Scientific Discoveries April 2021

April 2021: Most Exciting Discoveries and Achievements In Space and Physics.

April 2021 has been quite a happening month in context to advancements and discoveries in science. From flying a helicopter on Mars for the first time to probably discovering a particle disobeying the existing laws of physics, April offered a lot to those curious about the secrets of our Universe. Here are some of the top-notch discoveries that treated us last month!

New Horizon reached 50 AU away from Sun

Last week, NASA revealed that its New Horizons spacecraft had reached 50 astronomical units (AU) away from the Sun. The New Horizons is now almost 5 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) away from us, and at this distance, even the radio signals traveling at the speed of light would take 7 hours to reach the craft.

To celebrate this achievement, New Horizon beamed back an amazing picture showing Voyager 1. Although the craft couldn’t be seen clearly in the picture, the place where Voyager 1 is right now was clearly pointed. With this, the spacecraft has become the fifth one to have reached this distance, following the legendary Voyager 1 and 2 and their predecessors, Pioneers 10 and 11.

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The position of yellow circle is marked here with yellow circle (Image: Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute )

New Horizons was the first spacecraft to study Pluto and its moons. Throughout its journey so far, it has made numerous remarkable discoveries. Even now, it is fully operational and is expected to continue gathering data about Uranus and Neptune, along with characterizing the Kuiper Belt environment during its extended voyage. New Horizons will cross the boundary of the Kuiper belt in the late 2020s and will reach out 100AU from Sun in the 2030s.

Hellish gases found on Io

With more than 400 active volcanoes erupting out hot lava every other second, Io is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. It is not only the fourth-largest moon in our Solar System but also the only one to flaunt volcanoes like Earth.

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A volcanic explosion captured on Io by the New Horizon Spacecraft ( Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona )

The thin atmosphere of Io is known to consist of various volatile substances primarily. These include sulfur dioxide, sulfur monoxide, sodium chloride, etc., along with traces of water. Io’s yellow-white-orange-red hue is due to the presence of sulfur dioxide-frost and other allotropes of sulfur on its surface.

However, in a recent observation made by ALMA, researchers have identified three new volcanic gases raging in Io’s atmosphere. The newly identified substances are acetone, disulfur monoxide, and carbon monoxide. Astronomers analyzed the high-resolution interferometric data gathered by ALMA and identified the emission lines from these new additions.

Disulfur monoxide is responsible for the red feature usually observed in Io’s volcanoes and is expected to have been formed by the decomposition of sulfur monoxide by the disproportionation method. In this decomposition method, the substance undergoes a redox reaction to form two compounds: one of higher and another of lower oxidation states.

On the other hand, the carbon monoxide gas is probably a result of the decomposition of acetone after its interaction with light. Although the formation mechanism of acetone in Io’s volcanic atmosphere is still a mystery, its spectroscopic detection has hinted at the presence of many methane compounds in Io’s atmosphere. Researchers have speculated that the levels of volatile acetone and carbon monoxide are probably rising in the Loki hot spot, which is Io’s most active volcanic site.

To predict the chemical formation mechanism of these gases in a better way, scientists are now aiming for a more comprehensive study of the rotational lines of these gases. A detailed study of Io’s atmosphere is expected to reveal a lot about the moon’s volcanic activity and contribute to making significant discoveries about the moon’s interior.

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Cepheus Spur – Our galaxy’s time bomb

When it came to scientific discoveries in April, even Milky Way didn’t shy away from surprising us. Data from ESA’s Gaia spacecraft has revealed an entirely new region of the Milky way, filled with broiling hot, bright-blue stars that are about to explode.

Astronomers created the most detailed map yet of Milky Way’s spiral arms using the data provided by the Gaia telescope. Interestingly, this map revealed an entirely new region of the Milky Way, which has now been dubbed as the Cepheus Spur. The Cepheus Spur lies between the constellation Perseus and the region of Orion Arm where our solar system. In simple words, the Spur is basically a belt between two spiral arms of the Milky way home to OB stars. You might be wondering that what are OB stars?

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Map of Milky Way ( Image: ESA)

Well, based on their spectrum, all the stars in the observable universe can be classified into 7 broad classes: O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Amongst these classes, the O type stars are the hottest ones having an effective surface temperature of more than 30,000 K, while M type stars can have as low temperatures as 2500K. The OB associations basically include stars of spectral types O and B.

They have a blueish hue and have an absolute luminosity about 100,000 times that of the Sun. The OB stars are among the hottest in the known stellar classification system. In a Galaxy of 400 billion stars, there might be only less than 200,000 OB type stars. This puts these stars on the list of the rarest types of stars found in our universe.

Astronomers observed these stars from different perspectives and compared their apparent positions. Using this technique, the distance to the stars was calculated. And to their surprise, the distance revealed them to be present at those areas of space, which were previously thought to be empty.

Furthermore, the constant motion of the Spur in the same direction has made another revelation. Scientists have proved that this region is not just a random alignment of stars; rather, it was a part of the Milky Way’s spiral galactic disk and is suspected of pointing to a history of violent evolution for the Milky Way and its collision with other galaxies. A better understanding of the Spur is expected to provide some exciting hints about the Milky Way’s past and can contribute to some major discoveries in the future.

Raindrops on different planets are almost alike

The life cycle of clouds plays an important role in determining a planet’s ability to support life. However, the cloud and precipitation patterns are quite complex to model. This makes it important to look for simpler ways to understand their evolution easily. Since a raindrop is a vital component of every precipitation cycle, a better understanding of a raindrop’s behavior can help extract great information about a complex climate model.

In similar research at Harvard, researchers have made another amazing revelation that has made it to a list of important discoveries made last month. Scientists have figured out the behavior of raindrops on different planets. They have revealed that these drops are remarkably similar across different planetary environments, whether they are rocky planets like earth or drastically different gas giants like Jupiter.

Three properties help determine a goldilocks’ zone: a drop’s shape, falling speed, and evaporation speed. A drop’s shape doesn’t depend upon its material, but it definitely depends on how heavy the drop is. Traditionally, we picture a raindrop as tear-shaped. However, raindrops are actually spherical when small and become squashed as they grow larger and eventually transit into a shape like the top of a hamburger bun.

The drop’s falling speed further depends on this shape, the planet’s gravity, and the atmosphere’s density. However, the evaporation speed is more complicated and depends on many other factors like atmospheric composition, pressure, temperature, relative humidity, etc. All these factors together decide whether a drop will make it to the surface of a planet or not. For instance, an extensively larger drop will break apart due to insufficient surface tension, while an extremely tiny drop will evaporate before hitting the surface.

After analyzing all the factors across varying planetary conditions, it has been concluded that only a small fraction of the possible drop sizes in a cloud can reach the surface. Since a raindrop’s behavior is an essential aspect for climate modelers, this study on raindrops is expected to reveal a lot about the ancient climate on planets like Mars.

It will also help identify potentially habitable planets outside our solar system, along with helping in gaining a deeper understanding of Earth’s climate.

Muon g-2 Experiment hinted at presence of unknown particles disobeying laws of physics

Muons are leptons or the cousins of electrons about 200 times heavier than electrons and are highly unstable. They possess a mean lifetime of 2 microseconds, and because of their negative charge and quantum mechanical spin, they possess a magnetic moment. So, when they pass through a magnetic field, they wobble.

Twenty years ago, scientists at Brookhaven National Lab in the US measured the magnetic moment of muons and found it quite different from the theoretical value. Over the years, the precision in theoretical values of magnetic momentum has greatly improved. Now, physicists at Fermilab have repeated the experiment with greater precision and have found that something is wrong with our current understanding of the quantum world.

The centerpiece of the experiment is a 50-foot-diameter superconducting magnetic storage ring, which sits in its detector hall amidst electronics racks, the muon beamline, and other equipment. This impressive experiment is expected to many exciting discoveries. (Image courtesy: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab)
The centerpiece of the experiment is a 50-foot-diameter superconducting magnetic storage ring, which sits in its detector hall amidst electronics racks, the muon beamline, and other equipment. This impressive experiment is expected to many exciting discoveries. (Image courtesy: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab)

In the experiment, a beam of muons enters a magnetic ring where it decays into other particles captured by the detector. To calculate the magnetic moment, scientists measured the energy of the particles captured by the detector, and the calculated value again came out to be different from the theoretical value.

There’s still a probability of 1 in 40,000 that this is a statistical fluke. However, if this is true, then muon is actually creating particles that cannot be explained by the Standard Model of Particle physics and hence are beyond our current understanding of the particle world. Probably, some new physics might be knocking at our doors!

MOXIE creates oxygen on Mars

Since its landing on the red planet on February 18, 2021, the Mars Perseverance rover has made several headlines. However, the buzz is not over yet as Perseverance has recently made a new achievement by creating artificial oxygen on Mars.

Oxygen is one of the most required elements for various biological and technological processes. For instance, if a rocket is used to transport four astronauts to Mars on a future mission, it would require approximately 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. Moreover, the astronauts living and working on Mars would also require oxygen to breathe. The astronauts who would spend a year on the surface would probably consume one metric ton of oxygen.

However, hauling 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be an extensively consuming and difficult task; thereby, having a technology to produce oxygen on Mars would be far more economical and practical. With this aim,  Perseverance carried with it a toaster-sized experimental instrument to Mars called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). As per the recent news, the experiment has been quite successful.

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MOXIE while being put into Perseverance’s belly ( Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

MOXIE separated oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules which occupy almost 96% of the Martian atmosphere. The conversion took place at a soaring temperature of approximately 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius), and carbon monoxide, which was released as a byproduct of the reaction, was emitted into the Martian atmosphere.

 MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour. In its first operation, MOXIE produced about 5 grams of oxygen, equivalent to about 10 minutes worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. Although it’s only a technological demonstration as of now, it would pave the way for science fiction to become a reality one day.

Ingenuity enjoyed its first flight on the Red Planet

In another advent of news about our neared neighbor Mars, Ingenuity has finally begun its flying journey on the red planet. Ingenuity was scheduled to have its first flight on April 11, 2021. However, during the preflight checks with its software, NASA encountered a command-sequence issue with Ingenuity’s watchdog timer. The chopper failed to transit into flight mode as required by the test, which delayed its first flight.

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Artistic representation of Ingenuity enjoying a flight on Mars (Image: NASA)

On April 16, the issue got resolved, and Ingenuity completed its rapid spin test, and eventually, Ingenuity enjoyed its first successful autonomous flight at 6:46 a.m (EDT) on April 19, 2021. Ingenuity rose from the red floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater to get a maximum of 10 feet (3 meters) above the red dirt and landed smoothly after roughly 40 seconds. In its first photo taken by Ingenuity, it captured its shadow on the Martian surface below.

Following this success, Ingenuity has taken a total of four flights so far, with each one being more challenging than the previous one. Even the microphones onboard Perseverance attempted to record sounds produced by Ingenuity while flying during its fourth flight.

X- Rays got detected on Uranus for the first time ever

In another astronomical discovery of the month, scientists have detected x-rays being emitted by Uranus. This is the first time that astronomers have detected x-rays from the planet.

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Uranus, as captured by Voyager 2 on January 14th 1986 from a distance of approximately 7.8 milllion miles ( 12.7 million km ) (Image Credit: NASA/JPL)

Uranus is the seventh planet in the solar system lying 3 billion km from Earth, and had only been visited by Voyager 2 so far. Hence, scientists rely on telescopic observations to study this world far away. In this study, researchers used Chandra data from 2002 and 2017. They found x-rays from the first observation and a flare of x-ray in the second one. While looking for the reasons behind these X-Rays, scientists have mainly figured out two possible sources.

One possibility is that the rings of Uranus are themselves producing x-rays. Since Uranus is surrounded by charged particles such as electrons and protons, their collision with the rings could be a possible source of x-rays. Another possibility hints that the source of these x-rays could actually be the auroras of Uranus, similar to what happens on Earth.

However, scientists are less certain about what causes auroras on Uranus. The study will help scientists better understand how exotic objects such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes emit x-rays.

After all these tantalizing revelations, we are quite excited about what next month holds for us in the arena of exciting scientific discoveries! Are you?

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