The Antimatter Plot Thickens…

30 04 2013

I realize it’s been egregiously silent here at the Astrowright blog for some time.  Apparently, I am not immune to the same disappointing (as a reader) dry spells experienced in/by so many other blogs I’ve followed during the years. 

(With grad school, teaching at CSN, my day-job working for DOE, a side-business or two in flux, moonlighting the occasional and surreal TV project, and with a 1&1/2-year-old at home – let’s just say I’ve come to terms with the reality that I’m not a juggling Jedi yet.)

Excuses aside, however, I wanted to take a moment to relay a devastatingly exciting potential discovery, which itself was prompted by a pleasant surprise…

CERN's ALPHA experiment.  (Credit: CERN)

CERN’s ALPHA experiment – our Anti-Virgil into Dante’s Antimatter Inferno? (Credit: CERN)

Antimatter in Focus

AntimatterSymbolOnlyAs reported on and, which prominently featured the antimatter symbol I created a couple of years back (i.e., the pleasant surprise – thanks, Keith!), we may be one giant leap closer to figuring out antimatter – and with it, peer a little farther into the mysterious underpinnings of the Fundamental Forces of Nature.

In an article titled, “Does Antimatter Fall Up or Down?” Keith Cowing reports that researchers at CERN’s Alpha Experiment recently published in Nature Communications their tantalizing antimatter research progress.  

Specifically, these CERN specialists have identified a process for finally determining whether or not gravity acts upon antimatter the same way it does upon “ordinary” matter, even if they haven’t answered the question quite yet.  (See Keith’s article for more details on their experiment, what it means, and where it’s going.)

Down the Anti-Rabbit Hole

So, why do we or should we care about figuring out what antimatter really is and how the universe treats it?  Well, quite simply, it has the possibility of providing new solutions to many current problems in physics. 

Dark EnergyDark Matter, and questions about early Cosmic Inflation all essentially deal with versions of the same issue: There are apparent problems with the amount of force we see in the universe versus how much we should expect. 

Perhaps a shift in our understanding of fundamental forces, like gravity, will shed new light.

This is to say nothing of the mystery concerning why the universe appears to be all matter and generally no antimatter.  According to physics as we understand it, there’s no reason for the bias.  (Why not areas of high concentrations of antimatter and others of normal matter?)

Why did matter win?

And to make matters yet more interesting, the late, great Dr. Richard Feynman (and others) have described antimatter as being inditinguishable from (or perhaps actually being!) ordinary matter moving backwards through time.  While few physicists believe this is actually the case, it certainly bends neurons considering that it remains a physical possibility*.

(*I should note that this idea of antiparticles moving “backwards” in time, in order to be true, requires a reconstruction of what we mean by “time.”  This is because antiparticles don’t blip out of existence as they move to the “past” with respect to us as we, presumably, continue to move into the “future.”  Instead, we remain with the antiparticles in the same measurable “now” in the universe…)

Antimatter – A Guiding Star

Keep an eye on this one, folks.  It could very well be that the study of antimatter provides us the wedge we need to evolve beyond peering through the keyhole at the universe and instead throw open the door.

Optimistic?  Admittedly. 

However, we’re due for our big 21st Century paradigm shift in the sciences.  What with the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium hinting at what the future has to offer us (along with humanity’s expanding view of our galactic neighborhood and our desire to get out there and engage it), it’s high time we get on inventing that superluminal propulsion system to Alpha Centauri, already.

I’m not getting any younger.


Antimatter Hazard Symbol pops up!

18 04 2012

Antimatter containment pod as rendered in Second Life. Note the triangular Antimatter Hazard Symbol at left. (Image credit: Benjamin Swem; Symbol credit: Ben McGee)

A red-letter day!  The Antimatter Hazard Symbol I proposed nearly two years ago has found its first physical application!

…Well, pseudo-physical, anyway.

While the symbol, (which is based on internationally-accepted color coding in combination with Title 10 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Part 835, Subpart G posting guidelines,) has found its way into online articles here-and-there, it hadn’t found it’s way onto something more substantial until now.

Second view of the antimatter containment pod as rendered in Second Life. Note the triangular Antimatter Hazard Symbol at left. (Image credit: Benjamin Swem; Symbol credit: Ben McGee)

Benjamin Swem, a Second Life user also known as Krahazik Zaytsev, recently asked my permission to use the symbol.  His application?  In true, classical science-fiction fashion, it was to be affixed to an antimatter containment pod powering a fictitious spacecraft he was in the process of creating to sell in-world.

I’m must say I’m quite pleased with the result.

The symbol, for those who hadn’t seen my original proposal, is a modification of the familiar radiation “trefoil,” replacing the “caution” yellow-and-black coloring with the more threatening “danger” red-and-black.  Each of the radiation “foils” has been bisected to impart the concept of additional energy, the foils themselves have been inverted to further distinguish it from a “ordinary” radiation trefoil, and the center of the symbol is two inverted circles overlapping (instead of one circle) to represent the interaction of matter with antimatter. 

Instantly familiar, intuitive, yet more ominous is what I was after.  (A symbol doesn’t do anyone any good if no one recognizes it, so why not leverage existing symbology as an advantage?)

  • *For the scientifically-inclined, the radiation symbol is also very technically-accurate one.  Considering the actual threats posed by antimatter, a primary danger of proximity to annihilating antimatter (even in storage systems!) is from gamma-rays emitted as particles and anti-particles collide.  For electrons and positrons, this energy is a gamma-ray with peak energy observed at 511 keV, which can penetrate even very thick shielding.  (We actually use the annihilation of naturally-occuring positrons to help calibrate our instruments, so make no mistake, antimatter exists! – Just naturally in small enough quantities that it doesn’t really cause any negative effects.)

Admittedly, it’s a bit early to be terribly concerned with protecting the public from incidental encounters with antimatter – but thinking about it ahead-of-time can’t hurt.

And in fact, with the relatively-recent discovery of natural sources of antimatter, we may develop the ability to amass stores of the material sooner than we imagined.

So, feel free to use the hazard symbol as you wish; All I ask is that you just let me know how you intend to use it and send me a link or image of the result!

Proposed Antimatter Hazard Symbol, modeled after 10 CFR 835 requirements for Radiation labeling and posting. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Summer Hits: Martian Water, Asteroid Nukes, Orbital Antimatter!

1 10 2011

Here’s a recap of some of this summer’s greatest hits in space news that you might have missed:

Water on Mars

Dark streaks as summer flow features in Newton Crater, Mars. (Credit: NASA)

In an utterly tantalizing development, scientists analyzing imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have announced what appears for all the world to be direct evidence of water on Mars!

Because the MRO has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2006, it has been able to view the same portions of the world at different times of year with an eye toward spotting any potential seasonal changes.  This past August, the MRO team reviewing this growing dataset hit paydirt.

Specifically, the team identified dark streaks on the slopes of steep terrain in the southern hemisphere that are found during Martian spring and summer; these features disappear during Martian winter only to return once again the following spring.

While there are multiple possible explanations, the most likely amongst them appears to be the flow of briny (salty) groundwater that warms in the hotter months, breaches the surface, and evaporates/sublimates as it flows downhill.

Time will tell on this one, but all eyes should be on the possibility of subsurface briny Martian aquifers!

Russian “Armageddon”

Asteroid impact as depicted in the film "Deep Impact." (Credit: Paramount/Dreamworks)

This past August, Russian scientists took a note from Hollywood and seriously proposed the use of nuclear weapons as a means of asteroid mitigation.

Under the scenario, a dual-spacecraft architecture would be employed, with one spacecraft, called “Trap,” ferrying a nuclear warhead to the target while a second spacecraft, “Kaissa,” (apparently and intriguingly named after the mythical goddess of chess,) analyzes the target asteroid’s composition to determine the appropriate warhead use scenario (deflection vs. break-up).

The spacecraft would be lofted by a Soyuz-2 rocket and/or Russia’s upcoming Rus-M rocket.

While much contemporary research casts doubt on the ultimate effectiveness of a nuclear detonation in such a context, the proposers stressed that the technique would only be used on approaching objects up to 600 yards in diameter.

Orbital Antimatter Belt

Antiprotons trapped in the Earth's magnetic field (in pink). (Credit: Aaron Kaase/NASA/Goddard)

Also this past August, researchers published a stunning (but in retrospect, sensible) discovery in Astrophysical Journal Letters: Earth possess a natural orbiting belt of concentrated antiprotons.

Succinctly, the interactions of high-energy cosmic radiation with the Earth’s atmosphere can produce infinitesimal and ordinarily short-lived bursts of antimatter.  These antiparticles normally react with standard matter present around the Earth and annihilate.

However, in the near-vacuum of space beyond the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere, some of these antimatter particles are spared immediate destruction.  Many of these antiprotons are then herded by the Earth’s magnetic field into bands or belts, which were recently discovered by the antimatter-hunting satellite PAMELA.

Aside from the “gee-whiz” factor, there are certain technical and economic reasons to get excited about the finding.  For starters, the energy density of antiprotons is on the order of a billion times greater than conventional chemical batteries.  However, at a current production cost on Earth of nearly $63 trillion per gram, antiprotons are a bit hard to come by and even less practical to use for anything other than research; Identifying a natural reservoir such as, say, a naturally-produced orbiting belt could open up additional avenues of use for antimatter as well as be immensely lucrative… if only one could solve the lightning-in-a-bottle problem of antimatter storage.

In any case, this is definitely something to keep an eye on.  For the less techno-jargon-inclined, news reports on the find may be found from the BBC as well as Science Magazine.

Japanese lunar light farming

1 06 2011

Rendering of a solar array ring on the Moon's surface. (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

Definition of mixed emotions: Reading an ambitious plan recently released by the Shimizu Corporation of Japan that effectively wields fear of radiation to incentivize lunar colonization for solar power generation. 

Wow.  While I abhor anything that preys upon the irrational fear of nuclear energy, I’m all for the use of solar power.  (I’d like to make the ironic point here that “solar power” is also nuclear energy – the result of a giant nuclear fusion reactor, albeit a natural one.)  I’m also certainly for anything that makes an extraterrestrial business case, and I further endorse any plan that leads us off-world so that we can begin developing the practical know-how to live there.  Throw in the fact that the endeavor would ease stress on the terrestrial ecosystem at the same time, and the idea seems like a home run.

Diagram depicting the lunar power delivery process. (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

How does it work?  Quite simply.  Called the LUNA RING, solar arrays are to be installed across the lunar surface in an equatorial belt.  Panels on the sun-facing side of the Moon then deliver energy via circumferential transmission lines to laser and microwave transmitters on the Earth-facing side.  These transmitters then beam the energy to receiving stations on the Earth, providing power enough for all.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it may be.  The problem, like many great ideas, is funding.  The technology is all but completely available to make an attempt, but the capital costs here are incomprehensible.  Yet-to-be-invented tele-robotics plays a major role in construction, (which as I’ve previously mentioned is a very smart move,) and when weighed in combination with untried lunar transport, operations, and manufacturing techniques, equates to a seriously steep R&D curve.

However, this sort of distance planning can demonstrate that the basic elements already exist, which may be exactly what we need to convince  governments and the power industry that the venture is possible.  And, if Japan suddenly puts the economic weight of the government behind a plan like this, e.g., by making a call to return to the Moon and by actually launching small-scale versions of this system, then we should all take note… and I believe we should all participate.

The International Space Station is an endeavor that has and will continue to benefit many.  An international effort to establish renewable lunar-terrestrial power production can benefit everyone, both immediately as well as by developing the skills we’ll need to expand into the cosmos.

Good on ya’, Shimizu Corporation, for thinking big.  Hopefully it’ll catch on.

A Radioactive Astronaut-Hopeful (Space update)

20 11 2010

Me probing an old military well in the Nevada wilderness for geologic data.

By education and trade, I’m a geologist, having worked now in the professional world for more than six years getting my boots dirty performing hydrogeology, water resources, drilling, geomorphology research, and environmental contaminant transport and remediation work in some of the most remote territory this country has to offer.  However, in my push toward becoming an astronaut, one may wonder why I suddenly think it’s a good idea to be working as a radiological engineer and pursuing graduate work in Radiation Health Physics (in addition to my Space Studies work at UND).

Why not study something more direct, like Planetary Geology (Astrogeology)?

The answer, while seemingly obscure, is simple:  What does geology, outer space, the Moon’s surface, Mars’s surface, and advanced spacecraft power and propulsion systems all have in common?  Radioactivity.

Boltwoodite and Torbernite, uranium-bearing mineral samples. (Credit: Ben McGee)

On Earth, (and other heavy rocky bodies,) radioactivity is a natural occurrence.  Plants (and even human beings) all beam out radioactive gamma rays from a natural isotope of Potassium.  (This is prevalent enough that you can calibrate your instruments to it in the wild.)  Even more to the point, radioactive Uranium and Thorium are more common in the Earth’s crust than Gold or Silver.  These elements are crucial to determining the ages of rocks.

Now, go farther.  As we move outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field, (i.e., orbit, Moon, Mars, and everything beyond and in-betwixt,) cosmic and solar radiation are essentially the greatest hazards an astronaut may face.  Radiation shielding and measurement are of primary importance.

Illustration of a manned NTR exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. (Credit: Douglas/Time Magazine, 1963)

Farther still, once a spacecraft travels beyond about Mars, the intensity of sunlight is such that solar panels are inadequate to supply necessary power.  Nuclear reactors, (Radioisotope-Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs,) are necessary.

Plus, in order to get out that far (to Mars or beyond) in a reasonable amount of time, our chemical rockets won’t provide enough kick.  Instead, Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs) are about the most efficient way to go, something I’m in the midst of researching in earnest.

Hence, in addition to having experience as a field geologist (for future visits to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.,) being trained to swing a radiation detector around, understanding the exact hazards radiation poses and how it works, and knowing your way around a nuclear reactor are all uniquely suited to space exploration.

Admittedly, it’s an unconventional path, but it’s my path: Riding gamma rays to the stars.

JAXA’s little space camera that could

17 06 2010

A quick update on the recently-launched IKAROS Japanese solar sail spacecraft:  Earlier this week the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reported visual confirmation that IKAROS’s solar sail has fully expanded as designed.

IKAROS solar sail fully deployed. Credit: JAXA

As you can see, a complete success!  Congratulations are in order all around to the IKAROS team as the craft enters into its full test mode and JAXA sees just how fast they can get this thing to go.

…But the real story here to me, considering that IKAROS is now on its way to Venus, is “How did they get this picture?”  The image is much too close for a remote telescope to have taken it.  It’s almost as though some unsung hero behind the lens stepped outside for a moment to snap a quick shot.

Enter the little camera that could:

Image of the Separation Camera prior to launch. Credit: JAXA

Unassumingly called “separation camera 1,” this tiny wireless device – one of two twin cameras small enough to fit inside a film canister that were packed next to IKAROS’s central structure – was launched away by spring and grabbed the hero shot of the solar sail as it drifted away.

What a cool idea, and it was flawlessly executed, to boot.

So, here’s to you, Separation Camera 1.  IKAROS gets all the glory, but without you, we’d have never seen it.

This Week: Space Falcons and Solar Sails

11 06 2010

It’s with no small sense of excitement that I report two important developments this past week.  First, of course, is the successful inaugural flight of the Falcon 9 rocket I’ve been following for some time now (herehere, and here).

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, June 4, 2010. Credit: SpaceX

As the frontrunner corporate replacement for NASA’s retiring Space Shuttle, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has proven with this launch that they have the right stuff.  Their proprietary Merlin-class engines, Falcon series rockets, and their Apollo-styled Dragon spacecraft are primed to keep the good ol’ USA in the space transportation game through the transition, lessening our reliance on Russia’s (Energia’s) Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.  Details of the Falcon 9 launch include what SpaceX claims is an “orbital bulls-eye” -a near-perfect circular orbit at an altitude of 155 miles- and a wealth of aerodynamic data during ascent that they will use to refine future launches.  If you haven’t seen it, check out a high-def video of the launch here.

IKAROS solar sail partially unfurled last week. Credit: JAXA

Secondly, I’d like to applaud the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA‘s) recent successful full deployment of their IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by the Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft’s solar sail.  (An illustration showing this process can be found here.)  The breakthrough craft, which was launched in late May, employs a hybrid sail intended to use solar radiation as a passive means of propulsion as well as a source of electrical power.

IKAROS is now on its way toward our sister planet, Venus.  During the next six months, JAXA researchers will step on the gas, orienting the sail for maximum acceleration to see how fast they can get IKAROS to go.  Should the light weight and utterly practical technology prove successful, look for similar systems to begin showing up on future spacecraft.

In all, a very exciting time, with much more on deck.  Stay tuned.

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