Laughter Triggers Different Parts of Brain

Posted May 10th, 2013 at 6:33 pm (UTC+0)
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(Garry Wilmore via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Garry Wilmore via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Laughter can be a valuable communications tool; it can indicate ridicule, humor, joy or maybe just a physical response to being tickled.  German scientists have found these different laugh responses are  handled by different networks in our brains, depending on the specific context of the laughter.

The different patterns of brain connectivity brought on by the various forms of laughter may play an important role in influencing cognitive functions regarding health and disease.

The study’s findings could eventually lead to treatments for people with anxiety or other similar conditions, according to a blog by Brett Smith.

“Laughing at someone and laughing with someone leads to different social consequences,” said Dirk Wildgruber from the University of Tuebingen “Specific cerebral connectivity patterns during perception of these different types of laughter presumably reflect modulation of attentional mechanisms and processing resources.”

Did you know that animals also laugh? But their laughter is a way to socially bond with each other and is based on a primitive reflex similar to tickling.  Human laughter has evolved beyond those simple roots, according to the researchers.

A little boy can’t stop laughing as his Mom tickles him (Sean Dreilinger via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Sean Dreilinger via Creative Commons/Flickr)

While most people do laugh when tickled, so called social laughter in humans can also be used to convey happiness, derision or other conscious messages to those around us. The researchers involved with this study focused on  participants’ neural responses when they listened to three different kinds of laughter: ones that reflected joy, taunting and tickling.

They found that when people heard sounds of happy or teasing laughter, regions of the brain that process more complex social information were activated. However, those same brain regions were not stimulated by laughter triggered by tickling.

Tickling laughter triggered regions of the brain that are more sensitive to a higher degree of acoustic complexity.

Researchers found the dynamic changes brought on by  various kinds of laughter activated and connected with different regions of the brain.

Flash Could Allow Scientists to Witness Birth of a Black Hole

Posted May 7th, 2013 at 6:50 pm (UTC+0)
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A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole. (Credit: Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRS)

A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole. (Credit: Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRS)

A cosmic flash generated by a dying star might allow scientists to see something they’ve never witnessed before – the birth of a black hole.

A black hole is a celestial object that is so dense not even light can escape its intense gravitational pull. This phenomenon occurs when a dying star runs out of fuel and collapses under the weight of its own gravity.

A dying star that produces a black hole normally does so without a bang or flash, seeming to simply disappear from the sky in an event some scientists call an “un-nova.”

“You don’t see a burst,” said Tony Piro, a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). “You see a disappearance.”

Some dying stars do explode as powerful gamma-ray bursts before becoming black holes, but scientists say that’s quite rare and requires very unusual conditions.

“We don’t think most run-of-the-mill black holes are created that way,” said Piro.

But, according to his new analysis published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, a dying star might emit a cosmic flash which could alert researchers that a black hole is about to be formed.

That flash would bright enough to be seen in nearby by galaxies, according to Piro.

“That flash is going to be very bright, and it gives us the best chance for actually observing that this event occurred,” he said. “This is what you really want to look for.”

Piro says astronomers working with sky surveys should be able to observe one of these cosmic flashes about once a year.

GROVER Robot Provides New tool for Exploring Greenland

Posted May 3rd, 2013 at 8:01 pm (UTC+0)
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This is a prototype of GROVER, without its solar panels that was tested at an Idaho sky resort in January 2012. The laptop in the picture was only used for testing purposes and is not mounted on the final prototype. (Photo: Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University)

This is a prototype of GROVER, without its solar panels. The laptop in the picture was only used for testing purposes. (Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University)

NASA‘s newest rover could help scientists better understand changes in the massive Greenland ice sheet.

Last summer, higher-than-normal temperatures caused surface melting across about 97 percent of the ice sheet.

Scientists expect the robot to detect the layer of the sheet, which is buried beneath two miles of ice, that formed after last year’s extreme melt event.

The space agency plans to test its new prototype robot rover called GROVER, an acronym for both Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, through June 8, when it sets off from the National Science Foundation’s research station called Summit Camp.

Using a ground-penetrating radar system, the solar-powered robot will study how snow accumulates as it adds layer after layer to the ice sheet over time.

“Robots like GROVER will give us a new tool for glaciology studies,” said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and science advisor on the project.

GROVER was built by students who took part in Goddard’s summer engineering boot camps in 2010 and 2011, who told Koenig they wanted to build a rover to help her study snow accumulation on ice sheets.

Students participating in a 2011 NASA Goddard summer engineering boot camp test two prototypes of GROVER at a beach in Asseteague Island, Md. (NASA/Michael Comberiate)

Students participate in a 2011 NASA Goddard summer engineering boot camp test two prototypes of GROVER at a beach in Asseteague Island, Md. (NASA)

NASA describes GROVER, which stands nearly two meters tall, as tank-like in appearance.  The robot weighs about 383 kilograms and will be able to crawl across the icy terrain at an average speed of two kilometers an hour on a pair of re-purposed snowmobile tracks.

The solar panels mounted on GROVER form an inverted V. This unique configuration allows the panels to collect energy from the sun as well as from sunlight reflected off the ice sheet.

The sun never goes down during the Arctic summer, so GROVER will be able to constantly refuel, allowing it to work longer, gathering more information than perhaps a human riding on a snowmobile.

And, since it’s solely powered by the sun, the rover should operate in the unspoiled polar environment without polluting the air and environment.

GROVER has other advantages. NASA expects to save money since the polar rovers cost less than the aircraft and satellites usually used to gather data.

In June, GROVER will get a partner, another robot called Cool Robot, which was developed at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. NASA says the National Science Foundation-funded rover will be able to tow a variety of instrument packages needed to conduct glaciological and atmospheric sampling studies.

Watch this NASA video to see GROVER in action (NASA)

Atoms Star in Smallest Movie Ever Made

Posted May 1st, 2013 at 4:45 pm (UTC+0)
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The World’s Smallest Stop-action Movie (IBM)

Bigger is often better in Hollywood, but IBM is drawing lots of attention for making the smallest movie ever.

A Boy and His Atom is a stop-motion, animated movie made with thousands of precisely positioned atoms in nearly 250 motion picture frames.  The folks at Guinness World Records®  verified that it’s the smallest stop-action movie  ever made.

The storyline, set to a lively musical track, follows a boy who makes friends with a single atom. Together, they go on a spirited journey that has them dancing, playing catch with each other, and bouncing on a trampoline.

Poster promoting IBM's "A Boy and His Atom".  World's smallest movie (IBM)

Poster for “A Boy and His Atom,” the world’s smallest movie. (IBM)

IBM says  its little movie is a unique way of conveying science outside the research community.

“Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” said Andreas Heinrich, principle investigator at IBM Research. “At IBM, researchers don’t just read about science, we do it. This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world while opening up a dialogue with students and others on the new frontiers of math and science.”

The atoms in the animation were manipulated with an IBM-invented, award-winning scanning tunneling microscope.

“This Nobel Prize winning tool was the first device that enabled scientists to visualize the world all the way down to single atoms,” said Christopher Lutz, a scientist with IBM Research. “It weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times. The ability to control the temperature, pressure and vibrations at exact levels makes our IBM Research lab one of the few places in the world where atoms can be moved with such precision.”

Researchers used a standard computer to remotely operate the microscope, manipulating a super-sharp needle that hovered about one nanometer, or one billionth of a meter, above a copper surface, which allowed the scientists to “feel” the atoms.

The scanning tunneling microscope was invented in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zürich. This powerful microscope allows scientists to image surfaces at the atomic level and manipulate individual atoms. (IBM)

The scanning tunneling microscope used to manipulate atoms to create the world’s smallest movie. (IBM)

At such a minute distance, the needle was able to physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and then move them to precisely specified locations on the surface.

According to IBM, the moving atom makes a unique sound that is critical feedback in determining how many positions it’s actually moved.

The scientists created and photographed 242 still images of stop-action motion with the nearly 10,000 individually placed atoms.  Those photos were then rendered into a video that’s about a minute and eight seconds long.

The IBM researchers created the film in part to demonstrate technology that could be used in the future to create computer storage systems, based on atomic-scale memory, that would be capable of storing massive amounts of data.

Telephone Inventor’s Voice Heard in Restored Recording

Posted April 26th, 2013 at 8:01 pm (UTC+0)
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Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, circa 1914-1919 (Moffett Studio/Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, circa 1914-1919 (Moffett Studio/Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons)

A 128-year-old voice recording made by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, has been recovered by Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution.

Although the voice on the restored recording sounds a bit faint with some hiss and noise in the background, it is now possible to hear Bell speak for the first time. Before the restored recordings were made available, no one knew what the inventor sounded like.

The sound of the inventor’s voice comes from the National Museum of American History‘s collection of 200 recordings from Bell’s Volta Laboratory that are among some of the earliest sound recordings ever made.

The recording is part of the National Museum of American History‘s collection of 200 of the earliest sound recordings from Bell’s Volta Laboratory.

Researchers also found a loose piece of paper containing what appears to be a written transcript of Bell’s recording.

The transcript, which is  signed by Bell, ends with the words, “in witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”

It was paired with a recently identified “wax-on-binder-board disc” with the  initials “AGB” and the same date, April 15, 1885, etched into its surface.

The recording was made using a non-invasive optical sound recovery process on Library of Congress equipment that was developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  The researchers were able to positively identify Bell’s voice by matching the audio on the old disc with the written transcript.

Photo of the 128 year-old disc that contains the voice of Alexander Graham Bell (Smithsonian Volta Laboratory Collection)

The 128-year-old disc that contains the voice of Alexander Graham Bell (Smithsonian Volta Laboratory Collection)

“Identifying the voice of Alexander Graham Bell—the man who brought us everyone else’s voice—is a major moment in the study of history,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “Not only will this discovery allow us to further identify recordings in our collection, it enriches what we know about the late 1800s—who spoke, what they said, how they said it—and this formative period for experimentation in sound.”

Along with identifying the inventor’s voice, the museum also identified the voice of Bell’s father, Alexander Melville Bell, from a wax-coated drum recording made in September 1881.

Partially quoting Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the elder Bell said on the recording, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” He went on to say, “I am a graphophone, and my mother was a phonograph.”

In 1881, concerned about a possible patent war with rival inventors, Alexander Graham Bell placed the recording, along with the machine that made the recording, at the Smithsonian so that they could be used as proof in the event of any  litigation.

A voice recording of Bell’s father was recovered on this wax-coated drum, which was shipped to Berkeley Lab earlier this year for analysis. (Roy Kaltschmidt)

A voice recording of Bell’s father was recovered on this wax-coated drum that was shipped to the Berkeley Lab earlier this year for analysis. (Roy Kaltschmidt)

In 2002, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab  came up with the idea of using a non-invasive optical technique  to scan and recover sounds.

The unique sound recovery process makes a high-resolution digital map of the disc or, in many cases, a cylinder. This map then goes through further processing to remove skips, scratches and other noises. Finally, the system uses special software that calculates the motion of a stylus moving through the disc or cylinder’s grooves, reproducing the audio and saving it as a standard digital sound file.

The continuing effort to recover and restore Bell’s old Volta discs is part of an ongoing project to preserve and catalog the museum’s collection of early recordings, while also increasing public access to the collection’s contents.

The Smithsonian says that the content of these old recordings, and the distinctive  old physical discs and cylinders,  provide unique insight into the invention process of these  19th-century labs and speech patterns of the late 19th century.

Smithsonian video with the restored sound of Bell’s voice and accompanying written transcript

New Robot Crawls Like a Sea Turtle

Posted April 23rd, 2013 at 11:00 pm (UTC+0)
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Top view of "Flipperbot" (Nicole Mazouchova)

Top view of Flipperbot (Nicole Mazouchova)

Researchers have designed a robot that crawls like a sea turtle which could help inspire future multi-terrain robots that would also be able to swim and walk.

The new robot, dubbed “Flipperbot,” was designed to allow scientists to learn more about the locomotion of animals such as seals, sea turtles and mudskippers.

Its creators, from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and Northwestern University, wanted a better understanding of how these animals use their flippers and fins to move on surfaces like sand.

Flipperbot, which is 19 centimeters long and weighs 790 grams, crawls by using two flipper-like front limbs that span about 40 centimeters. To power the turtle-like robot, each of its limbs is equipped with small servo motors with thin, lightweight flippers attached to the end.

Flipperbot could also help scientists gain a better understanding of how structures like fins and flippers evolved when fish-like animals moved from the water onto land several hundred million years ago.

"Flipperbot" makes its way through sand.  (Nicole Mazouchova)

Flipperbot makes its way through sand. (Nicole Mazouchova)

To better understand the mechanics of flipper-based movement on land Daniel Goldman from the Georgia Tech team said that his group, before designing Flipperbot, to better understand the mechanics of flipper-based movement on land, researchers studied how hatchling sea turtles propelled themselves from their nests on sandy beaches into the sea.

“Flipperbot allowed us to explore aspects of the sea turtle’s gait and structure that were challenging, if not impossible, to investigate in field experiments using actual animals,” said Goldman.

The researchers realized the advantages of a free moving wrist, instead of a fixed wrist, at the end of the flipper.  When fitted with a free wrist, Flipperbot moved much more effectively over the ground while not disturbing much surface material as it propelled itself forward.

“With a fixed wrist, the robot also interacts with the ground that has already been disturbed by its previous steps, which hinders its movement,” Goldman said.

Video of “Flipperbot” in action (Institute of Physics)

The researchers tested Flipperbot on a 122-centimeter-long bed of poppy seeds and recorded its movements with a high-speed digital camera.

The study’s co-author, Nicole Mazouchova, also from Georgia Tech, believes further robot testing could help in turtle conservation biology.

“The natural beach habitat of hatchling sea turtles is endangered by human activity,” she said. “Robot modeling can provide us with a tool to test environmental characteristics of the beach and implement efforts for conservation.”

Science Images of the Week

Posted April 19th, 2013 at 7:08 pm (UTC+0)
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NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of recent M6.5 class flare. This image shows a combination of light in wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms - light wavelength measurement.- (NASA/SDO)

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a recent M6.5 class flare. This image shows a combination of light in wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms – light wavelength measurement. (NASA)

This image shows the beautiful bright orange-colored Perrottetia dermapyrrhosa, one of the three new species of the snail that were recently found in Thailand. (Somsak Panha)

The bright orange-colored Perrottetia dermapyrrhosa, one of three new species of the snail recently found in Thailand. (Somsak Panha)

Using 10 different pointings of the Chandra X-ray telescope astronomers created this detailed image of the remnants from the SN 1006 supernova that was created when a white dwarf star exploded. (NASA/CXC/Middlebury College/F.Winkler et al.)

Images captured by the Chandra X-ray telescope helped astronomers create this detailed image of the remnants from the SN 1006 supernova, created when a white dwarf star exploded. (NASA)

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics have come up with a unique new keyboard called KALQ that they say will offer mobile phone and tablet users substantial peformance advantages over the traditional qwerty keyboards now being offered. (Max Planck Institute for Informatics)

Scientists think they’ve come up with a better way for mobile phone and tablet users to type their text messages and tweets. Instead of the traditional QWERTY keyboard, the new KALQ system allows people to use their thumbs for up to 34 percent faster and more comfortable typing. (Max Planck Institute for Informatics)

Artist's concept of a solar-electric-powered spacecraft that will be designed to capture a small near-Earth asteroid and relocate it safely close to the Earth-moon system so astronauts can explore it. (NASA)

Artist’s concept of a solar-electric-powered spacecraft  which would be designed to capture a small near-Earth asteroid and relocate it safely close to the Earth-moon system for astronauts to study. (NASA)

A researcher holds a ribbon of electronics including ultra-miniaturized LEDs that can be injected deep into the brain to help scientists study the mysteries of the brain.  (John A. Rogers, University of Illinois/Beckman Institute)

A researcher holds a ribbon of electronics including ultra-miniaturized LEDs that can be injected deep into the brain to help scientists study the mysteries of the brain. (John A. Rogers, University of Illinois/Beckman Institute)

Artist’s concept of a dense, dead star called a white dwarf crossing in front of a small, red star. The white dwarf’s gravity is so great it bends and magnifies light from the red star. NASA’s Kepler space telescope recently observed this effect in a double-star system called KOI-256 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s concept of a dense, dead star called a white dwarf crossing in front of a small, red star. The white dwarf’s gravity is so great it bends and magnifies light from the red star. NASA’s Kepler space telescope recently observed this effect in a double-star system called KOI-256. (NASA)

A new species of an insect called the leaf miner was recently discovered in the depths of the Brazilian jungle. (Gilson R.P. Moreira)

A new species of an insect called the leaf miner was recently discovered in the depths of the Brazilian jungle. (Gilson R.P. Moreira)

The tip of the "wing" of the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy is a small galaxy about 200,000 light-years way that orbits our own Milky Way spiral galaxy. (NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/STScI)

The tip of the “wing” of the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy is a small galaxy about 200,000 light-years away that orbits our own Milky Way spiral galaxy. (NASA)

A NASA technician inspects the inlet ducting of the Honeywell ALF 502 engine, which allows engine manufacturers to simulate flying through the upper atmosphere where large amounts of icing particles can be ingested, causing flame outs or a loss of engine power on aircraft. (NASA)

Saturn’s Rings Are Raining on Planet

Posted April 12th, 2013 at 7:32 pm (UTC+0)
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Saturn and its rings in a composite image taken by the wide-angle camera on the Cassini spacecraft over nearly three and by digitally compositing ultraviolet, infrared, and clear-filter images and then adjusting the final image to resemble natural color. (NASA)

Saturn and its rings taken over a period of three hours by the wide-angle camera on the Cassini spacecraft. (NASA)

The old adage “April showers bring May flowers” may take on new meaning with the release of a new NASA-funded study tracking the rain of charged water particles from Saturn’s famous rings into the planet’s atmosphere.

The study, led by the University of Leicester, England, found there’s more of this rain and its spread over larger areas than previously thought. Researchers also found the rain influences both the composition and  temperature structure of the ringed planet’s upper atmosphere.

“Saturn is the first planet to show significant interaction between its atmosphere and ring system,” said James O’Donoghue, the paper’s lead author and a postgraduate researcher at Leicester. “The main effect of ring rain is that it acts to ‘quench’ the ionosphere of Saturn. In other words, this rain severely reduces the electron densities in regions in which it falls.”

Artist concept illustrating how charged water particles flow into Saturn's atmosphere from the planet's rings, causing a reduction in atmospheric brightness. (NASA/Space Science Institute/University of Leicester)

Artist concept illustrating how charged water particles flow into Saturn’s atmosphere from the planet’s rings, causing a reduction in atmospheric brightness. (NASA/University of Leicester)

The  study gives scientists a better understanding of the origination and evolution of Saturn’s rings, as well as of changes that have taken place in the planet’s atmosphere.

“It turns out that a major driver of Saturn’s ionospheric environment and climate across vast reaches of the planet are ring particles located some 36,000 miles [60,000 kilometers] overhead,” said Kevin Baines, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The ring particles affect both what species of particles are in this part of the atmosphere and where it is warm or cool.”

After examining images sent back to Earth from NASA’s Voyager mission in the early 1980s, scientists noticed three dark bands on Saturn, which led them to theorize that water could be showering down into those bands from the rings.

The study authors say those dark bands were not seen again until scientists involved with this research project observed the planet in near-infrared wavelengths with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii in April 2011.

The effect the rings had on the dark bands was difficult for scientists to distinguish because doing so required that they look for a faint emission that originated from the brightly-lit parts of Saturn. To be able to do this, the researchers needed to use a special tool, available at the Keck Observatory that is able to split up a large range of light into wavelengths.

Image of Saturn's rings taken from the Cassini spacecraft show that different rings have slightly different colors. The ring particles are mostly light water-ice. (NASA)

Image of Saturn’s rings taken from the Cassini spacecraft showing different rings have slightly different colors. The ring particles are mostly light water-ice. (NASA)

Based on their research, the scientists presumed the charged water particles pouring from Saturn’s rings are being pulled towards the planet along its magnetic field lines, while also are working to counteract the expected glow produced by special triatomic (3 atom molecules) hydrogen ions.

So, rather than the entire planet shimmering in an infrared glow, the rain particles creat shadows that cover between 30 to 43 percent of  Saturn’s upper atmosphere surface from around 25 to 55 degrees latitude. This finding indicates a much larger area of shadow cover than was suggested by NASA’s Voyager images of the 1980s.

“Where Jupiter is glowing evenly across its equatorial regions, Saturn has dark bands where the water is falling in, darkening the ionosphere,” said Tom Stallard, a paper co-author at Leicester. “We’re now also trying to investigate these features with an instrument on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. If we’re successful, Cassini may allow us to view in more detail the way that water is removing ionized particles, such as any changes in the altitude or effects that come with the time of day.”

NASA Wants to Speed Journey to Mars

Posted April 9th, 2013 at 5:05 pm (UTC+0)
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The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA)

NASA wants to shorten the journey to Mars.

It took about eight months for its Mars rover, Curiosity, to reach the red planet. And now, the US space agency is looking for ways to cut the travel time for future manned missions there.

Researchers in Washington State say that might be possible through a unique manipulation of nuclear fusion, the same energy that powers the sun and stars.

Scientists at the University of Washington and at MSNW, a Redmond, Washington, space propulsion company, have joined forces  to build components of a fusion-powered rocket  which could make deep space travel easier, faster and cheaper, with fewer potential health risks.

“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” said John Slough, a UW associate professor and president of MSNW. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

A concept image of a spacecraft powered by a fusion-driven rocket. Solar panels mounted on the sides would collect energy to initiate the process that creates fusion. (University of Washington, MSNW)

A concept image of a spacecraft powered by a fusion-driven rocket. Solar panels mounted on the sides would collect energy to initiate the process that creates fusion. (University of Washington, MSNW)

Slough said his team has already calculated the possibilities of 30 and 90-day expeditions to Mars using a rocket powered by fusion. Not only would the trip be quicker, but it would also be more practical and less costly, according the research team.

Each portion of the process has proven successful in lab tests, but Slough said researchers still need to combine each of those isolated tests into a final experiment that will produce fusion using the newly developed technology.

The team has developed a type of plasma that is encased in its own magnetic field.  Compressing the plasma to high pressure with its magnetic field should produce nuclear fusion, according to the research team.

The scientists hope to power a rocket using the powerful magnetic fields to implode large metal rings surrounding the plasma to compress it into a fusion state.  The collapsing rings will then come together to form a shell that will ignite the fusion.

While the compression time will only last for a few microseconds, enough energy will be released to quickly heat and ionize the shell.  The shell’s now super-heated and ionized metal will be forced out of a rocket nozzle at a high velocity. Repeating that process every minute or so will propel the spacecraft, according to the researchers.

The fusion driven rocket test chamber at the UW Plasma Dynamics Lab in Redmond. (University of Washington, MSNW)

The fusion driven rocket test chamber at the UW Plasma Dynamics Lab in Redmond. (University of Washington, MSNW)

Only a small amount of fusion is needed to power a rocket, according the researchers. A small grain of fusion material has the same energy content as several liters of rocket fuel.

“I think everybody was pleased to see confirmation of the principal mechanism that we’re using to compress the plasma,” Slough said. “We hope we can interest the world with the fact that fusion isn’t always 40 years away and doesn’t always cost $2 billion.”

Slough says he hopes to have all the elements of his team’s new process ready for a first test at the end of the summer.

Hubble Spots Farthest Supernova Yet

Posted April 5th, 2013 at 7:25 pm (UTC+0)
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Hubble Space Telescope view of supernova SN UDS10Wil, nicknamed SN Wilson. The small box in the image pinpoints SN Wilson’s host galaxy in the survey conducted by the CANDELS+CLASH Supernova Project. (NASA)

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has found the farthest known supernova discovered to date.

Nicknamed “SN Wilson,” after the American President Woodrow Wilson, scientists say supernova UDS10Wil, exploded more than 10 billion years ago, about 3.77 billion years after the Big Bang.

SN Wilson is in a special class of exploding stars known as “Type Ia supernovae,” which have been long valued by astronomers because they provide a reliable level of brightness that can be used to measure the expansion of space.

These bright celestial objects can also provide clues to the nature of the mysterious force known as dark energy, which scientists theorize is responsible for accelerating the expansion rate of the universe.

“This new distance record holder opens a window into the early universe, offering important new insights into how these stars explode,” said David O. Jones of Johns Hopkins University, an astronomer and lead author on the paper detailing the discovery. “We can test theories about how reliable these detonations are for understanding the evolution of the universe and its expansion.”

Supernova SN UDS10Wil was nicknamed SN Wilson after the 28th US President, Woodrow Wilson (Library of Congress)

Supernova SN UDS10Wil was nicknamed SN Wilson after the 28th US President, Woodrow Wilson (Library of Congress)

SN Wilson was found by scientists participating in a three-year Hubble program that surveyed the skies for distant Type Ia supernovae to determine whether they had changed in the billions of years since our Universe began in the Big Bang.  Since the program began in 2010, Hubble has found more than 100 supernovae and  eight of the special Type Ia supernovae, including the SN Wilson.

“The Type Ia supernovae give us the most precise yardstick ever built, but we’re not quite sure if it always measures exactly a yard,” said Steve Rodney of Johns Hopkins University and a member of Hubble’s supernovae survey team. “The more we understand these supernovae, the more precise our cosmic yardstick will become.”

Astronomers still have much to learn about the nature of dark energy and how Type Ia supernovae explode.

Finding Type Ia supernovae created so early in the history of the Universe will also provide astronomers with a way to compare two competing supernovae explosion modelsOne model specifies that the explosions are caused when two white dwarf compact stars merge. The other model indicates that a white dwarf that’s slowly feeding off a neighboring normal star explodes when it gathers too much mass.

This image taken in near-infrared light shows the SN Wilson supernova. To see the light from the supernova, astronomers had to subtract it's host galaxy from the image. (NASA/ESA)

This image taken in near-infrared light shows the SN Wilson supernova. To see the light from the supernova, astronomers had to subtract it’s host galaxy from the image. (NASA)

Evidence gathered by the team so far seems to favor the white dwarf merger model because it predicts that most stars existing in the early Universe are much too young to become Type Ia supernovae.

“If supernovae were popcorn, the question is how long before they start popping?” said team leader Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and Johns Hopkins University. “You may have different theories about what is going on in the kernel. If you see when the first kernels popped and how often they popped, it tells you something important about the process of popping corn.”

By knowing what sets off the Type Ia supernovae, scientists are also hoping to determine just how quickly the Universe became enriched with heavier elements such as iron. Through a process called supernova nucleosynthesis, these exploding stars produce about half of the iron in the universe, some of the raw material used for building planets, and life itself.

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