Archive for Science & Space

A new glass electrolyte-based solid-state battery has been developed by the researchers at UT Austin. Led by the Li-ion battery inventor John Goodenough, the team demonstrated that their battery is better than Li-ion. It can hold an almost 3x charge, has more charging cycles, supports fast charging, and isn’t prone to catch fire.

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Study reveals substantial evidence of holographic universe

A UK, Canadian and Italian study has provided what researchers believe is the first observational evidence that our universe could be a vast and complex hologram.

Source: Study reveals substantial evidence of holographic universe

We just got the first real evidence of a strange quantum distortion in empty space

For the first time, astronomers have observed a strange quantum phenomenon in action, where a neutron star is surrounded by a magnetic field so intense, it’s given rise to a region in empty space where matter spontaneously pops in and out of existence.

Called vacuum birefringence, this bizarre phenomenon was first predicted back in the 1930s, but had only ever been observed on the atomic scale. Now scientists have finally seen it occur in nature, and it goes against everything that Newton and Einstein had mapped out.

“This is a macroscopic manifestation of quantum field,” Jeremy Heyl from the University of British Columbia in Canada, who was not involved in the research, told Science“It’s manifest on the scale of a neutron star.”

An international team of astronomers led by Roberto Mignani from INAF Milan in Italy made the discovery while observing a neutron star called RX J1856.5-3754 that’s 400 light-years from Earth.

Neutron stars are the crushed cores of massive stars that collapsed under their own weight when they ran out of fuel, and exploded as a supernova.

They’re made of some of the most dense material in the Universe – just 1 teaspoon of the stuff would weigh 1 billion tons on Earth – and their crust is 10 billion times stronger than steel.

Neutron stars also have the strongest magnetic fields in the known Universe – astronomers predict that the strongest neutron star magnetic fields are nearly 100 trillion times stronger than Earth’s.

These magnetic fields are so ridiculous, they’re thought to affect the properties of the empty space surrounding a neutron star.

In the classical physics of Newton and Einstein, the vacuum of space is entirely empty, but the theory of quantum mechanics assumes something very different.

According to quantum electrodynamics (QED) – a quantum theory that describes how light and matter interact – it’s predicted that space is actually full of ‘virtual particles’ that pop in and out of existence and mess with the activity of light particles (photons) as they zip around the Universe.

These virtual particles aren’t like regular physical particles like electrons and photons, but are fluctuations in quantum fields that have similar properties to a regular particle – the big difference being that they can appear and vanish at any point in space and time.

In regular empty space, photons aren’t affected by these virtual particles, and travel without interference.

But in the empty space near the incredibly intense magnetic field of a neutron star, these virtual particles are ‘excited’, and they have a dramatic effect on any photons passing through.

“According to QED, a highly magnetised vacuum behaves as a prism for the propagation of light, an effect known as vacuum birefringence,” Mignani explains in a press release.

“This effect can be detected only in the presence of enormously strong magnetic fields, such as those around neutron stars,” adds team member Roberto Turolla from the University of Padua in Italy.

As Jay Bennett reports for Popular Mechanics, the researchers directed the world’s most advanced ground-based telescope, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), at their neutron star, and observed linear polarisation – the alignment of light waves influenced by electromagnetic forced – in the empty space around the star.

“This is rather odd, because conventional relativity says that light should pass freely through a vacuum, such as space, without being altered,” says Bennett.

“The linear polarisation was to such a degree (16 degrees, to be precise) that the only known explanations are theories of QED and the influence of virtual particles.”

You can see an illustration of this at the top of the page, where light coming from the surface of a neutron star (on the left) becomes linearly polarised as it travels through the vacuum of space on its way to the observer on Earth (on the right).

The next step now is for the observations to be replicated in another scenario to know for sure that vacuum birefringence is what we’re looking at here, and if that’s the case, we’ve got a whole new phenomenon to investigate in the field of quantum mechanics.

“When Einstein came up with the theory of general relativity 100 years ago, he had no idea that it would be used for navigational systems. The consequences of this discovery probably will also have to be realised on a longer timescale,” Magnani told New Scientist.

The research has been published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and you can access it for free at


Source: We just got the first real evidence of a strange quantum distortion in empty space – ScienceAlert

It’s official: NASA’s peer-reviewed EM Drive paper has finally been published

After months of speculation and leaked documents, NASA’s long-awaited EM Drive paper has finally been peer-reviewed and published. And it shows that the ‘impossible’ propulsion system really does appear to work.

The NASA Eagleworks Laboratory team even put forward a hypothesis for how the EM Drive could produce thrust – something that seems impossible according to our current understanding of the laws of physics.

In case you’ve missed the hype, the EM Drive, or Electromagnetic Drive, is a propulsion system first proposed by British inventor Roger Shawyer back in 1999.

Instead of using heavy, inefficient rocket fuel, it bounces microwaves back and forth inside a cone-shaped metal cavity to generate thrust.

According to Shawyer’s calculations, the EM Drive could be so efficient that it could power us to Mars in just 70 days.

But, there’s a not-small problem with the system. It defies Newton’s third law, which states that everything must have an equal and opposite reaction.

According to the law, for a system to produce thrust, it has to push something out the other way. The EM Drive doesn’t do this.

Yet in test after test it continues to work. Last year, NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratory team got their hands on an EM Drive to try to figure out once and for all what was going on.

And now we finally have those results.

The new peer-reviewed paper is titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum“, and has been published online as an open access ‘article in advance’ in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)’s Journal of Propulsion and Power. It’ll appear in the December print edition.


The scientific community is also notoriously unconvinced about the propulsion system – just yesterday a Motherboard article on the EM Drive was deleted by the moderators of the popular subreddit r/Physics because they “consider the EM Drive to be unscientific”.

But is the first peer-reviewed research ever published on the EM Drive, which firmly takes it out of the realm of pseudoscience into a technology that’s worth taking skeptically, but seriously.

The next step for the EM Drive is for it to be tested in space, which is scheduled to happen in the coming months, with plans to launch the first EM Drive having been made back in September.

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Researchers use novel materials to build smallest transistor with 1-nanometer carbon nanotube gate

For more than a decade, engineers have been eyeing the finish line in the race to shrink the size of components in integrated circuits. They knew that the laws of physics had set a 5-nanometer threshold on the size of transistor gates among conventional semiconductors, about one-quarter the size of high-end 20-nanometer-gate transistors now on the market.

Some laws are made to be broken, or at least challenged.

A research team led by faculty scientist Ali Javey at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has done just that by creating a transistor with a working 1-nanometer gate. For comparison, a strand of human hair is about 50,000 nanometers thick.

“We made the smallest transistor reported to date,” said Javey, a lead principal investigator of the Electronic Materials program in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Science Division. “The gate length is considered a defining dimension of the transistor. We demonstrated a 1-nanometer-gate transistor, showing that with the choice of proper materials, there is a lot more room to shrink our electronics.”

The key was to use carbon nanotubes and molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), an engine lubricant commonly sold in auto parts shops. MoS2 is part of a family of materials with immense potential for applications in LEDs, lasers, nanoscale transistors, solar cells, and more.

The development could be key to keeping alive Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s prediction that the density of transistors on would double every two years, enabling the increased performance of our laptops, mobile phones, televisions, and other electronics.

“The semiconductor industry has long assumed that any gate below 5 nanometers wouldn’t work, so anything below that was not even considered,” said study lead author Sujay Desai, a graduate student in Javey’s lab. “This research shows that sub-5-nanometer should not be discounted. Industry has been squeezing every last bit of capability out of silicon. By changing the material from silicon to MoS2, we can make a transistor with a gate that is just 1 nanometer in length, and operate it like a switch.”

Source: Researchers use novel materials to build smallest transistor with 1-nanometer carbon nanotube gate

Hubble detects giant ‘cannonballs’ shooting from star

Great balls of fire! NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has detected superhot blobs of gas, each twice as massive as the planet Mars, being ejected near a dying star. The plasma balls are zooming so fast through space it would take only 30 minutes for them to travel from Earth to the moon. This stellar “cannon fire” has continued once every 8.5 years for at least the past 400 years, astronomers estimate.

The fireballs present a puzzle to astronomers, because the ejected material could not have been shot out by the host star, called V Hydrae. The star is a bloated red giant, residing 1,200 light-years away, which has probably shed at least half of its mass into space during its death throes. Red giants are dying in the late stages of life that are exhausting their nuclear fuel that makes them shine. They have expanded in size and are shedding their outer layers into space.

The researchers compiled a detailed map of the blobs’ location, allowing them to trace the first behemoth clumps back to 1986. “The observations show the blobs moving over time,” Sahai said. “The STIS data show blobs that have just been ejected, blobs that have moved a little farther away, and blobs that are even farther away.” STIS detected the giant structures as far away as 37 billion miles away from V Hydrae, more than eight times farther away than the Kuiper Belt of icy debris at the edge of our solar system is from the sun.

The blobs expand and cool as they move farther away, and are then not detectable in visible light. But observations taken at longer sub-millimeter wavelengths in 2004, by the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, revealed fuzzy, knotty structures that may be blobs launched 400 years ago, the researchers said.

Based on the observations, Sahai and his colleagues Mark Morris of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Samantha Scibelli of the State University of New York at Stony Brook developed a model of a companion star with an to explain the ejection process.

“This model provides the most plausible explanation because we know that the engines that produce jets are accretion disks,” Sahai explained. “Red giants don’t have accretion disks, but many most likely have companion stars, which presumably have lower masses because they are evolving more slowly. The model we propose can help explain the presence of bipolar planetary nebulae, the presence of knotty jet-like structures in many of these objects, and even multipolar planetary nebulae. We think this model has very wide applicability.”

A surprise from the STIS observation was that the disk does not fire the monster clumps in exactly the same direction every 8.5 years. The direction flip-flops slightly from side-to-side to back-and-forth due to a possible wobble in the accretion disk. “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,” Sahai said.

Astronomers have noted that V Hydrae is obscured every 17 years, as if something is blocking its light. Sahai and his colleagues suggest that due to the back-and-forth wobble of the jet direction, the blobs alternate between passing behind and in front of V Hydrae. When a blob passes in front of V Hydrae, it shields the red giant from view.

“This accretion disk engine is very stable because it has been able to launch these structures for hundreds of years without falling apart,” Sahai said. “In many of these systems, the gravitational attraction can cause the companion to actually spiral into the core of the red giant star. Eventually, though, the orbit of V Hydrae’s companion will continue to decay because it is losing energy in this frictional interaction. However, we do not know the ultimate fate of this companion.”

Read more at:

Source: Hubble detects giant ‘cannonballs’ shooting from star

Time crystals might exist after all

Although spontaneously broken time-translation symmetry has never been observed before, almost every other type of spontaneous symmetry breaking has been. One very common example of a spontaneously broken symmetry occurs in magnets. The laws of nature do not impose which side of a magnet will be the north pole and which will be the south pole. The distinguishing feature of any magnetic material, however, is that it spontaneously breaks this symmetry and chooses one side to be the north pole. Another example is ordinary crystals. Although the laws of nature are invariant under rotating or shifting (translating) space, crystals spontaneously break these spatial symmetries because they look different when viewed from different angles and when shifted a little bit in space.

In their new study, the physicists specifically define what it would take to spontaneously break time-translation symmetry, and then use simulations to predict that this broken symmetry should occur in a large class of quantum systems called “Floquet-many-body-localized driven systems.” The scientists explain that the key aspect of these systems is that they remain far from thermal equilibrium at all times, so the system never heats up.

The new definition of broken time-translation symmetry is similar to the definitions of other broken symmetries. Basically, when the size of a system (such as a crystal) grows, the time taken for a symmetry-breaking state to decay into a symmetry-respecting state increases, and in an infinite system the symmetry-respecting state can never be reached. As a result, symmetry for the entire system is broken.

“The significance of our work is two-fold: on one hand, it demonstrates that time-translation symmetry is not immune to being spontaneously broken,” said coauthor Bela Bauer, a researcher at Microsoft Station Q. “On the other hand, it deepens our understanding that non-equilibrium systems can host many interesting states of matter that cannot exist in equilibrium systems.”

According to the physicists, it should be possible to perform an experiment to observe time-translation by using a large system of trapped atoms, trapped ions, or superconducting qubits to fabricate a time crystal, and then measure how these systems evolve over time. The scientists predict that the systems will exhibit the periodic, oscillating motion that is characteristic of time crystals and indicative of spontaneously broken time-translation symmetry.

Source: Time crystals might exist after all


The wizard war in orbit: Early American signals intelligence satellites

Tales of espionage are filled with lanky men in trenchcoats walking through cold Berlin streets at the height of the Cold War. But the most important intelligence—in terms of volume and reliability—was gathered by reconnaissance satellites far overhead. These satellites were precise, they collected vast amounts of information, and unlike spies, they did not forget, embellish, lie, or go rogue. Photographic reconnaissance satellites like CORONA, GAMBIT, HEXAGON, and KENNEN were in many ways the most prolific spooks. But they were also accompanied by other satellites, signals intelligence, or SIGINT, satellites that listened for the electronic whispers of radars and radios, engaged in a high-tech war of electrons against an enemy that could vanish and emerge at will.

During the Cold War the United States intelligence community gathered signals intelligence from the Soviet Union via a variety of means. These included ground stations, cable-tapping and bugging operations, airborne platforms such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint and RB-47 Stratojet, and signals intelligence satellites. Any history of SIGINT satellite operations during the Cold War is going to be limited in scope because much of the story remains classified, and unlike the reconnaissance photographs, signals intelligence is an arcane and esoteric subject.

Read in full: The Space Review: The wizard war in orbit (part 1): Early American signals intelligence satellites


The wizard war in orbit (part 2): Black black boxes

The wizard war in orbit (part 3): SIGINT satellites go to war

The wizard war in orbit (part 4): P-11, FARRAH, RAQUEL, DRACULA, and KAL-007

Is the black hole at our galaxy’s centre a quantum computer?

After you die, your body’s atoms will disperse and find new venues, making their way into oceans, trees and other bodies. But according to the laws of quantum mechanics, all of the information about your body’s build and function will prevail. The relations between the atoms, the uncountable particulars that made you you, will remain forever preserved, albeit in unrecognisably scrambled form – lost in practice, but immortal in principle.

There is only one apparent exception to this reassuring concept: according to our current physical understanding, information cannot survive an encounter with a black hole. Forty years ago, Stephen Hawking demonstrated that black holes destroy information for good. Whatever falls into a black hole disappears from the rest of the Universe. It eventually reemerges in a wind of particles – ‘Hawking radiation’ – that leaks away from the event horizon, the black hole’s outer physical boundary. In this way, black holes slowly evaporate, but the process erases all knowledge about the black hole’s formation. The radiation merely carries data for the total mass, charge and angular momentum of the matter that collapsed; every other detail about anything that fell into the black hole is irretrievably lost.

Hawking’s discovery of black-hole evaporation has presented theoretical physicists with a huge conundrum: general relativity says that black holes must destroy information; quantum mechanics says it cannot happen because information must live on eternally. Both general relativity and quantum mechanics are extremely well-tested theories, and yet they refuse to combine. The clash reveals something much more fundamental than a seemingly exotic quirk about black holes: the information paradox makes it aptly clear that physicists still do not understand the fundamental laws of nature.

But Gia Dvali, professor of physics at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, believes he’s found the solution. ‘Black holes are quantum computers,’ he says. ‘We have an explicit information-processing sequence.’ If he is correct, the paradox is no more, and information truly is immortal. Even more startling, perhaps, is that his concept has practical implications. In the future, we might be able to tap black-hole physics to construct quantum computers of our own.

Read full article: Is the black hole at our galaxy’s centre a quantum computer? | Aeon Essays

Einstein’s gravitational waves ‘seen’ from black holes

They have observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth.

The international team says the first detection of these gravitational waves will usher in a new era for astronomy.

It is the culmination of decades of searching and could ultimately offer a window on the Big Bang.

The research, by the LIGO Collaboration, has been published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The collaboration operates a number of labs around the world that fire lasers through long tunnels, trying to sense ripples in the fabric of space-time.

Gravitational waves: A triumph for big science

Expected signals are extremely subtle, and disturb the machines, known as interferometers, by just fractions of the width of an atom.

But the black hole merger was picked up by two widely separated LIGO facilities in the US.

The merger radiated three times the mass of the sun in pure gravitational energy.

“We have detected gravitational waves,” Prof David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project, told journalists at a news conference in Washington DC.

“It’s the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we’ve been deaf.”

Source: Einstein’s gravitational waves ‘seen’ from black holes – BBC News

The bizarre reactor that might save nuclear fusion

If you’ve heard of fusion energy, you’ve probably heard of tokamaks. These doughnut-shaped devices are meant to cage ionized gases called plasmas in magnetic fields while heating them to the outlandish temperatures needed for hydrogen nuclei to fuse. Tokamaks are the workhorses of fusion—solid, symmetrical, and relatively straightforward to engineer—but progress with them has been plodding.

Now, tokamaks’ rebellious cousin is stepping out of the shadows. In a gleaming research lab in Germany’s northeastern corner, researchers are preparing to switch on a fusion device called a stellarator, the largest ever built. The €1 billion machine, known as Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), appears now as a 16-meter-wide ring of gleaming metal bristling with devices of all shapes and sizes, innumerable cables trailing off to unknown destinations, and technicians tinkering with it here and there. It looks a bit like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, towed in for repairs after a run-in with the Imperial fleet. Inside are 50 6-tonne magnet coils, strangely twisted as if trampled by an angry giant.

Although stellarators are similar in principle to tokamaks, they have long been dark horses in fusion energy research because tokamaks are better at keeping gas trapped and holding on to the heat needed to keep reactions ticking along. But the Dali-esque devices have many attributes that could make them much better prospects for a commercial fusion power plant: Once started, stellarators naturally purr along in a steady state, and they don’t spawn the potentially metal-bending magnetic disruptions that plague tokamaks. Unfortunately, they are devilishly hard to build, making them perhaps even more prone to cost overruns and delays than other fusion projects. “No one imagined what it means” to build one, says Thomas Klinger, leader of the German effort.

W7-X could mark a turning point. The machine, housed at a branch of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) that Klinger directs, is awaiting regulatory approval for a startup in November. It is the first large-scale example of a new breed of supercomputer-designed stellarators that have had most of their containment problems computed out. If W7-X matches or beats the performance of a similarly sized tokamak, fusion researchers may have to reassess the future course of their field. “Tokamak people are waiting to see what happens. There’s an excitement around the world about W7-X,” says engineer David Anderson of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison.

Read more: The bizarre reactor that might save nuclear fusion | Science/AAAS | News

Search For Intelligent Aliens Near Bizarre Dimming Star Has Begun

The search for signs of life in a mysterious star system hypothesized to potentially harbor an “alien megastructure” is now underway.

Astronomers have begun using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a system of radio dishes about 300 miles (483 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, to hunt for signals coming from the vicinity of KIC 8462852, a star that lies 1,500 light-years from Earth.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope found that KIC 8462852 dimmed oddly and dramatically several times over the past few years. The dimming events were far too substantial to be caused by a planet crossing the star’s face, researchers say, and other possible explanations, such as an enormous dust cloud, don’t add up, either.

The leading hypothesis at the moment involves a swarm of comets that may have been sent careening toward KIC 8462852, possibly after a gravitational jostle by a passing star. But it’s also possible, astronomers say, that the signal Kepler saw was caused by huge structures built by an alien civilization — say, a giant assortment of orbiting solar panels.

That latter possibility, remote though it may be, has put KIC 8462852 in the crosshairs of scientists who hunt for signals that may have been generated by intelligent aliens.

“We are looking at it with the Allen Telescope Array,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California.

“No problem with that; I think we ought to, for sure,” Shostak told But, he added, people “should perhaps moderate their enthusiasm with the lessons of history.”

Shostak cited the example of pulsars, fast-spinning, superdense stellar corpses that emit beams of high-energy radiation. These beams are picked up by instruments on and around Earth as regular pulses, because they can only be detected when they’re fired straight at the planet (an event that occurs at predictable intervals because of pulsars’ rotation).

Astronomers know all this now. But in the 1960s, when the first pulsar signals were discovered, some scientists interpreted them as possible alien transmissions.

“So history suggests we’re going to find an explanation for this that doesn’t involve Klingons, if you will,” Shostak said of the KIC 8462852 mystery.

Source: Search For Intelligent Aliens Near Bizarre Dimming Star Has Begun

Scientists Find A Double Black Hole Inside A Nearby Quasar

The brightest objects in the universe have massive black holes at their hearts.

Quasars (“quasi-stellar radio sources”) can be brighter than entire galaxies, and they’re thought to be fueled by the friction and heat of stuff that’s getting swallowed up by a black hole. (Although light can’t escape a black hole, it can escape from the event horizon—the boundary and point-of-no-return surrounding the black hole.)

Now, it turns out that the quasar nearest to Earth, located 600 million light-years away in a galaxy called Markarian 231, is actually built around two twirling black holes. It’s a first-of-its-kind type of find, and scientists think there could be a lot more quasars with binary hearts out there.

Hubble data revealed a mysterious hole in the quasar’s accretion disk, or the ring of gas that spirals around the black hole, waiting to fall in. After doing some modeling studies, scientists concluded that the system must be made of two black holes: a large one and a small one orbiting each other.

Source: Scientists Find A Double Black Hole Inside A Nearby Quasar | Popular Science