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This Experiment Will Shoot Ghostly Particles Through Earth, Answer Why We Exist

The study of the subatomic world has revolutionized our understanding of the laws of the universe and given humanity unprecedented insights into deep questions. Historically, these questions have been in the philosophical realm: How did the universe come into existence? Why is the universe the way it is? Why is there something, instead of nothing?

Well, move over philosophy, because science has made a crucial step in building the equipment that will help us answer questions like these. And it involves shooting ghostly particles called neutrinos literally through the Earth over a distance of 800 miles (nearly 1,300 kilometers) from one physics lab to another.

An international group of physicists has announced that they have seen the first signals in a cube-shaped detector called ProtoDUNE. This is a very big stepping stone in the DUNE experiment, which will be America’s flagship particle physics research program for the next two decades. ProtoDUNE, which is the size of a three-story house, is a prototype of the much larger detectors that will be used in the DUNE experiment and today’s (Sept. 18) announcement demonstrates that the technology that was selected works.

The DUNE detectors will be located at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), just outside Chicago, and the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), in Lead, South Dakota. When the experiment is up and running, a powerful particle accelerator at Fermilab will make an intense beam of subatomic particles called neutrinos, shoot them literally through the Earth, to be detected at SURF.

Neutrinos are the ghosts of the subatomic world, able to pass through the entire planet with almost no interactions. Neutrinos have surprised scientists many times in the past. From their unprecedented ability to pass through matter without interacting, to the fact that they treat matter and antimatter very differently, to their ability to morph from one version into another, neutrinos continue to fascinate the world’s scientific community. It is those last two properties that the DUNE experiment will investigate.

Antimatter is something that sounds like science fiction, but it’s most assuredly real. Antimatter is the opposite of matter; bring matter and antimatter together and they will annihilate into pure energy. Antimatter was proposed in 1928 and first observed in 1931. In the intervening decades, scientists (including me) have studied it in excruciating detail. Mostly it’s understood, with one very vexing remaining mystery. When we convert energy into antimatter, we make an identical amount of matter. This is well-established science. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that if we combine that observation with the idea of the Big Bang, something doesn’t hang together. After all, shortly after the Big Bang, the universe was full of energy, which should have turned into matter and antimatter equally. Yet our universe is made entirely of matter. So where did that antimatter go? This question is unanswered; but perhaps a careful study of matter and antimatter neutrinos might reveal a difference.

Like other subatomic particles, neutrinos and antimatter neutrinos, called antineutrinos, have a quantity called spin, which has a passing, although imperfect, resemblance to little spinning balls. Neutrinos and antineutrinos spin in opposite directions. If you shoot a neutrino beam so it is coming toward you, you can stare down the spin axis of neutrinos; you’d see them spinning in a clockwise manner, while antineutrinos spin in the opposite direction. Because the spin of neutrinos and antineutrinos are the opposite, this identifies a difference between the two. Maybe that difference is a sign that studying the matter and antimatter analogs of neutrinos will shed some light on this mystery.

There is another property of neutrinos that makes them interesting in the conundrum of missing antimatter…they can morph from one identity to another. Scientist have found three distinct types of neutrinos. One type is associated with electrons and is called electron neutrinos. The two others are associated with two other subatomic particles called the muon and the tau, which are heavy cousins of the electron.

If you start with a bunch of electron neutrinos and then look at them a little later, you’ll find that there are fewer electron neutrinos than you started with, but there are enough muon and tau neutrinos to make up the deficit. The neutrinos aren’t decaying; they’re changing into one another.

It’s like you had a room full of 100 dogs and, when you looked later, there were 80 dogs, 17 cats and three parrots. If you looked even later, the mix would be different still.

The morphing, what scientists call oscillation, of neutrinos is also well established physics. Researchers have suspected it since the 1960s; they were pretty certain it was real in 1998, and they clinched the argument in 2001. Neutrino oscillation occurs and its discovery was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The DUNE experiment has several research goals, but perhaps the most pressing is to first measure the oscillation of neutrinos and then the oscillation of antineutrinos. If they are different, it may be that understanding that process in more detail will help us understand why the universe is made solely of matter. In short, it might explain why we exist at all.

The DUNE experiment will consist of two detector complexes, a smaller one at Fermilab, and four larger ones located at SURF. A beam of neutrinos will leave Fermilab and head toward the distant detectors. The proportions of different types of neutrinos will be measured at the detectors both at Fermilab and at SURF. The differences caused by neutrino oscillation will be measured, and then the process will be repeated for antineutrinos.

The technology that will be used in the DUNE experiments involves large vats of liquid argon, in which the neutrinos will interact and be detected. Each of the larger detectors located at SURF will be as tall and as wide as a four-story building and longer than a football field. Each one will contain 17,000 tons of liquid argon.

The ProtoDUNE detector is a much smaller prototype, consisting of only 800 tons of liquid argon. The volume is big enough to encompass a small house.

The collaboration of DUNE scientists is worldwide, drawing researchers from around the globe. While Fermilab is the host laboratory, other international laboratories are also involved. One such facility is CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, located just outside Geneva, Switzerland. The ProtoDUNE detector is located at CERN, further cementing a long relationship between the laboratories — for instance, Fermilab has long been involved in research using data recorded by the CERN Large Hadron Collider. DUNE is CERN’s first investment in an experiment being conducted at a laboratory in the United States.

Today’s announcement is a big one, proving that the liquid argon technology that will form the heart of the DUNE experiment was a good choice. A second ProtoDUNE detector will come online in a few months. The second version uses slightly different technology to observe the tracks of particles caused by rare neutrino interactions. The results of the testing of these two detectors will guide scientists to a decision on the final design of the detector components.

DUNE will be built over the next decade and the first detector modules are scheduled to be operational in 2026.


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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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Science & Technology

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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