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Scientists plan $1.5bn laser strong enough ‘to tear the fabric of space

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A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain.

The major scientific project will follow in the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and will answer questions about the universe.

The laser will be capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it will be similar to the light the earth receives from the sun but focused on a speck smaller than a pin prick.

Extreme: A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain

Extreme: A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain.

Scientists say it will be so powerful they will be able to boil the very fabric of space and create a vacuum.

A vacuum fizzles with mysterious particles that come in and out of existence but the phenomenon happens so fast that no-one has ever actually been able to prove it.

It is hoped the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would allow scientists to prove the particles are real by pulling the vacuum fabric apart.

Scientists even believe it might help them to prove whether other dimensions actually exist.

This latest experiment will follow the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and be the next big scientific experiment

This latest experiment will follow the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider and be the next big scientific experiment.

Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire, said the laser would be the most powerful on earth.

‘At this kind of intensity we start to get into unexplored territory as it is an area of physics that we have never been before,’ he told the Sunday Telegraph.

The ELI ultra-high field laser, which will be completed by the end of the decade, will cost £1bn and the UK is among a number of European countries in the running to house it.

The European Commission has already authorised plans for three more lasers which will become prototypes for the ultra-high field laser.

Scientists hope the laser will also allow them to see how particles inside an atom behave and it is hoped it might be able to explain the mystery of why the universe contains more matter than previously detected by revealing what dark matter really is.


  • The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams – each more powerful than the prototype lasers.
  • It will produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production but in less than a trillionth a second.
  • The energy needed to power the laser will be stored up beforehand and then used to produce a beams several feet wide which will then be combined and eventually focused down onto a tiny spot.
  • The intensity of the beam is so powerful and will produce such extreme conditions, that do not even exist in the center of the sun.

Powerful: The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams - each more powerful than the prototypes

Powerful: The ultra-high field laser will be made up of 10 beams – each more powerful than the prototypes.

Via DailyMail

Is the space effort dying or evolving?

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Pessimists are bemoaning the end of U.S. human spaceflight, but optimists see the next few years as a transition to a new paradigm that will energize commercial ventures and get astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Nixon administration. Which way do you see it?

There seems to be plenty of gloom to go around as the space shuttle program nears its end. Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and other commissions sizing up the space effort, had this to say via Twitter: “Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards through time.”

One of the astronauts on the first space shuttle flight in 1981, Bob Crippen, told me that he was disappointed that the shuttle program’s end would leave NASA “without the capability to put our astronauts in orbit ourselves.” And he questioned whether NASA had the right vision for future exploration. “I personally favored going to the moon,” he said.

The frustration flared up today during a House committee hearing with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness, or sole target. “We have waited for answers that have not come,” Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, told Bolden. “We have run out of patience. … I would like to point out today that the committee reserves the right to open an investigation into these continued delays and join the investigation initiated by the Senate.”

Bolden, a retired Marine general, took the hostile fire. “You have the right guy here to criticize,” he said. “I am the leader of America’s space program.”

He laid out the main points of the post-shuttle plan:

  • Rely on the Russians and other partners for resupply of the International Space Station, at least until U.S. companies can finish work on the space vehicles they’re developing with NASA’s backing. The first commercial cargo craft could be flying to the station by the end of this year, and U.S.-made “space taxis” could be taking on astronauts by 2015.
  • Continue work on the Orion crew vehicle, which should be capable of carrying four astronauts on more ambitious trips beyond Earth orbit. Orion had been canceled as part of the Constellation back-to-the-moon program, after $5 billion had been spent on the program, but it was essentially resurrected as NASA’s “multipurpose crew vehicle,” or MPCV.
  • Build a new Space Launch System, or SLS, which will be based on shuttle-era and Apollo-era rocket technology. The design for the SLS has not yet been announced, which is why members of Congress are so frustrated. Bolden said it could take until the end of summer or even longer to get the SLS plan through its financial review. Congress passed a law calling for the MPCV spaceship and the SLS rocket to be ready by 2016, but Bolden said the 2017-2020 time frame was more realistic.
  • NASA is aiming to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s. Other stopovers, ranging from the moon to gravitational balance points in outer space, may be added along the way.

“We are not abandoning human spaceflight,” Bolden said. “American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century because we have laid the foundation for success.”

So there is an evolving plan for the future … just as there was an evolving plan for the space shuttle system in the early to mid-1970s when the Apollo program came to an end. Under the best-case scenario, that plan will lead to actual flights within four to six years, which is less time than it took between the last Saturn 5 and the first shuttle launch. But there are lots of questions surrounding the post-shuttle plan:

  • How much money will NASA get? A draft report from the House Appropriations Committee calls for trimming the space agency’s budget by roughly 10 percent. (For details, check Space Policy OnlineParabolic Arc and Space News.) NASA officials as well as commercial spaceship developers say that budget reductions will slow down the transition to post-shuttle spaceflight even more.
  • Will the commercial sector succeed? Right now, NASA is committed to paying the Russians $56 million for each seat on a station-bound Soyuz craft, and the price is due to go up in 2014. Commercial providers such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and the Boeing Co. say that they can beat that price, but that they need NASA’s money to help cover development costs. Shuttle program veterans say the commercial providers still have to prove that their craft will be safe and reliable.
  • Will the commercial space taxis for low Earth orbit and the Orion MPCV/SLS system for going beyond Earth orbit complement each other the way NASA hopes? Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ deputy manager for the Orion program, told me that the two-track system served as an insurance policy for the post-shuttle space effort. “There’s a little bit of competitive pressure,” he acknowledged. “If the commercial guys run into any problem or delay for any reason, then we could back them up. And similarly, if we don’t meet our milestones, the commercial guys could evolve into our niche.”

After 30 years of grand successes, tragic failures and unfulfilled promises, the era of the space shuttle is ending. We may not yet know exactly what kind of American spaceship will be the next to fly. And because of that, thousands of people will be laid off by NASA and its contractors in the weeks ahead. But we’re not witnessing the death of the American space program. At least that’s the way Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of SpaceX, sees it.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the death of anything,” he told me. “What we’re really facing is quite the opposite. I think we’re at the dawn of a new era of spaceflight, one which is going to advance much faster than it ever has in the past.”

Now why would he say that? Over the next few days, we’ll be presenting a series of Q&A interviews with Musk and other folks involved in shaping the post-shuttle era. What they’ve told me runs counter to the gloom-and-doom talk, but you might well have a different opinion. Feel free to weigh in with your comments.


Alan Boyle

A step closer to explaining our existence

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Fred Ullrich / Fermilab

Confidence is growing in results from a particle physics experiment at the Tevatron collider that may help explain why the universe is full of matter.

Why are we here? It remains one of the largest unexplained mysteries of the universe, but particle physicists are gaining more confidence in a result from an atom smashing experiment that could be a step toward providing an answer.

We exist because the universe is full of matter and not the opposite, so-called antimatter. When the Big Bang occurred, equal parts of both should have been created and immediately annihilated each other, leaving nothing leftover to build the stars, planets and us.

Thankfully, it didn’t happen that way. There’s an asymmetry between matter and antimatter. Why this is remains inadequately explained, Stefan Soldner-Rembold, a co-spokesman for the particle physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory  outside of Chicago, told me on Thursday.

“We are looking for a larger asymmetry than we currently know in the best theories in physics, which is called the standard model,” said Soldner-Rembold, who is based at the University of Manchester in England.

Using the Fermilab’s Tevatron collider, members of the DZero experiment are smashing together protons and their antiparticle, called antiprotons, which are perfectly symmetric in terms of matter and antimatter, he explained.

“So you expect what comes out will also be symmetric in terms of matter and antimatter,” he said. “But what we observe is that there is a slight, on the order of 1 percent, asymmetry where more matter particles are produced than antiparticles.”

This 1 percent asymmetry is larger than predicted by the standard model and thus helps explain why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.

The DZero team announced this finding of asymmetry in 2010, but their confidence in the result wasn’t sufficient to call it a discovery. At that point, there was a 0.07 chance the result was due to a random fluctuation in the data.

The team has now analyzed 1.5 times more data with a refined technique, increasing their confidence in the result. The probability that the asymmetry is due to a random fluctuation is now just 0.005 percent. They’d like to get to an uncertainty of less than 0.00005 percent before popping open the champagne.

The new results were presented Thursday at Fermilab.

“There are very high thresholds in physics so that people can really call something a discovery and be absolutely sure,” Soldner-Rembold said. “We are going in the right direction.”

Even more work at Fermilab and further, complementary experiments with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva will be required to shore up confidence that what they are seeing really is real, and thus a step toward explaining why the universe has much more matter than antimatter.

“To really understand how the universe evolved is the next step,” he said. “We do a particular process in the lab. In order to say is this enough to explain the amount of matter around us is not as easy as saying 1 percent sounds good.”

And for those hoping that science has all the answers, Soldner-Rembold cautions that science will never answer the question of “why we are here, it only tries to understand the underlying laws of nature.”


Via MSNBC/John Roach

Fermilab’s MINOS Experiment Also Sees Neutrino Quick-Change

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Physicists continue to close in on the mystery of neutrino oscillation — the process by which one type of neutrino morphs into another as it travels through space.

Two weeks ago, the Japanese T2K (Tokai to Kamioka) experiment announced the first evidence of a rare form of neutrino oscillation, whereby muon neutrinos turn into electron neutrinos as they travel from the beam source to the detectors.

Now Fermilab’s Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) has reported findings consistent with the T2K results, using different methods and analysis techniques than the Japanese researchers. The neutrinos in question traveled 450 miles from Fermilab’s Main Injector accelerator to a detector in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota.

Neutrinos are tiny subatomic particles that travel very near the speed of light. They’re extremely difficult to detect, because they very rarely interact with any type of matter, even though they’re the most abundant type of particle in the known universe. Only one out of every 1,000 billion solar neutrinos would collide with an atom on its journey through the Earth.

The Standard Model of particle physics calls for three different kinds of neutrinos (electron, muon and tau, paired to the leptons known as electron, muon and tau). These “ghost particles” have no charge and very little mass, and experiments conducted over the last 10 years indicate that they can change from one type of neutrino into another.

Prior experiments — by MINOS and the OPERA experiment at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory — provided compelling evidence of muon neutrinos morphing into tau neutrinos, but catching a muon neutrino in the act of morphing into an electron neutrino is more difficult to detect.


The T2K signal was small: just shy of of “3-sigma.” But it was still statistically strong enough, given the rarity of the event, to be considered a genuine signal, not just background noise.The experiment detected 88 candidate events for the oscillation of muon neutrinos into electron neutrinos, based on data collected between January 2010 and March 11, 2011.

In contrast, MINOS recorded a total of 62 candidate events; if this particular type of quick change does not occur, they should have recorded only 49 such events. If the T2K analysis is correct, MINOS should have seen 71 events. The slight discrepancy enables physicists to further narrow the range of values for the rate at which this transformation occurs.

As always, more data is needed before an actual “discovery” can be claimed. The T2K data run was cut short because the major earthquake that devastated Japan also damage the experiment’s muon neutrino source. But researchers expect to have the machine back online and taking more data by January 2012. With more data, the current 3-sigma signal should strengthen sufficiently to claim a solid discovery. MINOS will also continue collecting data until February 2012.

Physicists want to know more about neutrino oscillations, and their masses, because this provides a potential clue to why there is something in the universe, rather than nothing. Back when our universe was still in its infancy, matter and antimatter were colliding and annihilating each other out of existence constantly.

This process slowed down as our universe gradually cooled, but there should have been equal parts matter and antimatter. Instead, there were slightly more matter particles than antimatter, and that slight excess formed everything around us. Physicists think that neutrinos, with their teensy-tiny bits of mass, might have been the tipping point that tilted the scales to matter’s favor.

Image credit: Fermilab


Via Discovery

We May Not Live in a Hologram After All

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You may remember the hubbub that a Fermilab physicist caused last year when he started to investigate some strange results coming from the GEO600 gravitational wave experiment.

In a nutshell, GEO600 — a mindbogglingly sensitive piece of kit — started to detect what particle physicist Craig Hogan interpreted as quantum “fuzziness.” This fuzziness, or blurriness on the smallest possible scales, could be interpreted as evidence for the “holographic universe” hypothesis.

This hypothesis describes the 3-dimensional universe we live in as a projection from a 2-dimensional “shell” at the very edge of the universe. As with any projection, the projected “pixels” will become fuzzy the closer you zoom in on them. The quantum fuzziness GEO600 seemed to detect could be evidence for this projection effect. The Universe is therefore a hologram, so the idea goes.

Spurred on by the GEO600 results, Hogan is currently working on a project to build a “Holometer” at Fermilab to probe these quantum scales, hopefully shedding some light on what this fuzziness could be.

However, as announced this week, a space-borne European satellite that should be able to measure these small scales too, doesn’t appear to be registering any quantum fuzziness. In fact, it has yet to detect anything quantum, indicating that spacetime’s “graininess” is composed of quanta that a lot smaller than predicted — and in my view, puts a question mark over the interpretation of the GEO600 results.

Gamma-Ray Bursts and Grains of Quanta

The European Space Agency’s Integral gamma-ray observatory can make very precise measurements of the gamma-rays emitted by energetic (and often mysterious) gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).

GRBs are thought to be caused by the collapse of massive stars as they reach the end of their lives, explode and form neutron stars or black holes. As they explode, they blast a high-energy pulse of gamma-ray radiation from their poles, outshining entire galaxies. If correctly aligned with Earth, we can detect GRBs as a bright, transient flash.

As the gamma-rays — high-energy photons that exist at the extreme end of the electromagnetic spectrum — travel through space, their polarization (or “twist”) is affected by the spacetime they travel through.

If spacetime is composed of tiny quantum “grains,” the gamma-ray photons’ polarization should change from random polarization (at the GRB source) to biased toward a certain polarization when received by the Integral spacecraft.

Also, high-energy gamma-rays should be more twisted than lower energy gamma-rays; the difference in the polarization can therefore be used to estimate the size of the quantum grains.

What’s the Polarization?

If spacetime was smooth and continuous (as Einstein viewed the Universe), the polarization will remain random, and there will be no difference between high- and low energy photons no matter how far the gamma-rays travel. But if spacetime is composed of grains (as quantum mechanics predicts), the further the gamma-rays travel, the greater the polarization difference.

So, Philippe Laurent of CEA Saclay and his collaborators analyzed the polarization of gamma-rays from a very energetic gamma-ray burst. GRB 041219A occurred on Dec. 19, 2004, and it was immediately recognized as being in the top one percent of GRBs for brightness.

Also, due to its distance — 300 million light-years away — data from this explosion should have also revealed a measurable difference in the polarization between low- and high-energy gamma-ray photons.

Alas, no polarization difference was detected.

Some theories predict the quantum graininess should manifest itself at scales of around 10-35 meters — a scale known as the Planck length, the fundamental scale for quantum dynamics. Through the precise nature of its polarization measurements, Integral hasn’t found any quantum graininess down to a scale of 10-48 meters; that’s 10,000,000,000,000 times smaller than the “fundamental” Planck length.

So, if quantum predictions are correct, the spacetime quanta must be made from grains that are 10-48 meters in scale or less.

What does this mean?

Holographic Universe… or Not?

For Hogan’s interpretation of the GEO600 results to be correct, this graininess should be measurable over larger scales. In fact, GEO600 started to detect quantum fuzziness at scales of around 10-16 meters — that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 times largerthan the Planck length.

At first glance, the Integral results appear to contradict the GEO600 interpretation, therefore disputing the holographic universe hypothesis all together. If these “fuzzy” 10-16 meter scales aren’t detected through Integral’s polarization measurements of gamma-rays, perhaps the GEO600 quantum fuzziness is an effect of overlooked instrumental error.

However, all may not be lost.

The Integral polarization results depend on spacetime being constructed from discrete quanta that behave in a way that fits with quantum theory. The holographic universe hypothesis goes one step further, constructing 3-dimensional spacetime from projections of a 2-dimensional “shell” — perhaps gamma-ray photons behave differently in this fuzzy, projected, quantum world, and this could be why no polarization difference between gamma-ray photons are detected.

Proving or disproving a holographic universe, of course, isn’t the focus of this Integral study; it is an attempt at revealing the very fabric of spacetime, helping physicists understand what our Universe is made of.

“This is a very important result in fundamental physics and will rule out some string theories and quantum loop gravity theories,” said Laurent in the ESA press release.

“Fundamental physics is a less obvious application for the gamma-ray observatory, Integral,” added Christoph Winkler, ESA’s Integral Project Scientist. “Nevertheless, it has allowed us to take a big step forward in investigating the nature of space itself.”


Via Physorg.com

Discovery Adds Mystery to Earth’s Genesis

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Artist's conception of a dusty planet-forming disk orbiting a stellar object known as IRS 46.

Earth and the other rocky planets aren’t made out of the solar system’s original starting material, two new studies reveal.

Scientists examined solar particles snagged in space by NASA’s Genesis probe, whose return capsule crash-landed on Earth in 2004. These salvaged samples show that the sun’s basic building blocks differ significantly from those of Earth, the moon and other denizens of the inner solar system, researchers said.

Nearly 4.6 billion years ago, the results suggest, some process altered many of the tiny pieces that eventually coalesced into the rocky planets, after the sun had already formed.

“From any kind of consensus view, or longer historical view, this is a surprising result,” said Kevin McKeegan of UCLA, lead author of one of the studies. “And it’s just one more example of how the Earth is not the center of everything.”

Salvaging the samples

The Genesis spacecraft launched in 2001 and set up shop about 900,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. It spent more than two years grabbing bits of the solar wind, the million-mph stream of charged particles blowing from the sun.

The idea was to give scientists an in-depth look at the sun’s composition, which in turn could help them better understand the formation and evolution of the solar system.

To that end, Genesis sent its sample-loaded return capsule back to Earth in September 2004. But things didn’t go well; the capsule’s parachute failed to deploy, and it smashed into the Utah dirt at 190 mph (306 kph).

While some of Genesis’ samples were destroyed in the crash, others were salvageable, as the two new studies show. Two different research teams looked at the solar wind particles’ oxygen and nitrogen — the most abundant elements found in Earth’s crust and atmosphere, respectively.

And they did so with a great deal of care, knowing that the crash had limited their supplies of pristine solar material.

“The stakes were raised on the samples that did survive well,” McKeegan told SPACE.com. “There wasn’t as much to go around.”

The Genesis return capsule slammed into the Utah dirt at nearly 200 mph on Sept. 8, 2004 when its parachute failed to deploy.

The Genesis return capsule slammed into the Utah dirt at nearly 200 mph on Sept. 8, 2004 when its parachute failed to deploy.

Analzying oxygen

McKeegan and his team measured the abundance of solar wind oxygen isotopes. Isotopes are versions of an element that have different numbers of neutrons in their atomic nuclei. Oxygen has three stable isotopes: oxygen-16 (eight neutrons), oxygen-17 (nine neutrons) and oxygen-18 (ten neutrons).

The researchers found that the sun has significantly more oxygen-16, relative to the other two isotopes, than Earth. Some process enriched the stuff that formed our planet — and the other rocky bodies in the inner solar system — with oxygen-17 and oxygen-18 by about 7 percent.

While scientists don’t yet know for sure how this happened, they have some ideas. The leading contender, McKeegan said, may be a process called “isotopic self-shielding.”

About 4.6 billion years ago, the planets had not yet coalesced out of the solar nebula, a thick cloud of dust and gas. Much of the oxygen in this cloud was probably bound up in gaseous carbon monoxide (CO) molecules.

But the oxygen didn’t stay bound up forever. High-energy ultraviolet light from the newly formed sun (or nearby stars) blasted into the cloud, breaking apart the CO. The liberated oxygen quickly glommed onto other atoms, forming molecues that eventually became the rocky building blocks of planets.

Photons of slightly different energy were required to chop up the CO molecules, depending on which oxygen isotope they contained. Oxygen-16 is far more common than either of the other two, so there would have been much more of this substance throughout the solar nebula, researchers said.

The result, the self-shielding theory goes, is that many of the photons needed to break up the oxygen-16 CO were “used up,” or absorbed, on the edges of the solar nebula, leaving much of the stuff in the cloud’s interior intact.

By contrast, relatively more of the photons that could strip out oxygen-17 and oxygen-18 got through to the inner parts of the cloud, freeing these isotopes, which were eventually incorporated into the rocky planets. And that, according to the theory, is why the sun and Earth’s oxygen isotope abundances are so different.

“The result that we’re publishing this week gives support to the self-shielding idea,” McKeegan said. “But we don’t know the answer yet.”

Nitrogen, too

In a separate study, another research team led by Bernard Marty of Nancy University in France analyzed the nitrogen isotopes in Genesis’ samples. (Nitrogen has two stable isotopes: nitrogen-14, which has seven neutrons, and nitrogen-15, which has eight.)

Marty and his colleagues found an even more dramatic difference than McKeegan’s group did: The solar wind has about 40 percent less nitrogen-15 (compared to nitrogen-14) than do samples taken from Earth’s atmosphere.

Previous studies had hinted that the sun’s nitrogen might be very different from that of Earth, Mars and other rocky bodies in the inner solar system, Marty said. But the new study establishes this firmly.

“Before Genesis and the present measurement of the N isotopic composition of the solar wind and by extension of the sun, it was not possible to understand the logic of such variations,” Marty told SPACE.com in an email interview. “Now we understand that the starting composition, the solar nebula, was poor in 15N, so that variations among solar system objects are the result of mixing with a 15N-rich end-member.”

As to how this enrichment of nitrogen-15 could have happened, Marty as well suggests some type of self-shielding as a possible mechanism. But it’s not a certainty.

“This is a scenario that is consistent with present-day observations,” he said. “We cannot eliminate yet the possibility that these 15N-rich compounds were imported from outer space as dust in the solar system.”

The new results also suggest that most nanodiamonds — tiny carbon specks that are a major component of stardust — likely formed in our own solar system, because they share similar nitrogen isotope ratios with the sun. Some scientists have regarded nanodiamonds as being primarily presolar, thinking they were ejected from other stellar systems by supernova explosions.

Both studies appear in the June 23 issue of the journal Science.

Genesis’ legacy

The two new studies should help scientists get a better understanding of the solar system’s early days, researchers said.

And the results should help rehabilitate the reputation of the $264 million Genesis mission, showing that the capsule crash didn’t render it a failure, McKeegan said.

“We managed to accomplish all the science that we set out to do, all the important stuff,” he said. “The enduring image in everybody’s mind — the picture of the crashed spacecraft in the desert — will be more of a footnote instead of the primary thing that people remember. That’s my hope, anyway.”


Via Space

Ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon points to a giant ocean lurking beneath its surface

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Scientists have collected the strongest evidence yet that Saturn moon Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface.

Samples of ice spray shooting out of the moon have been collected by the Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft during one of its frequent Saturn fly-bys.

The plumes shooting water vapor and tiny grains of ice into space were originally discovered emanating from Enceladus – one of 19 known moons of Saturn – by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

Samples of ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon Enceladus have been collected by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft. Scientists believe it is the strongest evidence yet that Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface

Samples of ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon Enceladus have been collected by Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft. Scientists believe it is the strongest evidence yet that Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface

They were originating from the so-called ‘tiger stripe’ surface fractures at the moon’s south pole and apparently have created the material for the faint E Ring that traces the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn.

During three of Cassini’s passes through the plume in 2008 and 2009, the Cosmic Dust Analyser (CDA) on board measured the composition of freshly ejected plume grains.

The icy particles hit the detector’s target at speeds of up to 11miles-per-second, instantly vaporising them. The CDA separated the constituents of the resulting vapor clouds, allowing scientists to analyse them.

The ice grains found further out from Enceladus are relatively small and mostly ice-poor, closely matching the composition of the E Ring. Closer to the moon, however, the Cassini observations indicate that relatively large, salt-rich grains dominate.

Lead researcher Frank Postberg, of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, said: ‘There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than the salt water under Enceladus’ icy surface.’

Plumes, both large and small, spray water ice from multiple locations along the 'tiger stripes' near the south pole of Enceladus

Plumes, both large and small, spray water ice from multiple locations along the ‘tiger stripes’ near the south pole of Enceladus.

Co-author Sascha Kempf, of the University of Colorado Boulder, added: ‘The study indicates that “salt-poor” particles are being ejected from the underground ocean through cracks in the moon at a much higher speed than the larger, salt-rich particles.

‘The E Ring is made up predominately of such salt-poor grains, although we discovered that 99 per cent of the mass of the particles ejected by the plumes was made up of salt-rich grains, which was an unexpected finding.

‘Since the salt-rich particles were ejected at a lower speed than the salt-poor particles, they fell back onto the moon’s icy surface rather than making it to the E Ring.’

According to the researchers, the salt-rich particles have an ‘ocean-like’ composition that indicates most, if not all, of the expelled ice comes from the evaporation of liquid salt water rather than from the icy surface of the moon.

When salt water freezes slowly the salt is ‘squeezed out’, leaving pure water ice behind. If the plumes were coming from the surface ice, there should be very little salt in them, which was not the case, according to the research team.

Dwarfed: Enceladus can be seen near Saturn's south pole at the bottom of this image

Dwarfed: Enceladus can be seen near Saturn’s south pole at the bottom of this image

 The scientists believe that perhaps 50 miles beneath the surface crust of Enceladus a layer of water exists between the rocky core and the icy mantle that is kept in a liquid state by gravitationally driven tidal forces created by Saturn and several neighboring moons, as well as by heat generated by radioactive decay.

It is thought that roughly 440lbs of water vapor are lost every second from the plumes, along with smaller amounts of ice grains.

Calculations show the liquid ocean must have a sizable evaporating surface or it would easily freeze over, halting the formation of the plumes.

‘This study implies that nearly all of the matter in the Enceladus plumes originates from a saltwater ocean that has a very large evaporating surface,’ said Dr Kempf.

The team’s study is published in the journal Nature.


Via DailyMail