Tag Archives: World

SpaceX Releases Inspiring Video of Dragon’s Historic Journey Through Space

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SpaceX made history in May when its Dragon capsule became the first privately-built spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station. Now, the company has released a YouTube video that follows its historic journey through space, from liftoff to its return drop in the Pacific Ocean.

The video begins with footage from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch on May 22 that carried the Dragon spacecraft into orbit from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It also features footage of it orbiting the Earth, U.S. astronaut Don Pettit opening Dragon’s hatch and SpaceX’s reaction to the successful mission.


Not only was the Dragon the first privately developed vehicle in history to ever successfully attach to the International Space Station, only four governments — the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency — had previously achieved this feat.

SpaceX — which has a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 supply missions — is gearing up for more launches in the near future. The first contracted cargo flight is scheduled for September.

What do you think of the video? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Image courtesy of SpaceX

BONUS: SpaceX and NASA’s Historic Dragon Capsule ISS Docking in Pictures

Incredible Video Captures Magical-Looking Sun Storm

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The sun fired off a spectacular eruption last weekend, and a NASA spacecraft captured amazing video of the violent solar outburst.

A super-hot solar filament erupted in grand style Saturday (Aug. 4), arcing into space and connecting two huge sunspots. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft had a front-row seat for the action, and its video footage of the sun eruption is both bizarre and beautiful.

The filament appears pinkish-purple through SDO’s ultraviolet filters, and it stands out against a solar surface of mottled green, yellow and dark purple hues.

The tendril’s hot plasma snakes between the sunspots AR 1538 and AR 1540. Sunspots are temporary blotches on the sun that appear dark because they’re cooler than the rest of the solar surface. Solar flares and massive blasts of plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) often erupt from sunspots, which can be many times larger than the Earth’s diameter.

The Aug. 4 outburst also propelled an enormous CME into space. CMEs that hit Earth directly can wreak havoc, temporarily disrupting GPS communications, satellite navigation and power grids. But Saturday’s solar storm shouldn’t pose any serious problems, scientists said.

“The cloud is not heading directly toward Earth, but it could deliver a glancing blow to our planet’s magnetic field on August 7/8,” the website Spaceweather.com wrote. “High-latitude skywatchers should be alert for auroras on those dates.”

The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar cycle, and it should continue to fire off big storms for a while yet. Experts expect the current cycle, known as Solar Cycle 24, to peak in 2013.

The $850 million SDO spacecraft, which launched in February 2010, is the first in a fleet of NASA efforts to study our sun. The probe’s five-year mission is the cornerstone of a NASA science program called Living with a Star, which aims to help scientists better understand aspects of the sun-Earth system that affect our lives and society.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/10/video-sun-storm/

Elusive Dark Energy Is Real

Elusive-dark-energy-is-real-db1ec082e4

Dark energy, the mysterious substance thought to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, almost certainly exists despite some astronomers’ doubts, a new study says.

After a two-year study, an international team of researchers concludes that the probability of dark energy being real stands at 99.996%. But the scientists still don’t know what the stuff is.

“Dark energy is one of the great scientific mysteries of our time, so it isn’t surprising that so many researchers question its existence,” co-author Bob Nichol, of the University of Portsmouth in Engalnd, said in a statement. “But with our new work we’re more confident than ever that this exotic component of the universe is real — even if we still have no idea what it consists of.”

The Roots of Dark Energy

Scientists have known since the 1920s that the universe is expanding. Most assumed that gravity would slow this expansion gradually, or even cause the universe to begin contracting one day.

(SPACE.com)

But in 1998, two separate teams of researchers discovered that the universe’s expansion is actually speeding up. In the wake of this shocking find — which earned three of the discoverers the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 — researchers proposed the existence of dark energy, an enigmatic force pushing the cosmos apart.

Dark energy is thought to make up 73% of the universe, though no one can say exactly what it is. (Twenty-three percent of the universe is similarly strange dark matter, scientists say, while the remaining 4% is “normal” matter that we can see and feel.)

Still, not all astronomers are convinced that dark energy is real, and many have been trying to confirm its existence for the past decade or so.

Hunting for Dark Energy

One of the best lines of evidence for the existence of dark energy comes from something called the Integrated Sachs Wolfe effect, researchers said.

In 1967, astronomers Rainer Sachs and Arthur Wolfe proposed that light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation — the thermal imprint left by the Big Bang that created our universe — should become slightly bluer as it passes through the gravitational fields of lumps of matter.

Three decades later, other researchers ran with the idea, suggesting astronomers could look for these small changes in the light’s energy by comparing the temperature of the distant CMB radiation with maps of nearby galaxies.

If dark energy doesn’t exist, there should be no correspondence between the two maps. But if dark energy is real, then, strangely, the CMB light should be seen to gain energy as it moves through large lumps of mass, researchers said.

This latter scenario is known as the Integrated Sachs Wolfe effect, and it was first detected in 2003. However, the signal is relatively weak, and some astronomers have questioned if it’s really strong evidence for dark energy after all.

Re-examining the Data

In the new study, the researchers re-examine the arguments against the Integrated Sachs Wolfe detection, and they update the maps used in the original work.

In the end, the team determined that there is a 99.996% chance that dark energy is responsible for the hotter parts of the CMB maps, researchers said.

“This work also tells us about possible modifications to Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” said lead author Tommaso Giannantonio, of Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. “The next generation of cosmic microwave background and galaxy surveys should provide the definitive measurement, either confirming general relativity, including dark energy, or even more intriguingly, demanding a completely new understanding of how gravity works,” Giannantonio added.

The team’s findings have been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Esoastronomy

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/15/dark-energy/

What If Huge NASA Mars Rover Crashes Sunday Night?

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If NASA’s newest Mars rover doesn’t touch down safely Sunday night (Aug. 5), the future of Red Planet exploration could be thrown into serious doubt.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover‘s main goal is to determine if Mars can, or ever could, support microbial life. But the huge robot is also carrying the hopes and dreams of NASA’s venerable Mars program on its back to some extent, so a crash Sunday night could be devastating.

“It could take the entire Mars program down with it,” Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, which pushes for human settlement of the Red Planet, told SPACE.com’s Leonard David. “It is victory or death.”

Big funding cuts

President Barack Obama’s 2013 federal budget request, which was released in February, slashes NASA’s planetary science program funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion, with further cuts expected in the coming years.

Much of the money will come out of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program, which has enjoyed a string of successes in the past decade. After landing in January 2004, for example, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity discovered plenty of evidence that Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is today. And the Phoenix lander found subsurface water ice near the planet’s north pole in 2008.

Nevertheless, the White House budget proposal cuts NASA’s Mars funding from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013, and then to just $189 million in 2015. [NASA’s 2013 Budget: What Will It Buy?]

As a result, NASA was forced to drop of out the European-led ExoMars mission, which aims to deliver an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively. And the agency is fundamentally restructuring and downscaling its Mars program, in an attempt to figure out how to make the most out of every precious dollar.

But NASA planetary science officials still hold out hope for a funding comeback, with the help of Curiosity. They think the rover’s discoveries could loosen politicians’ pursestrings and reinvigorate the agency’s robotic exploration efforts.

“What a tremendous opportunity it is for us,” Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division, said at a conference in March. “I believe [Curiosity] will open up that new era of discovery that will compel this nation to invest more in planetary science.”

Sticking the landing

So a successful landing on Sunday night is of paramount importance to the space agency, officials have said.

Curiosity‘s touchdown “could arguably be the most important event — most significant event — in the history of planetary exploration,” Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said last month.

But success is not a given. Landing a robot on another planet is never an easy task, and Curiosity‘s touchdown will perhaps involve more hand-wringing than usual.

Because it’s so heavy, engineers had to devise an entirely new landing method for the rover. A rocket-powered sky crane will lower Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables, then fly off to intentionally crash-land a short distance away. Such a maneuver has never before been tried on another world.

If success over the course of the mission could bring great dividends to NASA’s Mars program, then failure Sunday night could have a chilling effect.

“I think if we are fatal on landing, that will have a very negative influence,” said Caltech’s John Grotzinger, lead scientist for Curiosity‘s $2.5 billion mission, which is officially called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

“It’s going to force people to look back and ask if it’s possible to achieve these very complex, more demanding missions from a technological perspective,” Grotzinger told SPACE.com. “How can you talk about sample-return if you can’t do MSL first?”

Keeping the program vital

NASA has one more Mars mission firmly on the books beyond MSL, an atmosphere-studying orbiter called Maven that’s due to launch next year. The agency plans to launch another mission in 2018 or 2020, partly to keep the program vital.

But a Curiosity crash could persuade some talented scientists and engineers that there’s not much of a future at Mars, at least not for a while, researchers say.

“If this thing were to fail, I think a lot of people would trickle away and do other things,” said Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. Edgett is principal investigator for Curiosity‘s Mars Hand Lens Imager instrument, or MAHLI.

He added that a crash might spark discussions within NASA about shifting resources from Mars to other promising destinations, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa, which harbors a liquid-water ocean beneath its icy shell.

“I don’t like that either-or scenario, but I think that’s where we’re headed,” Edgett told SPACE.com in April.

Mars keeps calling us

Edgett stressed, however, that he didn’t think a landing mishap would be the end of the Mars program. Other experts echo that viewpoint, saying that Mars will continue to hold our interest and draw our scientific explorers back.

“It’s one of the most scientifically compelling objects in the solar system — perhaps in terms of ease to get to, the most compelling,” said Scott Hubbard of Stanford University. “And it’s the place, ultimately, for human exploration. So I think Mars exploration will continue.”

Hubbard speaks from experience. He’s the former “Mars Czar” who restructured NASA’s Red Planet program after the agency’s Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter both failed in 1999.

Still, success would definitely be preferable for those who care about Red Planet exploration. A strong showing by Curiosity could lead to bigger things down the road at Mars, Hubbard said.

“There’s a window, I feel, with a successful mission — particularly if it finds evidence of organics — to give the scientific community even more stimulus and ammunition to ask for a re-look at the budget,” Hubbard said.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/04/mars-rover-crash/

The Gross Side of Space: What Happens to Dead Skin in Microgravity

Warning: If you are looking for a story about the romance of space travel — the adventure, the wonder, the transcendence of what we know in the name of exploring a great unknown — this is not that. Turn away now.

Still with me? Great. Then here’s something from the other side of space. The less romantic, and in fact vaguely disgusting, side. The side that involves drinking recycled urine and using bathrooms that involve vacuums and trimming moustaches with clippers that resemble medieval torture devices. This one involves skin. Skin which, as it naturally does, sheds.

On Earth, we barely notice that process: Our skin cells molt and and gravity pulls them away from our bodies, conveniently and invisibly. In space, however, there is no gravity to pull the dead cells (technically: the detritus) away. Which means that the detritus, left to its own devices, simply floats. Which, given the fact that multiple astronauts live on the Space Station at the same time, and the fact that even highly trained space travelers might get skeeved out by floating clouds of dead skin, is less than ideal.

In the video above, former ISS denizen Don Pettit describes what happens when, in particular, you take your socks off on the Station. “This cloud, this explosion of skin particles — detritus — floats out,” he says. “And you’re in this weightless environment, and the particles have nowhere to go but out.”

That’s even true of foot calluses — which, after a few months of weightlessness, tend to soften. I’ll leave the details to Pettit, but the bottom line is this: If you ever find yourself living on a space station, make sure the station’s ventilation system works really, really well. Because, as astronaut Mike Massimino warns in the video: “This sounds actually pretty disgusting.”

“Well, it is,” Pettit replies. “But it’s part of being a human.”

Image: NASA

This article originally published at The Atlantic
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/08/01/dead-skin-microgravity/

Bacteria in Space Grows in Strange Ways

Pseudomonas-aeruginosa

When bacteria grows in a dish of fake urine in space, it behaves in ways never-before-seen in Earth microorganisms, scientists say.

A team of scientists sent samples of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa into orbit aboard NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis to see how they grew in comparison to their Earth-dwelling counterparts.

The 3D communities of microorganisms (called biofilms) grown aboard the space shuttle had more live cells, were thicker and had more biomass than the bacterial colonies grown in normal gravity on Earth as controls. The space bacteria also grew in a “column-and-canopy” structure that has never been observed in bacterial colonies on Earth, according to NASA scientists.

“Biofilms were rampant on the Mir space station and continue to be a challenge on the [International Space Station], but we still don’t really know what role gravity plays in their growth and development,” NASA’s study leader Cynthia Collins, an assistant professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said in a statement. “Our study offers the first evidence that spaceflight affects community-level behaviors of bacteria, and highlights the importance of understanding how both harmful and beneficial human-microbe interactions may be altered during spaceflight.”

Most biofilms found in the human body and in nature are harmless, but some are associated with disease, NASA officials said.

The space bacteria were cultured in artificial urine on NASA’s Atlantis shuttle in 2010 and again in 2011 before the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program. Collins and her team of researchers used fabricated urine because it can be used to study the formation of biofilm outside and inside the body. Understanding how to safely remove and recycle waste is particularly relevant because of its importance in long-term spaceflight, NASA officials said.

“The unique appearance and structure of the P. aeruginosa biofilms formed in microgravity suggests that nature is capable of adapting to nonterrestrial environments in ways that deserve further studies, including studies exploring long-term growth and adaptation to a low-gravity environment,” Collins said in a statement. “Before we start sending astronauts to Mars or embarking on other long-term spaceflight missions, we need to be as certain as possible that we have eliminated or significantly reduced the risk that biofilms pose to the human crew and their equipment.”

Scientists sent 12 devices with eight vials of P. aeruginosa — a bacterium that can be associated with disease on Earth — into orbit on Atlantis. Once in space, astronauts on the shuttle introduced the bacterium to the fake urine while scientists on the ground began the control experiment.

After the samples arrived safely on Earth, Collins and her team took a detailed 3D image of the biofilms to investigate their internal structure, and used other research methods to investigate the colony’s thickness and cell growth.

The study, published in the April 20 issue of the journal PLOS ONE, also could have implications for bacterial research on Earth. It’s possible that this kind of research could help scientists and doctors more effectively limit the spread of infection in hospitals, Collins said.

Image courtesy of NASA

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/07/10/bacteria-growth-space/

Does the Moon Have Levitating Lunar Dust?

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Did you hear about the new restaurant on the moon? Great food, but no atmosphere.

While that wisecrack has been floating about in space circles for decades, a NASA lunar orbiter will gather detailed information about the moon’s atmosphere next year, including conditions near its surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is to depart the Earth for the moon in August 2013. LADEE is loaded with science gear, including instruments that can address a lingering question that’s rooted in space history: Are electrostatically lofted lunar dust particles present within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere?

Twilight Rays on the Moon

In the 1960s, several NASA Surveyor moon landers relayed images showing a twilight glow low over the lunar horizon persisting after the sun had set. Also, a number of Apollo astronauts orbiting the moon saw twilight rays before lunar sunrise or lunar sunset.

In addition, some have floated the theory that the glowing transient lunar phenomenon seen from Earth might stem from sunlight reflecting off of suspended lunar dust.

LADEE will investigate this moon magic trick of levitating lunar dust. The spacecraft has the tools it needs to address mysteries and questions that have been around since Apollo, said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Ames is responsible for managing the mission, building the spacecraft and performing mission operations.

Elphic told SPACE.com that among its duties, the LADEE mission can further investigate tantalizing hints about the dust and the moon’s exotic atmosphere.

“If we fly LADEE through the regions where the Apollo command module observations were made, we will know right away if there are small grains there or not,” Elphic said. LADEE’s Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) is a very sensitive dust-detecting instrument, he said, and scientists may be able to place new upper limits on the dust in the first week of the spacecraft’s orbiting operations.

Nagging Moon Question

“If LADEE never sees levitated dust, that settles the question for the high-altitude observations, at least for its mission time frame,” Elphic said.

Still, there’s the nagging question about what Surveyor saw, the near-surface horizon glow. “That might be something else entirely, and can only be addressed with a surface mission,” Elphic said.

“If LADEE does see dust, we will then have a basis for expecting the same phenomena at all other ‘nearly-airless’ bodies around the solar system,” Elphic added.

This dust may not pose much of a hazard, Elphic added, but the physics will need to be explained. Right now, no one has a good end-to-end model for getting dust to loft and secondly, stay suspended for long periods, he said.

“If LADEE observes levitated dust, then scientists will have to explain it. Right now, no one can,” Elphic said.

One-Way Trip Off the Moon

One scientist ready for the new data to be gleaned by LADEE is Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17 moonwalker and geologist. He and astronaut Eugene Cernan walked the lunar surface in December 1972 — the last mission of the Apollo moon landings.

“I do not know if LADEE will see lunar dust in the lunar atmosphere, but I will not be surprised if there is none,” Schmitt told SPACE.com. “We know about several transient gases in that atmosphere, and these may be what causes the horizon glow at sunrise and sunset.”

Moon dust, Schmitt added, was always been on his mind.

“My concern about levitated dust has always been that levitation, if it occurs at all, probably has to be a one-way trip off the moon … because many flat rock surfaces are essentially free of very fine dust, as I personally witnessed on Apollo 17.”

Schmitt said that if dust has been levitated and then dropped again, he would expect the rock surfaces to be covered with such dust.

“Nonetheless, LADEE data on this question, as well as various gases, should give us a lot to think about,” Schmitt said.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/11/20/nasa-ladee-levitating-lunar-dust/

See ‘Summer Triangle’ in Night Sky This Weekend

Summer-triangle

This weekend, during the late evening hours, search for the famous “Summer Triangle” high in the eastern sky.

The triangle consists of three of the brightest stars in the sky, each the brightest in its own constellation. Bluish-white star Vega in Lyra (the lyre) is the brightest in the triangle, with yellow-white Altair in Aquila (the eagle) and white Deneb in Cygnus (the swan), following it as second- and third-brightest in the configuration.

From our viewpoint, Vega appears twice as bright as Altair and more than three times brighter than Deneb. But sometimes things are not always what they seem. We know that Vega clearly is more luminous compared to Altair, because it’s situated at a greater distance from us.  Altair is 17 light years away, while Vega is just a little farther out at 25 light years away.

The light you’re seeing from Altair tonight started on its journey to Earth in 1996, and the light from Vega started on its way toward Earth back in 1988. But brilliant Vega actually pales in comparison with Deneb, one of the greatest supergiant stars known.

Deneb’s distance measures 1,467 light-years from Earth with a luminosity computed to be more than 60,000 times that of the sun. Because its light takes nearly 15 centuries to reach us, Deneb merely appears as a fairly conspicuous but by no means particularly notable star.

See the Milky Way

With the moon arriving at new phase on Monday, July 8, and then waxing to just a thin crescent phase by week’s end, there is no better time than now to observe the beautiful summer Milky Way.

Under a dark sky with a good pair of binoculars or a telescope you can now observe millions of sparkling little stars that make up this glowing, irregular belt of luminosity.

It appears to arch from the north-northeast to the south-southeast, with its brightest and most spectacular region running across the summer triangle and beyond toward the south-southeast horizon.

There appears to be a great black rift dividing it into two streams (called the “dark bifurcation”), beginning with Cygnus and extending down toward the south. Also in Cygnus is the black void known as the “northern coal stack.” The coal stack and the rift are not holes in the Milky Way, but rather are vast clouds of dust “floating” out in interstellar space which present a solid and impenetrable curtain between us and the more distant stars.

Star-Crossed Lovers

There have been many stories, myths and legends told about the Milky Way across different cultures.

In a Japanese legend involving the galaxy, the star Vega represented Orihime, the weaving princess, who produced brilliantly colored fabrics. Across the “heavenly river” (the Milky Way), Altair represented the cow herder Hikoboshi, who was also known as Kengyu.

After meeting each other, they received divine permission to marry, whereupon both abandoned their occupations. This angered the gods who consequently separate them and send them back to their original jobs on opposite sides of the heavenly river.

The couple, however, received permission from the gods to get together for one night each year. That special night is July 7 — but only if the sky is clear.

As a result, the evening of July 7 has evolved into a young people’s holiday in Japan called Tanabata, meaning “evening of the seventh.” Prayers are offered for clear skies so that Orihime and Hikoboshi, the star-crossed lovers can be reunited.

Popular customs relating to the festival vary by region, but generally, girls wish for better sewing and craftsmanship, and boys wish for better handwriting by writing wishes on strips of paper. The date of Tanabata also varies by region, but the first festivities begin on July 7 of the Gregorian calendar.

The original Tanabata date was based on the Japanese lunisolar calendar, which is about a month behind the Gregorian calendar. As a result, some festivals are held on July 7, some last for a few days around August 7 and others take place on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar, which is usually in August in the Gregorian calendar.

This year, the Gregorian date of “the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the Japanese lunisolar calendar” will fall on Aug. 13.

Editor’s note: If you snap an amazing picture of the night sky that you’d like to share for a possible story or image gallery send photos, comments and your name and location to Managing Editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Socalastro

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/07/05/summer-triangle/

Hillary Clinton Opens the Social Good Summit

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The third annual Social Good Summit kicked off Saturday in New York with a surprise address from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Leaders around the world are coming together around at the United Nations seeking solutions for some of the toughest challenges we might face,” Clinton said. “At the same time a revolution in social media is helping people everywhere take part in a global conversation about how we can work together to advance the common good.”

Clinton encouraged the connected generation to get involved helping to build a better future.

“We need your help,” she said. “Please use this unprecedented opportunity to become involved. Share your ideas. Mobilize your friends. Take action online and off.”

Even if you couldn’t make it to New York, you can catch all of the excitement on the Social Good Summit livestream.

About Ericsson

Read more of Mashable’s coverage of the 2012 Social Good Summit:

Day One:

Day Two:

Day Three:

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/22/hillary-clinton-social-good/

China to Launch First Space-Based Quantum Communications Experiment

Satellite

The “Chinese Quantum Science Satellite” will launch in 2016 and aim to make China the first space-faring nation with quantum communication capability.

The ability to send perfectly secure messages from one location on the planet to another has obvious and immediate appeal to governments, the military and various commercial organizations such as banks. This capability is already possible over short distances thanks to the magic of quantum cryptography, which guarantees the security of messages — at least in theory.

For the moment, however, quantum cryptography works only over distances of 100 km or so. That’s how far it is possible to send the single photons that carry quantum messages through an optical fiber or through the atmosphere.

Last year, we watched as European and Chinese physicists battled to claim the distance record for this technology with the Europeans finally triumphing by setting up a quantum channel over 143 kilometers through the atmosphere.

That distance is a good fraction of the way into space. And the reason that’s important is that it’s a stepping stone to sending quantum messages to orbiting satellites which can then route the messages to almost anywhere else on the planet.

Today, the Chinese claim another small victory in this quantum space race. Jian-Wei Pan at the University of Science and Technology of China in Shanghai and his fellow researchers say they’ve bounced single photons off an orbiting satellite and detected them back on Earth. That’s significant because it simulates a satellite sending single photons from orbit to the surface, crossing off another proof-of-principle milestone in their quantum checklist.

The experiment is simple in principle. These guys have two telescopes in a binocular formation which they pointed at a satellite orbiting at an altitude of 400 kilometers. This satellite is covered with reflectors capable of bouncing a laser beam from Earth back to its original location.


Image courtesy of “Experimental Single-Photon Transmission from Satellite to Earth”

They used one of the telescopes to send pulses of light towards the satellite and the other, with a diameter of 60 cm, to look for the reflection.

Of course, the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs a very high percentage of the photons transmitted from the ground. So Pan and his team produced each pulse with just enough photons so that, on average, just one would reach the satellite and be reflected back to Earth. The idea was to simulate the satellite itself sending single photons to the surface.

Each pulse began its journey from Earth with about 1 billion photons and, on average, just one started the return journey. Obviously, many of the returning photons would also be absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. So the pulse was repeated many millions of times per second.

Pan and his team say that they were able to detect the returning photons at a rate of about 600 per second. “These results are suf?cient to set up an unconditionally secure QKD link between satellite and earth, technically,” they add in the paper that accompanies their research.

That’s a significant stepping stone. “Our results represent a crucial step towards the ?nal implementation of high-speed QKD between the satellite and the ground stations, which will also serve as a test bed for secure intercontinental quantum communication,” the team says.

However, this experiment raises something of a puzzle. The researchers say they used a German satellite called CHAMP for their experiment. The satellite launched in 2000, and its mission was to make a precise gravity map of the Earth by bouncing lasers off it.

What’s curious about the Chinese announcement is that CHAMP deorbited in 2010. So a question worth asking is when the team did this work. Clearly, the team has been sitting on this result for some time.

Why publish it now? The answer may be a small but significant detail revealed in the final paragraph of the paper. Here Pan and his colleagues announce that they plan to launch the first quantum science experiment into space. The spacecraft is called the Chinese Quantum Science Satellite and it is scheduled for launch in 2016.

A quick Google search shows that the official Chinese news agency, Xinhau, revealed in March that its scientists were planning a quantum information and technology space experiment. But the announcement did not give the name of the satellite and appears to have had little if any coverage in the west.

‘We hope to establish a quantum communication network from Beijing to Vienna,” according to Pan, a plan that will presumably require significant co-operation from their arch-competitors in Europe.

Last year, European scientists themselves proposed sending a quantum communications experiment to the International Space Station, an idea that could be beat the Chinese at their own game and would be relatively cheap and quick. But whether this plan has gained traction isn’t clear.

What is abundantly clear is that the quantum space race is rapidly hotting up. But the embarrassing truth for American science is that the U.S. isn’t yet a player in the quantum space race (at least not publicly). Perhaps that’s something that should change.

Image courtesy of NASA

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/06/11/china-quantum-communications/