if you might want to get pregnant.
Folic acid is a B vitamin which our bodies use to make new cells.
The National Institutes of Health recommends that women who are currently pregnant or who want to get pregnant take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily because their bodies demand more of this key nutrient when they are carrying a growing fetus.
Additionally, several large studies have linked folic acid supplementation before and during pregnancy with decreased rates of neural-tube defects, serious and life-threatening birth defects of the baby’s brain, spine, or spinal cord.
Back in February this year, the world celebrated when physicists finally detected gravitational waves – the tiny ripples in spacetime first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago.
We’ve since gone on to spot a second gravitational wave event – and now a team of physicists has suggested that these ripples might not just be short-lived occurrences. They think they might permanently alter the fabric of space.
“For so many years, people were simply concentrating on making that first detection of gravitational waves,” lead researcher on the new project Paul Lasky, from Monash University in Australia, told Charles Q. Choi from PBS.
“Once that first detection happened, our minds have become focused on the vast potential of this new field.”
Let’s step back for a second though, and have a quick refresher. Gravitational waves are tiny fluctuations in spacetime that occur whenever an object with mass moves, just like ripples moving out after a pebble’s been dropped in a lake.
They were first predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but they’re so minuscule that we’d never been able to detect them.
Until this year, when we were able to measure gravitational waves that had originated from one of the most violent events in the Universe: two black holes merging (you can see them orbiting each other before merging in the gif above).
And when we say minuscule, we mean ridiculously tiny. The ripples that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) picked up in February this year were about a billionth of the diameter of an atom.
So how could these tiny shifts make permanent changes in spacetime? And what would that mean for the Universe?
The idea of gravitational-wave memory was first predicted by Russian scientists back in 1974, but seeing as no one had even confirmed the existence of gravitational waves back then, it went largely unnoticed.
But after the LIGO detection in February and again in June, Lasky and his team revisited the idea.
To explain gravitational-wave memory, Lasky uses the example of two black holes orbiting each other before they eventually merge, and two astronauts drifting side by side in orbit around this black hole binary system.
The astronauts are initially separated from one another by say, 10 metres. And as the black holes spiral towards each other, they’ll release gravitational waves that ripple spacetime and cause the distance between the two astronauts to fluctuate ever so slightly.
After the black holes collide and merge, the gravitational waves will stop, and the astronauts’ distance will once again be constant – but not the same as the original distance.
And that’s what gravitational-wave memory is – a permanent stretching or shrinking of spacetime as a result of gravitational waves.
This effect would hypothetically be detected as an additional flare of gravitational waves near the end of the initial event. Which sounds straightforward enough, but as with most theoretical physics, there’s a problem. If gravitational waves were hard to detect, gravitational-wave memory will be even harder, because its ripple in spacetime will be even smaller.
“In general, we expect the size of the memory effect to be between about one-tenth and one-hundredth of that of the gravitational waves,” Lasky told PBS. “For almost all events other than the most catastrophic collisions in spacetime, the effect cannot be measured.”
In fact, in general it’s been assumed that LIGO would never be able to detect these memory flashes, no matter how catastrophic the event they originated from.
But Lasky and his team have now come up with a way that it could work – and it all comes down to volume.
Basically, with LIGO now expected to detect an increasing amount of gravitational waves, the researchers suggest that, over time, they’d be able to see a pattern of these memory events emerge.
“Our work has shown that the combination of all these mergers will enable us to measure the memory effect over time,” he explained. “The key is being able to stack the signals from all of the events in a clever way.”
The researchers estimate that LIGO would be able to detect the memory effect after observing 35 to 90 mergers as dramatic as the one back in February, but if the observatory becomes more sensitive, it might happen even sooner.
No one can confirm that this technique will work until then, but the physics community is pretty impressed.
“This is a very clever way of measuring gravitational-wave memory and exploring it observationally,” LIGO co-founder Kip Thorne from the California Institute of Technology, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Choi. “I never thought it’d be possible with LIGO.”
If we really can detect gravitational-wave memory, it won’t just be a momentous day for our understanding of the Universe – it could also help solve a problem that physicist Stephen Hawking has been puzzling over for decades: the black hole information paradox.
Basically, the paradox stems from the fact that conventional physics states that nothing, not even light, can escape a black hole’s event horizon. But quantum physics tells us that information can never be destroyed.
Stephen Hawking has recently tried to solve the paradox by suggesting that information can be carried out of a black hole by something known as ‘soft hairs‘, which are essentially zero-energy forms of electromangetic and gravitational radiation that release information as black holes evaporate.
And gravitational-wave memory could actually measure those soft hairs and determine whether they exist once and for all.
We’re a long way off doing that, but at least now, we have a plan. And with a new space-based gravitational wave observatory set to go online by 2029, we might not have to wait another 100 years for results.
So crazy, it just might work.
It’s been a big year for the ‘impossible’ EM Drive – a new kind of rocket engine that appears to generate thrust without any kind of exhaust or propellant. Back in May, NASA researchers reported a successful 10-week trial of their EM Drive prototype, and inventor Guido Fetta just got approval to test his own version in space.
Now, the UK Intellectual Property Office has released the latest patent application from British EM Drive inventor Roger Shawyer, and he says millions of pounds rest on the success of design within.
“The patent process is a very significant process, it’s not like an academic peer review where everyone hides behind an anonymous review, it’s all out in the open,” Shawyer told Mary-Ann Russon at the International Business Times.
“This is a proper, professional way of establishing prior ownership done by professionals in the patent office, and in order to publish my patent application, they had to first carry out a thorough examination of the physics in order to establish that the invention does not contravene the laws of physics.”
For the uninitiated, the EM Drive was first invented by Shawyer back in 1999, and despite experimental evidence suggesting that such an engine could work, it’s been courting controversy ever since.
Why? Well, it just so happens to violate one of the most fundamental laws of physics we have: Newton’s Third Law, which states, “To each action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”
In its most basic form, the EM Drive uses electromagnetic waves as ‘fuel’, creating thrust by bouncing microwave photons back and forth inside a cone-shaped closed metal cavity. This causes the ‘pointy end’ of the EM Drive to accelerate in the opposite direction that the photons are pushing.
But there’s the problem – “an equal and opposite reaction” means something needs to be pushed out the back of propulsion system in order for it to move forwards, and the EM Drive doesn’t have an exhaust.
Newton’s Third Law states that without an exhaust, you can’t produce thrust, but experiments from NASA and a number of other research teams from around the world have shown that not only can the EM Drive produce thrust – it can theoretically produce enough to power an entire spacecraft.
If we can power spacecraft with such an engine, it could replace the incredibly expensive and heavy rocket fuel that’s been a major hurdle in getting us much of anywhere in the Solar System.
As Harold (Sonny) White, leader of the research group over at NASA’s Eaglework Laboratories, says, a crewed mission to Mars in an EM Drive-powered spacecraft could arrive at Mars in a mind-boggling 70 days. That’s less than half the timeNASA has estimated it will take using current technology.
Since Shawyer proposed such a device almost two decades ago, he’s been busy trying to beat everyone else to the punch, applying for patent after patent with every tweak he makes.
His latest patent has just been made public, and describes a new thruster design that features a single flat superconducting plate on one end, with a uniquely shaped, non-conducting plate on the other.
He says this is necessary to minimise the internal Doppler shift – a change in frequency or wavelength of a wave for an observer moving relative to its source – and also keep manufacturing costs down.
“This is pretty significant, because it enables you to easily manufacture these things, and we want to produce thousands of them,” he told Russon at the International Business Times. “The patent makes the construction of a viable superconducting thruster easier, and it will produce a lot of thrust.”
You can access the patent here, but here’s a taste of the contents, with a rundown of just one component – the control circuit:
According to Russon, Shawyer is working with an unnamed UK aerospace company to develop his second generation EM Drive, which he says will produce thrust many orders of magnitude greater than that observed by NASA’s Eagleworks team or any other laboratory.
We’ll have to wait and see once he gets his invention out of the lab and into space, like this entrepreneur is planning to do in the coming months.
And in the meantime, we’ve got a milestone paper coming up, because the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has finally confirmedthat a paper by the Eagleworks team has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in December.
The Great Barrier Reef has been declared dead by scientists at 25 million years old — bringing an end to the colorful life of the world’s largest single structure of living organisms.
The incredible Coral Sea wilderness, which stretches for roughly 1,400 miles over an area of roughly 133,00 square miles, has finally succumbed to bleaching.
The icon of the natural world is bigger than the whole of the United Kingdom and is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands.
It is home to 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 mollusks, and 30 different types of whales and dolphins.
The reef lies off the coast of Queensland in Australia and can be seen from outer space.
Leading environmentalist writer Rowan Jacobsen declared the incredible structure dead, and wrote: “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness.
“It was 25 million years old.”
The reef is commonly referred to as the world’s largest living thing but it is actually made up of billions of tiny organisms.
The world’s largest living thing is a 2.4-mile-wide honey fungus stretching across the Blue Mountains in Oregon.
The Great Barrier Reef has been declared dead by scientists investigating coral bleaching, which is caused by environment stress impacts.
The warming of the oceans because of climate change causes corals to expel their algae and become bare.
Without the algae, the coral can’t get any nutrients.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has started the second phase of its survey to assess the impact of 2016’s bleaching.
The research showed that “22 percent of the coral on the reef died due to the worst mass bleaching event on record.”
Eighty-five percent of the mortality occurred in a 370-mile stretch of reef between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island.
The death of the Great Barrier Reef follows years of anxiety in the scientific community about how long it had left.
In 2009, the chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Charles Veron, held a talk called “Is the Great Barrier Reef on Death Row?”
Jacobsen wrote an obituary for the reef in Outside, in which he quoted Veron as saying:”The whole northern section is trashed.
“It looks like a war zone.”
“I used to have the best job in the world.”
“Now it’s turned sour.”