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Bizarre particles keep flying out of Antarctica’s ice, and they might shatter modern physics

A team recovers NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) after a successful flight.

There’s something mysterious coming up from the frozen ground in Antarctica, and it could break physics as we know it.

Physicists don’t know what it is exactly. But they do know it’s some sort of cosmic ray — a high-energy particle that’s blasted its way through space, into the Earth, and back out again. But the particles physicists know about — the collection of particles that make up what scientists call the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics — shouldn’t be able to do that. Sure, there are low-energy neutrinos that can pierce through miles upon miles of rock unaffected. But high-energy neutrinos, as well as other high-energy particles, have “large cross-sections.” That means that they’ll almost always crash into something soon after zipping into the Earth and never make it out the other side.

And yet, since March 2016, researchers have been puzzling over two events in Antarctica where cosmic rays did burst out from the Earth, and were detected by NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) — a balloon-borne antenna drifting over the southern continent.

ANITA is designed to hunt cosmic rays from outer space, so the high-energy neutrino community was buzzing with excitement when the instrument detected particles that seemed to be blasting up from Earth instead of zooming down from space. Because cosmic rays shouldn’t do that, scientists began to wonder whether these mysterious beams are made of particles never seen before.

Since then, physicists have proposed all sorts of explanations for these “upward going” cosmic rays, from sterile neutrinos (neutrinos that rarely ever bang into matter) to “atypical dark matter distributions inside the Earth,” referencing the mysterious form of matter that doesn’t interact with light [The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

All the explanations were intriguing, and suggested that ANITA might have detected a particle not accounted for in the Standard Model. But none of the explanations demonstrated conclusively that something more ordinary couldn’t have caused the signal at ANITA.

A new paper uploaded today (Sept. 26) to the preprint server arXiv changes that. In it, a team of astrophysicists from Penn State University showed that there have been more upward-going high-energy particles than those detected during the two ANITA events. Three times, they wrote, IceCube (another, larger neutrino observatory in Antarctica) detected similar particles, though no one had yet connected those events to the mystery at ANITA. And, combining the IceCube and ANITA data sets, the Penn State researchers calculated that, whatever particle is bursting up from the Earth, it has much less than a 1-in-3.5 million chance of being part of the Standard Model. (In technical, statistical terms, their results had confidences of 5.8 and 7.0 sigma, depending on which of their calculations you’re looking at.)

Breaking physics

Derek Fox, the lead author on the new paper, said that he first came across the ANITA events in May 2018, in one of the earlier papers attempting to explain them.

“I was like, ‘Well this model doesn’t make much sense,'” Fox told Live Science, “but the [ANITA] result is very intriguing, so I started checking up on it. I started talking to my office neighbor Steinn Sigurdsson [the second author on the paper, who is also at Penn State] about whether maybe we could gin up some more plausible explanations than the papers that have been published to date.”

Fox, Sigurdsson and their colleagues started looking for similar events in data collected by other detectors. When they came across possible upward-going events in IceCube data, he said, he realized that he might have come across something really game-changing for physics.


The surface facility for the IceCube experiment, which is located under nearly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of ice in Antarctica. IceCube suggests ghostly neutrinos don't exist, but a new experiment says they do.The surface facility for the IceCube experiment, which is located under nearly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of ice in Antarctica. IceCube suggests ghostly neutrinos don’t exist, but a new experiment says they do.

“That’s what really got me going, and looking at the ANITA events with the utmost seriousness,” he said, later adding, “This is what physicists live for. Breaking models, setting new constraints [on reality], learning things about the universe we didn’t know.”

As Live Science has previously reported, experimental, high-energy particle physics has been at a standstill for the last several years. When the 17-mile (27 kilometers), $10 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was completed on the border between France and Switzerland in 2009, scientists thought it would unlock the mysteries of supersymmetry — the mysterious, theoretical class of particles that scientists suspect might exist outside of current physics, but had never detected. According to supersymmetry, every existing particle in the Standard Model has a supersymmetric partner. Researchers suspect these partners exist because the masses of known particles are out of wack — not symmetric with one another.

“Even though the SM works very well in explaining a plethora of phenomena, it still has many handicaps,” said Seyda Ipek, a particle physicist at UC Irvine, who was not involved in the current research. “For example, it cannot account for the existence of dark matter, [explain  mathematical weirdness in] neutrino masses, or the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe.”

Instead, the LHC confirmed the Higgs boson, the final undetected part of the Standard Model, in 2012. And then it stopped detecting anything else that important or interesting. Researchers began to question whether any existing physics experiment could ever detect a supersymmetric particle.

“We need new ideas,” Jessie Shelton, a theoretical physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Live Science in May, around the same time that Fox first became interested in the ANITA data.

Now, several scientists not involved in the Penn State paper told Live Science that it offers solid (if incomplete) evidence that something new has really arrived.

“It was clear from the start that if the ANITA anomalous events are due to particles that had propagated through thousands of kilometers of Earth, then those particles were very likely not SM particles,” said Mauricio Bustamante, an astrophysicist at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, who was not an author on the new paper.

“The paper that appeared today is the first systematic calculation of how unlikely is that these events were due to SM neutrinos,” he added. “Their result strongly disfavors a SM explanation.”

“I think it’s very compelling,” said Bill Louis, a neutrino physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was not involved in the paper and has been following research into the ANITA events for several months.

If standard model particle created these anomalies, they should have been neutrinos. Researchers know that both because of the particles they decayed into, and because no other standard model particle would even have a fragment of a chance in a million of making it through the Earth.

But neutrinos of this energy, Louis said, just shouldn’t make it through the Earth often enough for ANITA or IceCube to detect. It’s not how they work. But neutrino detectors like ANITA and IceCube don’t detect neutrinos directly. Instead, they detect the particles that neutrinos decay into after smashing into Earth’s atmosphere or Antarctic ice. And there are other events that can generate those particles, triggering the detectors. This paper strongly suggests that those events must have been supersymmetric, Louis said, though he added that more data is necessary.

Fox and his colleagues went on to argue that the particles are most likely to be a sort of theoretical supersymmetric particle called “stau sleptons.” Stau sleptons are supersymmetric versions of a Standard Model particle called the tau lepton. The “S” is for “supersymmetric” (really).

Louis said that at this stage he thinks that level of specificity is “a bit of a stretch.”

The authors make a strong statistical case that no conventional particle would be likely to travel through the Earth in this way, he said, but there isn’t yet enough data to be certain. And there’s certainly not enough that they could definitively figure out what particle made the trip.

Fox didn’t dispute that.

“As an observer, there’s no way that I can know that this is a stau,” he said. “From my perspective, I go trawling around trying to discover new things about the universe, I come upon some really bizarre phenomenon, and then with my colleagues, we do a little literature search to see if anybody has ever thought that this might happen. And then if we find papers in the literature, including one from 14 years ago that predict something just like this phenomenon, then that gets really high weight from me.”

He and his colleagues did find a long chain of papers from theorists predicting that stau sleptons might turn up like this in neutrino observatories. And because those papers were written before the ANITA anomaly, Fox said, that suggests strongly to him that those theorists were onto something.

But there remains a lot of uncertainty on that front, he said. Right now, researchers just know that whatever this particle is, it interacts very weakly with other particles, or else it would have never survived the trip through the planet’s dense mass.

What’s next

Every physicist who spoke with Live Science agreed that researchers need to collect more data to verify that ANITA and IceCube have cracked supersymmetry. It’s possible, Fox said, that when IceCube researchers dig into their data archives they’ll find more, similar events that had previously gone unnoticed. Louis and Bustamante both said that NASA should run more ANITA flights to see if similar upward-going particles turn up.

“For us to be certain that these events are not due to unknown unknowns — say, unmapped properties of the Antarctic ice — we would like other instruments to also detect these sort of events,” Bustamante said.


A team prepares ANITA for flight over the Antarctic ice.A team prepares ANITA for flight over the Antarctic ice.

Over the long-term, if these results are confirmed and the details of what particle is causing them are nailed down, several researchers said that the ANITA anomaly might unlock even more new physics at the LHC.

“Any observation a non-SM particle would be a game changer, because it would tell us which path we should take after the SM,” Ipek said. “The type of [supersymmetric] particle they claim to have produced the signals of, sleptons, are very hard to produce and detect at LHC.”

“So, it is very interesting if they can be observed by other types of experiments. Of course, if this is true, then we will expect a ladder of other [supersymmetric] particles to be observed at the LHC, which would be a complementary test of the claims.”

In other words, the ANITA anomalies could offer scientists the key information necessary to properly tune the LHC to unlock more of supersymmetry. Those experiments might even turn up an explanation for dark matter.

Right now, Fox said, he’s just hungry for more data.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Science & Technology

NTP nuclear rocket engine will take humans to Mars in just three months

Although the romance of the peaceful atom has subsided since the mid-1960s, the idea of ​​using nuclear reactors for “civilian” purposes is still regularly returned. The new nuclear rocket engine (NRM) will deliver a man to Mars much faster than is possible now.

The danger of cosmic radiation is much more serious than the risk of infection from an accident with such an engine. The most dangerous of all the constraining vectors for projects of sending people to other bodies in the solar system is cosmic radiation. Radiation from our star and galactic rays can seriously damage the health of the mission crew. Therefore, when planning flights to Mars, engineers and scientists try to reduce travel time as much as possible.

One promising way to get to the Red Planet in just three months could be a new NTP engine. Its concept was developed and submitted to NASA by Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies ( USNC-Tech ) from Seattle, USA. The name of the unit is simply deciphered – Nuclear Thermal Propulsion ( NTP ), that is, “thermal nuclear power plant”. The novelty differs from its previously created or invented counterparts in the most secure design.

A key component of USNC’s development is mid – grade uranium fuel “pellets”. They contain 5% to 20% of the highly reactive isotope U- 235 coated with zirconium carbide ceramics. This degree of enrichment lies roughly halfway between the “civilian” nuclear power plants and the military. The proprietary ceramic coating technology makes the tablets incredibly resistant to mechanical damage and extreme temperatures.

Schematic diagram of a thermal nuclear rocket engine / © Wikipedia |  Tokono
Schematic diagram of a thermal nuclear rocket engine / © Wikipedia | Tokono

The company promises that their fuel elements are significantly superior in these parameters to those currently used at nuclear power plants. As a result, the engine will have a higher specific impulse with a lower degree of uranium enrichment than in earlier versions of NRE. In addition to the flight to Mars, among the goals of the ambitious project are other missions within the solar system. The perspectives of the concept will soon be considered by specialists from NASA and the US Department of Defense ( DoD ). Perhaps departments will even allow its commercial use by private companies.

Theoretically, NRE based on modern technologies can have a specific impulse (SR) seven times higher than that of chemical jet engines. And this is one of the key performance parameters. At the same time, unlike electric and plasma ones, the ID of a nuclear rocket engine is combined with high thrust. One of the limiting factors in the use of NRE, in addition to safety issues, are extremely high temperatures in the reactor core.

The higher the temperature of the gases flowing out of the engine, the more energy they have. And accordingly, they create traction. However, mankind has not yet come up with relatively inexpensive and safe materials that can withstand more than three thousand degrees Celsius without destruction. The solution created by USNC will operate at the limit of modern materials science (3000 ° C) and have a specific impulse twice that of the best liquid-propellant engines.

Tests of the first nuclear jet engine in 1967 / © NASA
Tests of the first nuclear jet engine in 1967 / © NASA

The official press release does not specify which working body will be used in NTP . Usually, in all NRE projects, the reactor core heats hydrogen, less often ammonia. But, since we are talking about a long-term mission, the creators could have chosen some other gas. Keeping liquid hydrogen on board for three months is no easy task. But you still need to invent something for the way back.

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Scientist Peter Scott-Morgan is set to become “the world’s first complete cyborg”

Scientist and roboticist Peter Scott Morgan, who is using an advanced version of Stephen Hawking's communication system, built by Intel. INTEL

Two years ago scientist Peter Scott-Morgan was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and today he is still fighting for a new life, not just for survival.

This October, Dr. Scott-Morgan is on track to become the world’s first full-fledged cyborg, potentially giving him more years of life.

The world’s first complete cyborg

It was in 2017 that Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan (a brilliant robotics writer, scientific writer, and talented speaker) was diagnosed with degenerative motor neuron disease that ultimately paralyzed his entire body except his eyes.

The diagnosis is understandably grim, especially considering that he has only two years to live, but he has not given up the fight.

Teaming up with world-class organizations with expertise in artificial intelligence, Dr. Scott-Morgan is transforming himself into what he calls “the world’s first fully fledged cyborg.”

“And when I say ‘Cyborg’, I mean not just that some kind of payment will be implanted in me, I mean that I will become the most advanced human cybernetic organism ever created on Earth for 13.8 billion years. My body and brain will be irreversibly changed, ”says Dr. Scott-Morgan.

What does it mean to be human

According to Dr. Scott-Morgan, he will become part robot and part living organism. Moreover, the change will not be one-time, but with subsequent updates.

“I have more updates in the process than Microsoft ,” says Dr. Scott-Morgan.

AI-powered creative expression

The cyborg artist is a great example of the power of human-AI collaboration. AI uses the data that make up Peter’s digital portrait ( articles, videos, images, and social media ) and is trained to recognize key ideas, experiences, and images.

Peter will introduce a theme, AI will suggest composition, and Peter will apply images to suggest style and mood. Peter will direct the AI ​​to render a new digital image that none of them could create alone.

A unique blend of AI and human, reflects Peter’s creative and emotional self – a critical aspect of what it means to be human.

Peter 2.0

This October, Dr. Scott-Morgan will undergo what he calls the latest procedure that will transform him into “Complete Cyborg”.

October 9 he tweeted a photo of himself, writing the following:

“This is my last post as Peter 1.0. Tomorrow I will trade my vote for potentially decades of life as we complete the last medical procedure for my transition to Full Cyborg, in the month that I was told statistically I would be dead. I am not dying, I am transforming. ! Oh, how I LOVE science !!! “.

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Science & Technology

Japan has developed an inflatable scooter that weighs practically nothing

The University of Tokyo engineers have developed the Poimo inflatable electric scooter, which is created individually for each owner. It is enough to send your photo to the manufacturers – and a personal optimized model will be assembled for you.

The scooter is designed with a special program for the body size of a particular user and his specific fit. Moreover, each owner is free to make any changes to this model. If he makes any changes to the drawing, the program will automatically redesign the electric bike to maintain its strength, stability and controllability. When the model is finished and approved, it is handed over to the manufacturer.

Scooter Poimo

The scooter consists of seven separate inflatable sections that are constructed from durable fabric and sewn with straight stitch. It remains to add electronic components – in particular, a brushless motor and a lithium-ion battery. 

The finished electric scooter weighs about 9 kg and can travel at speeds up to 6 km / h (that is, slightly faster than a pedestrian). It can work for an hour on one charge.

This is how the current version of Poimo looks like in action:

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