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 SpaceRef.com and NASAWatch.com, 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.

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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)





Antimatter Hazard Symbol finds early adopters!

26 10 2011

Credit: Ben McGee

Those who have been long-time readers will remember a proposition I made for an antimatter hazard symbol (otherwise and less formally called a “warning sign”) back in May of 2010, which was based on currently-accepted international hazard symbology and color schemes. 

Well, to date, I am excited to report that the symbol has found some early adopters across the cyberverse.  Foremost amongst these is the website, WeInterrupt.com, who made a stab at a somewhat technical, somewhat tongue-in-cheek article featuring the symbol last June.

Image credit: Armando/Redcrow Design, utilizing antimatter hazard symbol credit: Ben McGee

Much earlier, (a year ago last November,) the site “ParanoidNEWS.org” incorporated the symbol into a fairly fantastic, paranoid montage with a nuclear mushroom cloud (at right) cresting a somewhat crass article about the potential development of antimatter weaponry. 

Patently alarmist, and the color scheme was artistically distorted, but still a cool image.

Finally, in August, a blog called “AngelsDoSpeak” included the symbol in a breakdown of potential nuclear fallout or activity symbols.  (The purpose of the symbol’s inclusion here on a religious site was a little confusing or perhaps ominous, but I’m happy with adopters all the same.)

While I should note that there have been other internet-promoted proposals for an antimatter hazard symbol, I feel quite strongly (based on my current work in the radiological protection industry) that instead of attempting to promote a new glyph or design into the hazard iconograhy pantheon, any antimatter symbol should derive from internationally-recognized symbology already in place.  This symbol should then simply be evolved/modified to capture antimatter’s potential hazard as a highly-reactive source of radiative energy, which I believe the above symbol does quite nicely.

-And while this effort is admittedly precautionary, the recent discovery that the Earth’s magnetic field traps naturally-ocurring antiprotons into a belt (a la the Van Allen Radiation Belts) may make orbital harvesting of antimatter a plausible pursuit.

In any case, feel free to promote the hazard symbol or use in your own projects or research if you so desire, and as always, comments are welcome.





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.





Proposing an Antimatter Hazard Symbol

6 05 2010

Proposed Antimatter Hazard Symbol. Credit: Me

As the most potent potential fuel we are familiar with at this stage in our development as a civilization, I think it’s time we talk about getting serious about Antimatter.

For those unfamiliar, Antimatter is atomically identical to normal matter, but electrically (and subatomically) backward.  Electrons become positrons, and protons become anti-protons, particles with opposite electrical charges.  (Think of flipping over the batteries in your remote control, so the “plus” side is now the “minus.”)  Anyway, when matter and antimatter interact, they are both completely anihillated and converted to pure energy in a release that makes nuclear warheads quake in their boots.  (Gene Roddenberry had it right 40 years ago when he powered his fictional interstellar craft with it.)

To this day, Antimatter is the only thing we know of that could power inter-star-system or galactic space transportation technology, real or imagined, and get the job done in a practical amount of time, (read: a single human lifetime).

This brings us to the present, where I currently find myself buried in 10 CFR 835 federal regulations for work.  They’re the regulations our government has put into place to protect workers and the public from sources of radiation and properly warn them of areas of radiation and radioactive contamination.  These rules relate heavily to symbology and the implementation of the familiar yellow-and-black radiation symbol.

You can see where this is going.  Should we decide to seriously consider Antimatter as the fuel (read: energy storage) source that it has the potential to be, we are going to need to seriously consider warning people about it.  The first step is creating a hazard identity.

There have been a couple of attempts at an Antimatter Hazard Symbol floating around the web, but I haven’t found that they adequately address the risks nor do they necessarily coincide with accepted symbology.  Why not start with something familiar?  I think the radiation tre-foil is panic-inducing enough to serve as an acceptable starting point…

So, the thought evolution of my proposed antimatter symbol is simple:

  • The trefoil already represents radiative energy from a point, so why not start there?  It’s already internationally recognizable.
  • Instead of one point in the symbol center, use two overlapping inverted-color circles, representing the interaction of matter and antimatter.
  • Instead of solid trefoil blades, bisect them to provide the visual appearance of even more energy released than radioactive matter.
  • Instead of yellow, a warning color, use red, a color associated with grave danger or death.  The background color doesn’t matter so much, as long as it provides a high contrast with the red.  I like navy, violet, or black.

And there you go.  People will get it, even if they aren’t specifically familiar.  It immediately looks like a radiation symbol, only worse.  Stay away.  Find someone who has proper instrumentation and knowhow before you start messing with whatever you’ve got in your hands with this symbol on it.

UPDATE 04/2012: For more info and subsequent uses of the symbol, click here!

Thoughts, anyone?

Better in black? (reader-suggested)

Second, modified example: (feel free to use any of these in your own projects/work!)

Credit: Ben McGee








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