A team of scientists from INAF Milan and the University of Zielona Gora have observed a remarkable first ever vacuum birefringence. The Vacuum birefringence is a strange quantum phenomenon that had never been observed through a Very Large Telescope (VLT), only observed on an atomic scale.
It’s a phenomenon described when a neutron star is surrounded by an intense magnetic field that rises to a region in an empty space where matter randomly appears and vanishes.
A research team lead by Roberto Mignani were able to observe neutron star RX J1856.5 – 375 using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT). Neutron stars are not strongly visible but are 10 times bigger than our sun and have significantly strong magnetic fields percolating their surface and surroundings. The neutron star RX J1856.5 – 375 is about 400 light years from Earth.
According to Einstein and Newton, vacuums are empty spaces where light can pass through unchanged. However, research shows that space is full of virtual particles popping in and out of existence and strong magnetic fields such as the surrounding neutron stars, are capable of changing such vacuums.
Using the VLT, researchers were able to push the known limits of a telescope and explore deeper on neutron stars. Using the FOR2 instrument on the VLT, neutron stars were able to be seen with just visible light. Analyzing this data, researchers found the linear polarization occurring at a significant degree of approximately 16%, which is most likely due to the strange vacuum birefringence in the area around RX J1856.5 – 375.
Robert Mignani describes “The high linear polarization that we measured with the VLT can’t be easily explained by our models unless the vacuum birefringence effects predicted by QED are included”. Mignani is confident that future telescopes will provide detailed answers about similar strange quantum effects surrounding neutron stars.
“Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity?” Galileo asked in the seventeenth century during the time he dethroned human beings from the center of the universe. “Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”
Over 400 years later, we continue to make revolutionary discoveries that invite us to revise our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Our discoveries bring up the same troubling questions:
How can we live with any sense of importance and meaning in our lives when we continue to find out how insignificant human life on a pale blue dot seems to be? What is the point of even building on the human stock of knowledge about the universe we live in?
The title of the essay was inspired by a question posed by the editors of the magazine Great Ideas Today or a feature edition focusing on “what the exploration of space is doing to man’s view of himself and to man’s condition.”
In the essay Arendt writes:
To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five human senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind. The question assumes that man is the highest being we know of, an assumption which we have inherited from the Romans, whose humanitas was so alien to the Greeks’ frame of mind that they had not even a word for it. (The reason for the absence of the word humanitas from Greek language and thought was that the Greeks, in contrast to the Romans, never thought that man is the highest being there is. Aristotle calls this belief atopos, “absurd.”) This view of man is even more alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe. Surely the scientist cannot permit himself to ask: What consequences will the result of my investigations have for the stature (or, for that matter, for the future) of man? It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.
For the scientist, man is no more than an observer of the universe in its manifold manifestations. The progress of modern science has demonstrated very forcefully to what an extent this observed universe, the infinitely small no less than the infinitely large, escapes not only the coarseness of human sense perception but even the enormously ingenious instruments that have been built for its refinement.
Arendt argues that the task of the scientist is to stand outside the idea that the self is all that can be understood. It’s the notion that there is even an objective world out there for us to explore and understand that drives the human search for knowledge.
She draws attention to the paradox that we can never find an objective truth and yet should continue to search for it:
All answers … whether they come from laymen or philosophers or scientists, are non-scientific (although not anti-scientific); they can never be demonstrably true or false. Their truth resembles rather the validity of agreements than the compelling validity of scientific statements. Even when the answers are given by philosophers whose way of life is solitude, they are arrived at by an exchange of opinions among many men, most of whom may no longer be among the living. Such truth can never command general agreement, but it frequently outlasts the compellingly and demonstrably true statements of the sciences which, especially in recent times, have the uncomfortable inclination never to stay put, although at any given moment they are, and must be, valid for all. In other words, notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense.
Therefore if science should be concerned with questions beyond the current human scale of thinking and free from human ego, then seeing our pursuit to understand space as a “conquest” is antithetical to the real purpose of science.
It is, I think, safe to say that nothing was more alien to the minds of the scientists, who brought about the most radical and most rapid revolutionary process the world has ever seen, than any will to power. Nothing was more remote than any wish to “conquer space” and to go to the moon… It was indeed their search for “true reality” that led them to lose confidence in appearances, in the phenomena as they reveal themselves of their own accord to human sense and reason. They were inspired by an extraordinary love of harmony and lawfulness which taught them that they would have to step outside any merely given sequence or series of occurrences if they wanted to discover the overall beauty and order of the whole, that is, the universe.
It is, in fact, quite obvious that the scientists’ strongest intellectual motivation was Einstein’s “striving after generalization,” and that if they appealed to power at all, it was the interconnected formidable power of abstraction and imagination.
She turns to the particular case of space exploration and its immense value in enlarging not only our knowledge but our humility:
The magnitude of the space enterprise seems to me beyond dispute, and all objections raised against it on the purely utilitarian level — that it is too expensive, that the money were better spent on education and the improvement of the citizens, on the fight against poverty and disease, or whatever other worthy purposes may come to mind — sound to me slightly absurd, out of tune with the things that are at stake and whose consequences today appear still quite unpredictable. There is, moreover, another reason why I think these arguments are beside the point. They are singularly inapplicable because the enterprise itself could come about only through an amazing development of man’s scientific capabilities. The very integrity of science demands that not only utilitarian considerations but the reflection upon the stature of man as well be left in abeyance. Has not each of the advances of science, since the time of Copernicus, almost automatically resulted in a decrease in his stature? And is the often repeated argument that it was man who achieved his own debasement in his search for truth, thus proving anew his superiority and even increasing his stature, more than a sophism? Perhaps it will turn out that way. At any event, man, insofar as he is a scientist, does not care about his own stature in the universe or about his position on the evolutionary ladder of animal life; this “carelessness” is his pride and his glory.
The concept of Aliens or Extraterrestrial Beings living on other planets has fascinated human beings from the moment we discovered how big our universe really is.
From watching alien movies like The ET to binging on TV series like The X-Files, we have often asked the question, “Are we really alone in this Universe?”. The Universe is a massive place and it’s generally accepted that the existence of other civilizations in the cosmos is quite likely.
The Drake Equation
The Drake Equation is a methodology used for the estimation and calculation of the chances of civilizations existing in the universe. Using this formula, it is suggested that thousands of civilizations exist along with the human civilization, but where exactly are they?
Brian Cox Weighs In
Dr. Brian Cox has suggested something that may not please alien hunters.
He said that the Fermi paradox has one solution. Migrating across the universe may be impossible once a civilization has excessive technological capabilities.
He said that the “One solution to the Fermi paradox is that it is not possible to run a world that has the power to destroy itself and that needs global collaborative solutions to prevent that.”
He went on to warn: “It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster. We could be approaching that position.”
Stephen Hawking also agrees with this phenomenon. He does not think that human civilization can last for another 1000 years. It’s a popular solution and it’s hard to argue against considering our world is filled with nuclear weapons and climate change is on the rise.
The next most likely scenario is that alien life with our brain capability is ridiculously rare. Out of the estimated 5 billion species that have existed on Earth, only one has had the brain smarts to create a civilization.
That already puts the chances of a species existing with our brain capability at one in five billion. It simply might be an uncommon or rare concept in the Universe.
Also, there might be possibilities of existence of other life, which is so alien that it is beyond our power to recognize or determine it.
There are other solutions that range from the basic idea of our co-existence with aliens to hyper-civilizations that prevents us from achieving the highest technological level. It could also be a sheer disinterest on the part of aliens.
Why is there a bridge between these two spiral galaxies? Made of gas and stars, the bridge provides strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity.
Known together as Arp 240 but individually as NGC 5257 and NGC 5258, computer modelling and the ages of star clusters indicate that the two galaxies completed a first passage near each other only about 250 million years ago. Gravitational tides not only pulled away matter, they compress gas and so caused star formation in both galaxies and the unusual bridge.
Galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 240 representing a snapshot of a brief stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 240 pair are about 300 million light-years distant and can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of Virgo. Repeated close passages should ultimately result in a merger and with the emergence of a single combined galaxy.
The ExoMars orbiter is preparing to make its first scientific observations at Mars during two orbits of the planet starting next week.
The Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, a joint endeavour between ESA and Roscosmos, arrived at Mars on 19 October. It entered orbit, as planned, on a highly elliptical path that takes it from between 230 and 310 km above the surface to around 98 000 km every 4.2 days.
The main science mission will only begin once it reaches a near-circular orbit about 400 km above the planet’s surface after a year of ‘aerobraking’ – using the atmosphere to gradually brake and change its orbit. Full science operations are expected to begin by March 2018.
But next week provides the science teams with a chance to calibrate their instruments and make the first test observations now the spacecraft is actually at Mars.
In fact, the neutron detector has been on for much of TGO’s cruise to Mars and is currently collecting data to continue calibrating the background flux and checking that nothing changed after the Schiaparelli module detached from the spacecraft.
It will measure the flow of neutrons from the martian surface, created by the impact of cosmic rays. The way in which they are emitted and their speed on arriving at TGO will tell scientists about the composition of the surface layer.
In particular, because even small quantities of hydrogen can cause a change in the neutron speed, the sensor will be able to seek out locations where ice or water may exist, within the planet’s top 1–2 m.
TGO’s first image of Mars – 13 June 2016. ESA.
The orbiter’s other three instruments have a number of test observations scheduled during 20–28 November.
During the primary science mission two instrument suites will make complementary measurements to take a detailed inventory of the atmosphere, particularly those gases that are present only in trace amounts.
Of high interest is methane, which on Earth is produced primarily by biological activity or geological processes such as some hydrothermal reactions.
The measurements will be carried out in different modes: pointing through the atmosphere towards the Sun, at the horizon at sunlight scattered by the atmosphere, and looking downwards at sunlight reflected from the surface. By looking at how the sunlight is influenced, scientists can analyse the atmospheric constituents.
In the upcoming orbits there are only opportunities for pointing towards the horizon or directly at the surface. This will allow the science teams to check the pointing of their instrument to best prepare for future measurements.
There is the possibility that they might detect some natural nightside airglow – an emission of light in the upper atmosphere produced when atoms broken apart by the solar wind recombine to form molecules, releasing energy in the form of light.
During the second orbit, the scientists have also planned observations of Phobos, the larger and innermost of the planet’s two moons.
Finally, the camera will take its first test images at Mars next week. In each of the two orbits, it will first point at stars to calibrate itself for measuring the planet’s surface reflectance.
Then it will point at Mars
Given the current elliptical orbit, the spacecraft will be both closer to and further from the planet than during its main science mission. Closest to the planet, it will be travelling faster over the surface than in its final circular orbit, which presents some challenges in timing when the images should be taken.
How TGO’s camera takes stereo images. Copyright University of Bern
The camera is designed to capture stereo pairs: it takes one image looking slightly forwards, and then the camera is rotated to look ‘back’ to take the second part of the image, in order to see the same region of the surface from two different angles. By combining the image pair, information about the relative heights of the surface features can be seen.
Next week, the camera team will be checking the internal timing to help programme commands for future specific scientific observations. The high speed and changing altitude of the elliptical orbit will make stereo reconstruction challenging, but the team will be able to test the stereo rotation mechanism and the various different camera filters, as well as how to compensate for spacecraft orientation with respect to the ground track.
There are no specific imaging targets in mind, although near the closest approach of the first orbit the orbiter will be flying over the Noctis Labyrinthus region and it will attempt to obtain a stereo pair. In the second orbit, it has the opportunity to capture images of Phobos.
Ultimately, the camera will be used to image and analyse features that may be related to the trace gas sources and sinks, to help better understand the range of processes that may be producing the gases. The images will also be used for looking at future landing sites.
“We’re excited we will finally see the instruments perform in the environment for which they were designed, and to see the first data coming back from Mars,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO Project Scientist.
After this brief science instrument demonstration period, which also serves as a test for relaying this data back to Earth, along with data from NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, the focus turns back to operations and the preparations required to for aerobraking next year.
Understanding how fire spreads in a microgravity environment is critical to the safety of astronauts who live and work in space. And while NASA has conducted studies aboard the space shuttle and International Space Station, risks to the crew have forced these experiments to be limited in size and scope. Fire safety will be a critical element as NASA progresses on the journey to Mars and begins to investigate deep space habitats for long duration missions.
The first Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire-I) was the beginning of a three-part experiment to be conducted over the course of three flights of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus vehicle to investigate large-scale flame spread and material flammability limits in long duration microgravity.
The Saffire-I experiment enclosure was approximately half a meter wide by 1 meter deep by 1.3 meter long and consisted of a flow duct and avionics bay. Inside the flow duct, the cotton-fiberglass blend burn sample measured 0.4 m wide by 1 meter long. When commanded by Orbital ATK and Saffire ground controllers operating from Dulles, Virginia, it was ignited by a hot wire. Previous to this experiment, the largest fire experiment that had been conducted in space is about the size of an index card.
After the experiment was ignited, the Cygnus continued to orbit Earth for six days as it transmitted high-resolution imagery and data from the Saffire experiment. Following complete data transmission, the Cygnus spacecraft completed its mission with a destructive entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Saffire-I launched inside the Cygnus spacecraft atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle on March 22, 2016. Space Station Crew members successfully grappled Cygnus to the space station on March 26. The Saffire experiments were developed at NASA Glenn Research Center by the Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration Project and sponsored by the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES pioneers new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities, and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond low-Earth orbit. AES activities are uniquely related to crew safety and mission operations in deep space, with a strong focus on future vehicle development.