The Large Hadron Collider is Powering Back Up, What Next?

A segment of the Large Hadron Collider's super-cooled electromagnets. Credit: CERN/LHC
A segment of the Large Hadron Collider’s super-cooled electromagnets. Credit: CERN/LHC

After a 2 year hiatus for a significant upgrade, the Large Hadron Collider is being switched back on and, early on Sunday, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator saw the first circulation of protons around its 27 kilometer ring of superconducting electromagnets.

This is awesome news, especially as there was a minor electrical short last week that could have derailed this momentous occasion for weeks, or maybe months. In one of magnet segments, a metallic piece of debris from the upgrade work had become jammed in a diode box, triggering the short. Manual removal of the debris would have forced a lengthy warm up and then cool down back to cryogenic temperatures, but CERN engineers were able to find a quick fix — by passing an electrical current through the problem circuit the tiny piece of debris was burnt away, no warm-up required.

With this small hiccup out of the way, the complex task of circulating protons around the LHC began this weekend, resulting in two sparsely populated beams of protons speeding around the LHC in opposite directions. So far, so good, but the particle accelerator is far from being ready to recommence particle collisions.

“Bringing the LHC back on, from a complete shutdown to doing physics, is not a question of pushing a button and away you go,” Paul Collier, head of beams at CERN, told Nature News.

Sure, the LHC is circulating protons, but it is far from restarting high-energy collisions. In fact, over the coming weeks and months, engineers will be tuning the machine to finely collimate the counter-rotating beams of protons and gradually ramping-up their speed. The first collisions aren’t expected to begin until June at the earliest.

But seeing protons pump around the LHC for the first time since 2013 is an awesome sign that all the high-energy plumbing is in place and the electrical backbone of the accelerator appears to be working in synergy with the massive magnetic hardware.

Over the next 8 weeks, engineers will turn on the LHC’s acceleration systems, boosting the beam energy from 450 GeV to 6.5 TeV, gradually focusing the beams in preparation for the first collisions.

According to Nature, the re-started LHC will slam 1 billion pairs of protons together every second inside the various detectors dotted around the accelerator ring with a collision energy of 13 TeV, boosting the LHC’s energy into a whole new regime. During the LHC’s first run, the maximum energy recorded was 8 TeV.

This makes for a curious time in cutting-edge particle physics.

Before the LHC was fully commissioned in 2008, its clear task was to track down, discover and characterize the Higgs boson, the last remaining piece of the Standard Model. Having achieved the Higgs discovery in 2012 — resulting in the 2013 Nobel Prize being awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert — physicists have been combing through the reams of data to understand the new particle’s characteristics. Although a lot still needs to be learnt about the famous boson that endows all matter with mass, Run 2 of the LHC has a rather vague mission. But “vague” certainly doesn’t mean dull, we could be entering into a new era of physics discovery.

I always imagine that powering up the LHC is like this... completely inaccurate, mind you.
I always imagine that powering up the LHC is like this… completely inaccurate, mind you.

We’ve never seen collision energies this high before, and with the Standard Model all but tied up, physicists are on the lookout for phenomena with an “exotic” flavor. Exotic, in this case, means the production of quantum effects that cannot be easily explained or may be driven by mechanics that have, until now, been considered pure speculation.

Personally, I’m excited that the LHC may generate a signature that we cannot explain. I’m also trilled by the possibility of micro-black holes, the discovery of dark matter particles, potential hints of supersymmetry and quantum gravity. But I’m doubly-thrilled by the prospect of something popping out of the collision debris that doesn’t make any sense.

As the LHC will now slam protons (and, later, ions) at energies nearly double of what it was previously capable of, we are in uncharted territory. Physicists are recreating the conditions of the Big Bang, condensing primordial particles and forces from the concentrated energy of colliding beams of charged particles. So far, after only 7 years since the LHC was first powered up, it has already confirmed the existence of a Standard Model Higgs boson. So now, without a single ultimate goal, the LHC will do what physics does best, discovery-driven science that could answer many quantum mysteries and, hopefully, create many more.

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Battlestar Galactica’s “Twelve Colonies of Kobol” Star System Found?

An image at radio wavelengths of a young stellar quadruplet. Credit: CfA/Nature/Pineda
An image at radio wavelengths of a young stellar quadruplet. Credit: CfA/Nature/Pineda

825 light-years away, in the constellation of Perseus, hides one protostar and three previously unseen gas concentrations that are undergoing gravitational collapse — basically embryos of soon-to-be baby stars. Found through the analysis of data from radio telescopes by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), this tiny cluster of baby stars occupy a small volume only 10,000 AU across — meaning that they’d all easily fit within the confines of the boundaries of our solar system (yes, the Oort Cloud is the solar system’s outermost boundary).

This is exciting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this little ‘stellar womb’ has given astronomers an opportunity to study the genesis of a multi-star system. Indeed, most stars in our galaxy belong to multi-star systems, whether that be binary or greater, and astronomers are currently trying to figure out whether they were born this way or whether, over time, stars jostled around and eventually became gravitationally bound. After analysis of the velocities of the protostar and stellar embryos, it appears that the masses are gravitationally interacting. In other words, it has the potential to mature into a quadruple star system in around 40,000 years, a minute amount of time in cosmic timescales. Although it is likely that the system will become unstable, possibly ejecting one or two of the stars in the process, it does provide observational evidence that multi-star systems can be born in a gravitational embrace.

A map of the Twelve Colonies via io9.com
A map of the Twelve Colonies via io9.com

But as I have a habit of linking astrophysical studies with science fiction imaginings, when I first saw this research, I immediately thought of the awesome re-imagined series’ Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.

Battlestar Galactica is set in the years following the Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, which almost wiped out humanity in this far-flung part of the galaxy. The remaining survivors, headed by William Adama (Edward James Olmos), take to the stars in a fleet of ragtag spaceships in search of the fabled Earth. One of my favorite scifi storylines and favorite scfi TV shows. But I digress.

The Twelve Colonies consist of four stars — Helios Alpha, Helios Beta, Helios Delta and Helios Gamma — each with their own systems of planets, 12 in total, including capital world Caprica.

So that poses a question: Just because Battlestar Galactica imagines a quadruple star system (well, two binary systems in a mutual orbit), is it possible to have such a stable system of planets evolve in a multi-star system? Or are the gravitational interactions too complex for anything to coalesce and slot into stable orbits? Well, by understanding how multi-star systems evolve by finding examples like this embedded inside star forming molecular clouds, we may start to appreciate how common and how stable they are and whether accompanying planetary systems are a reality or something that will forever be confined to the Twelve Colonies.

READ MORE: Star Quadruplets Spied Growing Inside Stellar Womb (Discovery News)

Jovian Joviality: Juno is a Healthy Spaceship, On-Track for 2016 Jupiter Rendezvous

Artist's impression of the Juno flyby (NASA)
Artist’s impression of the Juno flyby (NASA)

Last week’s Juno flyby of Earth was an exciting event. NASA’s Jupiter-bound mission buzzed our planet on Wednesday (Oct. 9) only 350 miles from the surface, providing amateur astronomers with an opportunity to snapshot Juno as she flew past, stealing a little momentum from Earth and sling-shotting toward the largest planet in the Solar System. Alas, the flyby event wasn’t without incident.

The spacecraft dropped into “safe mode” shortly after its terrestrial encounter. Safe mode is a fail safe on spacecraft that protects onboard instruments from an unexpected condition. This can come in the form of a power spike or some other instrumental error. It is not known at this time what triggered this particular event, but the upshot is that Juno is back in its nominal state.

From a Southwest Research Institute news release:

“Onboard Juno, the safe mode turned off instruments and a few non-critical spacecraft components, and pointed the spacecraft toward the Sun to ensure the solar arrays received power. The spacecraft acted as expected during the transition into and while in safe mode.”

Juno’s planned trajectory was not impacted during the flyby and it is expected to make orbital insertion around Jupiter in July 2016.

The mission was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2011 and, through a wonderful bit of orbital mechanics, was commanded to do one 2-year orbit around the Sun. Then, last week, it ended up where it started to use our planet as a speed booster, flinging it further out into the Solar System toward Jupiter’s orbit. This acceleration “freebie” was needed as the launch vehicle, an Atlas V rocket, didn’t have the oomph to propel the spacecraft deeper into space.

Once Juno arrives at Jupiter, it will give the gas giant a thorough full-body examination, investigating what lies beneath its clouds, how it generates its powerful magnetic field and how it evolved. The repercussions of Juno’s one-year primary mission will hopefully expose not only how Jupiter is formed, but how Earth evolved into its current state.

As Juno sped past on Wednesday, I allowed myself an early celebration of some fine flying by NASA scientists with a Gin & Tonic (or a Juno & Tonic) in my special JPL-bought Juno glasses.

Good luck Juno, will look forward to seeing you at Jupiter in a little under three years time!

MORE: Read my Discovery News post about the possibility of Juno exhibiting the mysterious “flyby anomaly.”

Round-up: North Korean Rockets and No Warp Drives

A visualization of fairing separation after N. Korean rocket clears the atmosphere (Video still courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc. www.agi.com)
A visualization of fairing separation after N. Korean rocket clears the atmosphere (Video still courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc. http://www.agi.com)

Apologies for the quietness on Astroengine these last few days, this Astroengineer has been taking a small break and as such it has meant a lack of computer access. Expect the site to be running at full capacity on Monday. But for now, I thought I’d give a brief run-down of my activities on the Universe Today.

  • North Korea Threatens War if Rocket is Shot Down
    Some time between April 4th-8th, North Korea will launch a communications satellite into orbit. Unsurprisingly there is huge scepticism being voiced by Japan, South Korea and the United States that the secretive military nation is in fact carrying out a test-launch of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile system, mounting a “peaceful” satellite to disguise its real intention. If the world’s suspicions are correct, if successful, North Korea will have a means to deliver a possible nuclear strike as far as Hawaii or Alaska. Now the North Korean army has warned that if the launch is interfered with, they will attack “major targets” in Japan.
  • Warp Drives Probably Impossible After All
    Just when I was getting excited about the possibility of travelling to distant worlds, scientists have uncovered a deep flaw with faster-than-light-speed travel. There appears to be a quantum limit on how fast an object can travel through space-time, regardless of whether we are able to create a bubble in space-time or not

“Mars” by Jason Zuckerman (AstroArt)

"Mars" by Jason Zuckerman
“Mars” by Jason Zuckerman

I’ve been writing a science fiction novel about Mars for the best part of a decade. I have always had a fascination with the Red Planet and all the sci-fi possibilities the planet holds for my creative writing. Unfortunately, it’s taken me ten years to put my imagination into words, and it will probably be another ten before it’s completed! No, for now, I’m focusing on factual science writing, hence the forthcoming Astroeconomics book I’m co-authoring with Greg Fish.

This is possibly one of the reasons why I have such a fascination with artists who have a vision and then draw what they see. There’s a faster turn-around than writing, and the results are more vivid. Today, I had the good fortune to have stumbled upon (quite literally) Jason Zuckerman’s “Mars” creation. I have been following Jay’s website (Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day) for a while now with the help of his brother and my online buddy, Adam (a.k.a. madhollywood on SU).

Jay is a very talented and productive artist who constantly surprises me, and “Mars” was certainly a surprise! He posted this piece last year, but I thought I’d share even though I missed it first time around. The image portrays a future Mars astronaut standing in awe of a Martian structure, totally captivating. Although this is science fiction, it certainly drives my imagination, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with that

For more, check out Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day »

Discovery Undocks From ISS, Descends Through Sunset

A sequence of images from the space station as Discovery departs (NASA TV, edited by Ian O'Neill)
A sequence of images from the space station as Discovery departs. Images slightly corrected for camera rotation (NASA TV, edited by Ian O'Neill)
The ISS now has its full set of solar arrays after the STS-119 mission (NASA)
The ISS now has its full set of solar arrays after the STS-119 mission (NASA)

After looping once around the space station, space shuttle Discovery slowly dropped away as it started its journey back to Earth on Wednesday, March 25th.

I was watching the live video feed coming from the station, captivated by the scene. Having successfully completed the STS-119 mission, the seven crew members said their farewells after the 10-day stay in low-Earth orbit to install the remaining solar arrays (left). This will enable the station to collect more energy to sustain an expanded crew from three to six later this year, and allow the station to carry out more science.

On NASA TV, I listened to the chatter between mission control, the station and the shuttle but I was overjoyed to capture some screen shots as the shuttle passed through the sunset and then dropping into the Earth’s shadow (top). The added bonus was the glint of sunlight before Discovery turned orange before slipping into the night. Stunning…

For more, check out the Universe Today’s coverage of the Discovery undocking »

Happy 10th Birthday Universe Today!

The vintage UT logo from 1999
The vintage UT logo from 1999

Wow! The Universe Today is ten years old!

It’s one of those websites that I took for granted for many years, until Fraser Cain gave me the outstanding opportunity to write for it on December 21st, 2007. Over at the site, Fraser provides an intimate look into why and how he got Universe Today started, but I thought I’d share some memories of when I first stumbled upon Fraser’s venture and how I had the crazy luck to start writing for him.

To set the scene: It was a cold, dark night, in the frozen Arctic wastes
Continue reading “Happy 10th Birthday Universe Today!”

Pins and Solar Arrays

Astronaut Richard Arnold participates in the STS-119 first scheduled spacewalk to connect the S6 truss segment to the ISS on Thursday March 19th, 2009 (NASA)
Astronaut Richard Arnold participates in the STS-119 first scheduled spacewalk to connect the S6 truss segment to the ISS on Thursday March 19th, 2009 (NASA)

According to NASA, Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 mission to install the remaining solar arrays is going to plan, apart from the small matter of a pin that was installed the wrong way. Although this might sound inconsequential, the mistake made during today’s spacewalk has jammed an equipment storage platform, eating up valuable time during the EVA, causing NASA mission control to evaluate the situation. At the moment, the platform is temporarily tethered in place until a solution is found to the pin that has been inserted incorrectly.

For more information on this news, check out the Associated Press article »

In the grand scheme of things, this won’t hinder progress too much. I am still in awe of any mission that makes the space station capable of supporting an expanded crew of six, creating the second brightest object in the nights sky (after the Moon). This bright speeding object is a huge, man-made array of solar panels. If we are capable of doing these things at an altitude of 350 km, anything is possible…

Tune into Paranormal Radio Tonight (at 9pm EST)

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Tune into Paranormal Radio tonight to listen to Captain Jack and myself discuss… something. I think we are going to chill out and Jack will discuss the current goings on in the world of the paranormal, I’ll discuss my sceptical opinion of it all, we’ll expand the myth and bring some more common sense to the world. It’s a perfect marriage of open minds and sceptical thought, often ending up with a beer and a chat about something completely unrelated to science or UFOs. Always a giggle. Jack is an awesome host, so I’m sure tonight will be great fun. Also, we’ll be going live over the Seattle and Austin airwaves!

Listening into Paranormal Radio is the same deal as listening into Astroengine Live, so be sure to tune in!

Listen to WPRT Radio using the Paranormal Radio player. Or, pick up the podcast feed to activate your favourite audio software.

Pictures from the Red Dwarf Set

Robert Llewellyn (Kryton), Chris Barrie (Rimmer) and Danny John-Jules (The Cat) on the set of Coronation Street (Dave)
Robert Llewellyn (Kryton), Chris Barrie (Rimmer) and Danny John-Jules (The Cat) on the set of Coronation Street (Dave)

Behind the scene pictures of the forthcoming mini-series of the UK space comedy, Red Dwarf, have just been released by the Dave channel. TV comedies are out of the remit of Astroengine, but Red Dwarf will always have a special Astroengine.com VIP Pass. Why? Because it’s awesome.

The pictures above were taken on the Coronation Street set (a UK soap, that I also miss terribly) during the making of the upcoming Easter pair of episodes in April. For me, seeing the cast back together, after nearly a decade apart, is great. I loved each series (although the original four seasons were probably the best in my opinion) and I can’t wait to see how these new episodes turn out.

Smegging fantastic!

For more, check out “They’re (Not) Dead Dave…” – Red Dwarf Returns!

Source: Dave