Cold-War Era Derived ICBM Blasts Military ORS-5 Surveillance and Space Junk Tracking Satellite to Orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A Cold War-era derived Peacekeeper ICBM missile formerly armed with multiple nuclear warheads and now modified as a payload orbiter successfully launched an urgently needed space situational awareness and space junk tracking satellite to orbit overnight this morning, Aug. 26, for the U.S. military from the Florida Space Coast.

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Study of Lunar Rocks Indicates Moon’s Magnetic Field Existed 1 Billion Years Longer Than Previously Thought

A new study by researchers from MIT has cast doubt on when the Moon lost its magnetic field, indicating that it lasted for another 1 billion years

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Carnival of Space #480

Welcome, come in to the 480th Carnival of Space! The Carnival is a community of space science and astronomy writers and bloggers, who submit their best work each week for your benefit. I’m Susie Murph, part of the team at Universe Today and CosmoQuest. So now, on to this week’s stories! Over at Links Through […]

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The 2016 Nobel Prize In Physics: It’s Complicated

This year's Nobel Prize in physics highlights the complications of awarding breakthrough achievements. Credit:

The Nobel Prize in physics is a coveted award. Every year, the prize is bestowed upon the individual who is deemed to have made the greatest contribution to the field of physics during the preceding year. And this year, the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves is anticipated to be the main focus.

This discovery, which was announced on February 11th, 2016, was made possible thanks to the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). As such, it is expected that the three scientists that are most responsible for the invention of the technology will receive the Nobel Prize for their work. However, there are those in the scientific community who feel that another scientist – Barry Barish – should also be recognized.

But first, some background is needed to help put all this into perspective. For starers, gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime that are generated by certain gravitational interactions and whic propagate at the speed of light. The existence of such waves has been postulated since the late 19th century.

However, it was not until the late 20th century, thanks in large part to Einstein and his theory of General Relativity, that gravitational-wave research began to emerge as a branch of astronomy. Since the 1960s, various gravitational-wave detectors have been built, which includes the LIGO observatory.

Founded as a Caltech/MIT project, LIGO was officially approved by the National Science Board (NSF) in 1984. A decade later, construction began on facility’s two locations – in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. By 2002, it began to obtain data, and work began on improving its original detectors in 2008 (known as the Advanced LIGO Project).

The credit for the creation of LIGO goes to three scientists, which includes Rainer Weiss, a professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Ronald Drever, an experimental physics who was professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology and a professor at Glasgow University; and Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

In 1967 and 68, Weiss and Thorne initiated efforts to construct prototype detectors, and produced theoretical work to prove that gravitational waves could be successfully analyzed. By the 1970s, using different methods, Weiss and Denver both succeeded in building detectors. In the coming years, all three men remained pivotal and influential, helping to make gravitational astronomy a legitimate field of research.

However, it has been argued that without Barish – a particle physicist at Caltech – the discovery would never have been made. Having become the Principal Investigator of LIGO in 1994, he inherited the project at a very crucial time. It had begun funding a decade prior, but coordinating the work of Wiess, Thorne and Drever (from MIT, Caltech and the University of Glasgow, respectively) proved difficult.

As such, it was decided that a single director was needed. Between 1987 and 1994, Rochus Vogt – a professor emeritus of Physics at Caltech – was appointed by the NSF to fill this role. While Vogt brought the initial team together and helped to get the construction of the project approved, he proved difficult when it came to dealing with bureaucracy and documenting his researchers progress.

As such, between 1989 through 1994, LIGO failed to progress technically and organizationally, and had trouble acquiring funding as well. By 1994, Caltech eased Vogt out of his position and appointed Barish to the position of director. Barish got to work quickly, making significant changes to the way LIGO was administered, expanding the research team, and developing a detailed work plan for the NSF.

Barish was also responsible for expanding LIGO beyond its Caltech and MIT constraints. This he did through the creation of the independent LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), which gave access to outside researchers and institutions. This was instrumental in creating crucial partnerships, which included the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Max Planck Society of Germany, and the Australian Research Council.

By 1999, construction had wrapped up on the LIGO observatories, and by 2002, they began taking their first bits of data. By 2004, the funding and groundwork was laid for the next phase of LIGO development, which involved a multi-year shut-down while the detectors were replaced with improved “Advanced LIGO” versions.

All of this was made possible by Barish, who retired in 2005 to head up other projects. Thanks to his sweeping reforms, LIGO got to work after an abortive start, began to produce data, procured funding, crucial partnerships, and now has more than 1000 collaborators worldwide, thanks to LSC program he established.

Little wonder then why some scientists think the Nobel Prize should be split four-ways, awarding the three scientists who conceived of LIGO and the one scientist who made it happen. And as Barish himself was quoted as saying by Science:

“I think there’s a bit of truth that LIGO wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do it, so I don’t think I’m undeserving. If they wait a year and give it to these three guys, at least I’ll feel that they thought about it,” he says. “If they decide [to give it to them] this October, I’ll have more bad feelings because they won’t have done their homework.”

However, there is good reason to believe that the award will ultimately be split three ways, leaving Barish out. For instance, Weiss, Drever, and Thorne have been honored three times already this year for their work on LIGO. This has included the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and Kavli Prize in Astrophysics.

What’s more, in the past, the Nobel Prize in physics has tended to be awarded to those responsible for the intellectual contributions leading to a major breakthrough, rather than to those who did the leg work. Out of the last six Prizes issued (between 2010 and 2015), five have been awarded for the development of experimental methods, observational studies, and theoretical discoveries.

Only one award was given for a technical development. This was the case in 2014 where the award was given jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.

Basically, the Nobel Prize is a complicated matter. Every year, it is awarded to those who made a considerable contribution to science, or were responsible for a major breakthrough. But contributions and breakthroughs are perhaps a bit relative. Whom we choose to honor, and for what, can also be seen as an indication of what is valued most in the scientific community.

In the end, this year’s award may serve to highlight how significant contributions do not just entail the development of new ideas and methods, but also in bringing them to fruition.

Further Reading: Science, LIGO,

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Musk Says Hyperloop Could Work On Mars… Maybe Even Better!

At the recent ceremony for the Hyperloop Pod Competition, Musk announced that his concept for a high-speed train might work better on Mars. Credit: HTT

Elon Musk has always been up-front about his desire to see humans settle on the Red Planet. In the past few years, he has said that one of his main reasons for establishing SpaceX was to see humanity colonize Mars. He has also stated that he believes that using Mars as a “backup location” for humanity might be necessary for our survival, and even suggested we use nukes to terraform it.

And in his latest speech extolling the virtues of colonizing Mars, Musk listed another reason. The Hyperloop – his concept for a high-speed train that relies steel tubes, aluminum cars and maglev technology to go really fast – might actually work better in a Martian environment. The announcement came as part of the award ceremony for the Hyperloop Pod Competition, which saw 100 university teams compete to create a design for a Hyperloop podcar.

It was the first time that Musk has addressed the issue of transportation on Mars. In the past, he has spoken about establishing a colony with 80,000 people, and has also discussed his plans to build a Mars Colonial Transporter to transport 100 metric tons (220,462 lbs) of cargo or 100 people to the surface of Mars at a time (for a fee of $50,000 apiece). He has also discussed communications, saying that he would like to bring the internet to Mars once a colony was established.

But in addressing transportation, Musk was able to incorporate another important concept that he has come up with, and which is also currently in development. Here on Earth, the Hyperloop would rely on low-pressure steel tubes and a series of aluminum pod cars to whisk passengers between major cities at speeds of up to 1280 km/h (800 mph). But on Mars, according to Musk, you wouldn’t even need tubes.

As Musk said during the course of the ceremony: “On Mars you basically just need a track. You might be able to just have a road, honestly. [It would] go pretty fast… It would obviously have to be electric because there’s no oxygen. You have to have really fast electric cars or trains or things.”

Essentially, Musk was referring to the fact that since Mars has only 1% the air pressure of Earth, air resistance would not be a factor. Whereas his high-speed train concept requires tubes with very low air pressure to reach the speed of sound here on Earth, on Mars they could reach those speeds out in the open. One might say, it actually makes more sense to build this train on Mars rather than on Earth!

The Hyperloop Pod Competition, which was hosted by SpaceX, took place between Jan 30th and 31st. The winning entry came from MIT, who’s design was selected from 100 different entries. Their pod car, which is roughly 2.5 meters long and 1 meter wide (8.2 by 3.2 feet), would weight 250 kg (551 lbs) and be able to achieve an estimated cruise speed of 110 m/s (396 km/h; 246 mph). While this is slightly less than a third of the speed called for in Musk’s original proposal, this figure representing cruising speed (not maximum speed), and is certainly a step in that direction.

And while Musk’s original idea proposed that the pod be lifted off the ground using air bearings, the MIT team’s design called for the use of electrodynamic suspension to keep itself off the ground. The reason for this, they claimed, is because it is “massively simpler and more scalable.” In addition, compared to the other designs’ levitation systems, theirs had one of the lowest drag coefficients.

The team – which consists of 25 students with backgrounds in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management – will spend the next five months building and testing their pod. The final prototype will participate in a trial run this June, where it will run on the one-mile Hyperloop Test Track at SpaceX’s headquarters in California.

Since he first unveiled it back in 2013, Musk’s Hyperloop concept has been the subject of considerable interest and skepticism. However, in the past few years, two companies – Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Hyperloop Technologies – have emerged with the intention of seeing the concept through to fruition. Both of these companies have secured lucrative partnerships since their inception, and are even breaking ground on their own test tracks in California and Nevada.

And with a design for a podcar now secured, and tests schedules to take place this summer, the dream of a “fifth mode of transportation” is one step closer to becoming a reality! The only question is, which will come first – Hyperloops connecting major cities here on Earth, or running passengers and freight between domed settlements on Mars?

Only time will tell! And be sure to check out Team MIT’s video:

Further Reading:

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Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX

The search for exoplanets is heating up, thanks to the deployment of space telescopes like Kepler and the development of new observation methods. In fact, over 1800 exoplanets have been discovered since the 1980s, with 850 discovered just last year. That’s quite the rate of progress, and Earth’s scientists have no intention of slowing down! […]

Earth May Have Lost Some Primoridial Atmosphere to Meteors

During the Hadean Eon, some 4.5 billion years ago, the world was a much different place than it is today. As the name Hades would suggest (Greek for “underworld”), it was a hellish period for Earth, marked by intense volcanism and intense meteoric impacts. It was also during this time that outgassing and volcanic activity […]

NASA’s Next Exoplanet Hunter Moves Into Development

NASA’s ongoing hunt for exoplanets has entered a new phase as NASA officially confirmed that the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is moving into the development phase. This marks a significant step for the TESS mission, which will search the entire sky for planets outside our solar system (a.k.a. exoplanets). Designed as the first all-sky […]