Scientific News (October 2017)

It’s an ill wind

A satellite, belonging to NASA has been providing fresh information involving carbon dioxide (CO2) and the way it moves through the atmosphere.  The satellite, known as the “Orbiting Carbon Observatory” (OCO) has been providing scientists with new insights into – and the behavioural movements of – CO2 throughout 2015/2016, during a time when Earth experienced an El Nîno event.

This is when the Trade Winds weaken in the Central and Western areas of the Pacific.  The surface water temperatures in South America warm up, due to less cold water welling up from below to cool the surface. The clouds and rainstorms associated with warm ocean waters then move towards the East as a consequence.  During this dramatic climate change, the amount of CO2 rises in the atmosphere.

The OCO satellite has been able to provide details of how the levels of the gas in the atmosphere increased, and that due to El Nîno, the tropical rainforests to react to the weather conditions, responding to both the heat and the arid conditions.  Data collected, revealed that the forest’s ability to pull down carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere dramatically weakened.

These recent findings suggest that this phenomenon is likely to become more common due to global warming.

If scientists are correct with their findings, and our future climate will see an increase in El Nîno phenomena, the Earth could suffer a massive reduction in the natural carbon dioxide removal process that is catalysed in the tropical rain forests. The theory is that CO2 levels will increase, accelerating global warming.

It was during 2015/2016 that Earth experienced one of the largest El Nîno events in recent memory, and evidence provided by scientists clearly showed a rise in CO2 levels.

We would normally see a concentration of CO2 rise in the atmosphere, approximately by about two parts per million by volume (ppmv) to air molecules; this is equivalent to an extra four gigatons of additional CO2.  The current levels show just over 400ppmv.  During the period of 2015/2016, this figure rose to 3ppmv (six gigatons). The Earth has not seen increases comparable to these figures for at least 2000 years.

Although the amount of carbon dioxide emissions has been blamed on human activities during this period, human emissions were in fact comparatively lower. Therefore, it is believed that some of the natural processes that were thought to be responsible for partially removing CO2 from the atmosphere were in fact flawed.

The OCO satellite has the facility to track the CO2 whilst observing the amount of photosynthesis within vegetation,  and finally provided the answer that had baffled scientists.  Scientists discovered that following the drought in South America, the largest witnessed for over 30 years had affected what little vegetation had been left and its ability to process and consume CO2.

During the El Nîno period, the above average temperatures in Africa saw the decomposition of plants increase, which led to carbon dioxide being released into the Earth’s atmosphere. In Asia, the arid landscapes saw extensive widespread fires, predominately in Indonesia.  These fires went on to cause the release of peat carbon that had accrued over thousands of years across the burning land.

The OCO proved its worth during these investigations, enabling scientists to understand exactly how El Nîno had affected the Earth in different locations. The results from the OCO observations have been described as groundbreaking. This will be the first time that observations by scientists witnessing atmospheric compositions along with land and ocean properties have demonstrated that there process is more dynamic than previously thought.

Scientists have praised the efforts of the team behind OCO, and the future looks bright for future carbon-monitoring satellite systems. Although OCO can only monitor a range approximately 10km wide when orbiting the Earth, it is believed that the European Space Agency are planning a larger group of satellites that have been provisonally name Sentinel-7, which it is hoped will expand the size of the monitoring area but remain equally as meticulous, and pin point countries that do not meet the agreed carbon emissions agreements based under the Paris Climate Accord of 2015.


A big wave to Einstein

Three researchers, who are members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO Virgo)) have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics following their detection of gravitational waves.

MIT Physicist Rainer Weiss was presented with half the prize whilst the other half was awarded to the Californian Institute of Technology Physicists Barry Barish and Kip Thorne.

It was in 1915 that Albert Einstein first predicted gravitational waves, but it wasn’t until a century after this that LIGO discovered the signal generated by two black holes which were observed to have been colliding and eventually merging, forming these predicted gravitational waves.  The published work from the researchers was revealed in February 2016.

Boschi has described the findings as opening new windows into the universe when describing his work at the European Gravitation Observatory in Pisa, Italy.  Weiss, Thorne and Barish were recognised for their pivotal efforts with the LIGO detector including their observations of gravitational waves by the Nobel Prize Committee.

It was during the 1970’s that Weiss had original designed a device called a Laser-Based Interferometer. It was a complex device used to search to gravitational movements within the solar system.  The system worked with a laser beam that was fired down two lengths of perpendicular tubes. The generated beams would then be deflected by mirrors at the base. Because of the deflection and change of the beams on their return journey, each light wave would then cancel the other out, meaning that none of the photons generated would reach the detector.  During a gravity wave, distortion in the space and distance between the mirrors changes the alignments of the light waves, meaning that the interference generated would create a measurable change, as some of the photons would escape and be detected.  Measurements could then be taken, ending with a gravitational wave measurement.

During these findings, Weiss also found possible causes of noise that can hide the gravitational wave signals, such as changes in the power of the light source.  LIGO was able to use two detectors that had been spaced apart by approximately 3200km. Both of these detectors were able to pick up the gravitational wave signal created by the colliding back holes during September 2015.

University of Birmingham Experimental Physicist and member of the LIGO collaboration, Andreas Freise described the work as a driving force behind the projects, and believes that without their work, vision and energies the project would not be where it is today. Weiss had been predominantly involved in electronics and mechanics prior to his more recent work, whereas Thorne’s work was more theoretical, having written extensive reports about gravity.  By taking over the project in the 1990’s, Barish “rescued” it after scientists at Caltech struggled to deal with the sheer number of scientists and researchers involved, and that the group’s inexperience coupled with the usual academic problems meant that the project struggled to make important decisions on the direction of its research. LIGO’s collaboration has now amassed 1,167 members.

Their work has been praised by other Experimental Physicists in the field, hailing this as a breakthrough that has, as usual created more questions than answers, which is the norm in theoretical physics.


Great timing

A record holding atomic clock has been unveiled as the worlds steadiest metronome.  The new clock has a tick rate which makes it six times more precise than the previous record holder.

The time is measured by counting the oscillations of light within a laser beam at a rate of 430 trillion times per second.  Strontium atoms  within the clock’s power source, ‘tick’ after each oscillation, which can be accurately detected by the fluctuations within the beam as a result of the decay of these atoms.  Previous efforts to determine of such devices had been thwarted and limited somewhat due to the atoms losing their rhythm.  This was caused by strontium atoms having to ‘queue’ within a laminated cloud of other Strontium atoms within the source, which in turn made the atoms more liable to bump into each other, creating a loss of rhythm.

The new clock works differently, and has been described as stacking the decaying atoms into ‘egg carton stacks’ above each other. In quantum mechanical terms, the atoms appear locked into a more rigid formation, and are therefore unable to interfere with each other as much.

The newly structured formation has helped to mirror the time length of time of each of the clock’s tick.  Following a test of over an hour, results show that each tick of the clock were identical to each other with the error now in question merely a couple of quadrillionths of a second.

The accuracy and precision of timekeeping is vital for scientists, so that they can move forward to improve the classifications for standard units of measure.  By retaining accurate records, it will additionally aid physicists to notice any minute variations in relation to the speed of time elapsing in different places.   These studies could also assist the work of scientists trying to catch the variation of gravitational waves moving through space, indicating the different areas where gravity is warping – excellent news considering this week’s Nobel prize announcement.


This could suit everybody one day

A robotic suit has been developed to allow the wearer to make an assisted turning motion. The figure hugging outfit allows the person wearing it turn as they continue to walk without causing injury.  It has in fact been developed as a step forward to improve the recovery and healing of people with injuries, without having to suffer a long duration stay  in hospital.  The suit has been developed for wearers to take home as their support during their recuperation at home instead of hospital.

Described as an “Exosuit”, the researchers have taken the concept of robotic exoskeletons that are used during times of rehabilitation.  These robotic exoskeletons assist the wearer to walk and move joints in the correct places.  With the use of small actuators placed at the joints, a force is then transmitted to the device that then enables the wearer to move their own weakened joints.

However, the exoskeletons that are currently used do have flaws; although their wearers can bend joints enabling a forward motion, these do not allow the wearer to turn.

A research team from Panasonic in Japan, looked at this problem, and have grasped the issue with both hands with their forward thinking, and have designed a suit that fits snugly against the wearers body, very much like Spandex but incorporating an external motion source.  The source is on the rear of suit, and contains 8 actuators, as well as batteries and a control system. Rather than using motors placed on the joints, it conceals four of the actuators placed at the hips that control an arrangement of soft plastic wires that are criss-crossed. These wires have been designed to copy the movement of human muscles, which then in turn contract to produce movements.  The unique aspect of this particular suit is that it is designed so that the fabric is tightly covering the legs, which then allow variable amalgamations of motor/muscle combinations, thus enabling the wearer to turn.

Tests were carried out using 5 able-bodied wearers, each wearing the exosuit whilst keeping their eyes closed.  Each case study showed that the suit enabled everyone to change direction whilst they retained their balance. Although tests were positive, some tweaks still need to be made in order to make the suit easier to control.  Researchers are currently in the process of designing a sensor unit that enables the onboard control system to detect a small turning movement, and using feedback, the system will then assist and complete the rest of the movement for the wearer.  A sitting and standing motion sensor is also under investigation.

It is the researcher’s intentions to expand the trials of the suits to people with disabilities, the elderly and people that have lost their mobility following suffering a stroke.  The idea is to provide a suit to improve the wearers quality of life and thus aid them to live independently. The suit is very thin, so the wearer could wear it underneath their daily attire so that is not immediately visible to others.


Scientific News (September 2017)

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