Category: radiation

A Massive Solar Storm Just Hit Mars, Causing a Global Aurora and Doubling Radiation Levels

Surprise Storm

On September 11th, the Sun surprised scientists monitoring the red planet by hitting Mars with an unexpected solar storm. The storm produced an aurora on Mars 25 times brighter than any other observed by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, which has been studying the planets’ atmosphere since 2014.

The featured image above, taken by the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph on NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, shows the intensity of ultraviolet light on Mars’ night side before (left) and during (right) the solar storm.

The storm also doubled the highest radiation levels measured on Mars’ surface, by the Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), since it landed in 2012. Though our planet was on the opposite side of the Sun, radiation was detectable from Earth—a testament to the storm’s power.

An animation showing the sudden appearance of a bright aurora on Mars during the solar storm. The purple-white color scheme shows the intensity of ultraviolet light over the course of the event as captured by the MAVEN orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/Univ. of Colorado

“This is exactly the type of event both missions were designed to study, and it’s the biggest we’ve seen on the surface so far,” said Don Hassler, RAD Principal Investigator, in a NASA press release. “It will improve our understanding of how such solar events affect the Martian environment, from the top of the atmosphere all the way down to the surface.”

Less Than Quiet on the Solar Front

This storm was particularly surprising because it came at a time when the Sun was expected to be relatively quiet.

The sun’s magnetic poles flip roughly every eleven years, and the period between this swap—known as the solar cycle— is characterized by relatively predictable levels of sunspot activity. Sunspots visually mark where powerful magnetic fields are erupting from the sun, producing the solar flares and coronal mass ejections that cause solar storms. The sun is currently approaching its solar minimum, when few to no sunspots are expected.

“The current solar cycle has been an odd one, with less activity than usual during the peak, and now we have this large event as we’re approaching solar minimum,” said Sonal Jain of the University of Colorado Boulder’s, a member of the instrument team for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, in the NASA release.

Tracking how events like this impact the Martian surface is key to gauging the habitability of the red planet, both for its own potential life and for future human explorers—a significant focus for NASA. Data from RAD will help researchers develop safety shielding for astronauts on the planet’s surface. According to Hassler, astronauts on Mars would definitely have needed shelter during a storm of this magnitude.

“To protect our astronauts on Mars in the future, we need to continue to provide this type of space weather monitoring there,” he said.

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Before We Can Send Humans to Mars, We Need to Address This Major Health Risk

Mission to Mars

NASA is dead-set on sending astronauts to Mars within the next 15 to 20 years. China has said it hopes to send people there between 2020 and 2030, and even Russia is floating plans to put boots on the red planet.

Meanwhile, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is trying to cut the cost of spaceflight enough to start establishing a permanent Martian colony of 1 million people as soon as possible.

But if a study of radiation exposure in mice has any bearing on humans, going to Mars may be much more dangerous than anyone expected.

The root problem is cosmic rays, as detailed in a May 2017 Nature studyand highlighted by a recent Business Insider video.

The Danger of Cosmic Rays

Cosmic rays are high-energy atomic and subatomic particles that get blasted out from exploding stars, black holes, and other powerful sources in space. The rays can damage DNA, increase the risk of cancer, lead to vision-impairing cataracts, cause nervous system damage, and give rise to blood circulation issues, among other health effects in astronauts.

Researchers know that astronauts receive much higher radiation exposure than those of us who remain on Earth, since the planet’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of that harmful energy.

Earth’s magnetic field also diverts and deflects a lot of space radiation, which helps protect astronauts on the International Space Station — which orbits just 250 miles above the planet.

On a trip to Mars, however, it’s open season for cosmic rays. In addition, the planet lost its magnetic field billions of years ago, which will expose the first Mars explorers to extra radiation.

Health scientist Frank Cucinotta and his colleague Eliedonna Cacao at the University of Nevada Las Vegas researched this problem by reexamining the results of four previous studies of tumors in mice.

In addition of looking for the effects of a cosmic ray’s direct hit to cells, which could coax them to develop into cancer, the researchers also looked at how secondary or “non-targeted effects” might play a role.

What they found is a risk of cancer in deep space (at least for mice) that’s about two times higher than previous estimates.

Why Deep-Space Travel May Be More Dangerous Than Expected

The researchers think this elevated cancer risk comes down to how damaged DNA spreads throughout the body.

When a cell is struck by a cosmic ray, it doesn’t simply keep the change to itself. It can give off chemical signals to other cells, which might trigger nearby healthy cells to also mutate into cancer.

Previous models hadn’t really accounted for this domino effect. Even more worrisome, the type of radiation responsible for causing the effect was “only modestly decreased by radiation shielding,” Cucinotta and Cacao wrote in their study.

Human exploration of Mars need not stop before it starts, though.

Space agencies and private companies are actively working to mitigate space radiation. An Israeli startup is developing a body vest designed to more fully absorb radiation, for example, and one NASA scientist recently pitched the idea of deploying a satellite that’d serve as an artificial magnetic shield to divert harmful radiation around Mars.

And as the researchers noted in their study, “significant differences” exist between mouse-model cancer rates and those actually seen in people. “These differences could limit the applicability of the predictions described in this paper,” they wrote.

But the scientists add that this knowledge gap is precisely why future deep-space explorers and their respective agencies should exercise caution.

“[S]tudies … are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere,” they said.

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The Most Intense Cosmic Explosion Out There Has Been Captured as It Happened

Cosmic Explosions

The most powerful kind of cosmic explosions known to science are called gamma-ray bursts – aka ‘death from space’ – galactic events so fierce their awesome intensity is only surpassed by the Big Bang itself.

Now, an international team of astronomers has observed one of these violent outbursts of energy in unprecedented detail, witnessing a distant, giant star in its destructive death throes like never before.

“Gamma-ray bursts are catastrophic events, related to the explosion of massive stars 50 times the size of our Sun,” explains one of the researchers, Eleonora Troja from the University of Maryland.

“In a matter of seconds, the process can emit as much energy as a star the size of our Sun would in its entire lifetime.”

The Most Intense Cosmic Explosion Out There Has Been Captured as It Happened
Image Source: Nathaniel Butler/ASU

These intense flashes are thought to occur all the time, but thankfully they usually take place in galaxies billions of light-years away from Earth, sparing us from intense jets of particles thrust at the speed of light from collapsing stars.

Because we don’t get any fore-warning of these bursts, it’s not easy for scientists to observe them – given the events usually only last a matter of seconds, if that.

What made this incredibly bright burst different was that its tight beam of gamma rays was aimed by chance at Earth, enabling our telescopes to pick it up and respond in real time.

“Gamma ray bursts occur completely randomly in space and time, so we cannot predict where or when one will appear,” one of the team, Carole Mundell from the University of Bath in the UK, told IBTimes UK.

“It was very bright and produced a very short flare that lasted just 1 second before the main explosion began, so our telescopes were ready to capture the visible light at the same time as the high-energy gamma rays from the explosion itself. It was so bright, it could have been seen through binoculars. This is rare.”

The Most Intense Cosmic Explosion Out There Has Been Captured as It Happened
Artist’s impression. Image Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre

GRB 160625B

The unprecedented observation of the event – which took place on 25 June 2016 and is called GRB 160625B – could help us understand how gamma-ray bursts come to occur at all.

Scientists think that these explosions happen when a dying star collapses to become a black hole. As this process takes place, particle jets are blasted outward in a beam, but up until now, researchers weren’t sure if the jets were controlled by matter, or by a magnetic field produced by the black hole.

The new study suggests a compromise is the most accurate view of the phenomenon.

“There has been a dichotomy in the community. We find evidence for both models, suggesting that gamma-ray burst jets have a dual, hybrid nature,” Troja explains in a statement.

“The jets start off magnetic, but as the jets grow, the magnetic field degrades and loses dominance. Matter takes over and dominates the jets, although sometimes a weaker vestige of the magnetic field might survive.”

This blast, detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and observed soon after by Russia’s MASTER-IAC telescope at the Teide Observatory in Spain’s Canary Islands, also revealed that the initial, brightest phase of the burst is prompted by a kind of radiation called synchrotron radiation, which occurs when electrons are accelerated in a curved or spiral path.

Scientists had previously speculated that two other forms of radiation – black-body radiation and inverse Compton radiation – might be responsible, but the level of polarisation in the light burst produced by GRB 160625B suggests synchrotron radiation is the most likely candidate.

That insight could help to clear up decades of mystery over what drives gamma-ray bursts, but the researchers acknowledge there’s still a lot we don’t know about these intense beams.

Learning more will require us to catch of a glimpse of another violent explosion being unleashed in a (hopefully) very far away place – but as the researchers admit, there’s no way of telling just when that might be, nor whether it will be as instructive as the singular brilliance of GRB 160625B.

“Any amateur astronomer with just binoculars looking in the right part of the sky could have recorded the explosion,” Troja explained to Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo.

“It was really, really bright, and it also lasted for a very long time… it was such a unique event.”

The findings are reported in Nature.

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Study Reveals New Insights Into a Strange Force That Can Both Pull and Push Objects

Pushing and Pulling

If you follow all the strange news about the physics of the universe, you may have already come across the topic of blackbody force. In 2013, a team of physicists announced they’d discovered the existence of an unusual force that could potentially be stronger than gravity. As the force is exerted by objects known as blackbodies, blackbody force seemed a fitting name for it. Now, researchers from the Ceará State University and the Federal University of Ceará, Brazil, have uncovered new details about the strange phenomenon.

Planets of Doom: The Strange Worlds of Dead and Dying Stars [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

Blackbodies are theoretically perfect opaque objects that absorb all incoming light without reflecting or emitting any. One example is a neutron star.

A blackbody is said to emit a type of thermal radiation that can both repel and pull nearby objects like atoms and molecules. For objects that aren’t so massive and are hot enough, this blackbody radiation could even be stronger than their gravitational pull. Both the blackbody radiation (push) and the blackbody force (pull) produce an interplay of forces that’s oft explored in the field of quantum optics.

The new study out of Brazil, which has been published in Europhysics Letters, explores how a blackbody’s shape, as well as its effect on the curvature of surrounding spacetime, influences this optical attraction and repulsion. To so this, the researchers calculated the topology, or the warping of space, surrounding both spherical and cylindrical blackbodies, measuring how each object’s blackbody radiation forces are affected. They found that the curvature of space around spherical blackbodies amplifies the attractive force. Meanwhile, no such magnification was detected in cylindrical blackbodies.

Of Planets and Stars

So, how does this affect what we know about the interaction between cosmic bodies? While this effect isn’t exactly detectable in a laboratory or even for objects as massive as the Sun, the researchers believe it makes a considerable difference when it comes to massive blackbodies.

“We think that the intensification of the blackbody force due to the ultradense sources can influence in a detectable way the phenomena associated with them, such as the emission of very energetic particles, and the formation of accretion discs around black holes,” lead researcher Celio Muniz told Phys.org.

Image credit: Muniz et al./EPL
Image credit: Muniz et al./EPL

The researchers think that this new understanding of blackbody force and radiation can help refine how we model the formation of planets and stars. It could even help us discover a specific type of blackbody force known as Hawking radiation that would allow black holes to evaporate.

“This work puts the blackbody force discovered in 2013 in a wider context,” explained Muniz.

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The First People to Colonize the Solar System Will Risk Deadly, Cosmic Radiation

The Right Dosage of Radiation

It’s easy to talk about humanity’s role in deep space exploration, but it’s another thing to actually figure out the logistics of the endeavor. One of the greatest risks involved in human space exploration is the risk of radiation. While the Earth and Sun do pose some radiation risk to our astronauts, the greatest source of trouble comes from outer space and is known as galactic cosmic radiation, ancient waves emanating from supernovas of the past.

*2* Journey to Mars May Risk Breaking Current Radiation Protocol [Kelsey]

NASA astronauts are listed as “radiation workers” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In accordance with NASA, OSHA has worked to establish the ALARA Principle, meaning that NASA keeps radiation exposure “as low as reasonably achievable.” With this in mind, OSHA waived the terrestrial radiation requirements for NASA, having the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer set the limit. This lead to the current protocol that ensures that astronauts aren’t exposed to radiation that will increase their risk of death from cancer by more than 3 percent. But if it’s a trip to Mars that we’re talking about, these low-Earth orbit standards will be modified to fit the expedition.

Ethically Leaving Earth

While NASA has learned a lot with previous research into the long-term effects of living in space, the space agency still has a ton of data to understand, and even more ethical gray areas to define. When on the International Space Station, astronauts are exposed to ten times as much radiation as on Earth. A Mars trip would up that exposure to 100 times more than on Earth. NASA has begun to study the effects of long-term exposure with the help of astronaut Scott Kelly, Mark Kelly (his Earth-dwelling retiree twin), and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.

“For as long as there have been catalogs of health effects, radiation has been the most intractable, most severe, hardest problem to solve,” says Dan Masys, biomedical and health informaticist of the University of Washington. “Now, 20 or more years into advances in space technology and propulsion and systems and vehicles, radiation is still the deal breaker. It has never changed.” NASA is working on various means of lessening exposure to radiation, with faster rockets, better barriers between the astronauts and space, and drugs all on the table.

But at the end of the day, the question isn’t about a group of brave astronauts, it’s about the future of humanity. Billionaire tech innovators like Elon Musk are lobbying for humanity’s  eventual expansion in our solar system for the key reason of preserving humanity itself. In order to ensure that a single catastrophic event doesn’t spell out the end times for the only life we know to exist in the universe, we must push it forward, or as Musk suggests: establish a colony of 1 million people on Mars as soon as we feasibly can.

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Scientists Have New Information About the Massive Bands of Radiation Surrounding Earth

A Radiation Belt

Massive bands of radiation, known as the Van Allen Belts, surround Earth. Discovered in 1958, these belts of charged particles are routinely monitored by the Van Allen Probes. However, because of the previously perceived danger of these belts, scientists have been wary of sending spacecraft to conduct further studies of them. But new observations from the probes have shown that what we’ve thought about these belts might not be true.

Recent findings have shown that the particles that astronomers thought made the inner belt so dangerous — namely, the ultra-fast (relativistic), highest-energy Electrons — aren’t usually even present.

That’s right — the area that was thought to contain destructive electrons circling 640 to 9,600 km (400 to 6,000 miles) above the surface of Earth is typically (more often than not) entirely devoid of these electrons. It is now known that especially intense solar storms sometimes push high-energy electrons into the inner belt. While these instances are the exception to the rule, the belt takes a while to return to “normal,” so it was thought that the electrons were a usual fixture.

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

So, how did they figure this out? What technology could have been used with the probe to determine this new information? Well, it turns out that they used a specialized instrument called the Magnetic Electron and Ion Spectrometer (MagEIS). This device allowed scientists to more easily determine the energy and charge of different particles. This allowed them to distinguish between relativistic electrons and high-energy Protons. Seth Claudepierre, a Van Allen Probes scientist, said in a NASA press release that subtracting these protons from the measurements was key to these findings.

“We’ve known for a long time that there are these really energetic protons in there, which can contaminate the measurements, but we’ve never had a good way to remove them from the measurements until now,” Claudepierre.

A New Frontier

They have also found that not only is the inner belt a lot “weaker,” as some might put it, than previously thought, it is also much less stable. It is expected for the outer belt to fluctuate in size in response to solar activity, but now astronomers can see that the inner belt acts similarly.

The inner belt is no longer known as an unchanging band of high-energy, relativistic electrons. It has now been revealed to be an ever-changing belt that is (usually) made up of low-energy electrons and high-energy protons.

Because of the previous notions surrounding these belts, there has been relatively little study of them. This new information opens up an entirely new door for discovery. As we continue to explore our solar system, new information about these belts and the ways in which solar winds, Earth’s magnetic field, and radiation interact could be invaluable. Especially as scientists consider the possibilities of terraforming Mars, a planet lacking an atmosphere, research of the Van Allen Belts could catapult progress forward.

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What Is Dark Matter?

Dark-matter_v2

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New Material Could Solve One of Our Biggest Nuclear Problems

Radiation Makes It Tough

Radiation from nuclear reactions is no joke, and finding ways to work with it has posed a major hurdle to harnessing the potential of nuclear energy. Most materials either harden or crack when exposed to high levels of radiation, but researchers have created a new material that doesn’t just withstand high levels of radiation — it actually gets tougher the more it’s exposed to it.

One of the key components of a nuclear reactor is its coolant system, which typically uses water. However, next-generation nuclear systems that produce energy more efficiently and economically work at higher temperatures and generate increased radiation fields than current systems. Water-cooling systems just can’t keep up with these temperatures, so liquid metals like sodium and lead are used in their place. Unfortunately, these materials can damage the reactors.

“There is a preferred use of metallic materials [such as sodium and lead] for structural components, but many of these materials cannot withstand high-temperature corrosion in advanced reactors,” researcher Kumar Sridharan from the University of Wisconsin-Madison explained to Phys.org.

Working with researchers from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Milan, Italy, Sridharan developed an aluminum oxide nanoceramic coating capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of these liquid metals. “Corrosion is a surface phenomenon, so if you put coating on the surface, you need that coating to withstand high radiation doses without becoming embrittled,” Sridharan said. Not only does this coating withstand corrosion, it actually toughens as it’s irradiated, according to Fabio Di Fonzo from IIT’s Center for Nano Science and Technology.

Their study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The Energy Source of the Future

We know of two main types of nuclear reactions, but thus far, the only one used to produce a stable energy source is nuclear fission — the splitting of a heavy and unstable nucleus into two lighter nuclei — because we can control the process. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, requires extreme temperatures and pressure conditions like those found in the sun, and the process has yet to be successfully and safely utilized as an energy source.

Nuclear fusion is essentially the combining of two light nuclei (usually hydrogen isotopes) to create energy that amounts to several times more than that generated by fission. As such, it has a high potential as a limitless energy source that is genuinely renewable and clean. The radiation generated by nuclear fusion is greater than that of fission, which is where the aluminum oxide nanoceramic coating would come in handy.

While stable, efficient fusion has yet to be fully realized, we are getting closer with several researchers making considerable strides. Knowing we have a new material capable of protecting reactors during the process is another step forward on that path.

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