The God Particle

Log Entry 3… 100?

It really takes a toll on you, spending hours and days floating around in space. The mind wanders and reminisces, thinking back to all the mundane days. I remember, it was a very cold day and I could barely get out of my bed that morning. With a lot of effort, I finally pulled myself out of the bed. I felt so weighed down and suddenly thought, how did so much of mass come into existence. I was weaving the story in my head and I saw the book kept on the desk, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? I quickly turned the pages and suddenly my attention went on the word Higgs boson. Higgs boson, also called Higgs particle, particle that is the carrier particle, or boson, of the Higgs field, a field that permeates space and endows all elementary subatomic particles with mass through its interactions with them.

Higgs, it intrigued my attention. I quickly sat and started scrolling about its existence. I found that in an event recorded in 2012 by the Compact Muon Solenoid detector at the Large Hadron Collider in proton-proton collisions at a centre of mass energy of 8 teraelectron volts. In this event there was a pair of Z bosons, one of which decayed into a pair of electrons while the other Z boson decayed into a pair of muons. The combined mass of the two electrons and the two muons was close to 126 GeV. This implies that a particle of mass 126 GeV was being produced and subsequently decaying to two Z bosons, exactly as expected if the observed particle were the Higgs boson. I was bamboozled it was a breath-taking discovery. I was very curious to know more about it.

Physicists Observe Higgs Boson, the Elusive 'God Particle' | US News

Over the decades, particle physicists had developed an elegant theoretical model that gave a framework for the understanding of the fundamental particles and forces of nature. One major ingredient in this model is a hypothetical, ubiquitous quantum field that is supposed to be responsible for giving particles their masses. This field would answer the basic question of why particles have the masses. This field is called the Higgs field. As a consequence of wave-particle duality, all quantum fields have a fundamental particle associated with them. The particle associated with the Higgs field is called the Higgs boson. Because the Higgs field would be responsible for mass, the very fact that the fundamental particles do have mass is regarded by many physicists as an indication of the existence of the Higgs field. We can even take all our data on particle physics data and interpret them in terms of the mass of a hypothetical Higgs boson. In other words, if we assume that the Higgs boson exists, we can infer its mass based on the effect it would have on the properties of other particles and fields.

This was one of the most iconic Nobel discovery of 21st century. I hadn’t realised that my coffee is no longer hot but my mind surely was with the extremely unique particle. Coffee, I miss coffee. The designers of my vessel didn’t think to add something like an ISSpresso. Sigh, I wonder what got me thinking of home and the God Particle, maybe it’s me hoping for a miracle.

Received by Harshit

AI in Space Tech

With the advent of commercial space exploration companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and increasing expenditure of governments worldwide into space technology, it is only a matter of time before mankind becomes an extra-terrestrial species. In fact, many believe this to be the only logical next step for man, considering how our home planet has finite resources and an infinitely growing population. While this will require immense effort in the fields of rocket engineering, another slightly unexpected aspect of this space race interests me. The increasing use and future potential of Artificially Intelligent systems in space.

Machine learning has two broad applications in space:

  1. Analysis and Prediction:

            While “Big Data” has only recently become a buzzword in the tech circles due to the rapid and widespread use of the internet, this is not the case for space exploration. Be it a large radio telescope array gathering information about a distant galaxy, or a satellite orbiting Jupiter and transmitting these readings 24/7 to an operator on earth, Space exploration has always involved massive amounts of data. As an example, NASA collects approximately 2GB of data every 15 seconds from all its satellites. However, only a fraction of this data is analysed due to limitations in time, manpower and resources. Thanks to AI, this can be done much quicker, and to a decent level of accuracy. NASA annually conducts Frontier Development Lab (FDL) sessions for 8 weeks every summer where technology and space innovators are brought together to brainstorm and come up with code to solve a variety of problems. FDL also partners with big tech companies who provide the scientists with an advanced tech repository of sorts in the form of hardware, algorithms, super-computer resources, funding, facilities and subject-matter experts. Recently a team of scientists came up with a model to analyse the massive data generated by the Kepler mission to search for habitable exoplanets by analysing the emission spectrum of these systems. Since there have been thousands of exoplanets discovered so far, making quick decisions about which of them are the most likely to harbour life can help us narrow down candidates for further detailed (and costly!) exploration. Another interesting outcome of FDL was an algorithm that used radar data from nearby asteroids to model the important parameters like their shapes, sizes, and spin rates which are critical in NASA’s efforts to detect and deflect threatening asteroids from Earth. While traditional methods could take up to 3 months to model a single asteroid, this ML model can complete the task in just 4 days! Another great example of the use of ML was the development of a “virtual sensor” which could fill in missing data gathered from sensors aboard the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) by analysing historical trends.

In the future, the predictive power of AI could be extensively used for tasks ranging from charting out interstellar travel courses to helping us analyse distant star systems with high accuracy

2. Real-Time Decision Making:

So far, we have seen how ML can be used to predict or analyse large volumes of data. This field of AI is often termed as “supervised learning”. However, there’s another area of ML termed as “reinforcement learning” that has great potential as well. Essentially, reinforcement learning aims to mimic biological learning by making a robot repeatedly try a certain task. If the robot succeeds, we reward it with a “cookie” else if it fails we “punish” it. Thus with time, the system learns how to execute a particular task.

 Presently there’s a whole host of dangerous operations like spacecraft repairs that astronauts may have to perform in worst-case scenarios. Reinforcement learning algorithms show great promise in these areas. By simulating scenarios artificially in labs, we can “teach” robots to carry out various critical tasks that are otherwise too risky for humans. Apart from this, a combination of RL and supervised ML could also be used to develop systems that help humans carry out mundane or time-consuming tasks which could arise especially in long term space travel. In 2018, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) launched an AI assistant to support its astronauts in their daily tasks onboard the International Space Station. CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile companioN) is fully voice-controlled and can see, speak, hear, understand and even fly! CIMON returned after 14 months, but CIMON-2 arrived in December 2019 to replace it. The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) has also taken pioneering steps in this field by developing an intelligent system that is currently aboard the International Space Station taking pictures of experiments in the Japanese module, KIBO. JAXA’s Int-Ball operates autonomously and can take pictures and videos. It was developed to promote the autonomy of extra- and intra-vehicular experiments while seeking to acquire the robotics technology necessary for future exploration missions. Scientists believe such robotic systems could also help in interstellar travel to navigate potentially deadly spaces like asteroid belts.

That being said, we still have a long way to go before AI systems like TARS from interstellar are developed. The key issues that are faced by the industry today include:

  1. Expensive nature of space engineering: Before any RL/ML system is deployed there comes the monetary expenditure that could potentially be wasted if the mechanical systems onboard fail to operate as expected.

  2. Unreliable results: Since ultimately any AI is only as good as the data we feed it, there’s a decent chance that the predictions made are inconsistent with our expectations, especially if the input data is noisy. Thus more research needs to be done to develop robust systems capable of generating reliable output to make their use more widespread.

  3. Separation of academia: Traditionally, space has been the domain of engineers and physicists while the fields of AI have been home to computer geeks. Since the two fields are so widely separated, it is very unlikely that intra-disciplinary discoveries are made. With initiatives like FDL, this gap is being bridged steadily.

With cutting edge technology being developed this very instant by some of the largest tech companies on the planet like Google, SpaceX and NASA, I strongly believe that the time when mankind will have settlements on other planets will occur within our lifetimes and no doubt AI would have played a pivotal role in this expansion.

Till then, May the force be with us all!

— Shreyas Bhat

First Man: Damien Chazelle

This fantastic movie is sure to give goosebumps to everyone, especially to those fascinated by space and aspiring astronauts. It depicts the journey of NASA towards the exploration of our very own natural satellite in a tough race with the Soviets. When President Kennedy said, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ it was simply impossible in the 60s. In eight years, NASA and the 400,000 people working for NASA literally invented the rocket, the spaceship that could land on the moon, the space suits, everything invented from scratch. The mission cost about $20 billion.

Cosmic pioneers, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are all set for their flight aboard the Apollo 11 mission, little knowing that they were on their way to creating history.

FIRST MAN (2018) • Frame Rated

With the death of their daughter, Karen, an emotional roller coaster begins in the lives of Neil and his wife, Janet. To forget the pain and keep himself occupied, he enrolls himself for NASA’s Apollo mission as a trainee astronaut. His wife, Janet, moves to Houston with her husband and their two young sons, Mark and Rick after Neil is accepted into the Gemini program. She is a strong woman and even forces Neil to explain the perils of his mission to his sons, Mark and Rick to mentally prepare them for the worst as she seems to move through her days in anticipation of widowhood.

The first-manned Apollo mission went through a series of trials and errors. Dangers were faced, including the deaths of astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee during the pre-flight testing. Their deaths register mainly as threats to Neil’s safety and the future happiness of his family. Later, NASA redesigned the hatch and enacted other safety measures, which ensured that the Apollo 11 mission wouldn’t face similar obstacles in space.

Neil is constantly disturbed due to his daughter’s death, his colleagues’ deaths, his under-stress marriage, his daring job and the uncertainty of the mission. After rigorous training and a lot of anticipation, comes the most challenging day, July 21, 1969. Neil and his Crewmates are fitted into their astronaut suits and experience bone-rattling vibrations during take-off. They study the instrument panels in front of them along with processing instructions by mission control, knowing that a wrong move could mean their end.

Three days post-launch, Apollo 11 enters the lunar orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin undock in the Lunar Module Eagle and begin to land. After the landing site terrain turns out to be much rougher than expected, forcing Armstrong to take manual control of the spacecraft, he lands Eagle successfully at Tranquility Base. In the meantime, the craft was running low on fuel, meaning there was a possibility the astronauts would have to abort the mission, but it was a manageable event. Therefore, making his much-awaited step on moon and uttering his famous line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Then, as a memory that would live forever, he drops his most priced possession, his daughter’s bracelet into one of the craters. After their journey back to earth, they are kept in quarantine in a fear of contracting any kind of space virus.

The fact that he accepted the mission showed his immense trust in NASA even after a few accidents and his feat concludes that dreams do come true.


Neutron Star Collision

Log Entry 2

I woke up from my hibernation (yes, things got a bit boring) and could hear the controls beeping owing to the ripple in space-time, the gravitational-wave detectors picked up some signals. I expected it to be a pair of huge blackholes quickly spiralling into each other, but no, I was wrong. The new siren lasted longer, for about 100 seconds with frequencies rising up to thousands of cycles per second (it lasts only for a few secs and frequencies up to tens of cycles for blackhole merging)

What I saw was a bright spot of light, that faded from bright blue to dim red and eventually disappeared, it was emitting X-rays and radio waves after initial couple of weeks. There was gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation both coming out of a single source. I was startled at the sight, not able to make sense of what I was witnessing. Little did I know I’d seen a rare event that occurs about once in 50,000 years… yes you read that right, ONCE IN 50,000 YEARS. It was a collision of two Neutron Stars.

Collision Of 2 Neutron Stars – Seen For First Time – Spews Massive Cloud Of  Gold, Heavy Elements : The Two-Way : NPR

What I witnessed as light from it, was the “kilonova” – produced as a debris from the merger, expanded and cooled.

Neutron stars collision is a rare phenomenon, where two neutron stars close enough to each other, spiral around each other rapidly and eventually merge into a singularity forming a blackhole. It is the origin of gamma ray bursts (second most powerful event known) shorter than two seconds.

As the two neutron stars twirl together and rip each other apart, they expel neutron-rich atomic nuclei, forming a shroud of matter totalling a few percent of a solar mass. Those nuclei gobble neutrons in rapid succession and then quickly change their chemical identities through radioactive decay. This is the so-called r-process—or rapid neutron capture process—that makes the shroud glow for a few days, and its light reddened by heavy elements that soak up blue wavelengths. This is what is called the kilonova.

Thanks to the colliding neutron stars we have gold, silver and platinum for the origin of half the elements heavier than iron, including silver, gold, and platinum are generated in the r-process.

I remember, a Neutron Star Collision was observed for the first time on 17th August, 2017. The LIGO picked up unlikely waves at 12:41 universal time. Scientists all over the world observed this phenomenon for several weeks, the neutron stars swirled around each other, coming closer and closer. From passing about 30 times each second, the pair reached a point around 100 seconds later when they were swirling 2,000 times each second. After that, there was a short pause when nothing was detected by LIGO. Then, the stars violently collided, most likely creating a black hole; making that, probably, the first time, scientists have witnessed a black hole being made.

After witnessing this mind-boggling phenomenon I’m heading towards a new place, feeling relieved of the fact that the phenomenon occurred far away from our dear Earth, else the burst of gamma rays would have catastrophically stripped half the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Received by Shilpashree

What Would Animals on Mars Look Like?

Disclaimer: This a work of fiction, a mere figment of my imagination.

Abstract: Life on Mars as we know it doesn’t exist on the “surface”, but there is potential for the Martian subsurface to host a habitat for life. The information that we have gathered about the Red Planet’s subsurface right now, doesn’t tell a whole lot about whether it’s a habitable environment or not but, we have brains, so let’s imagine that the subsurface is hospitable for organisms. If it  is hospitable, what would be the characteristics of the animals living there? What would they look like?

Let me give you a rough idea about them, with some illustrations.


Now, for the kind of organism I would like to present, talking about a micro-organism would be boring, so let’s say the habitat can be sustainable for a small “animal”. Speaking about how the organism would perform basic metabolic functions, etc. would require a clear understanding of the chemical nature of the Martian subsurface, because there’s a lot of science which my poor brain is incapable of grasping easily, mainly a lot of chemical equations and biochemical processes, let’s just stick to the physiological aspects of this organism as it would be easier for me to present.

Basic Features

The organism is subterranean, i.e. it dwells underground. Hence it is comparable to the subterranean organisms we have here on Earth.  Another comparison we can make is to the Fossorial animals. A Fossorial (from Latin fossor, meaning “digger”) animal is  one that is adapted to digging and lives primarily, but not solely, underground. Some examples are badgers, naked mole-rats, clams, meerkats, and mole salamanders. Using these known organisms as references, we could predict what adaptations our Martian subterranean animal would be equipped with. There are six major physical adaptations that may exist in the animal:

  1. Fusiform: Meaning a spindle-shaped body, tapered at both ends, adapted for the dense subsurface.
  2. Poor (or lack of) eyesight: Due to darkness in the subterranean environment, visual organs would be completely useless.
  3. Small (or missing) external ears: In order to reduce friction while burrowing it is efficient to reduce protrusions on the body.
  4. Short and stout limbs: Shorter limbs enable more strength output, which is important for locomotion.
  5. Short and broad forelimbs: Forelimbs are broad as a higher surface makes it easier to excavate. Long claws also help loosen up burrowing material for the hind limbs to disperse back.
  6. Short or no tail: Enables little to no locomotor activity or use to burrowing animals.
  7. Skeletal adjustment: The skeleton would show a triangular skull, chisel shaped teeth, prenasal ossicle (inner ear) and effectively fused or short lumbar vertebrae (segments in the backbone).

The following Illustrations would present a better understanding of the adaptations.


Figure 1: Predicted Skeletal Structure

I present to you this skeletal diagram of how the animal would look like. From the points discussed, we would also be able to predict how the muscle groups would work. This particular “rodent” would boast exceptional neck and forelimb muscles that would enable it to provide high power output necessary for burrowing.

If we take a look at the skull, we can observe that it would be particularly streamlined. Also, take note of the huge mandibles (could be assigned to cartilage and small muscles for precise movements too).

Figure 2: Skull anatomy

The important part here is the auditory chamber (I made this word up). Subterranean animals usually possess sensitive auditory organs which can be modified to be sensory. These organs enable them to understand their surroundings through seismic vibrations and sounds.

Finally, the forelimb:

Figure 3: Forelimb

As the forelimb does most of the “digging” work, the tip of the phalanges is modified to be long. Also, having shorter limbs increases output power.

Final Notes

These predictions are in no way accurate (lol). It’s not possible to make accurate predictions without more information about the ecosystem of the animal. Knowing the ecosystem too wouldn’t be enough, as other factors like mode of nutrition, mode of reproduction, etc. would come into play. But as I said before, this is a mere figment of my imagination which I hope could spark some sort of idea or enjoyment in your head. Cheers.


Michalski, Joseph and Onstott, Tullis and Mojzsis, Stephen and Mustard, John and Chan, Queenie H. S. and Niles, Paul and Johnson, Sarah: The Martian subsurface as a potential window into the origin of life Nature Geoscience, December, 2017

Anvith M

The Strangeness of Quantum Mechanics

The 20th century has seen the most significant advances in science and physics, especially the birth of two great theories, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The unification of these two is said to be the “theory of everything”, the holy grail of physics. While GR is a beautiful theory, Quantum theory, as we may have heard is often called “strange”,” un-understandable” or even “nonsensical”. Richard Feynman said, “I can safely say no one understands quantum mechanics”. What is it about quantum mechanics that prompts even physicists make such comments? It is known that Quantum mechanics has been very successful and explains almost all of chemistry as well. Therefore, it is remarkable that the apparent strangeness leads to no inconsistencies. How has physics made sense of this?

But why was quantum theory needed in the first place? Before discussing QM itself, we need to understand the ‘why’ of it.

Why Quantum Theory?

From the beginning of the 20th century, many observations were made which did not obey the then existing laws of physics. Planck’s law of radiation implied that the frequency of oscillators in a body is quantised. The photoelectric explanation by Einstein suggested that light is composed of particles, called photons. But light was already established to be a wave! How could something sometimes behave like a particle and sometimes, a wave? Atomic stability was a mystery. Bohr assumed discrete values of angular momentum of electrons in orbit and the Bohr model proved to be successful. However, the discrete values of angular momentum were against the classical view. The Stern-Gerlach experiment showed the electron has only two spin orientations.

So then, clearly, this impressive array of startling phenomena needed a new theory, probably just as surprising. Thus, came the need for quantum theory.

What is Quantum Theory, and why is it strange?

Quantum theory was gradually developed by several people and attained a final form at the late 1920s. Many ideas were put forth; however, it must be noted that all of QM follows from a small set of assumptions which themselves cannot be derived. Therefore, QM is based on axioms.

Looking at the wave-particle duality of light, in 1924 De-Broglie proposed that particles too could behave like waves. He put forward a relationship between the momentum of a particle and its wavelength, which could explain Bohr’s assumptions in his model of the atom. Thus, quantisation conditions came naturally from De-Broglie’s hypothesis.

The next big addition to QM is the Uncertainty principle/relation. The uncertainty principle is certainly one of the most notable aspects of quantum mechanics. It has often been regarded as the most distinctive feature in which quantum mechanics differs from classical theories. This was put forward by Heisenberg in 1927 using a theoretical ‘light microscope’, which took in Einstein’s formula for the energy of a photon. He showed that it was impossible to measure precisely the position and momentum of any particle. However, it must be noted that this is not due to lack of good measuring instruments but a fundamental restriction of nature itself. This led to a lot of doubt among many physicists, and as Einstein said, ‘God does not play dice with the Universe’. How could you proceed with physics if you could not measure properly in the first place?

Meanwhile, in 1925, Schrödinger expressed de Broglie’s hypothesis concerning the wave behaviour of matter in a mathematical form and arrived at the Schrodinger wave equation (SWE). This was wave mechanics, and it revolved around a quantity called the wave function. The wave function(psi) is the probability amplitude of finding a particle at some place. Thus, the concept of determinacy was reduced to probability. Therefore, the maximum anyone can know is the wave function! The modulus squared of psi was interpreted by Max Born as the probability. Thus, the probability of finding a particle anywhere, which was most that could be done, was governed by the SWE.

Another big change was the concept of measurement in QM. The Uncertainty principle implies that any quantum measurement has uncertainties. This means the outcome of an experiment cannot be predicted with certainty, like the roll of a die. Therefore, this led to a re-interpretation. The new view was that any state, before being measured, would be a superposition (writing a quantity as a sum of individual quantities, here the different states) of all possible states that can be measured. However, it must be noted that superposition doesn’t mean the system is at all of the states at the same time, as some people have interpreted. Representing a state as a superposition of eigenstates of the observable is a mathematical notation. The measurement of the state causes it to collapse into one of the eigenstates of the observable and yields an eigenvalue. This is called the Copenhagen interpretation. This was a radical change as opposed to the classical measurement, which was definite and had no concept of superposition. Thus, something as simple as measurement took an unknown face in QM.

However, physicists also made different interpretations. They said that the wave function did not actually collapse. Instead, it branched off into another reality on its own, where the measurement yielded another eigenstate. This means that all possible outcomes of an experiment are physically realised in some other ‘universe’! This is called the many worlds interpretation of QM.

The great physicist Richard Feynman devised a radical way to look at QM. He extended the concept of the double-slit experiment to infinite slits. He said that a particle going from A to B would take all possible paths (that’s right, all of them!) between A and B, each of which would contribute a number. From this picture, he formulated a mathematical quantity called the Path-Integral, which could again explain all of what traditional QM had done. This is an alternative way to do QM and not an interpretation and its called the Path-Integral formulation of QM.

Thus, the simple picture of classical mechanics now became a probabilistic picture. The outcome of a measurement cannot be predicted with certainty but by the probability of observing a particular state given by the SWE. This could imply the existence of different Universes where a particle takes infinitely many paths to go from A to B! Despite such a strange view and a ‘major setback’ to science in terms of measurement, Quantum Mechanics has been highly successful and can explain a large portion of Chemistry in itself, along with making new advances like Quantum computing. That’s the power of physics and maths (they must co-exist! lol), taking the strangest of observations and making a theory that describes nature. As the Universe surprises us with new concepts, physics follows with an explanation. But, as the quantum world has shown us,

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, but it is also stranger than we can think.

Werner Heisenberg

Rakshith Rao

Interstellar: Christopher Nolan

Wormholes, space travel, time jumps. This movie provides the kind of rarely met satisfaction to the Sci-Fi enthusiasts (read: nerds) out there. And if that wasn’t enough the visuals in the movie are beyond stunning, starting from the frightening emptiness of space, the artistic beauty of a black hole, or the creativity of the planets with their varying atmospheres and landscapes. All of that without even taking into account the kind story that would have any viewer teetering on the edge of their seats.

Interstellar - Most Famous Movie Quotes to Ponder

All in all, it is a movie worth watching even if you’re not a Sci-Fi fan, only if it is just for experiencing the tear-jerker that it is. The emotional impact of being out in space and losing time due to time dilation seems like concepts which won’t relate to the average viewer but the story-telling manages to still achieve just that, having us wiping at our eyes when Cooper finally reunites with Murph on her deathbed.

The movie keeps itself grounded without taking too many creative freedoms with the physics of it all, which is quite admirable in today’s film industry. The portrayal of the black hole and the effect of its gravity on time is something deeply rooted in the Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And the kind of robotics shown in the movie is not something that is too far from today’s reality. We might be far from the kind of advanced space travel showed in the movie, but the intercept maneuver is something that is used by to redirect satellites even today using a planet’s gravity.

Film Review: Interstellar. Let's get this out of the way first… | by Will  Clayton | CineNation | Medium

The dystopian future where humanity is threatened by extinction due to food crisis isn’t one that in too hard to believe, and neither is the wild scramble to preserve our existence. Interstellar tells a compelling story of a team of astronauts looking to find a new home for the human race, but running into problems that seem inconceivable to the human mind like survival on a frozen planet and obtaining data from inside the event horizon of a black hole but make us empathize nonetheless.


Solar Flare: A Cosmic Flamethrower

Log Entry 1

All I remember saying is “Major Andy, reporting for duty”. Now, I find myself in a vessel floating in the vast expanse. I looked out the window to see a distant planet, but a look to the left revealed something much closer, almost blinding. “Thank goodness for the UV blocking windows”, I thought as I beheld the Sun in all its glory. That wasn’t all. A glance at the X-ray imager revealed an explosion of energy radiated out, with no plans of returning. The data also showed freckle-like Sunspots near the origin of the radiation. I deduced that it must be a Solar Flare.  

Solar flares are predicted by new model – Physics World

Solar Flares are typically caused by the tangling or reorganising of the strong magnetic field lines from active regions on the Sun. They send out light in almost every wavelength across the spectrum, as well as accelerated subatomic particles such as electrons and protons. 

I wonder if the first people to observe flares, Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson, ever dreamed of being here.

The first observed flare, in 1859, was associated with a major coronal mass ejection (CME), huge outpouring of energy and material. The fastest ejections reach Earth in less than two days, travelling up to 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) per second. When the Sun is at solar maximum, the period in its 11-year cycle when its activity is at its highest, the Sun can unleash over 100 solar flares every week. A flare could be my ticket home, if only it wasn’t almost as hot as the core of the Sun, several million Kelvin! 

I remember reading, scientists classify solar flares based on how brightly they shine in x-rays, which in turn reveals some of their potential effects. The smallest C-class flares (which I probably observed) are barely perceptible on Earth, aside from the blast of light seen by x-ray satellites. Medium M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts around the poles and minor solar storms. But the largest solar flares, called x-class events, can disrupt global events radio signals and cause stronger, longer-lasting solar storms.

In March 1989, one of the largest CME on record, caused a geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere that crippled the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada; that was an X15 class flare. 

Solar Flares seem like Earth’s worst nightmare, especially for a civilisation that thrives and depends on Electricity. They do have a silver lining, rather, a spectrum of green and pink- Auroras. They are created as charged particles from the sun slam into our atmosphere and cause atoms in the air to glow with vibrant colors. The best, most intense auroras appear when Earth is subjected to an onslaught from a solar flare.

The Northern Lights: Frequently Asked Questions | Hurtigruten

The images of the beautiful Aurora gives me a little peace of mind as I drift across the universe, not knowing where I’m headed. 

Transmission: Message In a Bottle

Received by Varsha and Samshrita

Fred Hoyle: The Man Who Proved We’re Made of Stardust

“The cosmos is within us. We are all made of star-stuff”

Carl Sagan

Romantic as it is, Sagan’s poetic words aren’t all that unsubstantiated. The 1957 paper titled “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars” by a certain Caltech and Cambridge group, more commonly known in academia as the B2FH paper (named after the initials of the authors of the paper), verified that stellar nucleosynthesis was the reason why elements like Carbon, Iron, Platinum, Gold and the rest exist. In this blog post, I’ll give you a brief introduction to the H in B2FH, the controversial English astronomer, Fred Hoyle.

Sir Fred Hoyle was born in a place called Bingley in Gilstead village in Yorkshire County to musicians. Educated in mathematics at Emmanuel College at Cambridge University, he quickly became a distinguished student, winning the Mayhew Prize in applied mathematics. During Britain’s war efforts, he researched RADAR technology for the Admiralty and was also put in charge of countermeasures against the German radar-guided guns mounted on the Graf Spee cruiser warship.

During his time at the Admiralty, he engaged in several conversations about astronomy and astrophysics with his colleagues Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold. With the money accrued from the radar research, Hoyle travelled across the pond to the US, where he was involved with more astronomers during his sabbatical at Caltech.

At Caltech, he worked with a group which was working on stellar carbon production, which happened to be the genesis of the ‘Stellar Nucleosynthesis’ theory. After months of experimentation with the carbon-12 atom, they finally developed a full theory on Nucleosynthesis and published their results in 1957. Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler and Hoyle had their names cemented in scientific history.

He was a proponent of several universally rejected theories on a variety of topics, most famously his opposition to Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre’s “Big Bang” theory (Rather ironically, Hoyle himself coined the term in a pejorative sense in a BBC interview) claiming that it was “irrational and unscientific, necessitating a creator”, whilst supporting the ‘Steady State’ theory, which asserts that matter is continuously created to keep the density of the universe constant to adhere to the Perfect Cosmological Principle. He even worked on a theory with his student, the Indian astronomer Jayant V Narlikar in the 1960s called Hoyle-Narlikar theory to support the steady-state model of the universe. The Steady-State Model was rife with inaccuracies since the accidental landmark discovery of the  Cosmic Microwave Background by Penzias and Wilson.

Success did follow suit for Hoyle as he held many prestigious positions, gave distinguished lectures, and also received many awards and honours including a knighthood in 1973. Authoring twelve books in his lifetime, he also wrote many radio-plays, short stories and fiction novels with his son Geoffrey. He was famously deprived of a Nobel Prize for his inflammatory behaviour on radio and television. When Fowler received the Nobel prize in 1983 (along with S Chandrashekar), he credited Hoyle’s efforts into the creation of this theory.

After leading a life being at loggerheads with the scientific opinion while also being a lasting influence on science, Hoyle retired into the coastal town of Bournemouth, England where he finally passed away in 2001.

Samarth Prabhu

The Spitzer Legacy

Study of the universe, in all its majesty and wonders, has been one of the most fascinating areas of science for us humans, dating back to cavemen. Finding out more about the universe and understanding its origins has transformed from an unscientific procedure to one of the most scientifically complicated ones. The only way we can find out more about the universe is by using light, the only thing which reaches us from its distant residents. However, the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the light we see, is only a tiny portion of the entire amount of light that we get from the universe. A great wealth of information about the universe comes to us in regions of the spectrum other than visible light. Keeping this in mind, NASA put forward its “Great observatories program”, which is basically four powerful telescopes to be put in space, each of which observes the universe in a different part of the EM spectrum!

The great observatories program consists of the following – The Compton gamma ray observatory, Chandra X-Ray observatory, Hubble Space telescope and the Spitzer Space telescope. Hubble, observes in our visible band of spectrum and the Spitzer, in the Infrared region.

Why infrared?

Infrared telescopes can detect objects too cool (and therefore too faint) to be observed in visible light, such as planets, some nebulae and brown dwarf stars. Also, infrared radiation has longer wavelengths than visible light, which means it can pass through astronomical gas and dust without being scattered. Thus, objects and areas obscured from view in the visible spectrum, including the centre of the Milky Way, can be observed in the infrared.

What is Spitzer?

The Spitzer Space Telescope was formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility. This telescope was launched on 25th August 2003. After more than 16 years studying the universe in infrared light, the mission was put to an end on January 30, 2020. The Spitzer is designed to detect IR radiation in the range of 3 microns and 180 microns. Spitzer’s prime mission ended in 2009, when the telescope ran out of its coolant, and then began to work in the warm phase. Because of no coolant, the detector couldn’t be maintained at the lowest possible temperature.  Among its many contributions, spitzer also studied comets and asteroids in our Solar System, and also discovered an unidentified ring around Saturn! Altogether, Spitzer observed 800,000 celestial targets and churned out more than 36 million raw images as part of its $1.4 billion mission.

Why Spitzer?

The ground based infrared telescopes have a major limitation. The water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs most of the low energy infrared radiation that we get, which is why the ground-based IR telescopes are at very high altitudes or in very dry deserts. Spitzer overcomes this easily as its in space, far from water vapor and also, away from the “thermal noise” of Earth itself.

Spitzer also follows what’s called an “Earth-Trailing orbit”. This means that Spitzer does not orbit the Earth. Instead, it drifts behind the Earth as it orbits the Sun. This is to further shield Spitzer from the ambient heat produced by the Earth itself. Spitzer, thus slowly drifts away from Earth at the rate of around 16,000,000 km per year.

The combined features of being a space IR telescope, being in deep space and having an Earth trailing orbit to shield it from ambient heat of Earth, means that despite being a small unit (only 0.85 m diameter mirror), Spitzer is far more powerful than any current IR telescope.

The findings of Spitzer

Spitzer has produced voluminous amounts of data, with new discoveries still being made by the analysis of the data generated. Some of the most notable discoveries made by the Spitzer telescope are :-

Discovery of a new ring around Saturn: – The Spitzer unveiled an entirely new ring around Saturn, one larger than any currently observed ring around the planet. This new ring is comprised of thin tenuous dust and ice particles. Because they are tiny and cool, they emit primarily in the infrared region, hence could be easily picked up by Spitzer. The new belt is at an angle of around 27 degrees from the main ring plane and extends outwards for roughly another 12 million kilometers. If this ring were visible in optical range, like the other rings, it could be distinguished by the naked eye from here on Earth!

The Trappist Exo-Planet system. : – Thanks to data from Spitzer and ground based telescopes, four more exo-planets were discovered around the cool red dwarf star Trappist-1. The interesting thing about them is they are all Earth sized and thus, caused quite a hype after their discovery, with three of these planets potentially around the Goldilocks zone of the star. Because the star itself is a dim red dwarf, usual methods of detection of exoplanets could not work and infrared telescopes did the job.

Hidden cradles of newborn stars: – Otherwise obscured by thick clouds of interstellar gas, Spitzer could easily peek through this and discover new areas of star formation, especially in the “Rho-Ophiuchi” dark cloud, one of the closest to our solar system.

Exoplanet weather map: – Spitzer using its infrared vision could map out the weather in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The study revealed roaring winds in the planet’s atmosphere and for the first time, gave an insight into the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

What next?

The Spitzer mission has come to an end, providing us with a plethora of information, but its successor is already waiting to be launched. The James Webb Space Telescope, is a successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. Webb is about 1000 times more powerful than Spitzer and will be able to push Spitzer’s science findings to new frontiers, from identifying chemicals in the atmosphere of exoplanets, to discovering the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.

Rakshith Rao