With advancements in the simulated and real domain, discoveries are knocking at our doors every day. And when it comes to new developments in physics and astronomy, August 2021 has been quite a happening month. From figuring out the origin of a 66 million years old asteroid impact to giving a new dimension to the E=mc2 equation, here’s a list of some of the most exciting discoveries that took place in August 2021.

August 2021: Top achievements and discoveries in space and physics

Mercury is no longer the closest orbiting object around the Sun

As per the new observations, Mercury is no longer the closest orbiting object around the Instead, astronomers have spotted a new object that is currently making rounds to be the fastest orbiting asteroid in the solar system. Designated as 2021 PH27, it completes one orbit around the Sun in just 113 Earth days. It is the shortest orbital period of any rock in our solar system after Mercury, which takes only about 88 days to loop around the Sun.

Origin of the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid, Matter from Pure Energy, and Other Scientific Achievements in August. 1
Planet Mercury

This asteroid is 1 Km wide and is following an elliptical path. During its closest approach, this asteroid zooms past the Sun from a distance of 20 million km, which is more than twice as close as Mercury’s closest approach to the Sun. The rock was first spotted by Scott S. Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution of Science on August 13, 2031. He used the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on top of the Víctor M. Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. After two days, Chile and South Africa researchers canceled their scheduled projects to carry out additional observations to confirm this asteroid’s orbit.

It is expected that 2021 PH27 probably originated in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The gravitational interactions with the inner planets pulled it closer to the sun over the years. Understanding the population of asteroids interior to Earth’s orbit is important to complete the census of asteroids near Earth. The asteroid will soon move behind the Sun and will be visible again by next year only. Further observations are expected to put more light on this asteroid’s origin and related questions.

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ATLAS was probably a visitor from the stone age

In mid-2020, comet ATLAS mysteriously disintegrated into a cascade of small icy pieces, which led to the comet’s untimely demise. The new studies have shown that ATLAS was probably a broken-off piece of an ancient comet that swept within 23 million miles of the Sun about 5000 years ago.

Origin of the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid, Matter from Pure Energy, and Other Scientific Achievements in August. 2
The disintegration of Comet ATLAS | Image: ESA

ATLAS was discovered on December 28, 2019, by a reflecting telescope atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii. At the time of its discovery, ATLAS was about 3 AU from the Sun. Surprisingly, ATLAS followed the same orbital track as was followed by a comet seen in 1844. This showed that the two comets were probably siblings from a parent comet that broke apart many centuries earlier.

Since ATLAS disintegrated way too soon as compared to its hypothetical parent comet, it has been concluded that one fragment of ATLAS probably disintegrated in a matter of days. At the same time, another piece lasted for weeks which means that one part of the nucleus was stronger than the other part. Another possibility is that the streamers of ejected material could have spun up the comet so fast that the centrifugal forces had torn it apart.

ATLAS is one of the most interesting comets discovered so far. The first comet from the long-period family was seen breaking up before passing closer to the Sun. Further research is expected to provide a deeper peep inside ATLAS’s origin.

The origin of the dinosaur-killing asteroid

About 66 million years ago, a 6-mile-wide (9.6 kilometers) object from space slammed into Earth. The place of impact was close to a town now called Chicxulub. The impact triggered a chain of cataclysmic events that wiped out nearly 75% of life on the planet and specifically led to the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. With progress, questions about the origin and frequency of similar impactors have always been pondered upon. Recently, researchers decided to look for the hidden siblings of the Chicxulub impactor with NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer.

Researchers used computer models to track how objects escape the main asteroid belt, located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The team tracked the trajectories of 130,000 simulated asteroids in the belt. It was found that over the course of hundreds of millions of years, thermal forces allow these objects to drift into dynamical escape hatches, which allows the gravitational influence of other planets to push them into orbits that pass near the Earth.

August 2021
This artist’s depiction of the nearly 125-mile-wide Chicxulub crater site  | Image: DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/SCIENCE SOURCE

Surprisingly, the simulations revealed that 10-km-wide asteroids from this region strike the Earth at least 10 times more often than previously calculated. This hints at the possibility that the tragic asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was a relatively rare large object that came from the outer region of the asteroid belt.

This is the first time that researchers have reproduced the orbits of large asteroids on the verge of approaching Earth. The explanation has been found to fit in beautifully with what is already known about the evolution of asteroids. Moreover, this kind of gravitational escape has been modeled to occur around once every 250 million years.

Matter created from pure energy

In 1905, Albert Einstein claimed that mass and energy are the same things. He came up with his revolutionary equation of E=mc2, which changed the existing perception of the universe. Every day, we see an ample number of examples of mass getting converted into energy. However, for the first time, the reverse process has also been observed. In a stunning demonstration at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, physicists have claimed to have created matter from pure energy.

Origin of the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid, Matter from Pure Energy, and Other Scientific Achievements in August. 3
The STAR detector that detected the matter-antimatter pairs created by the colliding light | Image: Brookhaven National Laboratory

According to the Breit–Wheeler process, a collision between two sufficiently energetic photons should create matter in the form of a particle and its antiparticle. This process was first described by American physicists Gregory Breit and John Wheeler in 1934. However, due to the laboratory constraints on the energy of photons, it has been one of the most difficult processes to have been demonstrated experimentally.

This time, the researchers made use of accelerating heavy ions instead of high-energy photons. The researchers sped up two positively charged ions in a big loop and sent them past each other in a near collision. The charged particles moving very close to the speed of light have an electromagnetic field associated with them. Inside of this electromagnetic field, there lies many not-so-real but ‘virtual’ photons that travel with the ion like a cloud.

Virtual particles pop into existence only briefly as long as the disturbances in the fields exist between real particles. They don’t have the same masses as their real counterparts. So unlike the real photons that have no rest mass, virtual photons do have a mass. In the experiment, as the ions zipped past each other in a near-miss, their clouds of virtual photons moved so fast that they acted as if they were real. Eventually, the real-acting virtual particles collided and produced a much-real electron-positron pair.

For this demonstration to be a true observation of the Breit-Wheeler process, physicists had to make sure that their virtual photons behaved like the real ones. So to check the credibility of the virtual photons’ behavior,  physicists detected and analyzed the angles between more than 6,000 electron-positron pairs produced by their experiment and found them to be consistent with theory calculations that were expected to happen with real photons.

This marks the first successful demonstration of the Breit-Wheeler process after decades of its proposed existence. However, the use of virtual photons has raised some questions of whether this experiment was a true demonstration of the Breit-Wheeler process or not! Still, it is an important first step until we have powerful lasers to demonstrate the process with real photons.

The interior of Mars revealed!

Using the data obtained from SIES (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) aboard the Mars InSight mission, researchers have made new findings regarding the thickness and structure of the Martian crust, the upper mantle structure, and its molten core.

Like other rocky planets, Mars formed from the protoplanetary disc composed of dust and meteoric material leftover from the formation of the Sun. The material coalesced to form a giant ball of molten silicate minerals, metals, and other elements. Over the years, the planet cooled and differentiated into three distinct layers: the crust, mantle, and core. The lighter silicate elements settled near the top, while the heavier elements like iron and nickel settled in the core. 

Origin of the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid, Matter from Pure Energy, and Other Scientific Achievements in August. 4
Mar’s inner core | Image: NASA

Since its journey started on Mars, SEIS has recorded 733 distinct marsquakes. Out of these, 35 marsquakes of magnitudes between 3.0 and 4.0 have contributed to reporting the new studies. It has been concluded that Mars’ crust is thinner than expected. It might have two or three sub-layers to it. Moreover, the new study has also confirmed the theory that the planet’s inner core is molten.

The new findings are expected to provide valuable information on how Mars lost its magnetosphere roughly 4.2 billion years ago. It might also shed some light on how a warmer and wetter planet transited to the icy and arid world today. Last but not least, it will also assist astrobiologists in putting constraints on the potential habitability of exoplanets.

The music from Saturn’s rings shed new light on the planet’s core

In 2013, Cassini detected spiral waves rippling through Saturn’s inner rings. The data from the mission revealed that Saturn’s innermost ring, the D-ring, ripples, and swirls in ways that cannot be completely explained by the gravitational influences of the planet’s moons. Since then, scientists have been studying these ripples in detail, and now, researchers have decoded these ripples and have drawn some exciting conclusions about the planet’s core.

Observations have revealed the Saturn’s core is colossal and makes up 60 percent of the planet’s radius, and is even 55 times the mass of Earth. Moreover, unlike the solid clump of metallic, rocky, or icy matter found within other worlds, Saturn’s core is an amalgamation of rocks and ices mingled with a fluid metallic form of hydrogen.

These findings have challenged some of the established models of the formation of gas giants, according to which the rocky cores of gas giants formed first and then attracted large envelopes of gas. However, as per the recent study, the cores of these planets appear to be fuzzy, which means that the planets incorporated gas earlier in the process.

The findings are expected to bring researchers closer to understanding the birth of gas giants.

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Kamal Parekh
Kamal Parekh

Awesome and All the very best! Make India Proud

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