Nuclear pasta and neutron stars

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The Inside of a Neutron Star Looks Spookily Familiar

Exotic ultra-compressed matter can look like pasta, among other things

Two phases of matter found in neutron stars are featured in this recent Dinosaur Comic; click to see the whole thing. (Slightly naughty language included.) [Credit: Ryan North]

Two phases of matter found in neutron stars are featured in this recent Dinosaur Comic; click to see the whole thing. (Slightly naughty language included.) [Credit: Ryan North]

For Nautilus:

Hot fluids of neutrons that flow without friction, superconductors made of protons, and a solid crust built of exotic atoms—features like these make neutron stars some of the strangest objects we’ve found in the cosmos so far. They pack all the mass of a star into a sphere the size of a city, resulting in states of matter we just don’t have on Earth.

And yet, despite their extreme weirdness, neutron stars contain a mishmash of vaguely familiar features, as if seen darkly through a funhouse mirror. One of the weirdest is the fact that deep inside a neutron star you can find a whole menu full of (nuclear) pasta. [Read the rest at Nautilus…]

Don’t pull up stakes for the asteroid-mining gold rush

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Is Space Becoming a Gold Mine?

A new law grants private companies ownership over the materials they extract from asteroids or the Moon. But don’t call it a gold rush just yet

For The Daily Beast:

Asteroids are remnants of the Solar System’s youth. When the planets were forming more than 4.5 billion years ago, gas and dust molecules clung together to form larger objects, which in turn collided and stuck together to make yet bigger things. At the end of the process, we were left with the big planets, moons, and a huge number of smaller bodies which contain the raw chemicals we see on Earth.

Some asteroids could contain significant amounts of rare metals such as platinum, rare-earth elements, and other materials. Even water is a valuable resource in space, since it is useful as fuel (broken into hydrogen and oxygen components) and necessary for astronauts, but very heavy and therefore expensive to carry into space.

Now, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law granting private companies ownership over materials they extract from asteroids or the Moon. The bill also extends the period of time private corporations can develop spacecraft without direct government oversight, to help speed the process of getting more rockets into space.

But don’t pull up stakes for the asteroid-mining gold rush just yet. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Ice volcanoes (and other mysteries) on Pluto!

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Does Pluto Have Ice Volcanoes?

That’s what some scientists believe. And it might have a heart, too

For The Daily Beast:

At the 47th Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Washington, DC, researchers with the New Horizons mission presented the latest findings from the July flyby of Pluto.

The main theme: We know so much more than we once did, but we are a long way from understanding exactly what makes Pluto tick.

The first surprise? Something that shouldn’t be there at all.

Maybe, researchers posited, Pluto has volcanoes of ice.

It’s one possible explanation for what was possibly the biggest surprise from July: the discovery that Pluto is still an active world. Earth has a thick atmosphere with lots of weather, a hot interior, and oceans. Pluto has none of those things.

But processes under the surface seem to keep things just warm enough inside to pump material up, in the form of volcanoes—not of magma, but of nitrogen, methane, and other volatile materials.

We see ice volcanoes on other worlds, but those are moons orbiting giant planets, where their interiors are churned up by the strong gravity and other processes. What is keeping Pluto warm enough to erupt is something we don’t yet understand. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Be very very quiet, we’re hunting gravitational waves

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Gravitational waves and where to find them

Advanced LIGO has just begun its search for gravitational waves

For Symmetry Magazine:

For thousands of years, astronomy was the province of visible light, that narrow band of colors the human eye can see.

In the 20th century, astronomers pushed into other kinds of light, from radio waves to infrared light to gamma rays. Researchers built neutrino detectors and cosmic ray observatories to study the universe using particles instead. Most recently, another branch of lightless astronomy has been making strides: gravitational wave astronomy.

It’s easy to make gravitational waves: Just flap your arms. Earth’s orbit produces more powerful gravitational waves, but even these are too small to have a measurable effect. This is a good thing: Gravitational waves carry energy, and losing too much energy would cause Earth to spiral into the sun. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

 

Meet the glueball, the missing Standard Model particle

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Glueballs are the missing frontier of the Standard Model

There should be particles made entirely of gluons, but we don’t know how to find them

For Ars Technica:

The discovery of the Higgs boson was rightfully heralded as a triumph of particle physics, one that brought completion to the Standard Model, the collection of theories that describes particles and their interactions. Lost in the excitement, however, was the fact that we’re still missing a piece from the Standard Model—another type of particle that doesn’t resemble any other we’ve yet seen.

The particle is a glueball, but its goofy name doesn’t express how interesting it is. Glueballs are unique in that they don’t contain any matter at all: they have no quarks or electrons or neutrinos. Instead, they are made entirely of gluons, which are the particles that bind quarks together inside protons, neutrons, and related objects.

Particle physicists are sure they exist, but everything else about them is complicated, to say the least. Like so many other exotic particles (including the Higgs), glueballs are very unstable, decaying quickly into other, less massive particles. We don’t have any ideas about their masses, however, which is obviously kind of important to know if you want to find them. We also don’t know exactly how they decay, making it hard to know exactly how we’ll identify them in experiments. [Read the rest at Ars Technica….]

Can we recognize life if we see it on other worlds?

Back in June, I traveled to a remote lake in British Columbia to visit a NASA research site. That trip resulted in a long article I wrote for Mosaic, which roamed over a wide range of topics: what a Canadian lake has to do with life on Mars, the difficulty of identifying life on other worlds (such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus), and whether the particular chemistry of life as we know it is the only possibility. You know, simple topics with easy science.

As exotic environments go, Pavilion Lake in British Columbia is rather ordinary. Certainly it’s remote – the closest major city is Vancouver, a long drive away over the mountains. The closest towns are light dustings of houses over the dry slopes, and the road winds for dozens of kilometres of empty desert country between them. The lake itself lies along a paved highway, and from the road it doesn’t look different to any other modestly sized mountain lake in western North America.

But below the surface, the bottom of Pavilion Lake is dotted with something resembling coral reefs: domes and cones and weird shapes much like artichokes. These are not corals, though, which are colonies of tiny animals: they are rock formations called microbialites, made by and coated in cyanobacteria. Sometimes misleadingly referred to as ‘blue-green algae’, these bacteria probably even made the rocks they live on, absorbing nutrients from the water and leaving stone behind. Like plants, they live on sunlight, and they thrive in shallow waters down the steep underwater slope to the point where sunlight fades to gloom.

They are the reason for NASA’s interest, and my visit. The people I’ve come here to see have even bigger things in mind. They want to know what the rare formations in Pavilion Lake might tell us about the origins of life on Earth, life on other worlds and, indeed, what life is, exactly. [Read the rest at Mosaic….]

Thanks to Darlene Lim, Donnie Reid, camp chef Shane Smitna (who let me join the research crew for meals), Tyler Mackey, Frances Rivera-Hernandez, Allyson Brady, Dale Anderson, Zena Cardman, David Lynn, and John Chaput. (Apologies to Dale and Zena for not having the space to include some quotes from you. Even with 3000 words to work with, I couldn’t fit half of what I needed into the story!)

Special thanks and appreciation to the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation, on whose land Pavilion Lake sits.

A tribute to a great African-American planetary scientist

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Meet Claudia Alexander, NASA Badass Who Never Got Her Due

In a field dominated by white men, Claudia Alexander was a pioneer

For The Daily Beast:

Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko is a tiny world of ice and rock, just 5 kilometers long. The comet is shaped vaguely like a rubber duck, with steep cliffs and other prominent features that stand much taller in relation to the size of the world. One of remarkable features is a twin set of sharp “horns” on the head of the rubber duck, known now as C. Alexander Gate.

Claudia Alexander served as project scientist for the Rosetta mission, which is orbiting Comet 67P. Until her death in July, she helped lead the United States side of the project, coordinating the various scientific and engineering aspects of the mission. Last week, her colleagues named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor and memory, with her European Space Agency counterpart Matt Taylor making the announcement.

Alexander is the first, and so far only, African-American woman to achieve such a prestigious position on a space mission, and she did it twice: once for the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter and again for the Rosetta probe to Comet 67P. In fact, she was also the youngest ever appointed when she was picked at age 40 to be the final project scientist for the Galileo mission in 2000. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]