The M-cube phenomenon

‘The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.’

                                                                                                                                                            – Carl Sagan

I make it a point to begin or end my articles with a quote. Not just any quote, but something that makes me read it twice.

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A hundred years ago, Baron Munchausen landed on Mars. In his adventures the legendary and unfortunately fictional character had gone deep underwater. Not surprisingly, he meets a Martian in his fable. But what is the Martian’s countenance? Bug-eyed with elf like ears? Blue eyes sans nose? Is it after all human-like? These questions plague us till date. It has been a hundred years and after thousands of hours of research, innovation and relentless pursuit we have finally reached the culmination (or, have we?) of engendering a Manned Mission to Mars.

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A few months ago, some sharp-eyed observers of images from the Curiosity rover were convinced that they’d spotted a mouse on the planet’s surface. As Redditors poured over the grainy, zoomed-in photo, they were unknowingly participating in a long history of humans’ speculation of the Martian life—either through science or fiction. And the key element to this mission is the Orion spacecraft – named after the easily spotted and majestic constellation (now you can guess why there is an Orion at NIT Trichy).

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Orion is the first spacecraft ever built in the history of mankind which would take us earthlings, and along with us the entire mankind a step closer to discovering the unheard secrets of our Universe by taking us farther than we have ever dared to embark upon. Carried aloft by the tremendous power of a Space Launch System rocket, our explorers will begin their Journey to Mars from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the spirit of humanity with them to the Red Planet.

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2 days ago NASA successfully fired up its second and final qualification test of the booster in Promontory, Utah. The gravitational pull exerted by Earth, while helpful in most cases, proves to be a nuisance here. To break away from this intense connection, the temperatures inside have to reach a scorching 6000 degree Celsius. This booster is expected to provide 75% of the thrust which is much required. To give you a frame of reference, Sun’s surface temperature is roughly 6000 degree Celsius. This 2 minute test will be providing NASA with enough information to certify the booster with a green check and proceed to the next stage. Isn’t that questionably amazing?

What is the next step you ask? An uncrewed, first of the series of flight tests of Orion of which the first one is scheduled on December 4, 2016. A Thursday. During its 4.5 hour trip, Orion will orbit Earth twice and travel to an altitude of 3,600 miles into space. This is critical. To test how deep the well is you don’t jump inside. You throw a pebble and wait for the faint sound. In this case, nobody knows if the well has even a reachable end.

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This flight will test many elements that pose the greatest risks to astronauts and will provide the data needed to improve the design and minimize future risks.

To give a short glimpse into an insider’s opinion,

“Today’s test is the pinnacle of years of hard work by the NASA team, Orbital ATK and commercial partners across the country,” said John Honeycutt, SLS Program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “SLS hardware is currently in production for every part of the rocket. NASA also is making progress every day on Orion and the ground systems to support a launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We’re on track to launch SLS on its first flight test with Orion and pave the way for a human presence in deep space.”

If everything goes as planned, our species will land on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2030s. These are not just whims, rather goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

Did you know that you, irrespective of your knowledge of space exploration, can be on a crew that travels to Mars not more than a decade from now? Imagine, you will be one among thousands who represent our planet in a place millions of miles away. Does that sound cool? It probably does. However, I’d like to be a harbinger and give you some inside information on life on Mars.

Seeing as how ambitious and evolving we are, it is possible that one day in the foreseeable future we establish a permanent colony on Mars. So, how will a day be like there? The Martian year is twice as long as Earth’s, but visitors would still experience winter and summer seasons thanks to the planet’s tilted axis. Explorers would be treated to some mind-blowing sights, with vast canyons, giant mountains and sand dunes. The Martian air has a permanent veil of dust, giving the daytime sky an orange tinge although sunrise and sunset would be blue. Ice clouds similar to the cirrus clouds we see on Earth complete this otherworldly landscape. But apart from the scenic view, it is no resort beach.

Its atmosphere is very thin (only 1% as massive as our own), there is no liquid water and temperatures are distinctly chilly. On a nice balmy day down near the equator the surface temperature could get a little bit above freezing. The cold, coupled with a lack of oxygen, very low pressures and solar radiation would confine astronauts to their spacecraft or enclosed vehicles, with the occasional Mars-walk in their spacesuits. Since the air density is astonishingly low (1% as that of Earth’s) and also since Mars lacks a strong magnetic field, it cannot deflect harmful radiations. So basically all three necessities for life – food, water and shelter would be a humongous challenge to overcome.

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But hey, you get 40 minutes extra every day. Maybe that compensates for it after all.

The Big Bang Theory (Not the serial)

You know why I love Astronomy and Physics? Astronomy keeps reminding us how insignificant we all are, how insignificant our problems are and how there are things going on which is much greater than us and out of our control, for we are but a tiny speck in the infinite Cosmos.

And Physics takes an effort to explain everything that is happening around us, all the natural phenomena, among which the creation of the universe is one of the most sought after discovery which is stlll in progress.

If you’re an avid lover too, you must definitely check out this blog, maintained by Phil Plait, famously known as the BadAstronomer. You can get up-to-date information served to you in a colloquial manner. Also here is another page to check out, updated with latest information regarding science, astronomy and technology.

 

Nowadays when you say ‘Big bang theory’ you get responses such as ‘Oh I love Sheldon’, ‘Howard is so funny’, ‘Leonerd looks like a nerd’. A theory which explains the origin of our entire species from nothing has been thoroughly overshadowed by a sitcom. Oh, But definitely an enjoyable one.

The Bible explains how we came into existence with a simple answer : God created us. The first line literally starts with ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. That’s an easy way out don’t you think? Fortunately we have had some pretty mind-blowing thinkers such as Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan, Steohen Hawking, Albert Einstein, etc who decided to take the rough path and find out the actual truth instead of building up a facade of lies.

 

The ancient Greeks recognized that it was difficult to imagine what an infinite universe might look like. But they also wondered that if the universe were finite, and you stuck out your hand at the edge, where would your hand go? The Greeks’ two problems with the universe represented a paradox – the universe had to be either finite or infinite, and both alternatives presented problems.

 

Gravity being an adamant puller, anybody would expect the universe to keep shrinking, But Edwin Hubble, an astronomer at Caltech, in 1929 proved that wrong  by his critical discovery that the universe is in fact expanding and not contracting. He observed a Cepheid variable star(one that could determine distances of galaxies) over a period of months and finally came to the conclusion. For more information, look here. Meanwhile, other physicists and mathematicians working on Einstein’s theory of gravity discovered the equations had some solutions that described an expanding universe. In these solutions, the light coming from distant objects would be redshifted as it traveled through the expanding universe. The red shift would increase with increasing distance to the object.

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Also another notion was that, since the universe must have been insanely hot in the beginning, it would have emitted radiation, whose remnants should still be present since the universe is assumed to be isotropic and homogeneous. And this in fact turned out to be true when Scientists discovered it in the 1940’s, and named it the CMB(Cosmic microwave background).

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Discoveries in astronomy and physics have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that our universe did in fact have a beginning. This theory is a strenuous effort taken not to explain how we originated(a common misinterpretation), but to explain how we developed from a tiny, dense state. It is difficult and daunting to imagine a time 13.7 billion years ago, When we were nothing but.. Well nothing. Our entire universe existed as a singularity. What is a ‘Singularity‘? We don’t quite know for sure. Singularities are zones which defy our current understanding of physics. They are thought to exist at the core of “black holes”.

 

As you all are aware of, the treacherous ‘Black Holes’ are areas of intense gravitational pressure. The pressure is thought to be so intense that finite matter is actually squished into infinite density (a mathematical concept which truly boggles your mind). These infinite density zones are known as Singularities. Our universe is thought to have begun as an infinitesimally small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense, something – a singularity.

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A common misconception is that the Big bang is an explosion. Fortunately, it’s not. It’s an expansion that has spanned over billions of years.

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What was the universe like at the beginning of the big bang? According to the theory, it was extremely dense and extremely hot. There was so much energy in the universe during those first few moments that matter as we know it couldn’t form. But it kept expanding relentlessly and that helped it to cool down and matter started to take shape while radiation began losing energy. In a few seconds the universe went from being nothing(a singularity actually) to something that stretched across space.

 

The four fundamental forces that we know of now were formed at that instant. A better word would be ‘segregated’, as they were all unified initially under the Grand Unified Theory. Because of certain unmistakable limitations of laws of science, we can’t take a random guess at the first second of the creation. But we’re close. Scientists are able to go as far as t=1×10^(-43), where ‘t’ represents the time after the creation. The study of these phenomena’s are known as quantum cosmology, as these vehemently defy the laws of classical physics.

 

At t = 1 x 10-43 seconds, the universe was incredibly small, dense and hot. This homogenous area of the universe spanned a region of only 1 x 10-33 centimeters (3.9 x 10-34 inches). Today, that same stretch of space spans billions of light years. As the universe expanded, it cooled. At around t = 1 x 10-35 seconds, matter and energy decoupled. Cosmologists call this baryogenesis — baryonic matter is the kind of matter we can observe. In contrast, we can’t observe dark matter, but we know it exists by the way it affects energy and other matter. A period of particle cosmology followed the quantum age. This period starts at t = 1 x 10-11 seconds. This is a phase that scientists can recreate in lab conditions with particle accelerators.

Next came the period of standard cosmology, which begins .01 second after the beginning of the big bang. From this moment on, scientists feel they have a pretty good handle on how the universe evolved. The universe continued to expand and cool, and the subatomic particles formed during baryogenesis began to bond together. They formed neutrons and protons. By the time a full second had passed, these particles could form the nuclei of light elements like hydrogen (in the form of its isotope, deuterium), helium and lithium. This process is known as nucleosynthesis. But the universe was still too dense and hot for electrons to join these nuclei and form stable atoms.

So that’s a pretty nifty one second! But then comes the next 13 billion years.

After 100 seconds, the universe’s temperature cooled to 1 billion degrees Kelvin (1 billion degrees Celsius, 1.8 billion degrees Fahrenheit). By mass, the distribution of elements was approximately 75 percent hydrogen nuclei and 24 percent helium nuclei.

For the next 100 million years or so, the universe continued to expand and cool. Small gravitational fluctuations caused particles of matter to cluster together. Gravity caused gases in the universe to collapse into tight pockets. As gases contract, they become more dense and hot. Some 100 to 200 million years after the initial creation of the universe, stars formed from these pockets of gas.

Stars began to cluster together to form galaxies. Eventually, some stars went supernova. As the stars exploded, they ejected matter across the universe. This matter included all the heavier elements we find in nature (everything up to uranium). That’s where the famous quote by Carl Sagan originated “We all are made up of star-stuff”.

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Coming to today, the temperature of the universe is 2.725 degrees Kelvin, which is only a couple of degrees above absolute zero. The homogeneous section of the universe we can theorize about reaches 1 x 10^29 centimeters across, which is a humongous number which is beyond anyone’s imagination.

 

And still our universe keeps expanding. But there are three models which were formed – The Open, Closed and Flat. For the last eighty years, astronomers have been making increasingly accurate measurements of two important cosmological parameters: Ho – the rate at which the universe expands – and – the average density of matter in the universe. Knowledge of both of these parameters will tell which of the three models- Flat, Open or Closed, describes the universe we live in, and thus the ultimate fate of our universe.

Although the theory efficiently answers many questions, it also raises as many. And although we feel like we’ve discovered a lot, there are still questions hovering about whose answers we’re unable to find. What happened before singularity? Where did it come from? What will be the fate of our universe? Are there multiple universes? Will a collision between universes occur?

Yet that is the beautiful difference between Science and Religion. Religion claims something and let’s it hanging in the air without any support. But Science puts forth its theory and carries the burden of the evidence. Even if the theories pan out to be wrong, it comes up with a new one and the process goes on evolving.

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To me, Science is the best religion!

 

 

Guess what? Your what’s for dinner tonight!

We have a gazillion varieties of dinner recipes on our planet. Ranging from american cuisines such as chicken sandwiches, penne in pesto sauce, steak, etc to Chinese to Indian dessert. But ever wondered about you yourself being someone’s supper? Oh, Am not talking about the mythical and ludicrous werewolves and vampires.

 Am talking about something that’s existent, non-fictional and wildly treacherous.
But something that’s far, far away such that it will take you millions of light years to even reach it(Not that anyone would, but you know hypothetically).
Enough guessing. Open your friendly Google and type ‘What is a hole that is black?’. Or wait, let me google that for you- http://lmgtfy.com/?q=what+is+a+hole+that+is+black.
Guess you found the monster.
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So what is a Black Hole? Is it simply a big gigantic hole in space? It’s a lot more complex than that!

To formally define it, A Black Hole, a term coined by Physicist John Wheeler in 1967, is a place in the enormous space where gravity pulls so much, that even light, supposedly the fastest mover on earth, cannot escape it. But why is the gravity so tremendously strong? Well, Imagine the tallest building that you can see when you step out of your house, Now imagine it being compressed further and further until its no more than a tiny cubic block. That’s what happens-put in a nutshell- when a Black Hole is formed.
They can be as tiny as an atom, but as massive as a mountain.

But how is something so massive and colossal created? The answer is all around you. It’s pasted on the sky blanket like tiny polka-dots. Stars. If your idea of photography has nothing to do with Hollywood stars, you’ll understand what am talking about.
Stars have the amusing choice of ending their lives in various ways. Angry and not-so-massive stars(like our sun) end their lives as red giants wherein their core boils up, hence the outer skin of the star starts to expand, more and more, until the radius of the red giant sun will be just beyond Earth’s orbit. The outer layers steaming with heat and luminous intensity is just enough for the helium to collide together to form carbon. Finally after all the fuel gets exhausted, the giant goes to sleep, lulled by its coolness. It will also release its bowel, ejecting the upper layer materials, to form the White Dwarf, and then eventually in its old age, the Black Dwarf.

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So we saw Red Giants, White dwarfs, and Black dwarfs. But this is ordinary. There are some stupendous Stars that just love ending their lives in style, as Black Holes(Supernovae).
The phenomenon is similar, except in these stars, even after Helium gets exhausted, they have enough mass to fuse the carbon together. It doesn’t stop there. These greedy stars stretch their lives till iron is formed. But then, they can shine no more. During the course of life of a star, two opposing forces equally challenge each other. Gravity Vs Pressure exerted by burning fuel. But after the star has given up, Gravity trumps by collapsing the star on itself, shrinking it to a fraction of its original size, thus forming the monstrous hole.
This all happens so fast that star doesn’t even have time to say goodbye or realise its dead. Shortly before it forms the hole, it ‘coughs’ up some gamma radiation to empty its belly, while it gobbles up the stellar material around it.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU SCUBA DIVE INTO ITS BELLY?

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You love Spaghetti right? How would you like to transform into the thing you love?
Let’s say you would like to take one for the team, so you venture into space, valiantly to witness your own demise. Oh, but remember to wear a watch(Rolex preferably) as you approach a black hole. As you nullify the distance between you both, the gravity of the hole starts to fancy you, hence it pulls you towards itself stronger and stronger. You approach what is called a event horizon. This is the point of no return for you(And pretty much anything in our cosmo).

Now is the time to take a look at your fancy watch. Let’s say you enter the horizon at 11:59 AM. Here on, you’ll notice that your watch starts to slow down. Don’t worry, your watch is working perfectly well. Its the tremendous gravity that helps the time to warp and slow down(thanks to Einsten for General Relativity).

As you inch closer to the black hole, you might start to feel a pinch(Don’t be alarmed, its normal). You would start to experience a pulling sensation, especially at your toes. Your toes, i.e your lower half, is being pulled by the gravity more tremendously than your upper half. You will eventually be stretched and torn apart, just like how you squeeze your toothpaste to get that last pinch of cream out.
This whole process of being stretched and torn apart is called spaghettification.

Spaghettification

One out of the many interesting events during this process is, the objects that enter after you will experience less time dilation, and objects that have already been devoured would have experienced more dilation. What iam saying is, if you look forward you’ll be able to witness all the objects that have fallen in, and if you turn your head back you’ll be able to see all the objects that are going to gulped down.  Essentially, you get to see the entire history of a point in the cosmo. Science is truly Spectacular!

HOW DO WE SEE A BLACK HOLE?
Don’t use too much of your brain cells.You can’t see a black hole, ’cause the gravity sucks in all of the light. But scientists can see and deduce how strong the black hole affects the stars and the gas around it. But when these stars get close enough to it for a rendezvous, a high-energy radiation is radiated from them, which is detected by our ‘scopes.

IS OUR MOTHER EARTH AT RISK?

A common question that an amateur can ask. The answer is NO, black holes don’t go around chewing down stars, planets and moons. They are genuine monsters. Only if you go searching for trouble, they’ll show their true form. Even if our sun was replaced by a black hole(Also our sun can never become a black hole, So hurray!), the planets would peacefully go about their daily routine of rotation and revolution.

To conclude with a famous quote from one of my favorite astro-wiz,
“Sure, black holes can kill us, and in a variety of interesting and gruesome ways. But, all in all, we may owe our very existence to them.”
                 – Philip Plait(Author of Death from the skies!)