Coming Out of the Dark

Dark matter mysteries unraveled by researchers in underground South Dakota mine

In this 2019 image, components used to assemble the dark matter-search experiment LZ—including digital electronics developed at Rochester—are transported down a shaft and installed in the nearly mile-deep research cavern at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in South Dakota. The dark-matter detector is now complete and initial data shows that it is the most powerful dark-matter detector to date. If LZ is able to detect elusive dark matter—as researchers expect it may eventually do—it will profoundly expand our understanding of the universe. (Sanford Underground Research Facility photo)

Rochester physicists are part of a team that has deployed the world’s most sensitive dark matter detector, which may profoundly expand our understanding of the universe.

Scientists around the world have attempted for decades to solve the mystery of dark matter, which accounts for about 85 percent of all matter in the universe. Proof of dark matter particles would fundamentally change our understanding of the makeup of the universe. However, researchers have so far only inferred dark matter indirectly by observing gravitational effects that cannot be explained by standard theories of gravity.

This may be about to change.

Students and researchers from the University of Rochester are involved in an international collaboration of about 250 scientists from 35 institutions, led by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab), assembling an innovative underground dark matter-search experiment called LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ). Nestled deep below the Black Hills of South Dakota at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), the dark matter detector recently passed a check-out phase of startup operations and delivered its first data points. And this is only the beginning.

“We did not see any dark matter, but the first results of LZ show that it is currently the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world,” says Frank Wolfs, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester, who is overseeing Rochester’s efforts in the project. “LZ will collect data for about 1,000 days, significantly improving the sensitivity for dark matter detection that was achieved during the first data collection period.”

Large electronics arrays used to detect dark matter being prepared for installation.
Lower and upper photomultiplier tube arrays—shown here being prepared for installation for the LZ experiment—are connected to digitizing electronics developed at Rochester through more than 28 miles of coaxial cable. (SURF photo / Matt Kapust)


The quest for dark matter

Although dark matter particles have never actually been detected, researchers believe it will only be a matter of time; the countdown may have already started with results from LZ’s first 60 “live days” of testing. These data points were collected over a span of initial operations beginning at the end of December 2021, a period long enough to confirm that all aspects of the detector were functioning well.

Dark matter remains unseen because it does not emit, absorb, or scatter light, but its presence and gravitational pull are nonetheless fundamental to an understanding of the universe. For example, the presence of dark matter shapes the form and movement of galaxies, and it is invoked by researchers to explain what is known about the large-scale structure and expansion of the universe.

The Rochester team is responsible for designing and developing electronic components for LZ, an integral piece of the puzzle in detecting dark matter; the electronics enable the readout of signals from particle interactions.

“All of our electronics have been designed specifically for LZ with the goal of maximizing our sensitivity for the smallest possible signals,” Wolfs says.

Members of the Rochester group include Eryk Druszkiewicz ’17 (PhD), research engineer; Dev Ashish Khaitan ’19 (PhD), a postdoctoral research associate; graduate students Marcus Converse, Elise McCarthy, and Yufan Qie; and undergraduate student Andy Freeman ’25. The hardware used for the digital electronics was designed in collaboration with a local electronics company, Skutek Instrumentation.

An underground detector

SURF, the site of a former gold mine, is now dedicated to a broad spectrum of scientific research. All of the components for LZ were transported down a shaft and installed in a nearly mile-deep research cavern. The rock above provides a natural shield against much of the constant bombardment of particles raining down on the planet’s surface, which produce unwanted “noise” that could drown out dark matter signals.

LZ is particularly focused on finding a type of theoretical particle called weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, by triggering sequences of light and electrical signals in two nested tanks. The tanks are filled with 10 metric tons of highly purified liquid xenon, which is among Earth’s rarest elements. The properties of xenon atoms allow them to produce light in certain particle interactions.


Dark matter experts with hard hats in a group photo.
In 2019, a team of Rochester researchers, faculty, and alumni completed the installation of the LZ dark matter experiment’s electronics and posed for a photo 4,800 feet below the surface, in Lead, South Dakota. These team members included, from left, Erik Druszkiewicz ’17 (PhD), now a research engineer; Dev Ashish Khaitan ’19 (PhD), now a postdoctoral research associate; Yufan Qie ’20, now a physics PhD student; Jean Wolfs ’18, now a physics PhD student; Frank Wolfs, professor of physics and astronomy; and Marcus Converse, physics PhD student. (University of Maryland photo / Douglas Tiedt )

The liquid xenon projection chambers contain about 500 photomultiplier tubes (PMTs). Particle collisions in the xenon produce visible flashes of light, which are recorded by the PMTs. More than 28 miles of coaxial cable connects the PMTs and their amplifying electronics to the digital electronics developed at Rochester. The electronics digitize the waveforms from the PMTs and carry out a preliminary waveform analysis in order to select events of interest.

“The signals from every WIMP that LZ detects will first be processed by electronics made in Rochester,” Wolfs says.

The University of Rochester’s contribution to LZ is the latest example of Rochester researchers developing technologies for groundbreaking projects that seek to understand the mysterious particles in our universe. Physicists Segev BenZvi and Regina Demina are involved in the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) project, a multi-institutional effort to create the most detailed 3D map ever made of the universe. Demina and Rochester researchers Arie BodekAran Garcia-Bellido, and Sergei Korjenevski were part of an experimental team whose results made possible the discovery of the Higgs boson. Wolfs was also involved in developing signal processing electronics for LUX, the predecessor to LZ.

LZ is supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of High Energy Physics, and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science user facility. LZ is also supported by the Science & Technology Facilities Council of the United Kingdom; the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology; and the Institute for Basic Science, Korea.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece was published on July 22, 2019. It has been updated to reflect new developments in the LZ experiment.  


The Beat Goes On…

main article image
The green circle marks the source of FRB 121102. (Rogelio Bernal Andreo/

A Mysterious Radio Burst That Keeps Repeating Just Woke Up, Right on Schedule

24 AUGUST 2020

Earlier this year, astronomers announced a dazzling discovery. A fast radio burst called FRB 121102 wasn’t just repeating – it was repeating on a discernible cycle.

For around 67 days, the source is silent. Then, for around 90 days, it wakes up again, spitting out repeated millisecond radio flares before falling silent, and the whole 157-day cycle repeats.

However, fast radio bursts are extremely mysterious, and there was no guarantee that the cycle would continue. So it’s pretty exciting that the source has flared up again, right on cue – consistent with predictions of its activity cycle.

This suggests that there’s significant value in monitoring known fast radio burst sources – but also in continuing to watch FRB 121102 to try to understand what could be causing the phenomenon.

A quick refresher: fast radio bursts are, as the name suggests, bursts of radio waves that are very fast, just a few milliseconds long, coming from galaxies millions to billions of light-years away. But they’re also extremely powerful; within those milliseconds, they can discharge as much power as hundreds of millions of Suns.

Most of the time, they flare once and we have not heard from them since, making them impossible to predict and very difficult to trace. And we don’t know what causes them, although recent evidence points pretty strongly to a type of neutron star called magnetars.

But a handful of fast radio burst sources have been detected repeating, and these could be one of the keys that helps at least partially solve the mystery.

Before its cycle was discovered by University of Manchester astronomer Kaustubh Rajwade and his team, FRB 121102 was already famous for being the most active fast radio burst discovered yet, spitting out repeated bursts several times since its discovery in 2012.

Because it repeats, astronomers could watch for activity, and trace it to a source galaxy. It was the first fast radio burst to be localised, to a star-forming region in a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

The discovery of periodicity in its activity – based on five years’ worth of data – could place some important constraints on what it could be.

For instance, high-mass X-ray binaries in the Milky Way – those that contain neutron stars – can have orbital periods of up to hundreds of days. But there are some types of binary systems with much shorter periods – these could be ruled out for FRB 121102.

And now, periodicity is supported by new sets of observations – although the timing may need revision.

A team led by Marilyn Cruces of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy detected 36 bursts from FRB 121102 using the Effelsberg 100-m Radio Telescope between September 2017 to June 2020. Combined with the data from Rajwade’s research, the team derived a periodicity of 161 days, in a new preprint paper uploaded to arXiv.

This paper gives dates between 9 July and 14 October 2020 for the source’s active period.

But Cruces and her team aren’t the only ones looking. A team led by Pei Wang of the National Astronomy Observatory of China used the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope to monitor FRB 121102’s location on several dates between March and August 2020.

Between mid-March and late July, they didn’t detect any bursts. But on 17 August, FAST detected at least 12 bursts from FRB 121102 – suggesting the source is once again in an active phase – although the team calculated a different periodicity from both Rajwade’s team and Cruces’ team.

“We combine the bursts collected in Rajwade et al. (2020) and Cruces et al. (2020) with these newly detected by FAST in 2019 and 2020, and obtain a new best-fit period of ~156.1 days,” they wrote in a notice posted to The Astronomer’s Telegram.

According to Wang’s team’s calculations, the active phase is due to end between 31 August and 9 September 2020. If FRB 121102 continues to show activity beyond these dates, this could suggest that either the periodicity isn’t real, or that it has somehow evolved, they noted in their post.

Of course, it’s also possible that the periodicity calculations need to be refined. Which means we should continue to keep an eye on FRB 121102.

“We encourage more follow-up monitoring efforts from other radio observatories,” the researchers wrote.


Heyday for ET as No One is Watching

COVID-19 forces Earth’s largest telescopes to close

More than 100 of Earth’s largest telescopes are now closed, and astronomers are worried about the pandemic’s long-term impacts on their field.
Earth’s largest optical telescope, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, is closed due to COVID-19. Many others have also closed.
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

The alarm sounded at around 3 a.m. on April 3. An electrical malfunction had stalled the behemoth South Pole Telescope as it mapped radiation left over from the Big Bang. Astronomers Allen Foster and Geoffrey Chen crawled out of bed and got dressed to shield themselves from the –70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures outside. They then trekked a few thousand feet across the ice to restart the telescope.

The Sun set weeks ago in Antarctica. Daylight won’t return for six months. And, yet, life at the bottom of the planet hasn’t changed much — even as the rest of the world has been turned upside-down. The last flight from the region left on Feb. 15, so there’s no need for social distancing. The 42 “winterovers” still work together. They still eat together. They still share the gym. They even play roller hockey most nights.

And that’s why the South Pole Telescope is one of the last large observatories still monitoring the night sky.

The world’s largest optical telescopes, shown here, have shut down in droves in recent weeks (open sites are in green). The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas is the largest optical telescope left observing. Construction has also halted at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory site in Chile.
Astronomy/Roen Kelly

An Astronomy magazine tally has found that more than 100 of Earth’s biggest research telescopes have closed in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What started as a trickle of closures in February and early March has become an almost complete shutdown of observational astronomy. And the closures are unlikely to end soon.

Observatory directors say they could be offline for three to six months — or longer. In many cases, resuming operations will mean inventing new ways of working during a pandemic. And that might not be possible for some instruments that require teams of technicians to maintain and operate. As a result, new astronomical discoveries are expected to come to a crawl.

“If everybody in the world stops observing, then we have a gap in our data that you can’t recover,” says astronomer Steven Janowiecki of the McDonald Observatory in Texas. “This will be a period that we in the astronomy community have no data on what happened.”

Yet these short-term losses aren’t astronomers’ main concern.

They’re accustomed to losing telescope time to bad weather, and they’re just as concerned as everyone else about the risks of coronavirus to their loved ones. So, for now, all that most astronomers can do is sit at home and wait for the storm to clear.

“If we have our first bright supernova in hundreds of years, that would be terrible,” says astronomer John Mulchaey, director of the Carnegie Observatories. “But except for really rare events like that, most of the science will be done next year. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. We can wait a few months.”

The prospects get darker when considering the pandemic’s long-term impacts on astronomy. Experts are already worried that lingering damage to the global economy could derail plans for the next decade of cutting-edge astronomical research.

“Yes, there will be a loss of data for six months or so, but the economic impact may be more substantial in the long run,” says Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “It’s going to be hard to build new telescopes as millions of people are out of work. I suspect the largest impact will be the financial nuclear winter that we’re about to live through.”

Closing the windows on the cosmos

Through interviews and email exchanges with dozens of researchers, administrators, press officers and observatory directors, as well as reviewing a private list circulating among scientists, Astronomy magazine has confirmed more than 120 of Earth’s largest telescopes are now closed as a result of COVID-19.

Many of the shutdowns happened in late March, as astronomy-rich states like Arizona, Hawaii and California issued stay-at-home orders. Nine of the 10 largest optical telescopes in North America are now closed. In Chile, an epicenter of observing, the government placed the entire country under a strict lockdown, shuttering dozens of telescopes. Spain and Italy, two European nations with rich astronomical communities — and a large number of COVID-19 infections — closed their observatories weeks ago.

Even many small telescopes have now closed, as all-out shutdowns were ordered on mountaintops ranging from Hawaii’s Mauna Kea to the Chilean Atacama to the Spanish Canary Islands. Science historians say nothing like this has happened in the modern era of astronomy. Even during the chaos of World War II, telescopes kept observing.

As wartime fears gripped Americans in the 1940s, German-born astronomer Walter Baade was placed under virtual house arrest. As a result, he famously declared Mount Wilson Observatory in California to be his official residence. With the lights of Los Angeles dimmed to avoid enemy bombs, Baade operated the world’s largest telescope in isolation, making groundbreaking discoveries about the cosmos. Among them, Baade’s work revealed multiple populations of stars, which led him to realize that the universe was twice as big as previously thought.

In the decades since, astronomers have built ever-larger telescopes to see fainter and farther-off objects. Instruments have become increasingly complex and specialized, often requiring them to be swapped out multiple times in a single night. Enormous telescope mirrors need regular maintenance. All of this means observatory crews sometimes require dozens of people, ranging from engineers and technicians to observers and astronomers. Most researchers also still physically travel to a telescope to observe, taking them to far-flung places. As a result, major observatories can be like small villages, complete with hotel-style accommodations, cooks and medics.

But although observatories might be remote, few can safely operate during a pandemic.

“Most of our telescopes still work in classical mode. We do have some remote options, but the large fraction of our astronomers still go to the telescopes,” says Mulchaey, who also oversees Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and its Magellan Telescopes. “It’s not as automated as you might think.”

‘You don’t know what you missed’

Some of the most complicated scientific instruments on Earth are the gravitational-wave detectors, which pick up almost imperceptible ripples in space-time created when two massive objects merge. In 2015, the first gravitational-wave detection opened up an entirely new way for astronomers to study the universe. And since then, astronomers have confirmed dozens of these events.

The most well-known facilities, the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) — located in Washington state and Louisiana, both pandemic hot spots — closed on March 27. Virgo, their Italian partner observatory, shut down the same day. (It’s also located near the epicenter of that country’s COVID-19 pandemic.)

More than 1,200 scientists from 18 countries are involved with LIGO. And no other instruments are sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves from colliding black holes and neutron stars like LIGO and Virgo can. Fortunately, the observatories were already near the end of the third observing run, which was set to end April 30.

“You don’t know what you missed,” says LIGO spokesperson Patrick Brady, an astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We were detecting a binary black hole collision once a week. So, on average, we missed four. But we don’t know how special they would have been.”

The gravitational-wave detectors will now undergo upgrades that will take them offline through at least late 2021 or early 2022. But the pandemic has already delayed preliminary testing for their planned fourth run. And it could prevent future work or even disrupt supply chains, Brady says. So, although it’s still too early to know for sure, astronomy will likely have to wait a couple of years for new gravitational-wave discoveries.

Then there’s the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Last year, the EHT collaboration released the first-ever image of a black hole. And on April 7, they published another unprecedented image that stares down a black hole’s jet in a galaxy located some 5 billion light-years away. But now, EHT has cancelled its entire observing run for the year — it can only collect data in March and April — due to closures at its partner instruments.

Around the world, only a handful of large optical telescopes remain open.

The Green Bank Observatory, Earth’s largest steerable radio telescope, is still searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, observing everything from galaxies to gas clouds.

The twin Pan-STARRS telescopes on the summit of Hawaii’s Haleakala volcano are still scouting the sky for dangerous incoming asteroids. Both instruments can run without having multiple humans in the same building.

“We are an essential service, funded by NASA, to help protect the Earth from (an) asteroid impact,” says Ken Chambers, director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories in Hawaii. “We will continue that mission as long as we can do so without putting people or equipment at risk.”

The 10-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas is now operating with just one person in the building.
Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

The last of large telescopes left open

With observatory domes closed at the world’s newest and best telescopes, a smattering of older, less high-tech instruments are now Earth’s largest operating observatories.

Sporting a relatively modest 6-meter mirror, the biggest optical telescope still working in the Eastern Hemisphere is Russia’s 45-year-old Bolshoi Azimuthal Telescope in the Caucasus Mountains, a spokesperson there confirmed.

And, for the foreseeable future, the largest optical telescope on the planet is now the 10-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory in rural West Texas. Astronomers managed to keep the nearly-25-year-old telescope open thanks to a special research exemption and drastic changes to their operating procedures.

To reduce exposure, just one observer sits in HET’s control room. One person turns things on. And one person swaps instruments multiple times each night, as the telescope switches from observing exoplanets with its Habitable Zone Finder to studying dark energy using its now-poorly-named VIRUS spectrograph. Anyone who doesn’t have to be on site now works from home.

“We don’t have the world’s best observatory site. We’re not on Mauna Kea or anything as spectacular,” says Janowiecki, the HET’s science operations manager. “We don’t have any of the expensive adaptive optics. We don’t even have a 2-axis telescope. That was [intended as] a massive cost savings.”

But, he added, “In this one rare instance, it’s a strength.”

The supervising astronomer of HET now manages Earth’s current largest telescope from a few old computer monitors he found in storage and set up on a foldout card table in his West Texas guest bedroom.

Like the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the handful of remaining observatories run on skeleton crews or are entirely robotic. And all of the telescope managers interviewed for this story emphasized that even if they’re open now, they won’t be able to perform repairs if something breaks, making it unclear how long they could continue operating in the current environment.

The 48-inch Samual Oschin Telescope is the workhorse of the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in Southern California.

‘We will miss some objects’

The Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) utilizes the robotic, 48-inch Samual Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory in Southern California to produce nightly maps of the northern sky. And, thanks to automation, it remains open.

The so-called “discovery engine” searches for new supernovas and other momentary events thanks to computers back at Caltech that compare each new map with the old ones. When the software finds something, it triggers an automatic alert to telescopes around the world. Last week, it sent out notifications on multiple potentially new supernovas.

Similarly, the telescopes that make up the Catalina Sky Survey, based at Arizona’s Mount Lemmon, are still searching the heavens for asteroids. In just the past week, they found more than 50 near-Earth asteroids — none of them dangerous.

Another small group of robotic telescopes, the international Las Cumbres Observatory network, has likewise managed to stay open, albeit with fewer sites than before. In recent weeks, their telescopes have followed up on unexpected astronomical events ranging from asteroids to supernovas.

“We are fortunate to still be keeping an eye on potential new discoveries,” says Las Cumbres Observatory director Lisa Storrie-Lombardi.

But, overall, there are just fewer telescopes available to catch and confirm new objects that appear in our night sky, which means fewer discoveries will be made.

Chambers, the Pan-STARRS telescope director, says his team has been forced to do their own follow-ups as they find new asteroids and supernovas. “This will mean we make fewer discoveries, and that we will miss some objects that we would have found in normal times,” he says.

NASA’s DART spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2021 on a mission to visit the binary asteroid Didymos. Astronomers need additional observations to help plot the course.

‘It’s stressing them out’

Astronomer Cristina Thomas of Northern Arizona University studies asteroids. She was the last observer to use the 4.3-meter Lowell Discovery Telescope before it closed March 31 under Arizona’s stay-at-home order.

Thomas warns that, in the short term, graduate students could bear the brunt of the lost science. Veteran astronomers typically have a backlog of data just waiting for them to analyze. But Ph.D. students are often starved for data they need to collect in order to graduate on time.

“It’s stressing them out in a way that it doesn’t for me. We’re used to building in a night or so for clouds,” Thomas says. “If this goes on for months, this could put [graduate students] pretty far behind.”

One of Thomas’ students was set to have observations collected for their dissertation by SOFIA, NASA’s airborne observatory. But the flying telescope is currently grounded in California, leaving it unclear when the student will be able to complete their research. And even when astronomy picks back up, everyone will be reapplying for telescope time at once.

But the damage isn’t only limited to graduate students. An extended period of observatory downtime could also have an impact on Thomas’ own research. Later this year, she’s scheduled to observe Didymos, a binary asteroid that NASA plans to visit in 2021. Those observations are supposed to help chart the course of the mission.

“The big question for us is: ‘When are we going to be able to observe again?’” Thomas says. “If it’s a few months, we’ll be able to get back to normal. If it ends up being much longer, we’re going to start missing major opportunities.”

The Keck Observatory telescopes in Hawaii use high-tech adaptive optics equipment that changes their mirrors’ shape 1,000 times per second to counter the twinkling caused by Earth’s atmosphere. Keck instruments also need to be chilled below freezing to reduce noise. If the warm up, cooling them down can take days or weeks.
W. M. Keck Observatory/Andrew Richard Hara

Can’t just flip a switch

The same qualities that brought observational astronomy to a standstill in the era of social distancing will also make it tough to turn the telescopes back on until the pandemic has completely passed. So, even after the stay-at-home orders lift, some observatories may not find it safe to resume regular operations. They’ll have to find new ways to work as a team in tight spaces.

“We are just starting to think about these problems now ourselves,” says Caltech Optical Observatories deputy director Andy Boden, who also helps allocate observing time on the Keck Observatory telescopes in Hawaii. “There are aspects of telescope operations that really do put people in shared spaces, and that’s going to be a difficult problem to deal with as we come out of our current orders.”

Astronomers say they’re confident they can find solutions. But it will take time. Tony Beasley, the NRAO director, says his team is already working around a long list of what they’re now calling “VSDs,” or violation of social distancing problems. Their workarounds are typically finding ways to have one person do something that an entire team used to do.

Beasley’s research center operates the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, as well as the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the global Very Long Baseline Array — all of which are still observing, thanks to remote operations and a reimagined workflow.

Although the new workflow is not as efficient as it was in the past, so far there haven’t been any problems that couldn’t be solved. However, Beasley says some work eventually may require the use of personal protective equipment for people who must work in the same room. And he says they can’t ethically use such gear while hospitals are in short supply.

But Beasley and others think interesting and valuable lessons could still come out of the catastrophe.

“There’s always been kind of a sense that you had to be in the building, and you’ve got to stare the other people down in the meeting,” he says. “In the space of a month, I think everyone is surprised at how effective they can be remotely. As we get better at this over the next six months or something, I think there will be parts where we won’t go back to some of the work processes from before.”

Modern-day cathedrals

Despite best efforts and optimistic outlooks, some things will remain outside astronomers’ control.

Right now, researchers are completing the 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, a kind of scientific census. The guiding document sets priorities and recommends where money should be spent over the next 10 years. NASA and Congress take its recommendations to heart when deciding which projects get funded. Until recent weeks, the economy had been strong and astronomers had hoped for a decade of new robotic explorers, larger telescopes, and getting serious about defending Earth from asteroids.

Engineers prep NASA’s Mars InSight lander for launch to the Red Planet. It is currently stationed on Mars investigating the planet’s deep interior.
(Credit: NASA)

“Many of NASA’s most important activities — from Mars exploration to studying extrasolar planets to understanding the cosmos — are centuries-long projects, the modern version of the construction of the great medieval cathedrals,” Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel told the website last year as the process got underway. “The decadal surveys provide blueprints for constructing these cathedrals, and NASA science has thrived by being guided by these plans.”

However, many experts are predicting the COVID-19 pandemic will send the U.S. into a recession; some economists say job losses could rival those seen during the Great Depression.

If that happens, policymakers could cut the funding needed to construct these cathedrals of modern science — even after a crisis has us calling on scientists to save society.


An Eight Sided Pyramid!

Egypt bombshell: Hidden ‘code’ of Great Pyramid of Giza unlocks ‘remarkable find’

EGYPT investigators believe they have discovered “hidden numbers” in the geometry of the Great Pyramid, leading one to claim it unlocks a “remarkable” ancient secret.

By Callum Hoare

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and largest of the three ancient monuments in the Giza Plateau believed to have been constructed for the Pharaoh Khufu over two decades. Among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it is the only one still largely intact and is estimated to weigh approximately six million tonnes. For decades, experts have known that the sides of the square base are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points of true north in space.

But now, Gaia’s new documentary ‘The Hidden Codes of the Great Pyramids’ has revealed how a discovery over its construction proves the ancient builders had an even deeper understanding of astronomy than previously thought.

Engineer and author Christopher Dunn said: “When you start looking at the schematics of the Great Pyramid and the unusual interior design, it doesn’t represent any kind of structure or building where people would spend any time.

“Of course, in regards to the original tomb theory – there were no mummies found in the Great Pyramid, no original mummies found in any pyramids for that matter.”

The narrator explained why some believe developments in understanding the Great Pyramid are challenging history books.

Investigators believe there are hidden numbers in the geometry of the pyramid

Investigators believe there are hidden numbers in the geometry of the pyramid (Image: GETTY)

The Great Pyramids were built over 4,500 years ago

The Great Pyramids were built over 4,500 years ago (Image: GETTY)

He said: “Today, children are taught in school that it took builders 10 to 20 years to complete.

“Yet to achieve this timeline, one block would have had to be placed every one to two minutes.

“On top of this monumental achievement in construction, the form and position of the pyramid’s structure is also an intriguing marvel of the ancient world.

“Contrary to popular belief, the Great Pyramid is not simply a four-sided structure.

“Experts suggest a closer look at its unique shape may provide some clues to the true power and relationship to Earth’s motion.”

Some believe the builders had an advance understanding of astronomy

Some believe the builders had an advance understanding of astronomy (Image: GETTY)

Author Robert Bauval suggests a new theory.

He says that the Great Pyramid has twice as many sides as most believe, revealing a possible link between its geometry and astronomy.

He said: “Many people don’t know this, but, in fact, it’s not a four-sided pyramid.

“It has a very slight concavity on each side, making it an eight-sided pyramid.

“Now the minute you do this, it produces very bizarre geometry.

“It produces numbers, numbers keep popping up that shouldn’t be there.

“Things like the universal constant that has been known for over 100 years, the golden ratio, but we also have now strange numbers coming up in the design.”

Graham Hancock revealed just how precise the building was

Graham Hancock revealed just how precise the building was (Image: WIKI)

Elon Musk came under fire earlier this month for comments

Elon Musk came under fire earlier this month for comments (Image: GETTY)

Author and investigative journalist Graham Hancock believes a minuscule discovery over the alignment of the pyramid shows just how important this positioning was to ancient Egyptians.

He thinks it proves the ancient civilisation had a better understanding of astronomy than first thought.

He claimed in July: “If you take it upon yourself the project of building a pyramid and aligning it to true north, east, south and west you wouldn’t make any error at all.

“But there is an error in the Great Pyramid – it’s tiny.

“It is 3/60th of a single degree off true north.

“This is almost eerie precision because the scale of the monument is so huge.

“This thing is 481 feet high, it has a footprint of 13 acres, it weighs six million tonnes and consists of two-and-a-half million individual blocks of stone.

“You’re taking that whole gigantic mountain of stone and you are aligning it within just 3/60th of a single degree of true north, it’s a very remarkable thing.”

For years archaeologists have tussled with conspiracy theorists, who wildly claim the advanced technology needed to build these pyramids must have come from out-of-this-world.

Earlier this month, technology tycoon Elon Musk appeared to support the claims.

He tweeted “aliens built the pyramids obv,” which quickly prompted a response from Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, Rania al-Mashat.

She said: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you and SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also to check out the tombs of the pyramid builders.”

He later appeared to take the claim back in a follow-up social media post linking to an article describing how the pyramids were more likely built by humans living in an Egyptian settlement.

He added: “This BBC article provides a sensible summary for how it was done,” linking to a story with the headline ‘The Private Lives of the Pyramid-builders’.


Unlocking the Secrets of Black Holes

Black Holes Contain Photon Rings That Record “Movies ” Of Cosmic History

(TMU) – A new paper claims that black holes retain a kind of photon-based record of space-time history that could yield some of the secrets of the universe.

Astronomers and physicists studying the M87 black hole, recently renamed Pōwehi (which means “embellished dark source of unending creation”), made history earlier this year when they released the first photographic image of a black hole. In their new paper, they argue that the ghostly ring of fire we see could harbor historical records – which some have called “movies” – of the cosmos.

The argument is based on an interferometric study of the vast swirling wreaths of light that are trapped in perpetual orbit around the black hole’s event horizon. This light is comprised of photons, which scientists believe may behave like the rings inside a tree trunk, concentric sequences of information that betray overall age and development.

In the paper, entitled “Universal Interferometric Signatures Of A Black Hole’s Photon Ring,” they write:

“Together, the set of subrings are akin to the frames of a movie, capturing the history of the visible universe as seen from the black hole.”

Studying these rings of photons could help scientists learn more about theories like Einstein’s general relativity.

They could also crack more of the mysteries of black holes, which continue to be one of the most puzzling and monstrous objects predicted by physics. For example, do black holes defy the mandates of quantum mechanics and destroy all information? Do they contain dark matter? Do they curve space-time so severely that matter is sent to the future? Can black holes break the laws of physics by existing in five-dimensional space?

The list goes on and on. Many of the world’s most prominent physicists, including Stephen Hawking and Einstein himself, have spent careers and lifetimes trying to unravel the enigmatic existence of black holes. This has led some thinkers to some very strange theories. For example, mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose has suggested that we may actually be able to see the imprints of black holes from alternate universes.

Because of the many related puzzles, the opportunity to study historical records left behind by rings photons inside black holes is tantalizing to scientists.

However, the rings do not exist in perpetuity. Each one is only six days older than its predecessor and is eventually obliterated inside the black hole singularity. So while they cannot be used to peer into the entire history of the universe, “measuring the size, shape, and thickness of the subrings would provide new and powerful probes of a black hole spacetime.” 

Scientists have described the discovery as approaching a “cosmic hall of mirrors, where the black hole’s gravity takes light from all directions, warps it and beams it to us as an infinitely recast image of the hole’s surroundings. The result is an epic movie of the history of the universe, as witnessed by a black hole, playing on a dramatically curved screen tens of billions of kilometres across.”

As we continue to learn more about black holes, what will they whisper to us about the nature of reality and the secrets of the cosmos?


ET, Phone…. Well, Maybe

Long-distance calls? Scientists uncover repeating ‘157-day pattern’ in mysterious intergalactic radio bursts
Astronomers have detected an “activity cycle” behind massive radio pulses emanating from a galaxy billions of light-years away, shedding light on one of the great cosmic mysteries, which some suggest could be a sign of alien life.

Known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), the flashes of emissions were first noticed in 2007 and appear to originate from galaxies light-years away from Earth, but exactly what causes them still has scientists scratching their heads. The bursts are immensely powerful, giving off as much energy in the space of a few milliseconds as Earth’s sun does in a whole century.

While more than 100 FRBs have been observed since their discovery, most of them have been a one-off phenomenon, giving off only a single burst. But more recently, scientists have found that a small number of FRBs repeat, noticing regular patterns or “activity cycles” behind the enigmatic flashes

One repeating burst – FRB 121102, emitting from a small dwarf galaxy about three billion light-years away from Earth – was watched for some five years by researchers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in England, revealing a 157-day pattern. The burst appears to flare up for 90 days, only to die down for another 67 before repeating again, according to the findings, which were recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal.

Though the researchers still can’t say what’s behind the cyclic activity, a number of explanations have been put forward, some suggesting the pulses are caused by the ‘wobble’ of a rotating magnetar – or a highly magnetized neutron star – while others posit they are linked to the orbital motions of a binary star system.

Lacking a definitive natural explanation for the mystery bursts, in 2017 researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics decided to explore unnatural causes, conducting a study theorizing that a massive solar-powered alien radio transmitter may be sending off the bursts in order to power “interstellar light sails.” They found that such a feat would be technically possible, but would require a solar panel with an area twice the size of Earth, putting it far beyond mankind’s current abilities. Though the scientists acknowledged the work was highly speculative, they nonetheless said it was “worth contemplating” an “artificial origin” for the radio bursts, which continue to baffle astronomers.


About Black Holes

The Closest Known Black Hole From Earth Can Be “Seen” With The Naked Eye

By Mayukh Saha / Truth Theory

European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers are astonished to find the closest black hole from Earth. The researchers are saying if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, you can observe this black hole with the naked eye at night. The reason one can so easily view it is that it is only a thousand light-years away from us!

Petr Hadrava is the co-author of the paper published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, which discusses this black hole. He is a scientist at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague. He explains how the team was surprised to realize that they had found the first stellar system with a black hole that can be observed from Earth unaided.

This relatively dark black hole was rather difficult to spot for the scientists. Black holes are known to flare up when they feed on their companion stars’ matter, which reveals their location to the astronomers. But this particular one did not exhibit such behavior. So it had to be spotted only by tracking its gravitational effect on 2 nearby stars. ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile found this black hole with its 2.2-meter telescope.

The researchers were initially observing this HR 6819 system for its 2 very closely spaced stars. One of those stars was orbiting a black every 40 Earth days. So the researchers studied its trajectory to conclude that the black hole was quite big.

“An invisible object with a mass at least 4 times that of the Sun can only be a black hole,” Thomas Rivinius, lead author and ESO scientist, said in the statement.

The handful of black holes discovered in our Milky Way were all discovered with the help of the bright flashes of X-rays they gave away when they were interacting with their environment. But the way our closest black hole was discovered, by studying its gravitational effects, means there are many more such black holes we can now find with this method.

Astronomers are trailing another system LB-1 which they believe also has 3 bodies like the HR 6819. LB-1 is further from Earth than HR 6819 but still relatively close, said another co-author of the paper, Marianne Heida.

Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada


Aliens Harvesting Stars’ Energy?

Aliens May Be Rearranging Stars to Fight Dark Energy, Awesome Study Suggests

  • Aliens May Be Rearranging Stars to Fight Dark Energy, Awesome Study Suggests

Credit: Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock

How to dominate the universe in three easy steps …

Step 1: Harvest all of your planet’s resources.

Step 2: Harvest all of your nearest star’s energy.

Step 3: Harvest all the energy from all the stars in your local galaxy; then move on to another galaxy.

Congratulations! Your species now has all the elbow room it needs to grow into a universal superpower.

That’s one Russian astronomer’s perspective, anyway. Astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev first proposed these three phases (called Level I, II and III) of galactic expansion — which he referred to as the three “types” of technologically advanced civilizations — in 1962 as a way to measure the energy consumption of increasingly powerful societies. Recently, a paper posted June 13 to the preprint journal has revived Kardashev’s model and added a new, apocalyptic twist.

According to the author of the paper, Dan Hooper — a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago — harvesting energy from distant stars isn’t just the best way to increase a civilization’s available resources. It’s also the only way to prevent the ever-expanding universe from leaving that civilization totally alone in the vastness of space. (This study has yet to be peer-reviewed.)

“The presence of dark energy in our universe is causing space to expand at an accelerating rate,” Hooper wrote in the new paper. Over the next approximately 100 billion years, the stars beyond our Local Group, or a group of gravitationally bound galaxies that includes the Milky Way, will fall beyond the cosmic horizon, meaning an observer here could never retrieve information from them over the course of the age of the universe.

At that point, “the stars become not only unobservable, but entirely inaccessible, thus limiting how much energy could one day be extracted from them,” Hooper wrote in the paper.

In other words, if humans hope to meet aliens in distant galaxies, it’ll be a race against dark energy, that mysterious force thought to be uncontrollably stretching our universe farther and farther apart.

That, of course, is how we’ll find the aliens.

Any advanced civilization worth their starships would understand the grim reality of universal expansion, Hooper wrote, and they wouldn’t just sit around idly while the universe literally passed them by. Rather, they would capture stars from other galaxies, reel them in and harvest their energy first, before those stars (and their energy) became inaccessible forever.

“Given the inevitability of the encroaching horizon, any sufficiently advanced civilization that is determined to maximize its ability to utilize energy will expand throughout the universe, attempting to secure as many stars as possible before they become permanently inaccessible,” Hooper wrote.

So, how do you lasso a star in the first place? Scientists and science-fiction authors alike have pondered this question for decades, and their favored answer is this: Throw a giant net around it, of course.

This net wouldn’t be made of twine or even metal, but of satellites — a swarm of millions of solar-powered satellites known as “Dyson spheres.” Such a colossal cloud of harvesters could permanently hover around a star, beaming energy back to a nearby planet — or, as Hooper proposed in his new paper, actually use that star’s energy to accelerate the whole ball of fire back toward the planet that wanted to use it.

This may seem like a tall order for humans, who are still bumbling around Level I of Kardashev’s scale. (Carl Sagan placed us at about a 0.7 in 1973). But some scientists think there could be alien civilizations thousands, or even millions, of years older than ours who are already well into their Level III, star-harvesting phase.

And if another civilization has indeed begun rearranging the stars, it may not be long before Earthlings notice them, Hooper wrote.

“Those stars that are currently en route to the central civilization could be visible as a result of the propulsion that they are currently undergoing,” Hooper wrote. “Such acceleration would necessarily require large amounts of energy and likely produce significant fluxes of electromagnetic radiation.”

Beyond watching for those stars being dragged unceremoniously across distant galaxies, astronomers could also keep an eye out for the unusual galaxies that have had their prime stars ripped away from them, Hooper wrote.

These hypothetical, star-harvesting aliens will probably be picky, Hooper noted: Teeny-tiny stars, hundreds of times smaller than Earth’s sun, wouldn’t produce enough radiation to be useful; significantly larger stars, on the other hand, would likely be too close to going supernova to be used as a viable battery. Only stars with a mass about 20 to 100 times the mass of our sun would be viable candidates for capturing and hauling back to the home galaxy, Hooper said. And because solar objects in that mass range radiate certain wavelengths of light more than others, alien star harvesting would show up in the light signatures from these galaxies.

“The spectrum of starlight from a galaxy that has had its useful stars harvested by an advanced civilization would be dominated by massive stars and thus peak at longer wavelengths than otherwise would have been the case,” Hooper said.

Humans likely don’t have precise enough instruments yet to detect these unusual light signatures beaming from the depths of the universe, Hooper wrote. Hopefully, astronomers will develop them before our sun becomes another flaming marble in some distant civilization’s collection.

Originally published on Live Science.


The Birth of a Planet

Scientists photograph the moment a new planet is born using the most powerful telescope ever built

  • The image was taken by the VLT, which is found in the Atacama desert, Chile
  • The black circle at the centre of the image is created by a filter
  • It allows astronomers to filter out the light from the star and see only the planet
  • Known as PDS70, the planet is several times heavier than Jupiter
  • It has a surface temperature of more than 1,000°C and is 370 light years away

Scientists have used the most powerful telescope ever built for peering into the depths of the universe to witness a planet being born for the first time.

The newborn world was snapped using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth.

It was the telescope’s Sphere instrument, which allows experts to measure the brightness of the planet, that initially made the discovery.

Researchers were alerted to the birth of the new world by analysing different wavelengths of light to measures the properties of its atmosphere.

The discovery is a significant step forward in space exploration and provides new insight into how planets form.

This spectacular image from the Sphere instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image

This spectacular image from the Sphere instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image

The discovery was led by a team at the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy as part of the European Southern Observatory project.

Dubbed PDS 70b, the new planet is seen emerging from the shadow of its young star as the solar system forms.

Previous attempts to watch planet formation have been obscured by a cloud of dust from the new world.

However, this latest image from the VLT bypassed the dust by analysing the light around the newly-formed planet.

The dark region at the centre of the image produced is due to a filter which blocks the blinding light of the star and allows astronomers to detect the planet.

The planet itself is the bright orb of light to the right of the black disk.

The coronograph is a key part of the discovery, as without it, the sheer brightness of the light produced by its host star PDS 70 would overwhelm any light coming from the planet, making it indistinguishable.


The European Southern observatory (ESO) built the most powerful telescope ever made and called it the Very Large Telescope (VLT).

The telescope is widely regarded as one of the most advanced optical instruments ever made and consists of four Telescopes.

The main mirrors measures 8.2 metres (27 feet) in diameter and there are also four movable 1.8 metre (six feet) diameter auxiliary telescopes.

The large telescopes are called Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun.

The first of the Unit Telescopes, ‘Antu’, went into routine scientific operations on 1 April 1999.

The telescopes can work together to form a giant ‘interferometer’.

This interferometer allows images to be filtered for any unnecessary obscuring objects and, as a result, astronomers can see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes.

It has been involved in spotting the first image of an extrasolar planet, tracking individual stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way and observing the afterglow of the furthest known Gamma ray burst.

‘These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them,’ explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet.

‘The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.’

It is believed that the planet is roughly 1.8 billion miles (three billion kilometres) from the central star, about the same as the distance between Uranus and the Sun.

For scale, that is almost as far as travelling around Earth’s equator almost 75,000 times.

Despite being this far from its star, the gas giant has a mass a few times heavier than Jupiter and its surface temperature exceeds 1,000°C (1832°F).

The newborn world was snapped using the ESO's Very Large Telescope (pictured) in Chile's Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth. It filtered out the signals of other celestial bodies to make the discovery possible

The newborn world was snapped using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (pictured) in Chile’s Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth. It filtered out the signals of other celestial bodies to make the discovery possible

Sphere had to use specially designed observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around the bright young star to make this discovery possible.

Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of the teams, summarises the scientific adventure: ‘After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now Sphere enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!’

The Kepler telescope has been used to capture pictures of planets in their formative years, but not at this level of detail.

Dr Keppler says that the methods employed by the Kepler telescope, which is in orbit, are not perfect.

Kepler looks for drops in brightness as a planet passes in front of the star.

‘In this case we now have a direct image [of the planet] in its ‘birthplace’, which is the circumstellar disc,’ Dr Keppler told The Guardian.

‘This is especially important because people have been wondering [for a long time], how these planets actually form and how the dust and the material in this disc forms [into] a planet, and now we can directly observe this.’

The full findings will be published in two upcoming papers in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

for more, including video, go to:

Non-Group Sun Grazing Comet

UNUSUAL COMET DIVE-BOMBS THE SUN: Astronomers are puzzling over a comet that passed “insanely close” to the sun on Feb. 19th. At first glance it appeared to be a small object, not much bigger than a comet-boulder, doomed to disintegrate in the fierce heat. Instead, it has emerged apparently intact and is actually brightening as it recedes from the sun. Click to view a post-flyby movie recorded on Feb. 20th by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO):

Unofficially, the icy visitor is being called “SOHO-2875,” because it is SOHO’s 2,875th comet discovery.

Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab explains what’s odd about SOHO-2875: “It’s a ‘non-group comet,’ meaning that it does not appear to be related to any other comet or comet family that we have on record.”

Most comets that SOHO sees belong to the Kreutz family. Kreutz sungrazers are fragments from the breakup of a single giant comet many centuries ago. They get their name from 19th century German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who studied them in detail. SOHO-2875, however, is not one of those fragments.

“Non-group comets like this appear a few times a year, so in that sense it’s not too unusual,” continues Battams. “But this one is relatively bright. The big question most people will have now is, Can I see it, or will I be able to see it, from Earth? At first I thought the answer was no. But I am very pleasantly surprised–shocked in fact! The comet has brightened dramatically and now is sporting an increasingly impressive tail. Visibility from Earth in a few weeks is no longer out of the question, although I still wouldn’t put money on it.”

“I’ll continue to tweet updates on my feed, so folks can follow along there too.”