Flying through the universe

In 1946 Sputnik escaped the Earth’s atmosphere, turned its camera back on “home” and took the first photo of our planet from space. It was a milestone in space technology.

Photos are great. Indeed a single photo is worth a thousand words. But what about video? This week the largest sky survey, SDSS, released the largest three-dimensional video of the universe, yet.

See how galaxies are stringed together in massive galaxy clusters as you fly through space. It’s a truly remarkable experience.

“How to make a neutrino beam”

You know those cool subatomic particles that are almost massless, incredibly abundant, and travel through led faster than a hot knife through butter? Neutrinos, that’s right!

Despite that neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe, scientists can’t get enough them. So, they make concentrated beams of neutrinos, instead. To learn more, read my most recent article “How to make a neutrino beam”. And if you don’t feel like reading it all, there’s a short animation at the same link that will give you the overview in about 100 seconds.

So, learn how scientists have harnessed neutrinos.

Dark energy, neutrino detectors, sticky glue and more

Here are links to some of my latest stories as an intern at Fermilab. You can also find more links under publications.

Dark-matter seekers get help from the DarkSide

“Filled with rare, low-radioactivity material, the DarkSide-50 experiment will have some of the lowest background rates of any dark-matter detector. That should help it detect highly sought-after dark-matter candidates called weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs.”

Cockroft-Walton’s successor: a peep inside the new RFQ and how it works

“In August, Fermilab said good-bye to its iconic Cockcroft-Walton generators. Now the new starting point for Fermilab’s chain of accelerators is in place. It’s called a radio-frequency quadrupole, or RFQ.

Last month, workers moved the laboratory’s new, 3.5-meter-long RFQ to its permanent home between one of the Cockcroft-Walton generators and the front end of Fermilab’s linear particle accelerator, or Linac.”

Time Projection chambers: A milestone in particle detector technology

“At the heart of many particle physics experiments sits a device with a catchy name: the time projection chamber. With an important job and a storied history, TPCs have a special place in particle physics.”

A sticky situation resolved

“Life in plastic. It’s fantastic!” sang the dance-pop band Aqua first in 1997 as tribute to Barbie and her perfect plastic world. The 5,000 tons of plastic that make up NOvA’s near and far detectors put any of Barbie’s plastic palaces to shame, both in size and strength. Sorry, Barbie.

The far detector, the larger of the two detectors, will consist of 28 so-called blocks, and on Oct. 25 scientists erected the third. Each block is made from 768 pieces of polyvinyl chloride plastic, which scientists glue together. The result is a five-story-tall and equally wide block of plastic.”

Universe dims the lights

The annual rate of star births throughout our universe has been steadily declining for billions of years. Exactly how long or when the universe was at peak production, churning out stars like they were hot dogs at a baseball game was unknown until recently. A team of international scientists calculated that our universe has been dimming the lights for nearly 11 billion years – about 80 percent of its lifetime.

This has left us with a night-sky that is thirty times less bright than it was at peak brightness. What’s more is that the astronomers predict that the universe will only continue to get dimmer. In fact, if our universe’s brightness continues to decrease at its current rate, then it might reach a point where all stellar production halts.

In their paper, published on, the scientists suggest that our universe has already produced 95 percent of its’ maximum stellar mass population. Once we reach 100 percent, no more star production.

Although, I’ll never live to see the age of no new stars, this is a slightly depressing thought. It reminds me of the film Children of Men where mankind has lost the ability to procreate. Whatever the reason was in the movie, the universe is getting old. Past a certain point as galaxies age, they produce less stars.

Even after stellar production stops, our universe will still shine with starlight for billions of years as the current stars continue to burn fuel. I wonder what will happen when the lights go out.

Mama magnetic field protects the Earth

I fortuitous planetary alignment between Earth and Mars in 2008 allowed scientists to study the effects of planetary magnetic fields – or the lack of. Unlike Earth, Mars has no magnetic field.

So, when a stream of solar wind composed of potentially damaging, high-energy particles hit both planets during alignment, scientists measured how much oxygen was lost by each. What they predicted was that Earth’s magnetic field would act as a shield and deflect the solar wind.

What they found was just that. As the pressure of the solar wind increased, Mars lost ten times more oxygen than Earth. Scientists believe that over extended periods of time, say one billion years, solar winds could significantly reduce oxygen content.

In addition to no magnetic field, Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere. In order to test the atmosphere’s role in protection against solar wind, future experiments will involve comparisons between Venus and Earth. However, the researchers must wait for an alignment between Venus and Earth to make the comparison.

For more information you may read the press release.

Moon’s Reflections Pave Road to Extraterrestrial Life

With the Very Large Telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory, a group of scientists have confirmed that life on Earth exists. Now, why does this matter?

Well, it’s not really Earth that these scientists are interested in. By applying this same technique they used to observe evidence of biological activity on Earth, the scientists will look for similar life-potential chemical signatures on distant exoplanets. So, how did they do it?

When sunlight hits the Earth some of it is reflected off of the planet and hits the moon. A second reflection then occurs where that light is reflected off of the moon back toward Earth. This second reflection is what the scientists measured.

It all comes down to a unique property of light – polarization. When light, such as sunlight, is reflected off an object, such as the moon it is polarized. Scientists can distinguish the difference between polarized and non-polarized sunlight.

So, when experts observe light from a far-off planetary system, they can separate the light from the host star and the reflected light from the planet. This reflected light holds the key to determining whether the planet is hosting any biological activity.

For example, if certain chemical signatures such as oxygen and water (which were present in the Earth’s reflected light off of the moon) are detected, this may be an indication for extraterrestrial life.

For more information you may read the press release.

Sister planet’s spin slows

Looking in the infrared is not just a cool effect reserved for movies like Predator. Astronomers peer often in this wavelength range to ascertain temperatures of stars and planets. However, temperature is not the only parameter infrared observations provide. Recent infrared observations of Earth’s sister planet Venus, has led to a surprising discovery – Venus’ spin has slowed.

With the VIRTIS instrument, scientists were able to peer through the shroud of clouds encircling Venus and get a good look at its surface features. What they found was some of the identifiable surface features were not where they should be.

According to data taken from NASA’s Magellan orbiter in the early 1990’s, a day on Venus was equal to 243.0185 Earth days. When scientists observed maps of the planet’s surface taken from VIRTIS and aligned them with photos taken from Magellan, the surface features did not match up.

After ruling out any technological or measurement errors, the researchers concluded that Venus’ rotation has slowed by an average 6.5 minutes. It was only after implementing this rotation rate difference that the features on the two maps aligned. Causes are unknown, but researchers suggest slowed rotation could be due to an exchange of angular momentum between Venus and Earth. Another possibility is that decades-long weather storms could effect rotation rate.

For more information you may read the press release.

It’s new, it’s hot, and it’s very wet

Still making discoveries after more than 20 years in orbit, Hubble caught site of a pretty interesting planet. Not only is this planet shrouded in haze, but scientists believe it contains more water than Earth.

This new discovery led by Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has resulted in a new class of exoplanets. Mainly, exoplanets with volumes upon volumes of water make the cut.

This particular exoplanet orbits a red dwarf star at an estimated distance of 2 million kilometers. That’s 23 times closer than Mercury is to our Sun. Incidentally, this planet clocks in at a sizzling 230 degrees Celsius.

One may wonder how water could sustain its liquid form in such a steamy environment. Well, in addition to the high heat, the exoplanet also has high pressures. Scientists say this will lead to exotic phenomena like “hot ice” or “superfluid water”.

Unlike any planet observed before, this watery exoplanet is believed to have formed far from its host star. Accumulating large amounts of ice in the cold outer reaches of its solar system, the planet slowly made its way toward its star.

As it traveled closer toward the red dwarf, it undoubtedly passed through what scientists call the “habitable” or “goldilocks” zone. This is where the planet is not too hot or too cold, but just right to sustain life. However, scientists are unsure how long this extraterrestrial water world remained at the perfect distance. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not the planet had life.

For more information you may read the press release.

Scientists find the Seabiscuit of black holes

Anxious to escape their hungry host, winds scream out of a stellar-mass black hole known as IGR J17091-3624 at a hasty 20 million mph. At that speed one could circle the Earth in one thousandth (.001) of a second.

These speedy breezes are not entirely unique to this black hole. Winds at this speed have been observed in other black hole systems. However, the catch is that every black hole system found to exhibit these winds has weighed in at a hefty million to billion times more massive than our Sun.

As stated above, this new black hole system is a stellar-mass black hole, meaning it is nowhere near as massive as supermassive black hole systems. Yet, this stellar-mass black hole exhibits the same wind speeds as its sumo cousins. How can this be?

Chandra observed the black hole back in 2011 when it was relatively quiet with no wind. The new observation lead scientists to believe the winds are periodic meaning they switch on and off.

Although there is no solid explanation behind IGR J17091-3624’s colossal wind speed, astronomers believe winds in general arise from magnetic forces within the discs of black holes.

For more information you may read the press release or visit Chandra’s website for video.

Blue Hot, Red Not

With sayings like “red hot” and thoughts of cool blue swimming pools, it is no wonder that people associate red with hot and blue with cold. However, in reality colors associated with heat obey the opposite of the common consensus; blue indicates hotter temperatures than red. Perhaps one of the most deceiving examples, simply because of daily experience, is the Sun. A yellow star, the Sun is relatively cool compared to other stars, but it represents the hottest object within 50 trillion miles of Earth, suggesting that yellow (a close neighbor or orange and red) means hot.

Therefore, when a recent study published in the journal Science Communication took a sample of 8,866 individuals and gave them two photos of the same galaxy, one with more red than blue and the second more blue than red, and asked which photo was hotter 71.5 percent responded that the photo with more red was hotter. The other 28.5 percent answered correctly that the bluer photo indicated a hotter, more energetic region.

While the daily temperature ranges humans experience on Earth are too small to see red hot verses blue hot, space objects such as galaxies and stars are ideal examples for the inherent relation between color and temperature. With a temperature of 5,800 degrees Fahrenheit, a red star is cool compared to a 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit blue star. At a basic level, these colors not only correspond to temperature but energy, as well.


Understanding why a rainbow has multiple colors is similar to understanding why red stars are cooler than blue stars. When white light, which consists of the seven colors of the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), is dispersed into its individual colors, the colors separate according to their energy. Therefore, the more energetic colors of violet, indigo, and blue always appear at the bottom of a rainbow while the less energetic colors of red, orange, and yellow appear the top.

Similarly, the more energetic stars with hotter temperatures appear blue while the cooler, less energetic stars appear red. (Indigo and violet stars do not exist because no star has a hot enough surface temperature.) Due to daily experiences with red-hot stoves and red-hot fire, humans often see red and think hot, but in the grand scheme of science their conception is incorrect. However, with a simple understanding of the inherent relation between color, temperature, and energy, these misunderstandings can easily be set right.