God of the Aquarium!

cosmos-a-space-time-odysseyI just finished watching an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey for the nth time. It is a warm evening with no beer. I resisted buying one for reasons unknown to me. I went out and had an Egg Burji from the street food vendor, bought a coke bottle and curd and returned to my room. It has now become a routine for me to stand on the terrace in the evening with a soft drink while staring at the stars and pondering existence. Today’s blog post is an idea that I had conceived a while ago. Many people believe that I am in some type of mission to disprove God’s existence. That is far from the truth. My mission through my blog posts is to elucidate my point of view. Atheists are sadly some of the most misunderstood and mistrusted people on planet earth and if I could make a small but significant contribution in clarifying our position, I would consider that a success.

The scale of our universe is enormous. This is a phrase repeated time and again in various TV shows such as Cosmos, The Universe, Through the Wormhole and the like. But how many of us truly stop for a second and let that idea sink in? Most of us simply watch the awe inspiring visuals of these programmes and forget it. We are Homo sapiens ; the thinking beings. Whether you like it or not, faith is not an excuse to stop thinking. It took just 4 centuries for us to move from the Dark Ages to achieving monumental feats like landing a man on the Moon. All thanks to the precision, tenacity and dedication of several visionaries. Brave men and women who were never afraid to question authority and challenge dogma and forge new ideas in the cauldrons of their minds about our understanding of the universe. They were the pioneers; the giants on whose shoulders we stand today.

Antibiotics - Printed Diagnosis with Blurred Text. On Background of Medicaments Composition - Red Pills, Injections and Syringe.

My question is, why then are there a vast majority of people in the world who comfortably embrace the benefits of modern science and yet want to hold onto medieval/pre-medieval superstitions and bronze age myths? If it wasn’t for the scientific method, we wouldn’t have things like antibiotics and organ transplant that is saving millions of lives every year. Often times I encounter people who ask me the question, “Has science been able to create artificial life?” or make statements like, “Science cannot explain everything“. Somehow according to them what science hasn’t yet achieved gives them room for God. The task I give to such people is to study the history of science and technology and see what they can infer from it. It’s not surprising that no one has taken up that task. If they did take up the task, they will find that throughout the history of science there have been people who made questions and statements like the one I just mentioned. And every time they have been proven wrong.

Once upon a time nobody believed that the sound barrier could be broken. I invite them to have a look at the supersonic jets and rockets of today. Heavier than air flying machine was thought to be impossible. Communication without wires was thought to be impossible. Splitting of atom was thought to be impossible. In fact in 1894 the famous physicist Albert Michelson said, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” Perhaps he meant well when he said this. However when we fast forward 3 years in 1897 the electron was discovered by Sir J. J Thompson thereby opening up a whole new world within our world. This is what happens every time in science. People point out at something that hasn’t been achieved by science as proof of science’s inability to do so. And time and again they are proven wrong.

Science requires a certain perspective to understand. Without such a perspective, it is nothing more than a boring set of laws and equations that are meant only for the nerds. Two years ago I had written a post called The Purpose of Life. It was about a question that was posed to me by a colleague of mine. Unlike the “triggers” of the infamous social justice warriors, this trigger was a good one. It prompted me to write a blog post. I will come to the main premise of today’s post which is the God of the Aquarium. It is actually a thought experiment devised by me a few years ago. If anyone is ready to take up the task, they are welcome to think about the following:

amaterske_akvariumImagine you wanted an aquarium in your living room. You can either build one or buy an already built one from a vendor. Let’s assume that you decided to build one. You bought the glass, the cement, sand, pebbles, aquatic plants and most importantly the fancy fishes. In addition, you need a setup for the lighting and filters for the water. By investing several hours or even days you finally build your aquarium with the sand, pebbles and aquatic plants at the bottom and all your beautiful fishes moving around in the water above. A good lighting and filtering system would make it a sight worth seeing and a crown jewel adorning your living room. All that is very nice but I have a simple question for you – “Have you ever thought about the little bacteria, viruses.algae, fungi and other microbial organisms living on the little specks of sand at the bottom of your aquarium?” They are also part of your aquarium and contribute to the biochemical activities of it. They are instrumental in many ways in maintaining the ecological balance of the system. And yet you are not feeding it like you would feed the fishes. You are not even bothered they exist. What difference would it make to you whether the bacteria on a little speck of sand lives or dies?

Now hold these thoughts for a moment. In the second paragraph I said that the scale of the universe is enormous. The observable universe is almost 93 billion light years in diameter (yes, it is a billion with a b!). That is just the observable part. The light from beyond that cosmic horizon hasn’t reached us yet and therefore we do not know what lies beyond. And even in the observable part of the universe there is so much yet to be discovered. In this humongous universe of ours, where is planet Earth? We live in a planet that revolves around an average star that resides in just one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, which is one of the galaxies in a Local Group of about 54 galaxies including our Milky Way and Andromeda. And our Local Group is part of something called the Virgo Supercluster which contains over 100 such galaxy groups. The Virgo Supercluster is part of an even bigger supercluster called the Laniakea which consists of three other superclusters namely Hydra-Centaurus, Pavo-Indus and the Southern Supercluster. It has an estimated 100,000 galaxies in it. Scientists have calculated that there are roughly 10 million superclusters in the observable universe. These 10 million superclusters give a mesh-like appearance to our universe at very large scales.

exoplanet20151006-16The first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star was discovered in 1995. It was named 51 Pegasi b. It is a hot Jupiter which takes about 4.2 earth days to orbit its parent star. Since then planetary scientists have discovered thousands of them. As of September 2016, there have been 3,518 confirmed discoveries in 2,635 planetary systems and 595 multiple planetary systems. That’s a huge number of planets within 21 years. It is safe to assume now that most stars do have planets orbiting them thereby making planets outnumber the stars. This means that there must be billions of planets out there in the observable universe. The recent discovery of Proxima Centauri b added another planet in the list of potentially habitable planets which you can see here. There is every likelihood that there are billions of intelligent civilizations in the universe. And our earth is just one speck of sand in the vast cosmic ocean.

Now think about your aquarium. Just as you don’t care much about the bacteria living on a speck of sand at the bottom of your aquarium, do you really think that a God or Supreme Being or Intelligent Designer who created a universe the scale of which blows our imagination would have any special preference to a particular species of creatures on planet earth? Why would he/she/it have kind of “soft corner” for our species at all? We are just living in a planet that is totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Is there any logical reason God could care about us more than any other intelligent alien civilization which is most likely out there? So what conclusion can you draw from this thought experiment?

Think about it!

Image Courtesy:

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey – https://fanart.tv/fanart/tv/260586/tvposter/cosmos-a-space-time-odyssey-531e9d1f246dd.jpg
Antibiotics – http://www.iran-daily.com/content/imgcache/file/147167/0/image_650_365.jpg
Aquarium – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Amaterske_akvarium.jpg
51 Pegasi b – http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/exoplanet/20151006/exoplanet20151006-16.jpg

Mars One – Aren’t We Going Too Fast?

Mars One is perhaps the hottest news in the aerospace and astrophysics fields. It gives hope to our species as a next step in becoming in a multi-planet civilization. This highly ambitious project of landing groups of brave men and women on the red planet does however have its fair share of critics some of whom include researchers at MIT and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I am curious to ask. Aren’t we going too fast with this project? Is 2024 the right time for human settlement in Mars?

Lessons from the Past

Every space mission prior to this have had several trial runs. For example the lunar missions involved first sending an orbiter around the moon followed by impactors/landers. While America went onto send humans to the moon the Soviet Union did unmanned sample returns. So it is clear that space missions to any celestial body should be done in stages.

NASA and other space agencies including India and Japan have achieved orbiting and landing capabilities on other celestial bodies. Therefore unmanned missions to Mars with the capability of returning samples from Mars in my opinion should be the next stage. Russia in 2011 attempted the Fobos-Grunt which was a sample return mission to the satellite of Mars called Phobos. The failure of the mission to even leave the Earth orbit proves how difficult it would be to pull off ambitious space programs.

When we talk about Mars missions, most of us only look at the success stories. We must all take a look at the number of Mars missions by both America and the Soviet Union which failed.

The Challenges

The challenges involved in long term spaceflight are quite different compared to missions to Earth orbit or even to the Moon. The biggest challenge is communication. Calculations show that the time delay for radio signals between Earth and Mars can vary from 3 minutes to up to 22 minutes depending on the position of the two planets at any given time. This makes all sorts of “real time” communication known to us useless. It is possible to have a web server orbiting around Mars that periodically synchronizes with servers on Earth. That way a copy of the world wide web can be provided for the astronauts in Mars. Emails can also be taken care with this solution.

However, the early astronauts going to Mars are not going there to use YouTube and Facebook. Their mission can go critical anytime and the time delay between the two planets will make a distress call an impossibility. Further, even if distress call does reach Earth, there is no way a rescue team can be sent and by the time a communication is sent back, the mishap could have already occurred.

This brings us to the second challenge – training. What type of training can equip a person to handle critical situations in an alien environment with no hope of getting help? Can the team be divided in qualifications or should every team member have all the qualifications. I remember one of my previous professors who said that a degree in medical sciences is important for every astronauts going to Mars despite their work. So dual degree specializations like engineering + medicine or physics + medicine should in his opinion become part of learning curriculum for astronauts to Mars. The justification he gave was that no crew would want to be in a situation where their only doctor is dead.

But is medicine the only compulsory specialization? How about instrumentation? Shouldn’t the astronauts who wishes to colonize Mars be masters in instrumentation? Teaching every crew member in everything will increase the cost and not teaching would be risky. So there is a tradeoff between cost and risk. According to Mars One website, the crew will undergo training starting this year until 2024. That is a total of 9 years training. It would be amazing if the crew does survive that training.

The Return

Some candidates selected for Mars One have told that many English people migrated to Australia and never returned. That may be true, but if they really want to return to England they can do that tomorrow. Christopher Columbus did return to Spain after his voyage to the West Indies. Vasco da Gama did return to Portugal after his voyage to India.

I am not being paranoid but let me give a scenario. Like in many science fiction movies, what if there is a life form on Mars that we haven’t yet found? What if this life form infects humans in negative ways? In such scenarios, the uninfected/unaffected crew members must have an option to escape the planet.

There is a difference between being brave and being foolhardy. A mission to Mars is amazing. But it shouldn’t be a suicide mission and definitely not a one-way trip. Even if the intention is to colonize the planet the crew members should have a chance to return home if the mission fails. And when it comes to Mars missions, the past teaches us that failure is part and parcel of it.

The Right Method

With all the problems described above, going to Mars is certainly the most risky and the most costly exploration program ever conceived. As Dr. Tyson already pointed out, private companies aren’t interested in investing in an endeavor with so many unknown parameters and huge risk. According to him this can cause Mars One to fail to get funding.

Should we then abandon the mission? Of course not! We are explorers by nature. Mars One or any other similar missions should never be abandoned. However, there must be some tweaks done to the existing methodology. As I said before, it should be done in stages. The following is a rough sketch of what can be done.

  • Sample Return – All space agencies in the world including the private ones should at least try one unmanned mission that involves going to Mars, taking samples and returning them to Earth. The more such missions we try, the better equipped we will become in preparing for a human spaceflight. This will also teach us about landing and take off with heavy payload on Mars.
  • Manned Orbiter Missions – It is a good idea to send a manned orbiter mission around Mars. Astronauts can spend a few orbits around the planet and return. This will simulate all the necessary physiological and psychological aspects in deep space missions. simulate long term manned spaceflight by send humans in an orbit around the Sun.
  • Space Stations – Orbiting space stations around Mars is a solution to the safety and return problem. The backup crew can live in the space station while the landing party conducts their business. Further, the landing party can come aboard the space station for the backup crew to go down. This will ensure better efficiency. In addition, during distress, the entire mission is not at risk. Perhaps a secondary landing party can be deployed to investigate problems. At least there will be one person to come back and tell the story.
  • Data Banks – Huge data banks with information crafted by specialists from around the world should form the primary reference of the astronauts in addition to the internet facility that I mentioned before. Every possible scenario involving medicine, engineering, planetary geology, biotechnology etc. that the astronauts might find themselves in should be thought out and the solutions must be given. It may take months, years or even decades to develop. But it needs to be done nevertheless.


Though a huge fan of Mars missions, I think we as a species are still not equipped with the technological prowess to pull off a manned trip like Mars One. I certainly believe that we are going too fast with the Mars One mission. 2024 is only 9 years away and we still haven’t fully understood the effects of long term manned space missions in deep space. The only data we have are from long term space station missions and the psychological impacts on the astronauts and cosmonauts who spend a long time in space are not that good. A well planned and well coordinated effort is the way to go. There is no need to rush. There is no space race between any superpowers these days.


Why Study Astrophysics?

The study of our universe

Cosmology – The study of our universe

I am often asked why I am so obsessed with studying astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology etc. which serves no practical purpose to anyone. The people who ask such questions entertain the notion that anything that does not give immediate monetary benefit is not worth pursuing. In this article I will try as much as possible to highlight the benefits of pursuing pure science such as astrophysics. I will be using the words astronomy and astrophysics interchangeably as differentiating the two is not the main aim here.

Astrophysics to me is an eternal subject. The study of our universe will continue as long as the universe exists and therefore the subject of astronomy will stay on for trillions of years into the future (or at least till any intelligent species can make the study.)  We exist because the universe exists and that makes the study of our universe the most important of all subjects in my opinion.

A person who does not have any training in astrophysics or for someone who thinks he or she is too “practical” may not be convinced with this answer. For such people, any subject should have the potential of generating immediate revenue. In their point of view, the trendiest subjects that have a career potential in the market are the ones people should be pursuing. That point of view is not essentially wrong. However, these so called trendy subjects are like soap bubbles. They form and then get destroyed after a period of time. People pursuing them always run a risk because if the subject of their choice goes down in popularity, they are forced to learn the next trending subject in the job market.

Space science as a subject does not suffer from this problem. It has lived on ever since the dawn of human civilization and is bound to continue into the foreseeable future. Besides, making money in my opinion should not be our pursuit as a race of intelligent beings. Our world is slowly moving towards a non-monetary one and thus our real pursuit should be the attainment of knowledge and its applications.

Astrophysics - A pure science

Astrophysics – A pure science

As I said, astrophysics is a pure science. If you ask any astrophysicist as to whether a particular theory found by him or her has an immediate application in daily life, he or she may say that there aren’t any. However, the same thing can be told about many other subjects. I have added some references that will tell you about many subjects that fall into the category of being “useless” to the “practical” folks but are still pursued by thousands. Hence, it is not something that one must criticize astronomy with. No subject is useless. In the hand of the right person, the scope of any subject is limitless.

If you are willing to delve deep enough, you will know that astronomy is actually a field with a lot of practical applications. Of course the applications come indirectly and eventually but the impact is profound. Astronomy is a frontier research field. In order to do any kind of research in it, you need cutting edge technology. The study of astronomy thus pushes the limits of our current technology thereby contributing to the development of new and innovative methods in terms of instruments, processes and software to get things done. Therefore, pushing research in astronomy will push research in other fields when these technologies are used in the broader sense.

The benefits of astronomy comes from technology transfer i.e. by transferring the technology that was originally invented for astronomy into various applications in the industry. Some areas where we can see the fruits of research in astronomy are optics, electronics, advanced computing, communication satellites, solar panels and MRI Scanners.  Even though it takes time before an application of a research in astrophysics finds its way into our daily life, the impact it eventually makes is worth the wait. Astronomy also has revolutionized our way of thinking by constantly giving us new ideas throughout history.

Let’s now look at a few examples where the research in space sciences and technology is helping humans around the world:


MRI Scanner

MRI Scanner

Perhaps the most important application of astronomy for us would be its technology transfer to medicine. Both astronomy and medicine requires us to see objects with ever more precision and resolution in order be accurate and detailed in our analysis. The most notable among the applications is the method of aperture synthesis. It was developed by the radio astronomer Martin Ryle of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His technology is now used in Computerized Tomography which is commonly called CT scan. It is also used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI and Positron Emission Tomography or PET in addition to other imaging methods.

The Cambridge Automatic Plate Measuring Facility has collaborated with a drug company whereby blood samples from leukemia patients can be analyzed much faster. This helps in better accuracy in medication.  The method that is now used for non-invasive way to detect tumors was originally developed by radio astronomers. It helped increase the true-positive detection rate of breast cancer to 96%.

The heating control systems of neonatology units, i.e. units for newborn babies were initially developed as small thermal sensors to control telescope instrument. The low energy X-ray scanner used for outpatient surgery, sports injuries etc. was developed by NASA. It is also used by the Food and Drug Administration of USA to study the contamination in pills. The software that is used for processing satellite pictures is also helping medical researches to do wide scale screening of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Earth System

Asteroid 2011 MD

Asteroid 2011 MD

Our planet is under the constant influence of the Sun and our climate depends on it greatly. Studying the dynamics of the sun and other stars thus help us have a better understanding of Earth’s climate and its effects. Studying the solar system, especially asteroids tell us about the potential threats that they pose to the Earth. We do not want to be wiped out like the dinosaurs and studying potentially hazardous objects give us insights into how we can protect ourselves in time of a catastrophe. Even the recent passage of the asteroid 2011 MD dangerously close to Earth is a reminder that we should accelerate development of technologies to prevent an impact. Missions to asteroids also give us opportunities to test our technologies in future space exploration and also give insights into subjects such as geology.  It is also important to do space exploration as part of our long term exploitation of space based resources.


Charge Coupled Device

Charge Coupled Device

In industry, there are many technology transfers that can be cited. For instance, the Kodak Technical Pan was a film originally developed to use in solar astronomy to record the changes on the surface structure of the Sun. It is now used by industrial photographers, medical and industrial spectroscopy specialists and industrial artists. Until recently, the Technical Pan was also used to detect diseased crops and forests, in dentistry and medical diagnosis. It was also used for probing layers of paintings to check for forgery.

The Charge Coupled Devices or CCDs were first used in astronomy in 1976 as sensors for astronomical image capture. This Nobel Prize winning discovery not only replaced film in telescopes but also in personal cameras and mobile phones.

IDL or Interactive Data Language is used for data analysis in astronomy. It is now also used by companies such as General Motors to analyze data from car crashes. This means that astronomy is contributing to research in vehicle safety.

IRAF or Image Reduction and Analysis Facility is a collection of software written by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. It is used by AT&T to analyze computer systems and to do graphics in solid-state physics.


GPS - Global Positioning System

GPS – Global Positioning System

Radio astronomy has given birth to excellent communication tools, devices and data processing methods. For example, the computer language FORTH was first developed in order to be used at the Kitt Peak Telescope. The founders of the language also created the company named Forth Inc. and the language is now being used widely by FedEx for their tracking services.

The satellites of Global Positioning System rely on distant astronomical objects such as quasars and other distant galaxies to determine accurate positions. So, next time you use GPS, remember the stars.

The most common everyday communication application of astronomy would be Wireless Local Area Network or WLAN. Astronomer John O’Sullivan in 1977 came up with a method to sharpen images from a radio telescope. It was later found to be useful in strengthening radio signals in computer networks thereby giving birth to WLAN.

Aerospace and Defense

Aerospace and Defense

Aerospace and Defense

Astronomy and the aerospace industry share many technologies that include telescope instrumentation, imaging and processing techniques for images. A defense satellite is basically a telescope that is pointed towards earth and thus use very identical technology and hardware to that of astronomy. The methods used to differentiate between rocket plumes and cosmic objects in stellar atmosphere models are similar as well. They are studied for use in early warning systems.

A device called solar-blind photon counter was once invented by astronomers to measure particles of light from a source without being overwhelmed by the particles from the Sun during the day. It is now used to detect the ultraviolet photons coming from the exhaust of a missile thereby aiding in UV missile warning system. It can also be used to detect toxic gases.

Energy Sector

Solar Panels - A source of clean energy

Solar Panels – A source of clean energy

The techniques developed to detect gravitational radiation produced by massive bodies in acceleration is used to determine the gravitational stability of underground oil reserves. That is a fantastic application in the energy industry.

The methods in astronomy can also be used for finding new fossil fuels in addition to evaluating the possibility of new renewable sources. Companies such as Texco and BP use IDL to do analysis of core samples around the oil fields. The graphic composite material that was initially developed for an orbiting telescope array is now being used by Ingenero in their solar radiation collectors.

The technology used in X-Ray telescopes to image X-Rays is now being researched for plasma fusion. If successful, it would lead to a boom in clean energy in future.

Education and International Collaboration

Astronomy in Schools

Astronomy in Schools

Astronomy is a great tool to stimulate young minds. If you want children to pursue careers in science and technology, astronomy can help a lot. It engages the minds of kids and helps them keep up to date with the happenings in the scientific world. This therefore affects not just astronomy but other subjects as well. Modern science is a more collaborative effort. And astronomy has been instrumental in bringing together many countries to collaborate on projects that require telescopes and other instruments located at multiple points in the world. Researchers travel around the world to work on these facilities. This brings in many other advantages such as cultural transfer as well.

From the examples I mentioned and countless other examples that you can find online, it is pretty clear that the study of the universe is very beneficial to humanity. There are many people around the world who are interested in the study of the universe but are thwarted by the pseudo-pragmatic folks who think the subject is useless. My suggestion to anyone who wishes to study the subject would be to not let others tell you how practical or impractical that subject is. If they do not like what you are doing, it is their problem, not yours. Half the people who advice you against the subject do not really know anything about its breadth and depth.

The Sextant - An ancient celestial navigation tool

The Sextant – An ancient celestial navigation tool

As mentioned before, astronomy changes the way we think and look at this world. Even before writing was invented, humans have looked up at the sky to make decisions regarding when to plan the crops, how to keep track of the days and months or how to navigate the seas. Some of the greatest quests of human kind would not have been possible if methods to study the skies weren’t invented. Where we came from and where we are going are deep philosophical questions that are yet to be answered. In my opinion, studying the cosmos using rigorous science is the only way to finally know the answer.

Before I end, I must thank astronomers Marissa Rosenberg and Pedro Russo and all the other eminent people whose insightful articles I have referred to create this write-up. I have added them as reference for anyone who wishes to read more about the advantages of investing their time and effort in studying astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and related areas, which are considered pure science without any immediate practical value by many.

My father often quotes the old saying, “People will come and go, but the institution remains.” I would like to rephrase that and say, “People who oppose the study of our universe will come and go. But the universe will remain.


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Chi_b (3P) – A New Member to The Particle Zoo!

Image of Large Hadron Collider

Since restarting operations in 2009, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) situated in the Franco-Swiss border has made its first confirmed observation of a new particle. Titled Chi_b (3P) by physicists from UK, who worked on the ATLAS experiment, this particle could help scientists understand the fundamental forces better.

The result is however still unpublished but is available in Arxiv pre-print server for reference. As explained before, the LHC is exploring some of the greatest questions in theoretical physics by creating the conditions of our early universe through proton-proton collisions.

Prof. Roger Jones who works at the ATLAS detector explained that the Chi_b (3P) is an excited state or rather a heavier variant of the Chi particle, which was discovered about 25 years ago. Physicists James Walder said that though scientists had predicted Chi-b (3P)’s existence then, it was never seen until now.

Image of LHC Tunnel

Just like the Higgs and photon, Chi_b (3P) is a boson, which means that it will carry some force and obey Bose-Einstein statistics. However, it is unlike Higgs in that it has an internal structure composed of relatively heavy particles viz. beauty quark (also known as bottom quark) and its antiquark, explains Prof. Jones. The quarks that build protons, neutrons and other hadrons come in six flavors viz. up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. An interesting aspect of this finding is what it tells us about the strong nuclear force (carried by gluons) that binds both the quarks together.

The measurements made in this machine tests theoretical calculations of the forces and discoveries of new particles such as Chi_b (3P), takes us closer to achieving a fuller understanding of the structure of our universe and cementing our views about how it is held together.

This particle’s discovery is particularly important since once we better understand the strong force, we could explain the thing happening in the background of the collisions where we are currently looking for the Higgs. According to Prof. Paul Newman of the University of Birmingham, this marks the first time a new particle has been discovered in the LHC and that it is proof that the machine ran successfully in 2011. Andy Chisholm, a PhD student at Birmingham, who worked on the analysis team, added that the analysis of billions of these particle collisions is fascinating because of the potentially interesting things buried in the data. They were lucky this time since they looked at the right place in the mess at the right time.

Image of CERN Scientist

The LHC is expected to fill the gaps that exist in the Standard Model of Particle physics thereby opening horizons in new physics. The main aim for which the machine was built is to find the elusive Higgs boson; which, if exists could give satisfactory explanation of why matter has mass. That discovery could also throw more light on the workings of gravity, especially in the realm of unified field theories.

The machine, which resides inside a 27 km ring-shaped tunnel, 175 meters below the ground fires streams of protons on opposite directions every day and produce billions of collisions. The beams are controlled by magnets and the carnage of the collisions that happen are recorded using detectors. It was only 10 days ago when scientists at CERN announced that they are pretty close to finding the Higgs boson and Chi_b (3P) could be a step closer to this goal.


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Earth’s Twins Found! – Yet Another Exoplanet Milestone!

Image of Habitable Zone

There are three fundamental ingredients that a planet must have if LAKI (Life As we Know It) should exist on it and they are organic molecules, sufficient energy for these molecules to react and liquid water as a medium for these reactions. Though it sounds simple, only planets with very close resemblance to Earth in all aspects might harbor these three ingredients. The planets closer to their start are too hot for liquid water and the ones farther are too cold. Similarly the ones too large are gaseous and the ones too small cannot have an atmosphere. That is where finding Earth-like planets become very important.

Liquid water is the main component of the primordial soup where organic molecules react and form complex self replicating structures like our DNA which eventually lead to formation of LAKI. There is of course a remote possibility of formation of exotic life forms in planets with extreme conditions like the extremophiles we observe in certain areas on Earth but generally we are on the lookout for planets where normal life forms like our own can exist and flourish. This is in the light of possible colonization of future worlds by humans.

Image of Kepler Space Telescope

After years of hunting, astronomers have finally detected, the first Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star quite similar to our Sun, located 950 light years from Earth thereby taking exoplanet research to the next level. These two planets are among five orbiting the G-type parent star Kepler-20. Entitled “Earth-Twins”, they are by far the most important exoplanets discovered. Scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Dr. François Fressin led the research and according to him, this marks the dawn of an exciting new era of planetary discovery.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope used the transit method to detect these planets in which it notices tiny dips in the parent star apparent brightness when planets passed in front of it. The scientists then use ground based observatories to confirm that they have found a planet by measuring the minute wobbles of the parent star’s position caused by gravitational tugs from its planets.

Image of Planets size comparison

The larger of the two planets named Kepler 20f, is 1.03 times the size of Earth while Kepler 20e is slightly smaller with 0.87 times the radius of Earth and orbits closer to its parent star. Their masses are 3 times and 1.7 times the mass of Earth respectively. Their orbital periods are 6.1 Earth days for 20e and 19.6 Earth days for 20f at distances of days at a distance of 7.6 million kilometers and 16.6 million kilometers respectively. These sizes are gravitationally good enough to form rocky interiors. According to Dr. Fressin’s team, the planets have Earth-like compositions consisting of a third of iron core with a silicate mantle. The outer planet, Kepler 20f might have a thicker, water vapor atmosphere according to Dr. Fressin.

Due to their current close proximity to their parent star, both planets could be too hot to support life. 20e is at 760 degrees Celsius while 20f is at 430 degrees Celsius. Dr. Fressin noted that in the past, they may have had favorable conditions similar to Earth before they drifted closer to their star. The reason he says is that the rocky materials required to form the planets this close to the star is scarce. Hence, they could have been formed farther out and later migrated in. Another curious aspect of the system is that the rocky planets alternate between their gaseous sisters unlike our solar system where terrestrial planets are inside and gas giants are out.

Though we have discovered over 700 exoplanets since 1996, this particular discovery is important since this is the first time we received positive confirmation that Earth sized and smaller planets exist outside our solar system. It also is a demonstration of the capability of the Kepler Space Telescope in detecting small planets located at extreme distances. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler alone has discovered 28 definite planets and 2,326 planet candidates. Of these, all are larger than Earth except 20e and 20f.

So far the most significant discovery in planet hunting, also made by Dr. Fressin’s team was a planet named Kepler 22b, 2.4 times the size of Earth, located within the habitable zone (the region of space around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot) of its parent star, which implies the planet could harbor liquid water and probably life. According to Dr. Fressin the discovery of Kepler 20f and 20e is the latest most significant of all planet discoveries.

This discovery will cause planetary scientists to revise their existing theories on planet formation. Other planets in the system are Kepler 20b, 20c, and 20d with diameters of 24,000 km, 40,000 km, and 35,000 km respectively with orbital periods of 3.7, 10.9, and 77.6 Earth days. Kepler-20d, weighs roughly 20 times Earth’s mass, while 20c and 20b weigh 16.1 and 8.7 times Earth.

We live in an era where it is impossible to say whether we are alone in the universe or not. The telescope is currently scanning 150,000 stars and one of the greatest dreams of planet hunters is to discover and Earth sized planet residing in the habitable zone of its star. That would be marked one of the greatest discoveries in all history where we know that an exact replica of our planet exists that could possibly support life. It is only a matter of time before this “holy grail” in exoplanet research is found.


  1. Ghosh, P. “First Earth-sized planets spotted.” BBC News – Science & Environment. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16268950 (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  2. Moskowitz, C. “Found! 2 Earth-Size Alien Planets, the Smallest Exoplanets Yet.” Space. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.space.com/13990-2-earth-size-alien-planets-kepler-smallest-worlds.html (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  3. Wolchover, N. “Could There Be Life on the New Earth-Size Planets?” Life’s Little Mysteries. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/life-earth-size-planets-2256/ (accessed Dec 21, 2011).

Extraterrestrial Resources and Humans – Can Space Resources Save Our Civilization?


Image of Biosphere

Current global resource utilization depends on a closely-knit economy, society and environment. However, effective limits exist on the biosphere’s capability to absorb pollutants while providing resources and services (Adams). This paper describes why in the light of issues in sustainability of Earth’s resources and growing human population it is imperative to expand utilization to extraterrestrial resources to save our civilization.

The Necessity

Image of Global Power Consumption

Challenges to resource sustainability arise from a combination of population increase in developing nations and unsustainable consumption in their developed counterparts (Cohen). Estimated global population might peak at 2070 with 9 to 10 billion people, and gradually decrease to 8.4 billion by 2100 (Lutz).

The average power consumption in developed nations is ~ 2 kW per person whereas in the rest of the world, it is ~0.3kW per person. The total production of power globally is ~1.9 billion kW. Based on (Lutz), if the population reaches 10 billion people by 2070, and if the living standards of the world approach current western standards, 20 billion kW would be required. This argument leads to the following possibilities:

  1. Much of the world might remain in lower living standards or
  2. New sources of energy could be discovered

Research in planetary and asteroid geology, spectral and photometric analysis have proposed many celestial bodies as objects harboring useful resources with nearly 50% of them containing volatile substances such as clays, hydrated salts and hydrocarbons (Sonter). The following are some examples of in-situ resources:

  1. Volatiles from comet core, C-type asteroids and Phobos or Deimos
  2. Metals from C-type and M-type asteroids, Moon and Mars
  3. Platinum group metals (PGMs) from C-type asteroids
  4. Energy through abundant sunlight
  5. LOX and LH2 from lunar polar ice, lunar regolith, and C-type asteroids
  6. CH4/O2 propellant and inert gases from Martian atmosphere
  7. 3He from the Moon and atmospheres of outer planets
  8. Water and oxygen from Lunar poles, Mars and C-type asteroids

For Apollo-like missions, a limited use of local planetary resources on Moon and asteroids for rocket propellant manufacture would suffice. However, for a permanent, expanding, and self-sustaining extra-terrestrial colony, clever usage of planetary resources is necessary.

The Benefits

The cost of space activities reduce dramatically with offsets in carrying propellants from Earth’s surface to LEO and beyond (Cutler). Thus, commercial mining opportunities in space could provide low cost alternatives as resources on Earth become depleted or unusable.

The following are some of the possible profitable uses of space resources:

  1. Earth orbital operations architectures
  2. Solar power satellites or lunar power systems to beam energy to Earth
  3. Space industrialization for products manufactured in space for people on Earth
  4. Human outposts using silicon solar cells and radiation shielding
  5. Water and precious metals like Pt, Pd and Ir metals for use on Earth, space, life support
  6. 4He from the lunar surface for fusion energy
  7. Propellant production for return trips to Earth

The Challenges

There are economic and technical requirements that a celestial body must satisfy to qualify as a potential ore-body in a mining engineering context (Sonter):

  1. Sufficient spectral data confirming presence of required resources
  2. Orbital parameters that give reasonable accessibility and mission duration
  3. Feasible mining, processing and retrieval concepts
  4. A positive economic Net Present Value

Scientists and mining experts are currently conducting research and analysis on planetary extraction methods based on the above-mentioned considerations. However, this type of resource utilization is still not operational because:

  1. The cost is exorbitant in transporting items into space (about $4400 to $6600 per kilogram). Hence, bases on Moon, Mars, asteroids etc. should procure their necessities like water, oxygen and fuel from in situ resources (Zaburunov).
  2. Even if mission crew finds these items in situ, extraction is still an issue.

Image of ISRU

Different processes involved in mining of extra terrestrial resources offer different levels of complexity:

  1. Martian propellant production requires pumping CO2, splitting it to retain the O2 and producing CH4 (Zubrin)
  2. Lunar polar water for return trips and space propellant depots require excavating cold trap regolith, extracting water thermally and electrolysis, and liquefaction to produce propellant (Alexander)
  3. Photovoltaic cells produced from lunar materials require Si extraction from lunar regolith, recovering reagents, and manufacture of arrays (Freundlich)

The need for a market in any type of development and management of resources is very important. The potential short term and mid term markets of space resources, include:

  1. Propellant for Mars sample return missions
  2. Propellant for LEO missions such as Orbital Express
  3. Energy and propellant for human lunar and Martian activities

The long-term markets of space resources include:

  • Energy for Earth through solar power and 3He fusion
  • Raw material to support lunar and Mars outposts
  • Support for space industrialization and space tourism
  • Counter Arguments

    Contrary to using space resources, recycle existing resources is easier to accomplish and comparatively cheap. However, considering issues like runaway greenhouse effect, population growth, self-sufficiency and long-term human presence (Stancati) in space, it is better to colonize space and utilize space resources. In addition, repeated missions to same ore-bodies (Sonter) predict requirements of higher internal rate of return with heavy discounts on sale receipts and “off-optimum” characteristics compared to the first mission or to a different target. Finally, mine operator’s interest in refurbishing or upgrading equipment and non-competitiveness of return missions from trajectory synodic considerations counteract the idea.


    Earth’s resources being finite as a closed system, energy and materials from outer space being clean and available for millions of years, the solution to the growing human population and resource and energy crisis is utilizing space resources to meet the demands. Space resources have the potential to ensure survival and good living standards for human species and as these resources become more available with better technology, the value of space economy will improve (Komerath).


    1. Adams, W.M. “The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century.” IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting. Zurich: IUCN, 2006. 2-5.
    2. Alexander, R., Bechtel, R., Chen, T., Cormier, T., Kalaver, S., Kirtas, M., Lewe, J., Marcus, L., Marshall, D., Medlin, M., McIntire, J., Nelson, D., Remolina, D., Scott, A., Weglian, J. “Moon-based Advanced Reusable Transportation Architecture.” 37th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference And Exhibit. Salt Lake City, Utah: Georgia Institute of Technology, 2001. 4-6.
    3. Cohen, J.E. Human Population: The Next Half Century. London: Island Press, 2006.
    4. Cutler, A.H. “Aluminum-Fueled Rockets for Space Transportation System.” McKay, M.F., McKay, D.S., Duke, M.B. Space Resources – Energy, Power and Transport. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration Scientific and Technical Information Program, 1992. 110.
    5. Freundlich, A., Ignatiev, A., Horton, C., Duke, M., Curreri, P., Sibille, L. “Manufacture of Solar Cells on the Moon.” 31st IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. Orlando, Florida: Conference Record of the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, 2005. 794-797.
    6. Komerath, N.M., Rangedera, T., and Nally, J. “Space-Based Economy Valuation, Analysis, and Refinement.” American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. San Jose, 2006. 1-3.
    7. Lutz, W., Sanderson,W.C. and Scherbov, S. The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century: New Challenges for Human Capital Formation and Sustainable Development. London: Earthscan, 2004.
    8. Sonter, M.J. “The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids.” Acta Astronautica (1997): 637-47.
    9. Stancati, M.L., Jacobs, M.K., Cole, K.J., Collins, J.T. In-situ Propellant Production : Alternatives for Mars Exploration. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Technical Information Center, 1991. 7.
    10. Zaburunov, S.A. “Mines in Space: What is NASA doing?” E&MJ – Engineering & Mining Journal (1990): 16K-16N.
    11. Zubrin, R., Baker, D.A., and Gwynne, O. “Mars Direct: A Simple, Robust, and Cost Effective Architecture for the Space Exploration Initiative.” 29th Aerospace Sciences Meeting. Reno, Nevada: AIAA 91-0326, 1991. 11-14.

    The Higgs Boson – Why bother?

    It is often one of the questions raised in both scientific and religious sectors. Why bother about the Higgs Boson or in common language, the God particle? Is it worth all the money and technology spent to find a particle that may or may not exist? It was a few years ago, that an American named Elizabeth Hershkovitz who shared my interests in cosmology and particle physics mentioned the Higgs Boson. Our conversation caught me seriously thinking about it.

    The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been in news for the past few months since the claim of the discovery of faster than light neutrinos that allegedly emanated from it. Last week, the noise increased even more with some strong indicators of the presence of the Higgs Boson in both the ATLAS and CMS experiments. It is speculated that very soon a 50-year-old quest will come to an end when more data pours in from the two experiments.

    Discovery and Mechanism

    Nobody wondered why anything would have mass up until early 1960s when Peter Higgs, Philip Warren Anderson, Robert Brout, Francois Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen and Tom Kibble proposed the famous Higgs Mechanism, laying the theoretical framework for the massive experiments conducted at CERN today. This mechanism has close resemblance to Yoichiro Nambu’s work on vacuum structure of quantum fields in superconductivity and also the Stueckelberg Mechanism studied by Ernst Stueckelberg.

    It was discovered that when a gauge theory combines with an additional field breaking the symmetry group spontaneously, gauge bosons acquired finite mass consistently. Despite the large values involved, it allowed a gauge theory description of the weak force, developed independently in 1967 by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam. Though originally rejected, Higgs’s paper was resubmitted to Physical Review Letters, with an additional sentence on the existence of massive scalar bosons which eventually came to be known as Higgs bosons.

    Let me first make sense of all these jargons. Particles roughly fall under two categories viz. fermions and bosons depending on whether they form matter or carry force. The fermions are themselves divided into hadrons and leptons based on whether they interact using the strong or weak force. Further, the hadrons are divided into baryons and mesons according to their quark structure. A gauge is a special coordinate system that varies based on a particle’s location with respect to a base space or a parameter space and a change of coordinates applied to every such location in that system is called a gauge transform. A gauge theory is a mathematical model of a system to which gauge transforms are applied.

    Usually these are gauge invariant, meaning all physically meaningful quantities are either left unchanged or transform naturally under gauge transformations. Symmetry breaking is a phenomenon in physics where infinitesimally small fluctuations acting on a system that cross a critical point decide the system’s fate based on the branch of bifurcation taken. It is used extensively in string theory and other allied theories to explain the initial conditions of our early universe. Scientists such as Higgs calculated that when particles interact with a field that permeates space called Higgs Field, they acquire mass. As mentioned earlier, this concept was required to explain the electroweak symmetry breaking that separates the electroweak interaction into electromagnetism and weak nuclear force where, after the breakage, some part of the left over mathematics manifests itself as the Higgs boson.

    For those who did not understand the tough words described, the mechanism can be thought of as tantamount to the famous “celebrity and mob” example. In a room, where people are evenly distributed, the entrance of a celebrity would change everything. People will try to flock around her and when she moves, the crowd would move along with her making her motion difficult. The workings of the Higgs mechanism can be thought of as something very similar to this. The universe contains the Higgs field at all places and any particle put in this field would interact with it. And the effect of this interaction is what we feel as mass. Simply speaking, the Higgs boson is supposed to be responsible for giving matter, its mass.

    The current excitement at CERN is because of relatively identical results from two separate experiments in LHC. The bar is set very high on the proof of the existence of Higgs boson and only 1 chance in 3.5 million is allowed to be wrong. And the identical results from two different experiments might be indicative that we are getting pretty close. It reminds me of John Schwarz and Michael Greene’s calculations on a night in 1984 when they were eliminating the anomalies in string theory. There was thunder and lightning outside and Greene said jokingly, “The Gods are trying to prevent us from completing this calculation”. It was a metaphor about Gods becoming upset when humans get closer to solving the mystery they created for them.

    The Necessity

    Here again I drill down to the bedrock of the question I asked in the beginning. Why should we bother about Higgs and spend all that money on these massive LHC experiments? It goes without saying that there is an awe inspiring effect when new discoveries in physics and astronomy are made. I see physicists with utmost reverence since they allow us to see through the reality that makes us and everything around us. The Higgs, if discovered, would complete the fundamental theory of particle physics called the Standard Model, which currently consists of 17 particles and 3 fundamental forces. The fourth force viz. gravity is explained by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity etc. attempt at unifying both the standard model and general relativity but I think that is the subject of another article.

    Once complete, physicists can use the standard model as a foundation for something called supersymmetry which predicts heavier sister particles for the already discovered ones. It states that for every fermion, there will be a corresponding boson and vice versa. For instance, an electron might have a supersymmetric partner called “selectron” while the photon will have its supersymmetric partner called a “photino” etc. The mass of these supersymmetric partner particles will again depend on the mass of Higgs itself. Currently, the results pouring from LHC indicates that it is light enough for the occurrence of some of these particles in these experiments. Scientists are also excited by the fact that they can now start looking for the building blocks for supersymmetry as well and see whether they fit the predictions too. Gravitational physics, the crossover between particle physics and cosmology, requires explanation for the mysterious dark matter. And mathematics suggests that the lightest of these supersymmetric partner particles make up the dark matter that hold the galaxies together.

    The most fascinating aspect of mathematical physics is its consistency and predictability. We can create equations to explain current observations and make predictions about the unknown based on the current equations. And history is witness for continuing success and occasional failures of such mathematical models. And those that fail become foundations for more successful theories. Not just in physics, but also in other branches of study this has been going on. Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Dirac etc. are examples of highly successful theoreticians whose mathematical predictions exactly matched with experiments and observations giving birth to modern science as we know it.

    Famous physicist Eugene Wigner, one of the founding fathers of supersymmetry has stated this phenomenon as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Whether Higgs Boson is a “God Particle”, is a multifarious question. People belonging to religious sectors might see God’s hand in all the predictability of mathematics that has led science to where it is today. Others like me prefer to think that every discovery in science converges into how the universe began through quantum fluctuations in a pre-existing nothingness which is clearly indicated in the mathematics of several scientists including the recent works of Edward Witten and Lawrence Krauss. We need to understand that nothingness itself has certain properties because of which universes can indeed be created spontaneously out of nothing without any recourse to a supernatural creator.

    The Higgs boson, to the common man would sound like the figment of imagination of a group of elite geniuses that doesn’t have anything to do with his everyday life. However, when we look at science, historically there have been many examples where a completely “alien looking” theory became used on a daily basis. Here I would like to use the example of the application of general relativity in satellite navigation that gives GPS the pinpoint accuracy it requires.

    The more we understand the universe, the more beautiful and elegant it becomes. Let’s hope the good news comes before the year ends so that this festive season can be sweeter than all the ones that came before. To quote Halliday, Resnick and Walker, “the universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”


    1. Czajka, A., Mrowczynski, S. “Collective Excitations of Supersymmetric Plasma.” Arxiv.org. Nov 28, 2010. http://arxiv.org/abs/1011.6028 (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    2. Economist, The. “Higgs ahoy! The elusive boson has probably been found. That is a triumph for the predictive power of physics.” The Economist. Dec 17, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/21541825?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/ar/higgsahoy (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    3. Gardne, E.K. “Purdue physicists pursue Higgs boson; part of international CMS experiment.” Purdue University – University News Service. Dec 16, 2011. http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/general/2011/111216BortolettoCMS.html (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    4. Gerson, M. “The search for the God particle goes beyond mere physics.” The Washington Post. Dec 16, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-search-for-the-god-particle-goes-beyond-mere-physics/2011/12/15/gIQAyIEzwO_story.html (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    5. Halliday, D., Resnick, R., Walker, J. “Quarks, Leptons, and the Big Bang – A Summing Up.” In Fundamentals of Physics, by D., Resnick, R., Walker, J. Halliday, 1138. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte.Ltd, 2001.
    6. Higgs, P. “A Brief History of the Higgs Mechanism.” The University of Edinburg – School of Physics and Astronomy. 2011. http://www2.ph.ed.ac.uk/peter-higgs/history.shtml (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    7. Reucroft, S. “What exactly is the Higgs boson? Have physicists proved that it really exists?” Scientific American. Oct 21, 1999. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-exactly-is-the-higgs (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    8. Ridley, M. “Inexplicable Particle: Why Even I’m a Higgs Bozo.” Wall Street Journal. Dec 17, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203430404577094400690586134.html (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    9. Tao, T. “What is a gauge?” What’s new. Sep 27, 2008. http://terrytao.wordpress.com/2008/09/27/what-is-a-gauge/ (accessed Dec 17, 2011).

    Elenin and Levy – More Warnings from Nature?

    Recent activities in the sky have sparked interests in the NEA Research world as news on three potentially hazardous objects viz asteroid 2005 YU55 and the comets ElEnin and Levy hit the headlines in the past few months. Discoveries like these usually cause panic and often incredible and funny speculations and assumptions. Many are already raising questions as to whether we should be concerned or not. The following video shows some of the potentially hazardous asteroids on close encounter with Earth.

    As mentioned in my previous article, 2005 YU55 will pass as close as 0.85 lunar distances or roughly 200,000 miles from earth between November 3 and 13 this year. The closest approach will be on November 8 at 07:13 UT. Though close, there is nothing to be concerned as per the latest reports.

    Image of Elenin as seen by STEREO Spacecraft on August
    Elenin as seen by STEREO Spacecraft on August – Courtesy NASA

    Named after its discoverer, as is tradition, comet Elenin also known as C/2010 X1 to the International Astronomical Union was discovered by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin on December 10, 2010 using the International Scientific Optical Network’s robotic observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. It is as a small, icy Solar System body. It should not confused with rogue planets or brown dwarfs or the alleged Tyche or Nibiru. During the time of its discovery, it was roughly 647 million km from the Sun between Jupiter and Saturn’s orbits. Classed as a long period comet, it takes more than 11,600 years to make a single orbit of the Sun and was discovered during one of its rare solar visits.

    In its closest approach to the Sun, Elenin will pass at 0.48 AU on September 10 2011. The chances of collision with the Sun is just speculation as is the passage between Earth and Moon. On October 16 2011, it will pass closest to Earth at 34.9 million km or 0.233 AU from us which is approximately 90 times further than one lunar distance. Except for experiencing some possible tail debris on November 1 as Earth enters the tail of ElEnin, there won’t be any major effects on Earth unlike false claims like earthquakes caused by its gravitational effect since the mass of its nucleus which is about 20 billion tonnes is too small to cause major changes on the Earth or the Moon. Thus, there is not much to be expected of Elenin though some astronomers are concerned since it is speeding up as it closes in on the Sun.

    Comet Levy P/2006 T1 was discovered by David Levy visually using a 0.41-m reflecting telescope, as it passed about 40′ to the north of Saturn just before dawn at around 12h UT on Oct 2, 2006 from his Jarnac Observatory near Tucson, AZ. It was added to the NEO Confirmation page, roughly 8 hours later marking David’s 22nd discovery. His last discovery was the comet Takamizawa-Levy, 12 years ago in April 1994. Its astrometry revealed that it is a short period comet approaching the Sun a little over once every 5 years (5.24 years) with perihelion distance placing it close to the position the Earth occupies in late December. On 2006 Oct 27 at about 03:30 UT, Levy only about 1′ north of the nucleus of the bright galaxy NGC 3521 in Leo.

    Image of Comet Levy P2006T1 and NGC 3521 - Coutesy NASA
    Comet Levy P2006T1 and NGC 3521 – Coutesy NASA

    During its 2006 passage, it achieved an apparent magnitude of ~9.5. Though believed to have been recovered on 03 June 2011 at magnitude 19.8, the recovery was never confirmed by other observatories and the comet was never observed since 01 December 2006 since it only has a confirmed observation arc of 60 days. The next perihelion is calculated to be on 11 January 2012 at 1.007 AU from the Sun. The predicted perigee on 2012-Jan-20 is between 0.15 to 0.20 AU with nominal at 0.18 AU. The predicted apparent magnitude in 2012 might be 7 with elongation of 90°. It is said that Levy will go past above us at a rate faster than our own planet’s orbital velocity on January 29.

    Recently a warning was issued by former NASA consultant and US space expert Richard C. Hoagland that Elenin, is under “intelligent control” and heralds a warning to all humanity of a greater global catastrophe. NASA space scientist David Morrison has reported pretty much the same though he has added that these asteroids and comets will pass at safe distances from Earth. Interestingly, some scientists had previously speculated that the two distinct rows of 8 small circular objects trailing Elenin were UFO’s belonging to an as yet unidentified “extraterrestrial civilization.” Though supported by Hoagland, this claim seems to be just fanciful (or wishful) thinking. In any case, these three objects are not going to hit us or cause any significant global catastrophe as feared by many.

    I wanted to include more spectacular pictures, but strangely WordPress is not agreeing with me today. I will try to add them at a later time.


    Apophis! – Earth’s death knell?

    Image of Apophis
    Image of Apophis as a snake in Egyptian Mythology

    Egyptian mythology has a character called Apophis which was an ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon determined to plunge our world into eternal darkness. Astronomers reason that the name befits a menace that is currently hurling towards Earth from outer space.

    Scientists for the past few years have been monitoring a 390 metre wide asteroid which is currently classified under the “Potentially Hazardous Objects” category because of its calculated collision course with the planet. Governments have already been alerted to take necessary actions to avoid any catastrophe that might arise if this rock collides with our planet.

    According to an estimate by NASA, an impact from Apophis, which is scheduled to take place on April 13 2036, would generate over 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres from the impact site would receive the direct effect of the impact and the rest of the earth will see the effects of huge amounts of dust released into the atmosphere.

    Image of 99942 Apophis
    99942 Apophis – Courtesy Wikipedia

    Scientists insist on every Near Earth Objects meetings that there is very little time left to decide and act since the technology required to thwart an asteroid would take decades to design, test and build.  Meteorite experts say that it is a question of when and not if such an object will collide with Earth. A meteorite of the size of 1 km and above will cause mass extinction to species inhabiting our planet including us. The possibility of such collisions is in every hundred million years and it seems we are already overdue for a big collision.

    Apophis has been a concern since December 2004 after astronomers projected the orbit of the asteroid into the future and found that the odds of it hitting the Earth is alarming. It was predicted that if it missed Earth in its first approach to Earth in 2029, then the next approach in 2036 might most certainly end in a collision. The object currently has an Aphelion of 1.0987 AU, Perihelion of 0.74604 AU, Semi-major axis of 0.92241 AU, Eccentricity of 0.19121 and Orbital period of 323.58 d or 0.89 a. It has an Average orbital speed of    30.728 km/s, Mean anomaly of 339.94°, Inclination of 3.3315°, Longitude of ascending node of 204.43° and Argument of perihelion of 126.42°.

    Image of Radar Image of Apophis
    2005 Arecibo Radar Image of Apophis – Courtesy NASA

    Currently Apophis is placed at 4 out of 10 in the Torino Scale which measures the threat posed by an NEO where 10 is a certain collision that causes global catastrophe marking it the highest for any asteroid in recorded history. However, the collision in 2029 was eventually ruled out as more data poured in.

    Astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University, Belfast said that Earth’s gravity will deflect the asteroid on 2029 and that there is a small possibility of the asteroid moving through a region in space called the keyhole. If that happens, the chances of a collision during its next pass in 2036 will be even higher.

    There is no shortage of ideas as to how to deflect asteroids like these. Even dangerous technologies like nuclear powered spacecraft is under consideration. The Advanced Concepts Team at the European Space Agency is leading the effort in designing a range of satellites and rockets to nudge these potentially hazardous objects. According to Prof Fitzsimmons, the advantage of nuclear propulsion is the amount of power it generates though it has not been tested so far. Solar electric propulsion, another promising idea is already being used by several spacecrafts giving us hope that projects like these would work.

    Another interesting method favoured by ESA is the proposed Don Quijote mission which intends to send two spacecrafts at the asteroid. One of them called Hidalgo is supposed to collide with the asteroid and the other called Sancho is supposed to measure the deflection caused by the collision. The test launch is supposed to take place in 2013. Another idea is to use explosives on the asteroid but no astronomer has so far supported the idea since if the explosion takes place close to impact, we might have several fragments hitting us than one thereby increasing the area of damage.

    Image of Apophis Path of Risk
    The path of risk where Apophis may impact in 2036 – Courtesy Wikipedia

    Currently we cannot rule out the possibility of the 2036 impact. However, we need to get our next chance in making an observation of this object which unfortunately will not come until 2013 when we can use radar observations and work out possible future orbits of this asteroid more accurately. NASA argues that the final decision of what needs to be done has to be made at that stage.

    Astronomers like Fitzsimmons and Yates say that the preparation should start before 2013 itself. In 2029, we will know for sure whether the object will hit us or not. However, if the worst case scenario turns out to be true and if Earth is not prepared, then it will be too late. Hence we cannot wait until 2029 and start preparing now itself.

    New planet discovered in trinary system – Another milestone in exoplanet research!

    Image of Hot Jupiter
    Most exoplanets are Hot Jupiters

    Though the number of extrasolar planets continued to grow over the years, exoplanet researchers were sceptical about existence of planets around multiple star systems since it was suspected that if the stars are not sufficiently farther apart, the constantly varying gravitational force would eventually tug the planet out of orbit. However, recent discoveries of planets in such star systems have proven this hypothesis otherwise.

    Planetary scientists last week announced the discovery of a new planet in the HD 132563 trinary star system in the constellation Auriga after a 10-year long study of the system which also made several other discoveries. The system consists of two stars with masses equivalent to the mass of our sun orbiting around each other at 400 AU. The main star of the system called HD 132563A is itself a binary star making it a trinary star system. According to the team led by Silvano Desidera of the Astronomical Observatory in Padova, Italy, this fact was not previously known about the system which was initially considered to be a binary.

    Image of HD188753 Orbit
    Orbit of HD188753 – Courtesy NASA

    This new planet orbits the secondary star in the system called HD 132563B and was discovered spectroscopically using the SARG (Spettrografo Alta Risoluzione Galileo) at Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo or TNG. It is estimated that the planet is at least 1.3 times the mass of Jupiter and orbits around its parent star at a mean distance of 2.6 AU with a moderately high eccentricity of 0.22. The team has tried to image the planet directly using adaptive optics  since they could not initially rule out the detection as an instrument effect in the star’s glare.

    This discovery brings the total number of planets discovered in multiple star systems to eight. Though the number is small, it seems planets can be commonly found orbiting around more remote members of trinary star systems for good periods of time. The age of the H132563 system is estimated to be between 1-3 billion years in the shorter end and up to 5 billion years. The two estimates have been drawn by measuring the amount of stellar activity and lithium (which decreases with time) and fitting the mass and luminosity onto isochrones respectively. Either way, the planetary system is dynamically stable.

    Image of Gliese 667 C
    The “Super-Earth” Gliese 667 C – Artist’s Impression

    The team has suggested that based on these eight discoveries, it is possible that the occurrence of planets on remote members of multiple star systems may be just as common as planets around wide binaries or even single stars. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia thus received its 565th member. The HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), the spectrographic component of the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 meter telescope in 2009 discovered a “Super-Earth” in orbit around Gliese 667C, the third star in multiple system located in the constellation Scorpius. This earthlike planet is 5.7 times the mass of Earth and revolves around its parent star, a red dwarf, every seven days.