Chinese space probe detects possible dark matter signal

The uncertainty of science: A Chinese space probe designed to measure cosmic rays has detected a pattern that could be evidence of the existence of dark matter.

Researchers launched the spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, about 1600 kilometers west of Beijing, in December 2015. Its primary instrument—a stack of thin, crisscrossed detector strips—is tuned to observe the incoming direction, energy, and electric charge of the particles that make up cosmic rays, particularly electrons and positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons. Cosmic rays emanate from conventional astrophysical objects, like exploding supernovae in the galaxy. But if dark matter consists of WIMPs, these would occasionally annihilate each other and create electron-positron pairs, which might be detected as an excess over the expected abundance of particles from conventional objects.

In its first 530 days of scientific observations, DAMPE detected 1.5 million cosmic ray electrons and positrons above a certain energy threshold. When researchers plot of the number of particles against their energy, they’d expect to see a smooth curve. But previous experiments have hinted at an anomalous break in the curve. Now, DAMPE has confirmed that deviation. “It may be evidence of dark matter,” but the break in the curve “may be from some other cosmic ray source,” says astrophysicist Chang Jin, who leads the collaboration at the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS’s) Purple Mountain Observatory (PMO) in Nanjing. [emphasis mine]

I must emphasize the large uncertainty here. They have not detected dark matter. Not even close. What they have detected is a pattern in how the spacecraft is detecting cosmic rays that was predicted by the existence of dark matter. That pattern however could have other causes, and the consistent failure of other efforts to directly find dark matter strengthens the possibility that this break is caused by those other causes.

Physicists using cosmic rays find hidden void inside the Great Pyramid

Physicists using cosmic rays detectors have located what appears to be an empty space inside the Great Pyramid in Egypt that has never been entered.

To see through the Great Pyramid, the researchers used a technique developed in high-energy particle physics: they tracked particles called muons, which are produced when cosmic rays strike atoms in the upper atmosphere. Around 10,000 muons rain down on each square metre of Earth’s surface every minute. Sensitive muon detectors have been developed for use in particle accelerators, but they have also been used in the past decade or so to determine the inner structures of volcanoes and to study the damaged nuclear reactor at Fukushima, Japan.

In December 2015, physicist Kunihiro Morishima of Nagoya University, Japan, and his colleagues placed a series of detectors inside the Queen’s chamber, where they would detect muons passing through the pyramid from above. The particles are partially absorbed by stone, so any large holes in the pyramid would result in more muons than expected hitting the detectors.

After several months, “we had an unexpected line”, says Tayoubi. To check the result, two other teams of physicists, from the Japanese High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commision in Paris, then used different types of muon detector placed in other locations both inside and outside the pyramid. All three teams observed a large, unexpected void in the same location above the Grand Gallery. …The space is at least 30 metres long, with a similar cross section to the Grand Gallery. “It was a big surprise,” says Tayoubi. “We’re really excited.”

It is unclear how or even if they will access this void. Right now its purpose remains a mystery, including whether it contains any artifacts.

Cosmic rays a threat to Mars travel

The uncertainty of science: New research using rats has found that cosmic rays might damage human brains during a long mission to and from Mars.

Radiation oncologist Charles Limoli and his colleagues at the University of California Irvine bombarded mice and rats with low-doses of ionized oxygen or titanium. These charged particles have similar energies to those of cosmic rays that can pass right through the shielding on spacecraft. The dosage levels that the researchers used were similar to what astronauts would be exposed to during a three-year round-trip mission to Mars, Limoli says.

The researchers looked at the prefrontal cortex, the brain region linked to decision-making, executive function, and long-term memory. They saw significant damage and inflammation in the brains of exposed animals as long as six months after the exposure. The radiation damaged the tiny branches on neurons that help transmit electric signals to the nerve cell body. This led to a loss in learning and memory. The exposed animals performed poorly on behavioral tests that measure intelligence, and they showed higher, constant anxiety levels.

Though the uncertainties here are enormous, the research here has essentially discovered the obvious. The radiation experienced during a long interplanetary voyage is unhealthy, and any interplanetary vessel for carrying humans on such a voyage must be designed with sufficient shielding to protect its passengers. That this research has proven that cosmic rays are a threat also means that providing a ship with a safe room where passengers can take refuge during solar storms is not sufficient. Cosmic rays are random and come at all times in an unpredictable manner. The research suggests that the shielding will have to protect the ship’s entire living quarters.

The payload weight requirements for any rocket that will launch the first interplanetary ships just went up significantly. This means that space stations we have been building (Mir, ISS, and Tiangong) are not even close to sufficient for interplanetary travel, and need significant redesign to make them work. This also means that human interplanetary travel will require cost-efficient heavy lift rockets such as the Falcon Heavy.

Solar minimum to limit interplanetary manned flights?

A new study suggests that the increased cosmic radiation reaching the inner solar system because of the Sun’s weak sunspot activity will increase the exposure to dangerous radiation levels for interplanetary astronauts, thus limiting mission lengths to about one year.

The new research finds that, during periods of low solar activity, a 30-year-old astronaut can spend roughly one year in space—just enough time to get to Mars and back—before the constant bombardment by cosmic rays pushes the risk of radiation-induced cancer above current exposure limits.

If the sun’s activity continues to weaken as many scientists predict, the number of days humans could spend in deep space before reaching their exposure limit could decrease by about 20 percent, making future crewed space flight more dangerous, according to the new study accepted for publication in Space Weather, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The numbers were worse for women, whose exposure would become dangerous in only 300 days, according to the study.

A source for the most powerful cosmic rays?

Astronomers think they have discovered a region in the sky, within or near the Milky Way, which might be the source of the most energetic cosmic rays

Nobody knows how ultra–high-energy cosmic rays—mainly protons or heavier atomic nuclei—acquire energies millions of times higher than have been achieved with humanmade particle accelerators. (Physicists dubbed one of the first ones observed the “Oh-My-God particle.”) Lower energy cosmic rays are thought to spring from the lingering remnants of stellar explosions called supernovas. But such clouds are far too small to produce the highest energy cosmic rays. Instead, theorists generally expect that the most energetic cosmic rays rev up over millions of years in unidentified accelerators the size of galaxies.

The Telescope Array aims to help solve that mystery. When a high-energy cosmic array strikes the atmosphere, it disappears in an avalanche of lower energy particles. Those particles trigger the detectors in the array, enabling researchers to deduce the direction and energy of the original cosmic ray. From 2008 to 2013, researchers spotted 72 cosmic rays with energies above 57 exaelectron volts—15 million times the highest energy achieved with a particle accelerator. And 19 of them appear to cluster in a hotspot in the sky about 20° in radius, as Hiroyuki Sagawa, a co-representative for the Telescope Array team from the University of Tokyo, reported today in a press conference at the university. [emphasis mine]

The low number of detections, 19 out of 72 total, that seem to come from this wide 20 degree region, suggests that this report falls most certainly under the heading of “the uncertainty of science.” I would not be surprised at all if this conclusion does not stand up after further research.

Nonetheless, the article is worth reading because it outlines nicely this astronomical mystery. Something out there accelerates these particles to these high energies, and astronomers do not yet know what that something is.

A new study suggests that the variation of the cosmic ray flux during the solar cycle has little influence on the climate.

The uncertainty of science: A new study suggests that the variation of the cosmic ray flux during the solar cycle has little influence on the climate.

The study seems statistical in nature, which leaves me skeptical. Nonetheless, the link between cosmic rays and climate change remains tenuous, with only one study at CERN providing any evidence that cosmic rays might have an influence.

New data from a neutrino telescope in Antarctica had found that cosmic rays don’t come from gamma ray bursts, as had been believed by astronomers.

The uncertainty of science: New data from a neutrino telescope in Antarctica has found that cosmic rays don’t come from gamma ray bursts, as had been believed by astronomers. You can read the paper here. [pdf]

Which means that astronomers at this moment have no idea what produces these high energy cosmic rays.

If there is water ice on the Moon, scientists have found that the bombardment from interstellar cosmic rays has likely caused chemical reactions that “can create complex carbon chains similar to those that help form the foundations of biological structures.”

Life stranger than science fiction: If there is water ice on the Moon, scientists have found that the bombardment from interstellar cosmic rays has likely caused chemical reactions that “can create complex carbon chains similar to those that help form the foundations of biological structures.”

The sun, climate change, and censorship

The chief of CERN has prohibited its scientists from drawing any conclusions from a major experiment that appears to prove that solar activity and the resulting ebb and flow of cosmic rays has a direct effect on the climate.

Two points:

First, the results described provide strong evidence that the sun is a much more important component in climate change than any climate model has previously predicted. These results could help explain the Little Ice Age, which took place around 1700 at exactly the same time the sun became very quiet and stopped producing sunspots for decades. They could explain the Medieval Warm Period around 1000 AD, when cosmic ray activity declined (which also suggests the sun become more active) and the earth apparently warmed. And they might very well even explain the recent cooling during the past decade, which also took place during a period of solar inactivity and a comparable increase in cosmic ray activity.
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