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Tag archives: discovery

Hubble – one million and going strong

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By Tushna Commissariat

I have already raved on about the awesomeness of the Hubble Space Telescope in my blog entry about its 21st anniversary in April this year. Now, the telescope has crossed yet another milestone – on Monday 4 July the Earth-orbiting observatory logged its one-millionth science observation! The image above is a composite of all the various celestial objects ranging through stars, clusters, galaxies, nebulae, planets, etc that Hubble has catalogued over the years. Click on the image for a hi-res version. [Credit: NASA, ESA and R Thompson (CSC/STScI)]

The telescope has had a significant impact on all fields of science from planetary science to cosmology and has provided generations with breathtaking images of our universe ever since it was launched on 24 April 1990 aboard Discovery’s STS-31 mission.

Hubble’s counter reading includes every observation of astronomical targets since its launch. The millionth observation made by Hubble was during a search for water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet almost 1000 light-years away from us. The telescope had trained its Wide Field Camera 3, a visible and infrared light imager with an on-board spectrometer on the planet HAT-P-7b, a gas giant planet larger than Jupiter orbiting a star hotter than our Sun. HAT-P-7b has also been studied by NASA’s Kepler telescope after it was discovered by ground-based observations. Hubble now is being used to analyse the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

“For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space-science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. He piloted the space shuttle mission that carried Hubble to orbit. “The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a far away planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy.”

Hubble has now collected more than 50 terabytes – the archive of that data is available to scientists and the public at http://hla.stsci.edu/

And take a look at this Physics World article by astrophysicist Mark Voit where he looks at the most iconic images Hubble has produced over the years – Hubble’s greatest hits

The NASA video below was created last year for the 20th Hubble anniversary celebration and tells you how you could send a message to Hubble that will be stored in its archive.

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Much ado about the LHC

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Rolf-Dieter Heuer talking to journalists at the Royal Society, London.
(Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

By Tushna Commissariat

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has had its share of good and bad press over the past few years. Controversy and rumours abounded when the machine was switched on in September 2008. The mood then turned quickly to disappointment when its magnets failed and finally to euphoria when the first beams collided at 7 TeV in March 2010.

This week, a meeting to discuss the LHC and all things related was held at the Royal Society in London. The “Physics at the High Energy Frontier – the Large Hadron Collider Project” meeting took place on 16–17 May and saw leading lights of the project come together to discuss the collider and its future.

I was at the meeting for the second day, when a press briefing was held where CERN director Rolf-Dieter Heuer, plus Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli of the ATLAS and CMS experiments respectively, answered all of the questions that the Higgs-hungry reporters could throw at them!

The three speakers described how the collider has “surpassed all expectations” – experimental and computational. Talking about how the LHC is the very essence of global co-operation, Tonelli stressed that “no country could have done it as a stand-alone”. Heuer boasted that every year about 1000 students get their PhDs thanks to the LHC, while just the ATLAS experiment involves about 3000 researchers.

Explaining how things work at the LHC, Tonelli said, “We [experimental scientists] try to test the theory without prejudice. We ask our friends the theorists to come up with something that we can observe.” The collider has already produced the top quark in Europe for the first time and now it is poised to begin a regime of “new physics”, to look for supersymmetry (SUSY), multiple dimensions, matter–antimatter disparity and, of course, the Higgs boson.

The Higgs…or something else?

“We will have an answer to the Shakespeare question for the Higgs – ‘To be or not to be’ – by the end of 2012” declared a confident Heuer. While he did show a great deal of enthusiasm about discovering the Higgs, Heuer was also keen to point out that not finding the particle would be a great result in itself. “Not finding [the Higgs] when it does not exist is a success,” he exclaimed. “If it does not exist, we need to find something else that takes up the job of the Higgs and gives mass to elementary particles,” he added.

The LHC will run until the end of 2012 without any major breaks and Heuer is confident that it will decide the fate of the Higgs by the end of this run. “Physics will not be the same after 2012.” declared Tonelli. “It will change the view of the world.”

Not amused

One of the first questions, asked by BBC reporter Pallab Ghosh, was about the recent ”leak” of an unconfirmed sighting of the Higgs by ATLAS. A sighting that was later denied by a paper released by the ATLAS team and in interviews with physicists on various media channels.

“Unfortunately we live in a world of WikiLeaks, so it leaked!” said a grinning Gianotti. On a more serious note, she explained that such leaked results have not undergone the scientific scrutiny that is necessary, and hence are almost always insubstantial.

“The CERN management was not amused by the leak” said Heuer. He went on to ask journalists not to believe leaked results in the future. “Don’t trust it on first sight” he said. Although Heuer’s displeasure was clear, the leak did put the LHC back in the public eye after a few quiet months. Also, the media interest did provide the public with a rare insight into the vetting process that all scientific discoveries undergo. So perhaps the CERN management should lighten up and enjoy the renewed interest in the LHC!

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Rolf-Dieter Heuer giving a talk about the future of the LHC at the Royal Society, London. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)

Bumps and jumps

When asked about the Higgs-like ‘bumps’ seen at other experiments like the Tevatron and CERN’s Large Electron Positron Collider (LEP) the panel had mixed replies. The Tevatron bump was dismissed by Gianotti and Tonelli, as they both explained that it was too small, statistically speaking, and was only seen by one of the Tevatron’s two detectors. Would the LHC have a look for the Tevatron signal? “No”, was their reply.

However, “interesting events” seen at 115 GeV by the LEP just before its closure in 2000 are of interest to them. While Heuer did say that it is very difficult to determine if it was anything more than a “hint”, the LHC will be looking for the Higgs at that energy soon.

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Colliding linearly

The International Liner Collider – a possible successor to the LHC – is another project that Heuer is excited about. He feels that CERN, with the LEP and now the LHC under its belt, would be the perfect host for the collider. “I think CERN has huge potential, not only on the human side, but on its experience side. We have all the instruments. So I see CERN in a very good position.” he said.

But what about the money? “If you have an excellent science case, you will get the money. Don’t ask for the money until you have the science figured out.” he said. He pointed out that, compared to the US, in Europe the politics of funding are more stable and for that reason CERN would be a better host.

Right: prototype microwave cavity for the ILC, illuminated for a “Science Night” in Hamburg. (Courtesy: DESY)

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