In June 2022, a rocket will launch carrying the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, a spacecraft made by the European Space Agency and Airbus. And as it hurtles through the cosmos on its mission to study Jupiter’s moons, it will carry with it the blessing of…Sonic the Hedgehog.
One of the instruments onboard was developed in Japan by Tohoku University, who wanted Sonic as the mascot for one of the mission’s principal tests—a Radio & Plasma Wave Investigation, or RPWI—and got Sega’s blessing.
I’m going to assume that this test involves some kind of probe that wiggles, otherwise that logo is going to take some explaining.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or JUICE, is scheduled to arrive at Jupiter in 2029, where it will perform tests on three of the planet’s moons—Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa—to see if any of them are habitable, since they’re believed to each contain large bodies of water.
Once JUICE is out of fuel, it’s designed to “deorbit” and crash into the surface of Ganymede in 2034.
The winners of the 2019 Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year have been announced. This year’s crop features a stunning images, from auroras and sunspots to galaxies and nebulas—along with a perspective of a lunar eclipse unlike anything we’ve seen before.
This is the 11th running of the contest, which is held by the Royal Observatory Greenwich in cooperation with Insight Investment and BBC Sky at Night Magazine. A record 4,600 entries were submitted this year from 90 countries. For this year’s contest, the organizers introduced a new category: The Sir Patrick Moore prize for Best Newcomer category, which, in its inaugural year, was awarded to two different photographers.
Hungary’s László Francsics won top prize for his photo, “Into the Shadows,” earning him £10,000 ($12,350). The image depicts 35 phases of the total lunar eclipse on January 21, 2019.
“In a year that celebrates 50 years since the first lunar landings it is fitting that this year’s overall winning image captures such a dynamic and captivating view of our Moon,” said competition judge Oana Sandu from the European Southern Observatory in a press release. “A worthy winner indeed.”
Prizes in the Best Newcomer category were awarded to Shuchang Dong for his beautiful monochrome photo of sand dunes and stars in north-central China, and to Ross Clark for his image of the Orion constellation.
A stunning photo of the crescent Moon taken during the daytime by Rafael Ruiz was awarded runner-up in the Our Moon category, while a visually intense photo of stellar prominences shooting up from the Sun like fireworks, snapped by Alan Friedman, won top prize in the Our Sun category. Winner of the galaxies category went to Rolf Wahl Olsen, who snapped a cool pic of elliptical galaxy NHG 3923.
Other winners included Ben Bush for his photo of himself, his dog Floyd, and the glorious sky above, Andy Casely for a series of images depicting a global dust storm on Mars, László Francsics for an infrared version of Saturn, Wang Zhen for a stunning starscape taken in Mongolia, and Ignacio Diaz Bobillo for his photo of nebulae, among other contest winners.
“Every year the standard rises, and entrants continue to find creative new ways to express their artistry,” said Tom Kerss, a contest judge and an astronomer at the Royal Observatory, in a press release. “This year’s selection contains so many unique approaches to astrophotography—real love letters to the art form, which stay with you long after you’ve seen them. I’m looking forward to the discussions these images will inspire about our shared sky, and the ever-expanding field of capturing and interpreting it. With such a beautiful collection to talk about, the competition really has become astrophotography’s ‘World Cup’.”
Eleven-year-old Davy van der Hoeven from the Netherlands won top prize in the Young Astronomy of the Photographer of the Year category. His photo, “Stellar Flower,” shows the stunning Rosette Nebula.
Runner up in the Young Astronomy of the Photographer of the Year category went to 14-year-old Matúš Motlo from Slovakia, who captured sunspots on the Sun.
Congratulations to all of these winners. The photographs will be displayed at the National Maritime Museum in London starting on September 13, 2019.
For the first time, a government is supporting a plan to create animal embryos with human cells and bring them to term, resulting in a type of humanimal known as a human-animal chimera.
According to Nature, a committee from Japan’s science ministry signed off on a request by researchers to grow human pancreases in either rats or mice, the first such experiment to gain approval since a government ban was reversed earlier this year.
“Finally, we are in a position to start serious studies in this field after 10 years of preparation,” lead researcher Hiromitsu Nakauchi told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Researchers have previously created human-animal embryos, such as sheep and pig embryos with human cells, but those pregnancies were terminated after a few days or weeks. This experiment aims to eventually bring chimera embryos to term, resulting in the birth of real, living, breathing humanimals.
But to the disappointment of some of my coworkers (and potentially many readers), this is not a step towards catgirls, nor is it a way to cross yourself with your favorite animal. Scientists perform this kind of research with the hope of one day providing a source of transplantable human organs from animals we already have the infrastructure to slaughter, such as pigs. Human organs for transplant are otherwise scarce.
For this research, Nakauchi’s team will engineer rodent embryos that are unable to grow their own pancreases, then put human stem cells into them with the goal of having the embryos develop pancreases from human cells. They will then transplant the embryos into adult rodents, but Nakauchi told Nature they plan to proceed carefully, first growing them to near-term before pursuing a live birth some time in the future. Should too many human cells get into the embryos’ brains, they will pause the experiment, according to Asahi Shimbun.
If you have ethical concerns with this, you’re not the only one. In 2017, Carolyn Neuhaus, a medical ethicist now at The Hastings Center, told Gizmodo that scientists need to step back and have these ethical discussions as a community.
Some of the biggest ethical questions—such as what happens if human cells get into a test animal’s brain—seem to be addressed by the Japanese study’s design. But the rest of the story—like whether it’s right to harvest human organs from a pig—isn’t that much different from debates surrounding the ethics of industrial agriculture or using animals in research.
“I don’t think they’d be worse morally from how we raise pigs for meat, but my hunch is that the way to raise pigs to retrieve organs would require a departure from the way pigs are raised [for research],” Neuhaus said. Another important voice to be heard in this debate is that of folks who actually need organs.
So, in short, the humanimals of 2019 probably aren’t the kind that haunt will your nightmares. But the humanimals of tomorrow? Well, that’s up to your imagination to dream up.
SoundmodoIn this Gizmodo series, we find out what things sound, sounded, and would sound like.
If you’ve ever watched a science-fiction movie, you might think you know what lasers sound like: some variation of a noise you could write as “pew.” But, you’ve used a laser pointer, right? Did it go “pew”?
Powerful lasers do make sounds—but they’re not “pew” and they don’t come from the light itself. Instead, the noise comes from the equipment that generates the laser light or the interaction between a laser beam and an object.
First, let’s discuss what a laser really is. Matter is made of many atoms, around which there are electrons. Electrons can only exist in certain locations around those atoms, called energy levels. If you excite an electron with energy, it will jump to a higher energy level. Some time later, it might spontaneously jump to a lower energy level, causing the atom to emit a particle of light, called a photon. But rather than wait, you can also stimulate the emission yourself by hitting the laser with more properly tuned photons. The result is a tight beam of photons with synced-up electromagnetic fields. Lasers are devices that produce light based on this principle.
Modern lasers typically consist of some electrical source providing energy to a crystal placed between a mirror and another mirror that allows some light through. Light bounces back and forth between the mirrors and through the crystal, stimulating the emission of the crystal’s photons, which exit through the partial mirror. Other optics, power sources, and more crystals further tune the shape, duration, and power of the laser pulse.
But sound is produced by vibrations through air, not by light. A beam of laser light itself does not make any noise.
Producing laser beams can still be a noisy operation, though. The high-voltage power supply to laser pulses can make clicking noises, as shown in this video of scientists producing pulses using the powerful BELLA laser in Berkeley, California. The European XFEL laser, the brightest source of x-rays in the world, is extremely loud—but visitors are actually hearing the whirring of machinery and the flow of water through the setup, which cools the equipment.
Additionally, European XFEL is driven by a particle accelerator, which is further cooled by liquid helium. That requires compressors in order to reach cold temperatures, generating a loud machine sound.
The beam interacting with various mediums can also create noises. In the first half of the video above from the BELLA laser team, you can hear a static clicking sound. In this case, a laser is traveling left-to-right across the screen and is focused into a 20-micrometer-wide beam, generating an electric field strong enough that it forces electrons off of atoms in the intervening space. This generates a plasma that expands with a faster velocity than the speed of sound in air, creating a shockwave and the accompanying sound. It also changes the optical properties of the air, creating the colored ring and flashes projected onto the far wall.
A high-energy laser pulse striking material can also produce a loud noise. At the Biomedical Laser and Optics Group of the University of Basel in Switzerland, researcher Ferda Canbaz shines a powerful laser against bone, generating vibrational energy and noise as it chips away material. And in the video of the BELLA laser from Wim Leemans, you hear a loud boom—this is a shockwave produced by blasting energy into an unexposed black polaroid.
So, no, today’s lasers typically don’t make “pew” sounds. But perhaps the deafening shock wave is a more realistic way to represent today’s lasers’ incredible power.
Some insects will only live in the freshest, cleanest water. Others are happy in any dirty old bog. Scientists can use the bugs in a water source as an indicator of water quality, and in a variety of citizen science projects, you can too.
The website has an identification key, so you can answer a few quick questions and quickly find the right group of creatures—for example, if it has three tails it’s in the damselfly order. And then you can browse the different species in detail; each creature was photographed thousands of times so you don’t miss anything. (Again, do not click these links unless you really, really like looking at pictures of bugs.)
The website highlights and explains the differences between similar species, making it easier to use than traditional field guides. Only the most common species are included, so it’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s meant to be handy for students and citizen scientists—or anybody who finds a bug in a stream and wants to know what it is.
A satellite tracker in the Netherlands has captured stunning video of dozens of SpaceX Starlink satellites passing overhead. Launched together late last week, the chain of satellites looked like a giant, brightly lit train chugging away in the night sky—a rare sight that understandably prompted UFO sightings.
Marco Langbroek, a spy satellite tracker and astronomer, spotted the string of Starlink satellites from a tracking station located in Leiden, the Netherlands. Using data from last week’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, he calculated a probable search orbit, got his camera ready, and was duly rewarded.
Just before 1:00 a.m. local time on May 25 (10:55 pm UT on May 24 to be exact), the Starlink train drifted into Langbroek’s view. The satellites had only recently been deployed and were still parked in orderly, soldier-like formation. On his website, SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log, Langbroek wrote:
My search orbit turned out to be not too bad: very close in sky track, and with the objects passing some 3 minutes early on the predictions. And what a SPECTACULAR view it was!
It started with two faint, flashing objects moving into the field of view. Then, a few tens of seconds later, my jaw dropped as the ‘train’ entered the field of view. I could not help shouting “OAAAAAH!!!!” (followed by a few expletives…).
Langbroek uploaded the video to Vimeo, writing on his site, “be prepared to be mind-blown!”
Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 23, these 60 satellites are the first build-out of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet constellation. Eventually, the plan is for this telecommunications system to provide low-cost broadband internet access to paying customers around the planet, including remote areas where internet service is hard to come by. Starlink won’t reach “significant operational capacity” until at least 800 satellites are placed in orbit, so the private company still has a way to go.
Late last week, the 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing 500 pounds (227 kg), were placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles). The intended orbit is much higher. Accordingly, each satellite is equipped with a Hall ion thruster, which will enable the units to adjust their positions in orbit, hold an intended altitude, and even deorbit themselves when the time comes. SpaceX doesn’t expect these satellites to last more than five years, after which time they’ll dip back into Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate during reentry; SpaceX intends to replace old satellites with newer models over the course of the project.
Importantly, this Starlink train is a temporary feature. The satellites will drift further and further apart with each successive orbit of Earth. This train, as Langbroek wrote at his website, “will probably quickly dissipate.”
Langbroek wasn’t the only person to see the amazing sight; commenters at his website said they saw the formation in Minnesota, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere. Understandably, the strange sight prompted concerns of UFOs, as AFP reported via CTV News:
Shortly afterwards, Dutch website www.ufomeldpunt.nl was inundated with more than 150 sighting reports, with astonished spotters describing a “bizarre train of stars or lights moving across the skies at constant speed.”
“There’s a long line of lights. Faster than a plane. Huh?” one spotter reported, while another called it a “star caravan” and one saying “I have it on film”.
One spotter simply texted: “WTF?”
“I didn’t know what to make of it,” an unnamed witness later told the NOS public broadcaster.
“Is it Russia attacking the US? Are they UFOs? Seriously, I didn’t know,” the witness said.
Thankfully it wasn’t an alien invasion—but this likely won’t be the last Starlink train we’ll get to see, and as a result, not the last time we’ll experience a wave of related UFO sightings. SpaceX needs least 800 Starlink satellites in orbit to gain full functionality of the system, and a total of 1,000 for the project to become economically viable for the company. Incredibly, Elon Musk also envisions as many as 12,000 Starlink satellites as part of the constellation. If that’s true, we can expect many more transient Starlink trains in the coming months and years.
“A pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior (‘digital gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’), which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, manifested by:
Impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context);
Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and
Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The behavior pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
According to Gameindustry.biz, WHO explained the decision to include gaming disorder was made by experts from different disciplines and regions and was based on reviews of available evidence.
In June of 2018, WHO finalized the ICD-11 and various video game industry organizations, such as the ESA, pushed back on the decision. Gameindustry.biz reported last year that the ESA felt the decision in June “recklessly trivializes real mental health issues like depression and social anxiety disorder.”
Today, WHO has announced the ICD-11 will go into effect on January 1, 2022.
Gaming addiction has long been a problem for some and has been a highly debated and often discussed topic among health officials, gamers, researchers and politicians. Dr. Douglas Gentile, a psychologist, and the Iowa State University’s Media Research Lab head told Kotaku in an interview in 2017 that, after surveying thousands of subjects, “We found that gaming precedes the depression if they’re damming enough areas of their life where it counts as a disorder.”
Sea Hero Quest is a video game developed in partnership with Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, game studio Glitchers and several European universities and it is designed to identify individuals who might have early and mild symptoms of dementia that medical tests aren’t able to detect.
When most folks think of Alzheimer’s disease they think of an illness that ruins a person’s memory. But while memory problems are very common and severe with Alzheimer’s disease, these are late-stage symptoms. Researchers and doctors want to catch the disease as early as possible, before memory loss occurs, to give future treatments the best chance at working.
In Sea Hero Quest, which is a VR game, players have to navigate and control a virtual boat. They are given a map and shown checkpoints, then the map is taken away and players must navigate to these checkpoints in the game world without the map.
According to researchers, every two minutes spent playing the game is equal to five hours of lab-based research. Because Sea Hero Quest has been out for a few years and downloaded and played by over three million players they’ve collected the equivalent of 1,700 years of research data on Alzheimer’s.
Researchers involved with the project studied people who carried the APOE4 gene, which is thought to increase that person’s risk of developing dementia, as they played the game. They then compared these people’s results to the results of folks who played the game who don’t have that gene.
“We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse on spatial navigation tasks. They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals,” said Professor Michael Hornberger, a member of the team.
Using data gathered from thousands of players who downloaded and played Sea Hero Quest, researchers were able to create a baseline that their test results could be compared to. In the future, the team hopes this data and the game will help identify people who need treatment for dementia before they begin suffering from some of the worse later stage symptoms.
Zack Geballe spent months screwing together pairs of polished diamonds at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Geophysical Laboratory. Theory predicted that squeezed between the diamonds’ tips could be one of the most miraculous substances of modern physics—a material that, at near room temperature, could transport electricity without losing power. He just needed to get the samples to Argonne National Lab outside Chicago to heat them up with laser pulses.
When Argonne beam line scientist Yue Meng turned the lasers on, all four diamonds cracked in half.
“It was a total catastrophe,” Geballe told me while I was visiting him at the Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, DC, this year.
But things have turned around in the past year; two competing teams of scientists have measured near-room-temperature superconductivity in a material called lanthanum hydride. Their success realizes the efforts of over a century of theories, experimental results, disappointments, and cracked diamonds. Nonetheless, their achievement is just one small advance from nearly 110 years of scientific development
Superconductors are materials that can transmit electrical charge without any resistance—unlike a copper wire, for example, which heats up from passing electric current, weakening the transmitted signal. Superconductors have found an important use generating the intense magnetic fields required by MRI machines and high-energy particle physics experiments, but they must be kept at temperatures far colder than those we naturally experience on Earth.
Superconductors haven’t seen widespread commercial applications due to their cost, the effort required to produce them, and perhaps reluctance by old-school companies to adopt such a radically new material, reports IEEE Spectrum. But a room-temperature superconductor could drastically decrease energy costs and might end up in new technologies that scientists haven’t even dreamed of yet.
Now feels like a turning point: lanthanum hydride is the closest a room-temperature superconductor has felt to reality. But visiting with Geballe at the Geophysical Laboratory, it was hard to imagine the slivers of the material—smaller than the width of a human hair—fashioned into a wire or used in any technology at all. Nor is that the point. Materials scientists are working at the boundary of the present and the future, performing grueling, hands-on research hoping to develop substances that might not even have any applications.
“Who knows?” Geballe told me when I asked whether we’d ever see high-temperature superconductors that can exist without being squeezed between diamonds. “Maybe next year, maybe never.”
Crushing hydrogen (and hopes)
Many of the tools used to create lanthanum hydride can fit in the palm of your hand, and many were already set out on a lab bench when I’d arrived at one of the brick buildings on a hill accented by flowering pink magnolia trees on Geophysical Lab’s campus. A pair of interlocking steel cylinders slightly larger than D-cell batteries each contained a diamond, point facing upward, at their tops. The points were polished into flat surfaces less than a tenth of a millimeter wide.
When the experiment works as planned, one of the researchers carefully sandwiches lanthanum foil and hydrogen gas in between the diamonds’ flat surfaces. Then, by merely twisting a pair of screws with wrenches held in each hand, the researcher generates pressures of at least 170 GPa—pressures similar to those in the Earth’s core—between the diamond tips. Then they bring the compressed diamond anvil cells, as they’re called, to Argonne National Lab in Illinois. That’s where the big science happens. Argonne scientist Yue Meng helps the team heat the material with laser pulses, producing the chemical reaction that would create the material. Geophysical Laboratory x-ray scientist Maria Baldini, now at Fermilab, then helps measure the material’s crystalline structure using the x-rays from a pipe branching off of the 3,622-foot-round Advanced Photon Source particle accelerator to confirm that they’d successfully synthesized the material.
And that’s just creating the material—they’d still need to fit electronic components onto a diamond’s surface in order to measure whether they’d created asuperconductor. Plus, they’d need to heat a sample without cracking the diamonds. At these high pressures, the diamonds really want to crack.
“We’re at the point of no return,” Maddury “Zulu” Somayazulu, associate research professor now at George Washington University, told Gizmodo. “Once you take the diamonds to pressures above a million times [the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level], they’re not going to survive. A lot of times, what would happen is we would synthesize a material at the Argonne lab, come back to Geophysical Lab very happy, and find out that the diamond is cracked.”
The first superconductors predate penicillin, television, or the transistor on which computers are built. They were created without diamond anvil cells, lasers, or particle accelerators. Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity in 1911, in the element mercury held to -452 degrees Fahrenheit (-269 Celsius), just a few degrees above the temperature at which matter has no heat.
Theorists John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer finally developed a theory, now called BCS theory, to explain this behavior in 1957, based on quantum mechanical effects in the materials’ electrons. Frustratingly, scientists would observe superconductivity vanishing in the presence of strong enough magnetic fields or at higher temperatures. Separately, theoretical physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington theorized in 1935 that under high enough pressure, hydrogen would become a metal. Physicist Neil Ashcroft realized in 1970 that this metallic hydrogen might be a high-temperature superconductor and, later, that materials containing mostly hydrogen plus another element mixed in, called hydrides, might also be high-temperature superconductors.
Only after all these scientific advances did physicists have all the ingredients to produce the Holy Grail of materials science.
The impacts of this work wouldn’t fully materialize until the 2010s. Both experimental method (like the tools required to crush hydrogen under immense pressures and make electrical measurements of the material) and theory (like which hydrogen-rich materials the physicists should pursue) would need time to catch up. For much of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the records for highest-temperature superconductors were instead held by “cuprates,” copper-containing materials that don’t seem to follow the rules of the BCS theory.
But cuprates were brittle and their behavior was difficult to predict, Somayazulu explained, and hydrides started catching up. By the start of the 2010s, theorists offered a bounty of tantalizing promises to physicists hunting for near room-temperature hydride superconductors. They predicted that calcium hydride would become a superconductor at temperatures experienced on a cold Chicago day, though researchers could only attain superconductivity in the hydride silane at a temperature only a bit warmer than absolute zero in 2008.
Then in 2014, a team led by Russian physicist Mikhail Eremets would blow the field open by demonstrating superconductivity at temperatures a few hundred degrees above absolute zero by compressing hydrogen sulfide gas. In 2015, they showed the compressed gas becoming a superconductor at temperatures sometimes experienced during the Antarctic winter. It was a revelation.
A miracle in a gas
Once a department head at the High Pressure Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union during the late Cold War, Eremets later traveled to universities around the world researching high-pressure physics. He eventually went on to lead his own group at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany. He was hoping to crush hydrogen. “Everything was related to metallic hydrogen,” he told Gizmodo by phone.
Eremets is a veteran atom-crusher. “I focus on some very difficult problem, and try to solve it by any means,” he said. “I cannot stop until I solve it.”
The hydrogen sulfide gas Eremets’ team was compressing isn’t an exotic material—it’s a rotten egg-smelling gas found throughout the Solar System and produced in our own bodies. “It was available,” Eremets explained. It’s fairly easy to handle. After compressing it to pressures nearly a million times that of the air you breathe, and cooling it to -94 Fahrenheit (-70 Celsius)—again, think cold Antarctic winter—signs of superconductivity emerged. The resistance dropped to zero and magnetic fields didn’t pass through the sample—a crucial signature of superconductivity.
It was almost magical. Hydrogen sulfide was supposed to take on superconductive properties, but not until temperatures dropped much lower than those observed. The team theorized that under high pressure, some of the hydrogen sulfide atoms had taken on extra hydrogen atoms, bestowing them the higher transition temperature.
High-pressure hydrides have finally begun to show off their theorized promise as high-temperature superconductors. And the race was on to synthesize ones whose resistances dropped at even higher temperatures—perhaps even at room temperature.
The race begins
Back in the United States, influential high-pressure scientist Russell Hemley (now at George Washington University) assembled a hydride-hunting team of his own. Then based at the Geophysical Lab, it included Somayazulu, superconductivity researcher Muhetaer Aihaiti, beamline and x-ray scientist Maria Baldini, and theorists Ivan Naumov and Hanyu Liu, with the help of scientist Yue Meng at Argonne and later joined by post doctoral researchers Ajay Mishra and Zack Geballe.
Somayazulu, like Eremets, had a long history of attempting to crush hydrogen, but after many failed attempts had begun researching hydrides, while Aihaiti had previously researched superconductivity in cuprates before working in high-pressure physics. Guided by Liu’s theoretical predictions, the team worked to feed hydrogen into diamond anvil cells with pieces of yttrium or calcium wedged between the tips. After many tries, Mishra failed to synthesize the crystalline structures that the computer algorithms predicted. They set their sights on lanthanum hydride, and the task of producing that material would fall mostly to Geballe.
“By then, we had all become quite exhausted breaking all these diamonds. These were very difficult loads to do,” Somayazulu explained. “But [Geballe’s] experiment was the spark that energized us. It was right on the money.”
I met up with Geballe at the Geophysical Lab campus in northwestern Washington, DC. The scruffy, lanky physicist hadn’t planned on hunting for superconductors—his research focused more on developing new methods to measure how high-pressure materials stored heat and how matter behaves deep within the Earth. But he was wooed by the idea of working on hydrides, especially under Somayazulu’s lead. “It was pretty special that someone with so much experience had the devotion to young people who don’t know what they’re doing,” Geballe said. (He also happens to be the grandson of another well-known superconductivity researcher, Ted Geballe.)
Like the calcium and yttrium hydrides before it, lanthanum hydride proved to be a slog. Even once the sliver of lanthanum foil and hydrogen gas were wedged between the diamond cells, the team would need to find a way to insulate the material from the outside world, and to place a crosshair of wires onto the diamond tips that would touch the lanthanum hydride crystal on four sides so they could measure whether it turned into a superconductor. But after months of effort, they simply couldn’t find the signature in their x-ray measurements showing that they’d successfully created the material.
Then, Somayazulu remembered something from his past experiments. He’d hoped that a material called ammonia borane could become a useful hydrogen storage tool.But instead, it released hydrogen atoms under pressure. Rather than hydrogen gas, ammonia borane would offer the hydrogen atoms that the experiment needed in a more controllable way. This still wasn’t an easy substance to work with: It’s a highly reactive, flaky white powder that absorbs moisture right out of the air. You have to handle it in a glove box with the atmospheric air removed, lest you take another unsuccessful trip to Chicago. But it supplied the necessary hydrogen.
Said Somayazulu: “We put two and two together, we tried it, and it worked.”
All they had to do was bring these samples to Argonne to heat the squeezed lanthanum foil and ammonia boranewith the special laser-pulsing technique developed by Meng to create lanthanum hydride. A constant laser beam on the diamonds could crack them, so Meng’s method instead used short laser pulses to heat the sample. “To control the short pulse is pretty much the key,” she said. Baldini would help them measure the crystalline structure of the outcome to confirm whether or not they’d actually produced the material.
After shattering all of those diamonds, the team finally made lanthanum hydride in June 2017—with pressures slightly below what the initial theories had suggested—and published their results later that year. After bringing the material back to the lab at the Carnegie Institute, Somayazulu led the effort to successfully measure zero resistance in the material at temperatures higher than 8 Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius), perhaps as high as 44 Fahrenheit (7 Celsius)—an autumn night in DC. They began working on a paper, hoping to be the first to broadcast their historic findings to the world. The pressure was on.
All this time, Eremets’ lab hadn’t published papers on lanthanum hydride—though the Geophysical Lab team knew that, given how good an experimentalist Eremets was, there was no doubt he himself was working on something important. “We were sure Eremets would reproduce it immediately,” Somayazulu said. In May 2018, Hemley presented the results at a conference in Madrid, and a reporter for Physics Today magazine began writing a story about the unpublished result.
But on August 21, Eremets’ team’s paper, documenting superconductivity in lanthanum hydride at slightly lower temperatures, appeared on the arXiv physics paper server. The Washington, DC, team, whose researchers were now split between the Geophysical Laboratory and George Washington University, submitted their paper to the server on August 23, the same day that the Physics Today story came out. Eremets had won the race.
“It was out of order,” said Geballe. “I was disappointed.”
Despite publishing second, Somayazulu, Geballe, and the other researchers from the lab still chalked their results up to a win. “We were very happy that there were two groups showing similar results around the same temperature,” Somayazulu told me. “We independently verified with different techniques of making it. It’s great science.”
Aihaiti, also now at George Washington University, put it differently—the teams require one another to exist, regardless of who publishes first. “Someone else has to prove it independently, otherwise it’s invalid,” he told Gizmodo. You don’t win the Nobel Prize for a result that can’t be replicated, after all. And each member of both teams provided a crucial piece, without which the discovery would never have been made.
For all the effort, it’s hard to say whether we’ve gotten much closer to a reality of high-temperature superconductors. Lanthanum is just another material from a list of potential superconductive hydrides that theorists’ programs spat out.
It’s hard to imagine lanthanum hydride superconductors ever appearing in consumer technology. The teams synthesized only about a dust-speck worth of the material from expensive ingredients crushed to unfathomable pressures between hand-cranked diamond halves. There are yet more experiments to be done on lanthanum hydride in order to validate that it truly does become superconductive at the advertised temperatures, as well as experiments on other materials. Eventually they’ll have to figure out how to turn the pressure down.
The race to produce lanthanum hydride demonstrates the fractal-like nature of science research. Each advance builds on decades of prior knowledge—but even the efforts to synthesize lanthanum hydride were just a small snapshot of the work going on across the world on hydrides. Another well-known high-pressure physics group from the University of Osaka has joined forces with Eremets’ team to measure the superconductivity of hydrogen sulfide in a high magnetic field. HPSTAR, an institute in China established by pioneering physicist Ho-Kwang (Dave) Mao (once a Geophysical Lab scientist himself) has also joined the effort. But, while hydrides hold the high-temperature superconductor record today, there’s no telling whether other materials might prove more useful in the future. And there’s an entire field of high-pressure physics studying plenty of other properties in these materials.
But lanthanum hydride is still a critical contribution to the field. By exploring deeper—figuring out why lanthanum hydride turns into a superconductor at ambient temperatures—perhaps theorists like Liu will be able to tweak their codes to reveal other materials that will maintain superconducting behaviors at higher temperatures or lower pressures. Perhaps improvements to the fabrication process will bring cheaper materials, or maybe we’ll find a way to get high-pressure lanthanum hydride into a wire.
For now, the science progresses slowly, and even these small steps take gargantuan, international efforts. Without the work of both teams, there would be no lanthanum hydrides. Each contributing scientist played an irreplaceable role, and through competition came harmony.
“I’ve never seen this kind of fantastic synergy between theory and experiment. And there are all of these groups—in Germany, Russia, in China, in Japan, and in the United States,” Somayazulu told me, “who are working not only on predicting [superconductors], but modifying current experimental techniques to do these really challenging measurements. It’s bringing us all together, and we’re forming different alliances and groups of scientists to do it. That’s what’s great about these results.”
The twisting terrain of Vera Rubin Ridge on Mars has been home to NASA’s Curiosity for over a year, but it’s time for the rover to move on. As a final gesture before trekking toward a nearby region rich in clay, the probe captured a stunning 360-degree panorama of its final worksite at the ridge.
Curiosity is in Gale Crater where it’s been exploring iron-rich minerals in Vera Rubin Ridge for well over a year. Data gathered by the probe suggests rocks within this ridge formed from sediment that collected at the bottom of a now-dried up Martian lake. As to why these rocks aren’t eroding at the same rate of the bedrock around it, however, remains a mystery.
Having explored the area in detail, project scientists at NASA have now directed the probe to head towards a new region—a “clay-bearing unit” dubbed Glen Torridon, according to a NASA release. The rover will spend around a year exploring this region in its ongoing search for signs of prior habitability.
On December 19, 2018, Curiosity used its Mast Camera to capture a 360-degree panoramic image of its final work area at Vera Rubin Ridge, specifically a drill site known as Rock Hall. The composite image consists of 112 photographs, showing the future work area, the floor of Gale Crater, and the majestic Mount Sharp in the background. The colors in the image were adjusted to show what the rocks and sand would look like under daylight conditions on Earth.
Curiosity’s new work area, described as a trough between Vera Rubin Ridge and the mountainous area surrounding the crater, looks promising in terms of its scientific potential. Prior surveys made by NASA’s Mars orbiter suggest the rocks in this region are filled with phyllosilicates—clay minerals that form in water. Data collected at Glen Torridon could tell us more about the ancient lakes that once peppered Gale Crater during the early history of the Red Planet.
“In addition to indicating a previously wet environment, clay minerals are known to trap and preserve organic molecules,” Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada said in a statement. “That makes this area especially promising, and the team is already surveying the area for its next drill site.”
Indeed, Curiosity has already uncovered traces of clay minerals and organic molecules on Mars. On their own, organics aren’t suggestive of life, but they are the raw ingredients required for life. The prior presence of liquid water and organic molecules on the surface suggests the planet was once capable of fostering life, but more data is required to prove it. By exploring the clay-rich deposits at Glen Torridon, Curiosity may uncover evidence of the prior environments in which this hypothesized Martian life could have emerged.
If scientists can ever prove that Mars was once habitable (as opposed to actually fostering life—those are two different things), it means our Solar System once hosted at least two planets capable of hosting life. That’s a huge deal if true, with serious ramifications to our understanding of the Universe’s potential to bear life in general. To that end: Trek on Curiosity, trek on.