Using Cassini to Test Radioactive Decay Rate Variation

Artist impression of Cassini orbiting Saturn (NASA)
Artist impression of Cassini orbiting Saturn (NASA)

In a previous Astroengine article, I explored the possibility that the variation in radioactive decay rates may be synchronised with Earth’s orbital variations in distance from the Sun. Naturally, this would be a huge discovery, possibly questioning the fundamental law that nuclear decay rates are constant, no matter where the material is in the Universe. One of the conclusions in the original decay rate research suggested that we should attach a sample of a radioisotope onto an interplanetary mission far beyond the orbit of Earth. By doing this, the relationship between decay rates and distance from the Sun should become obvious, and terrestrial decay rate variations can be tested.

But wait a minute, let’s have a think about this. Haven’t we already sent radioactive material on board interplanetary missions? What about all that plutonium we use to power interplanetary probes like Voyager, Pioneer, Galileo or Cassini? Plutonium is pretty radioactive… isn’t it?
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Cycle 24 Sunspot Observed… At Last!

Thar she blows! Solar Cycle 24 sunspots make their first appearence since January (SOHO MDI image showing Cycle 24 polarity)
Thar she blows! Solar Cycle 24 sunspots make their first appearence since January (SOHO MDI image showing Cycle 24 polarity)

This day has been a long time coming. Ever since the beginning of Solar Cycle 24 back on January 4th 2008, solar physicists have been eagerly awaiting the fireworks to begin… alas, the Sun decided to take a break and stay blank for nine months, keeping any Cycle 24 sunspot activity hidden. That’s not to say there have been no sunspots. Due to a strange quirk in solar activity, the previous cycle took some time to wind down and continued to send groups of spots to the surface, occasionally unleashing some surprise flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

However, it has now been confirmed that the sunspot group seen today by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and international amateur astronomers do in fact belong to Cycle 24.

Phew, I was beginning to feel a little chilly
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Flyby Anomalies Solved?

When the Galileo probe used the Earth for a gravitational slingshot, an anomaly in its velocity was observed (NASA)
When the Galileo probe used the Earth for a gravitational slingshot, an anomaly in its velocity was observed (NASA)

This is a captivating mystery. In 1990 and 1992 when the Jupiter probe Galileo used the Earth for gravitational assists (or “slingshots”), ground-based observers noticed a small (unexpected) boost in velocity as the spacecraft approached Earth. A boost in a few millimetres per second had also been observed in the slingshot of NASA’s NEAR probe two years previously. The same was seen in the flybys of Cassini (in 1999), MESSENGER and Rosetta (in 2005). Many explanations have been put forward – including my favourite that it could be dark matter in Earth orbit kicking our robotic explorers around – but flyby anomalies may have a more mundane explanation.

In keeping with Occam’s Razor (i.e. the simplest explanation is usually the right one), a short paper has been published suggesting that flyby anomalies can be accounted for by using conventional physics…
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“Apologies for calling it the Hay-dron Collider the other night, pure ignorance.”

Did he REALLY just say that? Brian Cox's expression says it all... (still from the BBC's Newsnight program)
You did NOT just say that! Brian Cox's expression says it all... (still from the BBC's Newsnight program)

It’s days like this that I worry for the future of science in the UK…

Sure, Sir David King is the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK government, but the opinions he voiced on last week’s BBC Newsnight airing caught my breath. If his short-sighted and ill informed ideas are indicative of the UK government’s science funding strategy, I’d suggest all UK-funded particle physicists pack up and move to Europe or the US.

In the aftermath of the LHC grand event on Wednesday, outspoken Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman was joined by King and the ever impressive Professor Brian Cox. The topic focused on how the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will benefit mankind. As the media had been buzzing about the event for weeks, it was great to see a leading news opinion program set aside six minutes for a particle physics debate.

And what a debate it was! Let’s put it this way, Brian Cox got pretty irritated by King’s point that “brilliant people” should be attracted into other challenges to mankind, rather than focusing their attention on “navel searching” projects like the LHC. Brian’s response was awesome
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Greek Hackers Invade LHC… Nothing Much Happens

LHC computing is some of the most advanced in the world... but it can still be hacked... (CERN)
The LHC computers are some of the most advanced in the world... but they can still be hacked... (CERN)

As the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) circulated its first beam of particles last Wednesday, there was an electronic battle being waged inside the computer systems of the Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment (CMS), one of the four LHC detectors. The detector’s monitoring systems (CMSMON) were compromised and Greek hackers were able to upload half a dozen files during September 9th and 10th forcing CMS software engineers to scour all the systems for any more hidden files as the historic LHC “switch on” happened around them. The detector’s website displayed the Greek Security Team‘s (GST) replacement, mocking the poor security of the international particle accelerator facility, CERN.

This chain of events will of course raise a few eyebrows as to how this could possibly have happened at the multi-billion pound experiment (after all, CERN was the birthplace of the World Wide Web back in 1991), but the LHC is a huge target for hackers, if there’s a flaw, someone will eventually exploit it. CERN officials have pointed out that the security breach did not affect any experiment-critical systems, but there was bound to be some worried faces at CMS last week…
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Success! Engineers Cheer as Particles Blast Around LHC

Protons are currently being accelerated close to the speed of light in the LHC (CERN)
The new European proton superhighway (CERN)

The biggest experiment ever conceived by mankind was powered up today (Wednesday morning, GMT) and successfully circulated the first beam of protons. This is the first step toward LHC particles attaining relativistic velocities, completing 11,000 laps of the 27 km (17 mile) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) per second. This incredible feat of accelerator engineering is unparalleled, eventually allowing two counter-rotating beams of particles to be focused and collided within scales previously unimaginable. It is hoped the LHC will accelerate particles to such high energies that 14 TeV collisions will be possible by 2010, possibly revealing undiscovered particles, including the much sought-after Higgs Boson.

Although today is a hugely significant time for science (and a historic one for mankind), the first collisions will take place in October; today is a “dry run,” allowing the protons to circulate one-way. According to sources, today’s protons were accelerated around the instrument without issue, prompting LHC engineers to cheer when it was confirmed everything was on track…
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A Statement By Professor Brian Cox

Professor Brian Cox. Awesome. (Dave Pearson -
Professor Brian Cox. Awesome. (Dave Pearson -

On writing the article “Anyone Who Thinks the LHC Will Destroy the World is a Tw*t.” on, I had no idea it would hit the front page of and generate thousands of hits (booting Astroengine offline for 20 minutes). I wrote the supportive post as I believe Brian’s quote (from the Telegraph website), summed up the strain particle physicists are beginning to feel.

The original quote could be misconstrued as being offensive, but I believe the vast majority understood what he was saying. Brian was responding to reports that LHC scientists had received death threats in the run-up to the September 10th start date of the particle accelerator. With a combination of disinformation being spread by certain ill-informed individuals, media hype and mass hysteria, a solid statement was needed by a leading physicist to tame the unnecessary fear being whipped up.

I’ve been banging on about how safe the LHC is for some time, and I even vowed not to post another LHC doomsday debunking article as, quite frankly, I’m sick to death with the idiotic claims that micro-black holes, stranglets or gremlins could be produced by the LHC. The fact is that there is no danger and Brian explains why…
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“Anyone Who Thinks the LHC Will Destroy the World is a Twat.”

Brian Cox giving an inspiring talk (TED)
Brian Cox giving an inspiring talk (TED)

I’m a huge fan of Brian Cox. He’s often referred to as the “rockstar of physics,” which is a big complement considering the stereotypical physicist in everyone’s mind. From the get-go you know that Professor Cox is a guy you want in your laboratory, and you can see why from this excellent TED lecture he gave in Monterey, CA, this year. He is a tireless advocate of communicating science to the world and his outreach style is second-to-none. But like many modern scientists who are working on cutting-edge research, they are often at the mercy of public misconception, media hype and personal attacks. So when I hear news that some Large Hadron Collider (LHC) physicists are receiving death threats, I lose my faith in humanity…
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Listen to the July 29th Discussion with Walter Wagner on Paranormal Radio

Paranormal Radio with Captain Jack logo
Paranormal Radio with Captain Jack logo

Over a month ago, I was asked to be a surprise guest over on Paranormal Radio with Captain Jack. And what was the discussion? Walter Wagner was on air discussing his “Doomsday Suit” against the US partners of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and I had the great opportunity to put some questions to him. Critically for me, at about 99 minutes into the three-hour show (as I make my entrance), I ask Walter about his previous attempts at suing other particle accelerators (such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider – RHIC – back in 1999). From that point on I believe the validity of the current LHC lawsuit seemed purely academic, but it certainly made for some great discussion.

Walter put across his views in a coherent and knowledgeable way and I made a point that scientists need to be challenged so the LHC can be fully justified (but I did also point out that filing a lawsuit might have pushed it a little too far). Although enjoyable, Walter didn’t convince me to change my views

(Listen out for how many times I say “speculative”…)

A Strange Connection: Could Nuclear Decay Rates be Influenced by Distance From the Sun?

The decay rate of the radioactive isotope 32Si appears to correlate with orbital distance from the Sun (Jenkins et al. 2008)
The decay rate of the radioactive isotope 32Si appears to correlate with orbital distance from the Sun (Jenkins et al. 2008)

Wouldn’t you think that the decay rates of isotopes found on Earth would remain fairly constant under controlled conditions? Statistically-speaking one would be able to make a pretty good prediction about a radioactive element’s decay rate at any point in the future, regardless of external influences. However, a group of researchers have found the radioisotope decay rates of radium (226Ra) and silicon (32Si) varies periodically. This may not seem strange at first, but when measured, this fluctuation in decay rate has a period of approximately a year. Does this relate to the Earth’s position in its orbit? Does this mean radioactive decay rates are influenced depending on how far the element is from the Sun? Perhaps decay rates are not as predictable as we think…
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