Something Big Exploded In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: What Was It?

The Conversation

At 10:49pm Western Australian time on February 2 this year, cosmic gamma rays hit the NASA satellite, Swift, orbiting the Earth. The Conversation

Within seconds of the detection, an alert was automatically sent to the University of WAs Zadko Telescope. It swung into robotic action, taking images of the sky location in the constellation Ophiuchus.

What emerged from the blackness, where nothing was seen before, was a rapidly brightening optical transient, which is something visible in the sky for a brief period of time.

The event, named GRB170202, was a very energetic gamma ray burst (GRB). After less than a minute, the gamma rays switched off, and the GRB appeared as a brightening and then fading optical beacon.

The Zadko Telescope recorded the entire evolution of the optical outburst. During its biggest outburst, GRB170202 was equivalent in brightness to millions of stars shining together from the same location.

About 9 hours 42 mins after the GRB, the Very Large Telescope in Chile acquired the spectrum of the light from the optical afterglow.

This enabled a distance to the burst to be measured: about 12 billion light years. The Universe has expanded to four times the size it was then, 12 billion years ago, the time it took the light to reach Earth.

GRB170202 was so far away, even its host galaxy was not visible, just darkness. Because the GRB was a transient, never to be seen again, it is like turning on a light in a dark room (the host galaxy) and trying to record the detail in the room before the light goes out.

Mystery of gamma ray burst

The flash of gamma radiation and subsequent optical transient is the telltale signature of a black hole birth from the cataclysmic collapse of a star.

Such events are rare and require some special circumstances, including a very massive star up to tens of solar masses (the mass of our Sun) rotating rapidly with a strong magnetic field.

These ingredients are crucial to launch two jets that punch through the collapsing star to produce the gamma ray burst (see animation)

The closest analogue (and better understood transient) to a GRB is a supernova explosion from a collapsing star. In fact, some relatively nearby GRBs reveal evidence of an energetic supernova linked to the event.

Simulations show that most collapsing stars dont have enough energy to produce a GRB jet, a so-called failure to launch scenario. Both observation and theory show that GRBs are extremely rare when compared to the occurrence of supernovae.

The stars that produce GRBs are born and die within some tens to hundreds of thousands of years, unlike our Sun which has been around for billions of years.

This is because very massive stars exhaust their fuel very quickly, and undergo violent gravitational collapse leading to a black hole, on the timescale of seconds.

A plethora of rogue black holes

The rates of black hole formation throughout the universe can be inferred from the GRB rate. Based on the observed GRB rate, there must be thousands of black hole births occurring each day throughout the entire universe.

So what is the fate of these cosmic monsters? Most will be lurking in their host galaxies, occasionally devouring stars and planets.

Others will be in a gravitational death dance with other black holes until they merge into a single black hole with a burst of gravitational waves (GWs), such as the first discovery of such an event by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).


A binary black hole system seconds before merger. Frame from a visualisation of the binary black hole merger seen by LIGO [Visualisation by Simulating Extreme Spacetime (SXS) Collaboration]

A new era

At the frontier of understanding black hole formation is the search for a special kind of GRB that marks the merger (collision) of two neutron stars.

So called short GRBs are flashes of gamma radiation that last less than a second and could be the smoking gun for neutron star mergers.

Importantly, merging neutron stars should be detected from their gravitational radiation by LIGO. Hence, a coincident detection in gamma rays, optical and gravitational waves is a real possibility.

This would be a monumental discovery allowing unprecedented insight into the physics of black hole formation. The revolution is like listening to the radio on a 1920s receiver and then watching a modern high definition surround sound movie.

Future challenges

Given the above rate of thousands of black holes created per day, it seems that coincident detection of GRBs and gravitational waves is a no brainer.

But in reality we must take into account the limited sensitivity of all the telescopes (and detectors). This reduces the potential observation rate to some tens per year. This is high enough to inspire a global scramble to search for the first coincident gravitational wave sources with electromagnetic counterparts.

The task is extremely difficult because the gravitational wave observatories cannot pinpoint the location of the source very well. To counter this, a strategy of searching for coincident gravitational wave and electromagnetic detections in time may be the best bet.

The newly funded ARC Centre of Excellence OzGrav mission is to understand the extreme physics of black holes.

One of the goals is to search for optical, radio and high energy counterparts coincident with gravitational waves from black hole creation. Australia is poised to play a significant role in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy.

David Coward, Associate professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Everyone Is Playing Pokemon Go

In case you haven’t heard, Nintendo’s Pokemon is finally available at the App store.It’s an augmented reality game where players must catch digital Pokemon in the realworld. Incredibly, Nintendo has managed to get a generation of young people outsidein the fresh air to play their newest game.Chase Levinrealized he wasn’t the only one at the park playing. He quickly realized everyone else was also! Got to catch ’em all!


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When It Comes To Kickstarting A Supermassive Black Hole, Violent Galaxy Mergers Are Better

Almost every galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center and most of these behemoths are quiet and calm. The rest are actively feeding through a process that ends up throwing a lot of energy and material into space. This feeding frenzy can happen for several reasons and a new study suggests that violent collisions between galaxies are more effective at triggering it than less violent ones.

When supermassive black holes turn on they are known as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) and they play an important role in the evolution of their host galaxies. The new research was presented at the 232nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

“A big question in modern astronomy is what are the primary routes by which these black holes grow,” lead researcher Scott Barrows, from the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement. “One idea is that galactic mergers play a major role.”

But not all mergers are the same. Astronomers divide them into two broad categories. Major mergers occur if the galaxies involved have roughly the same mass while minor mergers happen if the masses are mismatched. The team studied black hole activation rates in both major and minor mergers.

The mergers were picked before full coalescence, allowing the researchers to potentially see two supermassive black holes. Their analysis showed that two-thirds of major mergers led to the activation of both supermassive black holes, but only one in nine minor mergers did.

A minor “merger is less violent, and that leads to less gas and dust falling onto the black holes,” explained Barrows. “And the less material you have falling onto the black holes, the less likely you are to have two of them become AGNs.”

The situation is different for major mergers. These collisions are more violent, and as the two cores move towards each other, the gravitational pull of the black hole sends gas and dust spiraling down. The material rains on the black holes and due to the huge gravitational pull, is heated up to millions of degrees.

The research also uncovered something peculiar. In minor mergers, there wasn’t a clear rationale for the activation of a single black hole. Sometimes it was the one in the smaller galaxy, and sometimes it was the one in the bigger one.

The team will continue to work on mergers and their follow-up work will look into the effect of a supermassive black hole collision on the host galaxy, focusing on the potential for them to destroy or form stars.

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Building Cars Out of Batteries Isn’t as Crazy as It Sounds


The high cost and limited range of electric vehicles can make them a tough sell, and their costliest and most limiting component are their batteries.

But batteries also open up new design possibilities because they can be shaped in more ways than gasoline tanks and because they can be made of load-bearing materials. If their chemistries can be made safer, batteries could replace conventional door panels and other body parts, potentially making a vehicle significantly lighter, more spacious and cheaper. This could go some way toward helping electric cars compete with gas-powered ones.

Tesla Motors and Volvo have demonstrated early versions of the general approach by building battery packs that can replace some of the structural material in a conventional car. Dozens of other research groups and companies are taking further steps to make batteries that replace existing body parts, such as body panels and frames.

The ability to use batteries as structural materials is currently limited by the use of flammable electrolytes, but researchers are developing safer chemistries that could be used more widely. The approach also raises several practical questions: can the energy-storing body panels be engineered so that even if they’re dented, the car will still work? And how expensive will bodywork be? However, automakers could turn to the approach under pressure to sell more electric vehicles and hybrids to meet stringent future fuel economy standards.

Batteries are the single most expensive item in electric cars, so making them cheaper would make electric vehicles cheaper too. But even without significant breakthroughs, new battery designs could make a car lighter.

One example is the way Tesla has designed the battery for the Model S. The metal casing that protects the battery also serves to make the car frame more rigid, reducing the overall amount of metal needed.

This month, Volvo demonstrated another approach using lithium-ion batteries, which are made of thin films of material that are rolled or folded up to form a battery cell. Researchers at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden in collaboration with Volvo sandwiched these films between sheets of carbon-fiber composite. The resulting structure was used to replace plastic body parts and a small conventional battery on a hybrid version of the Volvo S80. (The car is a “stop-start” hybrid that uses a battery to make it possible to turn off the engine whenever the car isn’t moving.)

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy is spending $37 million on projects seeking to use batteries as structural materials. (The program is called RANGE, which stands for Robust, Affordable, Next-Generation Energy Storage Systems). In two ARPA-E projects, researchers are figuring out ways to design battery packs to absorb energy in a crash to replace materials now used to protect passengers. For example, rather than packaging battery cells into a solid block, the cells could be allowed to move past each other in an accident, dissipating energy as they do.

Most of the approaches being explored so far still use conventional battery cells — the parts of the pack that actually store energy. If safer battery cells can be made, then this would provide even more flexibility in how a car can be designed. You wouldn’t need to enclose them in protective cases or regulate their temperature to prevent battery fires.

“When you’re not obsessed with protecting batteries, you can be a lot more creative. You’re not limited to the architecture of conventional cars,” says Ping Liu, who manages and helped conceive of ARPA-E’s RANGE project.

To this end, several researchers are developing new chemistries that don’t use flammable electrodes, so the batteries could be safely used as door panels. They’re considering replacing volatile electrolytes with less-flammable polymers, water-based materials and ceramics. Once they have a safer electrolyte, the researchers will look for ways to use the battery electrodes in a cell to bear loads.

Volvo has an experimental version of this approach that uses carbon fibers in composite materials to store and conduct electricity but also to strengthen the composites. The device was formed in the shape of a trunk lid. But it could only produce enough electricity to light up some LEDs, so it couldn’t replace the battery in an electric car or a hybrid. A newer version being developed at Imperial College in London replaces the epoxy that ordinarily holds together carbon fibers in a composite with a blend of stiff materials and ionic liquids that can conduct charged molecules. This forms a type of supercapacitor that could store enough energy to be used in place of a battery in a stop-start hybrid.

For electric cars and hybrids with larger batteries, supercapacitors don’t store enough energy. So to provide enough driving range, some researchers are developing lithium-ion batteries that use carbon fibers for one electrode, but use conventional lithium-ion materials for the opposite one. Others have developed a nonvolatile polymer electrolyte to replace conventional, flammable ones. The resulting material will make it possible to “do two jobs with one thing,” says Leif Asp, a professor at Lulea University. Several ARPA-E projects are taking this kind of approach.

These new electrolytes and load-bearing battery cells are likely more than a decade away from being useful in cars, however. It will be difficult to ensure that the battery stores large amounts of energy and can also be strong enough as a structural component.

Asp says the first applications could be in portable electronics, where load-bearing batteries could replace conventional plastic cases. But if car components can one day be made out of such materials, then batteries could finally go from a limiting factor to a selling point.

Image: Flickr, Asier Llaguno

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review

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What Will President Donald Trump Do With NASA?

In case youve been living in a cave, Donald Trump is now President-elect of the United States. Much has already been said about what this might mean for the environment and other areas, but what does it mean for space?

Well, in lieu of any concrete policy from Trump, we can glean a few tidbits from things hes said amid some speculation.

For starters, well be getting a new NASA Administrator, replacing current chief Charlie Bolden, who announced he would stand down prior to the election regardless of the result. Whether this new Administrator will continue with NASAs current goal, sending humans to Mars in the 2030s, or pick a new direction remains to be seen.

Possible names being touted at the moment are Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a Space Shuttle, and Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine.

Some insight into what Trumps policy might be comes from comments made in October at the Orlando Sanford International Airport. Here, he said he wanted to free NASA from being stuck in Earth orbit and lead the way into the stars.

This seems to hold true with speculation making the rounds at the moment. Most think Trump is going to focus much less on Earth science, and more on human exploration.

NASA is committed to staying in Earth orbit until at least 2024 with the International Space Station. NASA

NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies, two policy advisers for Trump said in an op-ed for SpaceNews. “Human exploration of our entire Solar System by the end of this century should be NASAs focus and goal.”

This is potentially terrible; NASA leads the field in much climate research, and moving away from that could be detrimental. However, it should be noted that some of these projects might be transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rather than being scrapped.

Indeed, in March last year, Republican Ted Cruz called on NASA to focus more on space and less on Earth. We cant go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center [in Florida] goes underwater, Bolden responded.

This may be coupled with an increased commercialization of space exploration, the groundwork for which was largely begun by President Obamas administration. In the next two years, two privately-built manned spacecraft SpaceXs Dragon and Boeings Starliner will fly for the first time, having received significant funding from NASA.

I think there would be ample opportunity for public-private partnerships in the space program, Trump said in an interview with SpaceNews back in October.

New administrations can also bring about a rethink in NASAs long-term goals. The Obama administration in 2009 scrapped the Constellation program from the Bush-era, which was looking at returning to the Moon, and instead focused on Mars. This has involved developing the huge new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, expected to fly for the first time in the next few years, and the Orion spacecraft which has a bit of an uncertain future at the moment.

NASA is currently focused on getting humans to Mars. Pat Rawlings/NASA

Whether a new administration will continue this focus on Mars, or aim for more short-term goals like a return to the Moon, remains to be seen. Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told The Vergeshe thought there could be drastic changes once again, though.

Of course, NASA isnt just about manned exploration. It is heavily involved in aircraft research, planetary science, astronomy, and more. What the state of these others sectors will be isnt clear.

Funding as a whole looks like it might stay the same, though, and Trump does seem to be keen on keeping NASA at the forefront of space exploration. Honestly I think NASA is wonderful! Trump said in an AMA on Reddit back in July. America has always led the world in space exploration.

The lack of Earth science, though, will be a big loss.

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Mysterious Swarm Of UAVs Bomb Russian Military Base In World-First Unidentified Drone Attack

In today’s episode of “Is this real life or viral marketing for Black Mirror?” Russian military bases have been assaulted by a swarm of unidentified, unmanned drones. It’s believed to be the first instance that a drone swarm attacking military has been officially documented.

The Russian Ministry of Defence released a statement claiming their naval base in the Syrian town of Tartus and the Khmeimim Air Base were attacked by a 13-strong swarm of armed drones on the night of January 5, 2018. No one’s quite sure who sent the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), especially as they appear to contain foreign-made parts; however, the Russians described the event in the vague terms of “a terrorist attack.” 

“As evening fell, the Russia air defense forces detected 13 unidentified small-size air targets at a significant distance approaching the Russian military bases,” said the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

“Six small-size air targets were intercepted and taken under control by the Russian EW units. Three of them were landed on the controlled area outside the base, and another three UAVs exploded as they touched the ground,” it added. “The Russian bases did not suffer any casualties or damages.”

Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

In true cyberpunk style, the drones look a bit like a mash-up of advanced technology juxtaposed with cheap and improvised materials. While they are equipped with a GPS-guided navigation system, they are also armed with improvised explosives and appear to be pieced together with wood. The Daily Beast even speculated that the UAVs, or at least parts of them, were bought via social media. Russian authorities now have military experts examining the captured drones to work out who supplied the assailants with the technology. 

Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

The increasing use of drones in modern warfare is part of a trend that is only likely to continue as the technology because more accessible, cheaper, and advanced. That’s something Russia and other governments are becoming very aware of. In September 2017, Vladimir Putin said that he believes all future wars will be fought by drones, explaining “when one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” according to the Associated Press.

Obscure Syrian militia groups aren’t the only military forces who want to bring drone swarms to the battlefield. Over the past year, China and the US have been busy developing their own drone technology.

Whether you like it or think it’s downright terrifying, the era of swarm drones is upon us.

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A Sinkhole Has Appeared On The White House Lawn And The Internet Is Responding Appropriately

When Trump announced plans to “drain the swamp” even we didn’t think he meant it literally. That is, until a sinkhole appeared on the White House’s North Lawn this week.

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Voice of America reporter Steve Herman tweeted photos of the sinkhole on Tuesday. Cordoned off with caution tape and two measly cones in the most comical way, the hole appears to be just outside the office of press secretary Hogan Gidley.

“This week I’ve been observing a sinkhole on the White House North Lawn, just outside the press briefing room, growing larger by the day,” tweeted Herman, who later told Quartz it had become “noticeably” bigger.

The National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the grounds, told USA Today it is monitoring the situation and plans to bring in experts.

“Sinkholes, like this one, are common occurrences in the Washington area following heavy rain like the DC metro area has experienced in the last week,” NPS spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles told the publication in an email. “We do not believe it poses any risk to the White House or is representative of a larger problem.”

We’ll get to the science side of things in a minute. First, can we all please take a moment to applaud the Twittersphere for one of its wittiest campaigns yet? even joined the ranks of sinkhole trollers. 

Let’s also not forget that a sinkhole formed just outside Trump’s private estate Mar-a-Lago in Florida last year, issuing a travel alert in the town of Palm Beach. All jokes aside, the sinkhole saga does not illustrate a vortex offering entry into a parallel universe where America’s presidential cabinet has been turned into a reality television show. 

Sinkholes are most common in “karst terrain” where rock underneath the land – such as limestone, gypsum, and salt beds – is easily and naturally dissolved by groundwater. When it rains, this rock is dissolved and water is held in the open space until there is not enough support for the land above to stay intact. The result is a sudden collapse of land that can be small or massive – some sinkholes cover hundreds of acres and are more than 30 meters (100 feet) deep. They can even swallow entire neighborhoods

Washington, DC received more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) of rain over eight consecutive days, about 5 centimeters (2 inches) more than the average rainfall for the entire month of May.

Or maybe Melania had something to do with it. 

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Northeast Blizzard Of 2013 Timelapse

Geoff Fox lives in a small town in Connecticut, just north of New Haven, and like millions of other Americans living in the Northeast, was hit by the big blizzard. But Fox had the premonition to set up his GoPro camera on the backyard decade in timelapse made to capture the action.

The only reason the video ends so early, he claims, is because the snow rose so quickly, it covered the lens. Now, his video is going viral, and has already garnered over 40,000 views in one day. 


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Action! 15 Jaw-Dropping Videos Shot on a GoPro


DARPA’s Neural Interface Will Let Brains And Computers “Communicate”

The U.S. militarys scientific and technological wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is tasked with predicting and constructing the future. Robotic soldiers, artificial intelligence (AI), and vampire drones that disappear in sunlight have all been in development for some time. Now, DARPA has announced that it is seeking to develop an electrical interface between the brain and a computer system, allowing the two to talk to each other.

This isnt DARPAs first foray into brain implants. Only just last year, a project designed to use electrodes within the brain to stimulate memory formation in those suffering from neurological damage was green-lit. This new program, Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), aims to turn a science fiction concept into reality.

The brain operates using electrical signals, which are initiated by the transmission of specific chemicals called neurotransmitters between brain cells. These electrical signals are not too dissimilar to those used by computers, with the key difference being that a computers communication language conventionally uses binary signals, which represents information as a series of ones and zeros.

The brain, on the other hand, is far more complex, with billions of electrochemical transmissions per second translating into thoughts and actions. DARPA recognizes that these electrical signals could be isolated and translated into information that an artificial interface may be able to understand. After all, if they can develop thought-controlled prosthetics, where an artificial limb is in direct communication with the brain, why cant a computer be directly connected to the brain in the same way?

DARPAs Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has managed to develop fairly precise thought-controlled limbs. DARPA

These types of neural interfaces already exist, produced as part of DARPAs Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET)program, but they are fairly primitive. Up to 100 implants or channels, each connected to tens of thousands of neurons, are able to record and encode information that a computer can recognize as representing specific neurological activity. However, this data is full of noise, and is frequently inaccurate.

The new project hopes to drastically up the ante: DARPA is hoping to be able to translate and encode information from more than one million neurons simultaneously. Not only that, but they hope to develop a feedback system, wherein the computer interface is able to send electrical signals back to the brain, and stimulate at least 100,000 neurons particularly those associated with audio, visual and somatosensory (touch, pain, pressure, movement) functions.

As with many DARPA projects, the specific aims, goals and technologies involved in NESD are not made explicit. It does admit, however, that enormous advances in many scientific fields are required, including those in synthetic biology, electronics and neuroscience. The issue of making the implants safe to use in humans, and finding willing subjects, also looms large over the project.

In addition, although connecting a computer and allowing it to communicate with up to a million neurons does sound impressive, its worth noting that the average adult brain contains around 86 billion of them so theres a lot of ground left to cover.

This announcement, then, is really about letting the world know that NESD is up and running. Regardless, the ambition is clear to see: DARPA hope to have a working demonstration of the system within the next four years.

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