Scientific News (July 2018)

Watch the skies

Following a break of 60 years, studies of the sky are to take place once again at the Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG). The ROG has seen restorative work inside its Grade II listed Alt-azimuth Pavilion; in addition, two brand new telescopes have been installed.

The facility will be named after one of the first females scientists that originally worked at the ROG, Annie Maunder who, through her work discovered key information about the sun. It will highlight her efforts and input at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The new facility and instruments will be used as a resource for school children, as well as amateurs and professionals. The telescope will be used in studies connected with the Sun and the planets in our solar system. The telescope will also allow users to view more distant stars as well as planetary nebulae, the space dust and gases between the stars, which will eventually form other stars, planets and celestial debris.

During the last few decades, astronomers have been forced to leave the inner cities for observing, due to factors such as light pollution and smog filled skies. Due to cleaner air and advances in technology though, astronomers are finally able to return to the Royal Observatory.

The Greenwich site was founded in 1675 by King Charles II, and was to be used as the British epicentre for mapping stars and to compile tables that would be used for navigational purposes at sea. The site was used up until 1957, when scientists were forced to find new observation sites in countryside locations to move away from bad air quality and appalling light pollution conditions within the city.

Dr Louise Devoy, the Curator of ROG said of Maunder, “She remained on staff here in Greenwich until 1895 when she had to resign because, as per civil service rules back then, she couldn’t be married,” she went on to explain, “she remained very active, particularly with the British Astronomical Association, and indeed she came back to Greenwich in World War 1 as a volunteer because of the shortage of staff when all the men joined up.”

“The new telescope set-up will have a huge capability to image the Sun, with a special hydrogen alpha filter so you can really see activity such as flares”. Communications are taking place with many universities across the country, offering Greenwich as a base for their studies.

The ROG are keen to involve the public as much as possible. Images that are collected by the AMAT will be available to view online, and the content will be shared by the Peter Harrison Planetarium. In addition to this, the ROG are also keen on introducing workshops at the observatory. The entire ground floor of the pavilion will be dedicated to exhibitions, in particular the main exhibition will feature Annie Maunder herself.


Aelous catches its second wind

16 years ago the European Space Agency announced plans to develop and design the wind measuring satellite Aelous. Since then, the project has faced many problems and failed to meet many deadlines along the way, until now.

The ESA have announced that the satellite is now ready for its designated launch window. The satellite has been designed and developed to produce the most wide-ranging maps of wind movement across the globe. Over the years, engineers working on the team have met many obstacles and struggled to perfect the technologies required for its ultraviolet laser system.

Many scientists feel that the ESA should be somewhat embarrassed by the amount of time that it has taken to complete the satellite, yet the ESA have said via a spokesperson that they are proud that they did not give up on this difficult technical challenge.

The satellite will orbit at 320km above the Earth. Its onboard laser will track the movement of tiny particles and molecules to establish the direction and the speed of the winds through the atmosphere. Once the information has been gathered and measured, it will be sent back to the satellite on a return signal.

The information retrieved will be given to meteorologists, who in turn will make any adjustments that they need to their numerical models so that the information mirrors that of the satellite, paving a way for operational weather satellites with lasers.

Currently, atmospheric dynamics are measured using various instruments from anemometers to other satellites. Wind measurements are taken from the movements in the waves in seawater, however, these measurements come with some limiting factors, as readings are taken from many locations and different heights above sea level. Aeolus will be able to take readings in order to build a global view of the Earth’s winds at various heights, from the Earth’s surface up to 30km into the stratosphere.

It was only 4 years ago where inaccurate readings failed to warn authorities in Northern Europe about forthcoming floods. It was after these events that data was analysed in an attempt to answer why meteorologists did not see the event coming. Analysts confirmed that inaccurate wind data was recorded 6 days prior in the Central Pacific, which meant that readings were out by approximately 11km. A mistake was made in the initial wind speeds and direction that spread towards Europe. Although accurate readings could not have prevented the floods, cities and towns affected could have better prepared themselves.

Aeolus has been designed to help mitigate the possibility of disasters like this, as well as to inform the many areas of life that rely on forecasting wind conditions, such as sailors, high-towered construction sites and energy companies. Technical problems with the design caused much of the delay in the final completion of the new satellite. Issues such as the laser damaging its own optics had to be dealt with, as well as sourcing the correct specification of diodes required to generate the correct frequency laser pulses.

Engineers were enthralled at first when the mission was starting to take shape, until the realisation set in that their design would not actually be able to work in the vacuum of space – an important and necessary condition. The team were faced with the huge problem in that in an absence of atmosphere, the laser ended up corrupting its own optics, once the high-energy beam hit the mirrors and lenses, damaging the optics.

Teams of engineers and scientists were involved in creating and developing new coatings for the varied conditions. Eventually a team established that if they could introduce a small amount of oxygen (40 pascals) to the device it would prevent the optics carbonising.  The provisional launch date has been pencilled in for 21st August 2018, when Aeolus will be launched onboard a Vega rocket.


New particle behaviour forces rethink in the Standard Model

Jubilant physicians based in the US seem to have stumbled upon a new particle based on 15 years of MiniBooNE data at Fermilab. Since the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, physicians initially predicted major new discoveries. These have not materialised, until now.

Data shows that there is a high possibility that an undetected form of neutrino, the so-called ‘Sterile Neutrino’ has laid dormant until now. Neutrinos are known and described as the “most intriguing residents of the zoo of particles”, otherwise known as the Standard Model (SM). They weakly interact with other elementary particles, which has led them to be otherwise named “ghost particles”, with the ability to transform into different forms. Electron Neutrinos, Muon Neutrinos and Tau Neutrinos are amongst the same group; a fourth has been previously proposed but had yet to be detected.

The significance of the Sterile Neutrino is high as it would enforce the new physics which lies before the Standard Model and highlights yet another part in the jigsaw that is the formation of the Universe, which in turn will affect all the other related cosmology models.

The 15-year-old data at Fermilab, Illionois has indicated that there are small traces of Electron Neutrinos that are interacting with “atomic nuclei” inside a tank of mineral oil. The Neutrinos have been created by Protons that have been aimed at a target made of Beryllium. These Muon Neutrinos then travel onwards to an underground detector. Once the neutrinos are moving, some then transform into an Electron Neutrino.

These findings do not come without their own potential problems in the explanation of the Sterile Neutrino; according to reports from further neutrino experiments such as IceCube and Minos, no evidence has been found to support the existence of a particle of this kind. Other scientific researchers have also failed to reproduce the same outcome from the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) research.

“Independent results from different experiments are needed” explained Ray Jayawardhana, Dean of Science and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at York University. The University of Manchester’s, Stefan Söldner-Rembold clarified that publishing the paper was the right thing to do at this time, and that even though other interpretations could be made, the statistics are strong. In his words, “time will only tell”.

Jayawardhana explained how complex the problem of determining the exact nature of such quantum particles. “The statistical significance you can assign a value to, if you think you understand what the other particle backgrounds are… but if you’re not able to account for that background very well, it complicates matters, that’s the way science is”.

Should the Sterile Neutrino remain as a candidate for Dark Matter, and the excess of the Electron Neutrinos observed by MiniBooNE would represent such particles, then it is understood that it would be too light and not compatible with the models for Dark Matter; however, research continues with experiments to detect Dark Matter particles at the Xenon 1T based at the underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy.


Comms cables repurposed for seismic detection

The detection of earthquakes across the globe could become easier with the use of new technology. A fibre-optic communications cable has been used by researchers in the geologically active region of Reykjanes, Iceland has yielded some promising results. The cables have been laid underneath the ground, very much like normal internet and television service cables.

Although the initial research and results have been successful, it is not ready for widespread use just yet. The new system is just another advance in the measurement of seismic activity. Other devices have included smartphone apps and utilise more detection hardware.

Seismometers have traditionally been used to monitor earthquake activity, but these devices can be expensive pieces of equipment, and not only do they require careful calibration they must also be positioned in the correct locations.  The research team used a 15km fibre-optic cable that had been installed underground in 1994 between two geothermal power plants in Iceland. Dr Phillippe Jousset from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences led the team, and was initially unsure what their findings would be. Their technique of sending a laser pulse down the single fibre of the cable proved sufficient. The team were able to detect local traffic, seismic shaking and pedestrians, and also recorded signals from an earthquake based in Indonesia.

The team were pleased with their findings, however the instrument that they use to attach to the fibre-optic cable is expensive. To overcome this, the team are concurrently searching for cheaper, more cost-effective alternatives. Once researchers have found a solution, then we could be seeing their work becoming widely available across the globe.

Geophysicist at The US Geological Survey (USGS), Dr Elizabeth Cochran believes that the new technology could be functional soon for Early Warning Systems, once the technology has been tried, tested and refined. Cochran would like to see the technology used in the thousands of kilometres of cables that are already underground across major cities around the globe. “If we can tap into these cables and figure out how to interpret the data accurately, then there is a very exciting potential for very dense sensor networks everywhere that there are cables”.

Obstacles could lie in the way though as Cochran explains. “A lot will depend on the willingness of communications companies to buy into the concept, and to offer use of their cables at minimal or no cost”. The team, along with Dr Jousset have successfully found businesses across Europe that are willing to negotiate use of the their existing underground networks, and to conduct further investigations and studies.

Jousset remains optimistic about the new technology. “At present there are more and more possibilities, so the prices are going down. It could be operational in a few years’ time. Not everywhere, but somewhere.”


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Scientific News (June 2018)

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