Harnessing the energy of small bending motions
New device could provide electrical power source from walking and other ambient motions.
By David Chandler
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–For many applications such as biomedical, mechanical, or environmental monitoring devices, harnessing the energy of small motions could provide a small but virtually unlimited power supply. While a number of approaches have been attempted, researchers at MIT have now developed a completely new method based on electrochemical principles, which could be capable of harvesting energy from a broader range of natural motions and activities, including walking.
The new system, based on the slight bending of a sandwich of metal and polymer sheets, is described in the journal Nature Communications, in a paper by MIT professor Ju Li, graduate students Sangtae Kim and Soon Ju Choi, and four others.
Most previously designed devices for harnessing small motions have been based on the triboelectric effect (essentially friction, like rubbing a balloon against a wool sweater) or piezoelectrics (crystals that produce a small voltage when bent or compressed). These work well for high-frequency sources of motion such as those produced by the vibrations of machinery. But for typical human-scale motions such as walking or exercising, such systems have limits.
“When you put in an impulse” to such traditional materials, “they respond very well, in microseconds. But this doesn’t match the timescale of most human activities,” says Li, who is the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor in Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering. “Also, these devices have high electrical impedance and bending rigidity and can be quite expensive,” he says.
Simple and flexible
By contrast, the new system uses technology similar to that in lithium ion batteries, so it could likely be produced inexpensively at large scale, Li says. In addition, these devices would be inherently flexible, making them more compatible with wearable technology and less likely to break under mechanical stress.
While piezoelectric materials are based on a purely physical process, the new system is electrochemical, like a battery or a fuel cell. It uses two thin sheets of lithium alloys as electrodes, separated by a layer of porous polymer soaked with liquid electrolyte that is efficient at transporting lithium ions between the metal plates. But unlike a rechargeable battery, which takes in electricity, stores it, and then releases it, this system takes in mechanical energy and puts out electricity.
When bent even a slight amount, the layered composite produces a pressure difference that squeezes lithium ions through the polymer (like the reverse osmosis process used in water desalination). It also produces a counteracting voltage and an electrical current in the external circuit between the two electrodes, which can be then used directly to power other devices.
Because it requires only a small amount of bending to produce a voltage, such a device could simply have a tiny weight attached to one end to cause the metal to bend as a result of ordinary movements, when strapped to an arm or leg during everyday activities. Unlike batteries and solar cells, the output from the new system comes in the form of alternating current (AC), with the flow moving first in one direction and then the other as the material bends first one way and then back.
This device converts mechanical to electrical energy; therefore, “it is not limited by the second law of thermodynamics,” Li says, which sets an upper limit on the theoretically possible efficiency. “So in principle, [the efficiency] could be 100 percent,” he says. In this first-generation device developed to demonstrate the electrochemomechanical working principle, he says, “the best we can hope for is about 15 percent” efficiency. But the system could easily be manufactured in any desired size and is amenable to industrial manufacturing process.
Test of time
The test devices maintain their properties through many cycles of bending and unbending, Li reports, with little reduction in performance after 1,500 cycles. “It’s a very stable system,” he says.
Previously, the phenomenon underlying the new device “was considered a parasitic effect in the battery community,” according to Li, and voltage put into the battery could sometimes induce bending. “We do just the opposite,” Li says, putting in the stress and getting a voltage as output. Besides being a potential energy source, he says, this could also be a complementary diagnostic tool in electrochemistry. “It’s a good way to evaluate damage mechanisms in batteries, a way to understand battery materials better,” he says.
In addition to harnessing daily motion to power wearable devices, the new system might also be useful as an actuator with biomedical applications, or used for embedded stress sensors in settings such as roads, bridges, keyboards, or other structures, the researchers suggest.
The team also included postdoc Kejie Zhao (now assistant professor at Purdue University) and visiting graduate student Giorgia Gobbi , and Hui Yang and Sulin Zhang at Penn State. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the MIT MADMEC Contest, the Samsung Scholarship Foundation, and the Kwanjeong Educational Foundation.
Year 2015 left many good and bad memories for many of us. On one hand we saw more wars, terrorist attacks and political confrontations, and on the other hand we saw humanity raising voices for peace, sheltering refugees and joining hands to confront the climate change.
In science, we saw first ever photograph of light as both wave and particle. We also saw some serious development in machine learning, data sciences and artificial intelligence areas with some voices raising caution about the takeover of AI over humanity and issues related to privacy. The big question of energy and climate change remained a key point of discussion in scientific and political circles. The biggest break through came near the end of the year with Paris deal during COP21.
The deal involving around 200 countries represent a true spirit of humanity to limit global warming below 2C and commitments for striving to keep temperatures at above 1.5C pre-industrial levels. This truly global commitment also served in bringing rival countries to sit together for a common cause to save humanity from self destruction. I hope the spirit will continue in other areas of common interest as well.
Space Sciences also saw some enormous advancements with New Horizon sending photographs from Pluto, SpaceX successfully landed the reusable Falcon 9 rocket back after a successful launch and we also saw the discovery of the largest regular formation in the Universe,by Prof Lajos Balazs, which is a ring of nine galaxies 7 billion light years away and 5 billion light years wide covering a third of our sky.We also learnt this year that Mars once had more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. NASA later confirmed the evidence that water flows on the surface of Mars. The announcement led to some interesting insight into the atmospheric studies and history of the red planet.
We also saw some encouraging advancements in neurosciences where we saw MIT’s researchers developing a technique allowing direct stimulation of neurons, which could be an effective treatment for a variety of neurological diseases, without the need for implants or external connections. We also saw researchers reactivating neuro-plasticity in older mice, restoring their brains to a younger state and we also saw some good progress in combating Alzheimer’s diseases.
Quantum physics again stayed as a key area of scientific advancements. Quantu
There are many other areas where science and technology reached new heights and will hopefully continue to do so in the year 2016. I hope these advancements will not only help us in growing economically but also help us in becoming better human beings and a better society.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has landed it’s Falcon 9 rocket after launching it into space. The rocket is part of an attempt to develop a credible relaunch-able platform for sending satellites into space.
According to SpaceX’s youtube page:
“With this mission, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will deliver 11 satellites to low-Earth orbit for ORBCOMM, a leading global provider of Machine-to-Machine communication and Internet of Things solutions. The ORBCOMM launch is targeted for an evening launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. If all goes as planned, the 11 satellites will be deployed approximately 20 minutes after liftoff, completing a 17-satellite, low Earth orbit constellation for ORBCOMM. This mission also marks SpaceX’s return-to-flight as well as its first attempt to land a first stage on land. The landing of the first stage is a secondary test objective.”
The remains of a fatal interaction between a dead star and its asteroid supper have been studied in detail for the first time by an international team of astronomers using the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. This gives a glimpse of the far-future fate of the Solar System.
Led by Christopher Manser, a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, the team used data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and other observatories to study the shattered remains of an asteroid around a stellar remnant — a white dwarf called SDSS J1228+1040 .
Using several instruments, including the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and X-shooter, both attached to the VLT, the team obtained detailed observations of the light coming from the white dwarf and its surrounding material over an unprecedented period of twelve years between 2003 and 2015. Observations over periods of years were needed to probe the system from multiple viewpoints .
“The image we get from the processed data shows us that these systems are truly disc-like, and reveals many structures that we cannot detect in a single snapshot,” explained lead author Christopher Manser.
The team used a technique called Doppler tomography — similar in principle to medical tomographic scans of the human body — which allowed them to map out in detail the structure of the glowing gaseous remains of the dead star’s meal orbiting J1228+1040 for the first time.
While large stars — those more massive than around ten times the mass of the Sun — suffer a spectacularly violent climax as a supernova explosion at the ends of their lives, smaller stars are spared such dramatic fates. When stars like the Sun come to the ends of their lives they exhaust their fuel, expand as red giants and later expel their outer layers into space. The hot and very dense core of the former star — a white dwarf — is all that remains.
But would the planets, asteroids and other bodies in such a system survive this trial by fire? What would be left? The new observations help to answer these questions.
It is rare for white dwarfs to be surrounded by orbiting discs of gaseous material — only seven have ever been found. The team concluded that an asteroid had strayed dangerously close to the dead star and been ripped apart by the immense tidal forces it experienced to form the disc of material that is now visible.
The orbiting disc was formed in similar ways to the photogenic rings seen around planets closer to home, such as Saturn. However, while J1228+1040 is more than seven times smaller in diameter than the ringed planet, it has a mass over 2500 times greater. The team learned that the distance between the white dwarf and its disc is also quite different — Saturn and its rings could comfortably sit in the gap between them .
The new long-term study with the VLT has now allowed the team to watch the disc precess under the influence of the very strong gravitational field of the white dwarf. They also find that the disc is somewhat lopsided and has not yet become circular.
“When we discovered this debris disc orbiting the white dwarf back in 2006, we could not have imagined the exquisite details that are now visible in this image, constructed from twelve years of data — it was definitely worth the wait,” added Boris Gänsicke, a co-author of the study.
Remnants such as J1228+1040 can provide key clues to understanding the environments that exist as stars reach the ends of their lives. This can help astronomers to understand the processes that occur in exoplanetary systems and even forecast the fate of the Solar System when the Sun meets its demise in about seven billion years.
 The white dwarf’s full designation is SDSS J122859.93+104032.9.
 The team identified the unmistakable trident-like spectral signature from ionised calcium, called the calcium (Ca II) triplet. The difference between the observed and known wavelengths of these three lines can determine the velocity of the gas with considerable precision.
 Although the disc around this white dwarf is much bigger than Saturn’s ring system in the Solar System, it is tiny compared to the debris discs that form planets around young stars.
The Epoch of Reionisation (EoR) is the time in the early Universe when the first stars and galaxies formed and re-ionised the neutral hydrogen. Indirect information about the EoR has been obtained from the Cosmic Microwave Background and spectra of the distant quasars. However, the bulk of information about the physical parameters of the EoR is encoded in the 21cm line (1420 MHz) from neutral hydrogen redshifted into the low radio frequency range 200 – 50 MHz, for redshifts of 6 < z < 30.
The observational approaches range from large interferometer arrays to single antenna experiments. The latter, so-called global EoR experiments, spatially average the signal from the entire visible sky and try to identify the tiny signature of the EoR (of order 100 milliKelvin, which is a few orders of magnitude smaller than the Galactic foregrounds) in the sky-averaged spectrum. This extremely challenging precision requires very long observations (hundreds of hours) to achieve a sufficiently high signal-to-noise ratio. Moreover, ground-based global EoR experiments are affected by frequency-dependent effects (i.e. absorption and refraction) due to the propagation of radio-waves in the Earth’s ionosphere. The amplitude of these effects changes in time. There has therefore been an ongoing discussion in the literature on the importance of ionospheric effects and whether the global EoR signature can feasibly be detected from the ground.
The team of CAASTRO researches at Curtin University, led by Dr Marcin Sokolowski, used three months’ worth of 2014/2015 data collected with the BIGHORNS system with a conical log-spiral antenna deployed at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory to study the impact of the ionosphere on its capability to detect the global EoR signal. Comparison of data collected on different days at the same sidereal time enabled the researchers to infer some properties of the ionosphere, such as electron temperature (Te≈470 K at night-time) and amplitude and variability of ionospheric absorption of radio waves. Furthermore, the data sample shows that the sky-averaged spectrum indeed varies in time due to fluctuations of these ionospheric properties. Nevertheless, the data analysis indicates that averaging over very long observations (several days or even several weeks) suppresses the noise and leads to an improved signal-to-noise ratio. Therefore, the ionospheric effects and fluctuations are not fundamental impediments that prevent ground-based instruments, such as BIGHORNS, from integrating down to the precision required for global EoR experiments, provided that the ionospheric contribution is properly accounted for in the data analysis.
Detailed climate simulation shows a threshold of survivability could be crossed without mitigation measures.
By David Chandler
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Within this century, parts of the Persian Gulf region could be hit with unprecedented events of deadly heat as a result of climate change, according to a study of high-resolution climate models.
The research reveals details of a business-as-usual scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, but also shows that curbing emissions could forestall these deadly temperature extremes.
The study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Jeremy Pal PhD ’01 at Loyola Marymount University. They conclude that conditions in the Persian Gulf region, including its shallow water and intense sun, make it “a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”
Running high-resolution versions of standard climate models, Eltahir and Pal found that many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated spaces. Eltahir says this threshold “has, as far as we know … never been reported for any location on Earth.”
That tipping point involves a measurement called the “wet-bulb temperature” that combines temperature and humidity, reflecting conditions the human body could maintain without artificial cooling. That threshold for survival for more than six unprotected hours is 35 degrees Celsius, or about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to recently published research. (The equivalent number in the National Weather Service’s more commonly used “heat index” would be about 165 F.)
This limit was almost reached this summer, at the end of an extreme, weeklong heat wave in the region: On July 31, the wet-bulb temperature in Bandahr Mashrahr, Iran, hit 34.6 C — just a fraction below the threshold, for an hour or less.
But the severe danger to human health and life occurs when such temperatures are sustained for several hours, Eltahir says — which the models show would occur several times in a 30-year period toward the end of the century under the business-as-usual scenario used as a benchmark by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The Persian Gulf region is especially vulnerable, the researchers say, because of a combination of low elevations, clear sky, water body that increases heat absorption, and the shallowness of the Persian Gulf itself, which produces high water temperatures that lead to strong evaporation and very high humidity.
The models show that by the latter part of this century, major cities such as Doha, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and Bandar Abbas, Iran, could exceed the 35 C threshold several times over a 30-year period. What’s more, Eltahir says, hot summer conditions that now occur once every 20 days or so “will characterize the usual summer day in the future.”
While the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, adjacent to the Red Sea, would see less extreme heat, the projections show that dangerous extremes are also likely there, reaching wet-bulb temperatures of 32 to 34 C. This could be a particular concern, the authors note, because the annual Hajj, or annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca — when as many as 2 million pilgrims take part in rituals that include standing outdoors for a full day of prayer — sometimes occurs during these hot months.
While many in the Persian Gulf’s wealthier states might be able to adapt to new climate extremes, poorer areas, such as Yemen, might be less able to cope with such extremes, the authors say.
The research was supported by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science.
Researchers use engineered viruses to provide quantum-based enhancement of energy transport.
By David Chandler
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Nature has had billions of years to perfect photosynthesis, which directly or indirectly supports virtually all life on Earth. In that time, the process has achieved almost 100 percent efficiency in transporting the energy of sunlight from receptors to reaction centers where it can be harnessed — a performance vastly better than even the best solar cells.
One way plants achieve this efficiency is by making use of the exotic effects of quantum mechanics — effects sometimes known as “quantum weirdness.” These effects, which include the ability of a particle to exist in more than one place at a time, have now been used by engineers at MIT to achieve a significant efficiency boost in a light-harvesting system.
Surprisingly, the MIT researchers achieved this new approach to solar energy not with high-tech materials or microchips — but by using genetically engineered viruses.
This achievement in coupling quantum research and genetic manipulation, described this week in the journal Nature Materials, was the work of MIT professors Angela Belcher, an expert on engineering viruses to carry out energy-related tasks, and Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum theory and its potential applications; research associate Heechul Park; and 14 collaborators at MIT and in Italy.
Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering, explains that in photosynthesis, a photon hits a receptor called a chromophore, which in turn produces an exciton — a quantum particle of energy. This exciton jumps from one chromophore to another until it reaches a reaction center, where that energy is harnessed to build the molecules that support life.
But the hopping pathway is random and inefficient unless it takes advantage of quantum effects that allow it, in effect, to take multiple pathways at once and select the best ones, behaving more like a wave than a particle.
This efficient movement of excitons has one key requirement: The chromophores have to be arranged just right, with exactly the right amount of space between them. This, Lloyd explains, is known as the “Quantum Goldilocks Effect.”
That’s where the virus comes in. By engineering a virus that Belcher has worked with for years, the team was able to get it to bond with multiple synthetic chromophores — or, in this case, organic dyes. The researchers were then able to produce many varieties of the virus, with slightly different spacings between those synthetic chromophores, and select the ones that performed best.
In the end, they were able to more than double excitons’ speed, increasing the distance they traveled before dissipating — a significant improvement in the efficiency of the process.
The project started from a chance meeting at a conference in Italy. Lloyd and Belcher, a professor of biological engineering, were reporting on different projects they had worked on, and began discussing the possibility of a project encompassing their very different expertise. Lloyd, whose work is mostly theoretical, pointed out that the viruses Belcher works with have the right length scales to potentially support quantum effects.
In 2008, Lloyd had published a paper demonstrating that photosynthetic organisms transmit light energy efficiently because of these quantum effects. When he saw Belcher’s report on her work with engineered viruses, he wondered if that might provide a way to artificially induce a similar effect, in an effort to approach nature’s efficiency.
“I had been talking about potential systems you could use to demonstrate this effect, and Angela said, ‘We’re already making those,’” Lloyd recalls. Eventually, after much analysis, “We came up with design principles to redesign how the virus is capturing light, and get it to this quantum regime.”
Within two weeks, Belcher’s team had created their first test version of the engineered virus. Many months of work then went into perfecting the receptors and the spacings.
Once the team engineered the viruses, they were able to use laser spectroscopy and dynamical modeling to watch the light-harvesting process in action, and to demonstrate that the new viruses were indeed making use of quantum coherence to enhance the transport of excitons.
“It was really fun,” Belcher says. “A group of us who spoke different [scientific] languages worked closely together, to both make this class of organisms, and analyze the data. That’s why I’m so excited by this.”
While this initial result is essentially a proof of concept rather than a practical system, it points the way toward an approach that could lead to inexpensive and efficient solar cells or light-driven catalysis, the team says. So far, the engineered viruses collect and transport energy from incoming light, but do not yet harness it to produce power (as in solar cells) or molecules (as in photosynthesis). But this could be done by adding a reaction center, where such processing takes place, to the end of the virus where the excitons end up.
The research was supported by the Italian energy company Eni through the MIT Energy Initiative. In addition to MIT postdocs Nimrod Heldman and Patrick Rebentrost, the team included researchers at the University of Florence, the University of Perugia, and Eni.
Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered never-before-seen structures within a dusty disc surrounding a nearby star. The fast-moving wave-like features in the disc of the star AU Microscopii are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now. The origin and nature of these features present a new mystery for astronomers to explore. The results are published in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.
AU Microscopii, or AU Mic for short, is a young, nearby star surrounded by a large disc of dust . Studies of such debris discs can provide valuable clues about how planets, which form from these discs, are created.
Astronomers have been searching AU Mic’s disc for any signs of clumpy or warped features, as such signs might give away the location of possible planets. And in 2014 they used the more powerful high-contrast imaging capabilities of ESO’s newly installed SPHERE instrument, mounted on the Very Large Telescope for their search — and discovered something very unusual.
“Our observations have shown something unexpected,” explains Anthony Boccaletti, LESIA (Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/UPMC/Paris-Diderot), France, and lead author on the paper. “The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disc which have an arch-like, or wave-like, structure, unlike anything that has ever been observed before.”
Five wave-like arches at different distances from the star show up in the new images, reminiscent of ripples in water. After spotting the features in the SPHERE data the team turned to earlier images of the disc taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in 2010 and 2011 to see whether the features were also visible in these . They were not only able to identify the features on the earlier Hubble images — but they also discovered that they had changed over time. It turns out that these ripples are moving — and very fast!
“We reprocessed images from the Hubble data and ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a four-year period,” explains team member Christian Thalmann (ETH Zürich, Switzerland). “By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to about 40 000 kilometres/hour!”
The features further away from the star seem to be moving faster than those closer to it. At least three of the features are moving so fast that they could well be escaping from the gravitational attraction of the star. Such high speeds rule out the possibility that these are conventional disc features caused by objects — like planets — disturbing material in the disc while orbiting the star. There must have been something else involved to speed up the ripples and make them move so quickly, meaning that they are a sign of something truly unusual .
“Everything about this find was pretty surprising!” comments co-author Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific, USA. “And because nothing like this has been observed or predicted in theory we can only hypothesise when it comes to what we are seeing and how it came about.”
The team cannot say for sure what caused these mysterious ripples around the star. But they have considered and ruled out a series of phenomena as explanations, including the collision of two massive and rare asteroid-like objects releasing large quantities of dust, and spiral waves triggered by instabilities in the system’s gravity.
But other ideas that they have considered look more promising.
“One explanation for the strange structure links them to the star’s flares. AU Mic is a star with high flaring activity — it often lets off huge and sudden bursts of energy from on or near its surface,” explains co-author Glenn Schneider of Steward Observatory, USA. “One of these flares could perhaps have triggered something on one of the planets — if there are planets — like a violent stripping of material which could now be propagating through the disc, propelled by the flare’s force.”
“It is very satisfying that SPHERE has proved to be very capable at studying discs like this in its first year of operation,” adds Jean-Luc Beuzit, who is both a co-author of the new study and also led the development of SPHERE itself.
The team plans to continue to observe the AU Mic system with SPHERE and other facilities, including ALMA, to try to understand what is happening. But, for now, these curious features remain an unsolved mystery.
 AU Microscopii lies just 32 light-years away from Earth. The disc essentially comprises asteroids that have collided with such vigour that they have been ground to dust.
 The data were gathered by Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS).
 The edge-on view of the disc complicates the interpretation of its three-dimensional structure.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “Fast-Moving Structures in the Debris Disk Around AU Microscopii”, to appear in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.
On Aug. 7, 1972, in the heart of the Apollo era, an enormous solar flare exploded from the sun’s atmosphere. Along with a gigantic burst of light in nearly all wavelengths, this event accelerated a wave of energetic particles. Mostly protons, with a few electrons and heavier elements mixed in, this wash of quick-moving particles would have been dangerous to anyone outside Earth’s protective magnetic bubble. Luckily, the Apollo 16 crew had returned to Earth just five months earlier, narrowly escaping this powerful event.
In the early days of human space flight, scientists were only just beginning to understand how events on the sun could affect space, and in turn how that radiation could affect humans and technology. Today, as a result of extensive space radiation research, we have a much better understanding of our space environment, its effects, and the best ways to protect astronauts—all crucial parts of NASA’s mission to send humans to Mars.
“The Martian” film highlights the radiation dangers that could occur on a round trip to Mars. While the mission in the film is fictional, NASA has already started working on the technology to enable an actual trip to Mars in the 2030s. In the film, the astronauts’ habitat on Mars shields them from radiation, and indeed, radiation shielding will be a crucial technology for the voyage. From better shielding to advanced biomedical countermeasures, NASA currently studies how to protect astronauts and electronics from radiation – efforts that will have to be incorporated into every aspect of Mars mission planning, from spacecraft and habitat design to spacewalk protocols.
“The space radiation environment will be a critical consideration for everything in the astronauts’ daily lives, both on the journeys between Earth and Mars and on the surface,” said Ruthan Lewis, an architect and engineer with the human spaceflight program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You’re constantly being bombarded by some amount of radiation.”
Radiation, at its most basic, is simply waves or sub-atomic particles that transports energy to another entity – whether it is an astronaut or spacecraft component. The main concern in space is particle radiation. Energetic particles can be dangerous to humans because they pass right through the skin, depositing energy and damaging cells or DNA along the way. This damage can mean an increased risk for cancer later in life or, at its worst, acute radiation sickness during the mission if the dose of energetic particles is large enough.
Fortunately for us, Earth’s natural protections block all but the most energetic of these particles from reaching the surface. A huge magnetic bubble, called the magnetosphere, which deflects the vast majority of these particles, protects our planet. And our atmosphere subsequently absorbs the majority of particles that do make it through this bubble. Importantly, since the International Space Station (ISS) is in low-Earth orbit within the magnetosphere, it also provides a large measure of protection for our astronauts.
“We have instruments that measure the radiation environment inside the ISS, where the crew are, and even outside the station,” said Kerry Lee, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
This ISS crew monitoring also includes tracking of the short-term and lifetime radiation doses for each astronaut to assess the risk for radiation-related diseases. Although NASA has conservative radiation limits greater than allowed radiation workers on Earth, the astronauts are able to stay well under NASA’s limit while living and working on the ISS, within Earth’s magnetosphere.
But a journey to Mars requires astronauts to move out much further, beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic bubble.
“There’s a lot of good science to be done on Mars, but a trip to interplanetary space carries more radiation risk than working in low-Earth orbit,” said Jonathan Pellish, a space radiation engineer at Goddard.
A human mission to Mars means sending astronauts into interplanetary space for a minimum of a year, even with a very short stay on the Red Planet. Nearly all of that time, they will be outside the magnetosphere, exposed to the harsh radiation environment of space. Mars has no global magnetic field to deflect energetic particles, and its atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, so they’ll get only minimal protection even on the surface of Mars.
Throughout the entire trip, astronauts must be protected from two sources of radiation. The first comes from the sun, which regularly releases a steady stream of solar particles, as well as occasional larger bursts in the wake of giant explosions, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, on the sun. These energetic particles are almost all protons, and, though the sun releases an unfathomably large number of them, the proton energy is low enough that they can almost all be physically shielded by the structure of the spacecraft.
Since solar activity strongly contributes to the deep-space radiation environment, a better understanding of the sun’s modulation of this radiation environment will allow mission planners to make better decisions for a future Mars mission. NASA currently operates a fleet of spacecraft studying the sun and the space environment throughout the solar system. Observations from this area of research, known as heliophysics, help us better understand the origin of solar eruptions and what effects these events have on the overall space radiation environment.
“If we know precisely what’s going on, we don’t have to be as conservative with our estimates, which gives us more flexibility when planning the mission,” said Pellish.
The second source of energetic particles is harder to shield. These particles come from galactic cosmic rays, often known as GCRs. They’re particles accelerated to near the speed of light that shoot into our solar system from other stars in the Milky Way or even other galaxies. Like solar particles, galactic cosmic rays are mostly protons. However, some of them are heavier elements, ranging from helium up to the heaviest elements. These more energetic particles can knock apart atoms in the material they strike, such as in the astronaut, the metal walls of a spacecraft, habitat, or vehicle, causing sub-atomic particles to shower into the structure. This secondary radiation, as it is known, can reach a dangerous level.
There are two ways to shield from these higher-energy particles and their secondary radiation: use a lot more mass of traditional spacecraft materials, or use more efficient shielding materials.
The sheer volume of material surrounding a structure would absorb the energetic particles and their associated secondary particle radiation before they could reach the astronauts. However, using sheer bulk to protect astronauts would be prohibitively expensive, since more mass means more fuel required to launch.
Using materials that shield more efficiently would cut down on weight and cost, but finding the right material takes research and ingenuity. NASA is currently investigating a handful of possibilities that could be used in anything from the spacecraft to the Martian habitat to space suits.
“The best way to stop particle radiation is by running that energetic particle into something that’s a similar size,” said Pellish. “Otherwise, it can be like you’re bouncing a tricycle off a tractor-trailer.”
Because protons and neutrons are similar in size, one element blocks both extremely well—hydrogen, which most commonly exists as just a single proton and an electron. Conveniently, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and makes up substantial parts of some common compounds, such as water and plastics like polyethylene. Engineers could take advantage of already-required mass by processing the astronauts’ trash into plastic-filled tiles used to bolster radiation protection. Water, already required for the crew, could be stored strategically to create a kind of radiation storm shelter in the spacecraft or habitat. However, this strategy comes with some challenges—the crew would need to use the water and then replace it with recycled water from the advanced life support systems.
Polyethylene, the same plastic commonly found in water bottles and grocery bags, also has potential as a candidate for radiation shielding. It is very high in hydrogen and fairly cheap to produce—however, it’s not strong enough to build a large structure, especially a spacecraft, which goes through high heat and strong forces during launch. And adding polyethylene to a metal structure would add quite a bit of mass, meaning that more fuel would be required for launch.
“We’ve made progress on reducing and shielding against these energetic particles, but we’re still working on finding a material that is a good shield and can act as the primary structure of the spacecraft,” said Sheila Thibeault, a materials researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
One material in development at NASA has the potential to do both jobs: Hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes—known as hydrogenated BNNTs—are tiny, nanotubes made of carbon, boron, and nitrogen, with hydrogen interspersed throughout the empty spaces left in between the tubes. Boron is also an excellent absorber secondary neutrons, making hydrogenated BNNTs an ideal shielding material.
“This material is really strong—even at high heat—meaning that it’s great for structure,” said Thibeault.
Remarkably, researchers have successfully made yarn out of BNNTs, so it’s flexible enough to be woven into the fabric of space suits, providing astronauts with significant radiation protection even while they’re performing spacewalks in transit or out on the harsh Martian surface. Though hydrogenated BNNTs are still in development and testing, they have the potential to be one of our key structural and shielding materials in spacecraft, habitats, vehicles, and space suits that will be used on Mars.
Physical shields aren’t the only option for stopping particle radiation from reaching astronauts: Scientists are also exploring the possibility of building force fields. Force fields aren’t just the realm of science fiction: Just like Earth’s magnetic field protects us from energetic particles, a relatively small, localized electric or magnetic field would—if strong enough and in the right configuration—create a protective bubble around a spacecraft or habitat. Currently, these fields would take a prohibitive amount of power and structural material to create on a large scale, so more work is needed for them to be feasible.
The risk of health effects can also be reduced in operational ways, such as having a special area of the spacecraft or Mars habitat that could be a radiation storm shelter; preparing spacewalk and research protocols to minimize time outside the more heavily-shielded spacecraft or habitat; and ensuring that astronauts can quickly return indoors in the event of a radiation storm.
Radiation risk mitigation can also be approached from the human body level. Though far off, a medication that would counteract some or all of the health effects of radiation exposure would make it much easier to plan for a safe journey to Mars and back.
“Ultimately, the solution to radiation will have to be a combination of things,” said Pellish. “Some of the solutions are technology we have already, like hydrogen-rich materials, but some of it will necessarily be cutting edge concepts that we haven’t even thought of yet.”
SPHERE reveals earliest stage of planetary nebula formation
Some of the sharpest images ever made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have, for the first time, revealed what appears to be an ageing star giving birth to a butterfly-like planetary nebula. These observations of the red giant star L2 Puppis, from the ZIMPOL mode of the newly installed SPHERE instrument, also clearly showed a close companion. The dying stages of stars continue to pose astronomers with many riddles, and the origin of such bipolar nebulae, with their complex and alluring hourglass figures, doubly so. This new imaging mode means that the VLT is currently the sharpest astronomical direct imaging instrument in existence.
At about 200 light-years away, L2 Puppis is one of the closest red giants to Earth known to be entering its final stages of life. The new observations with the ZIMPOL mode of SPHERE were made in visible light using extreme adaptive optics, which corrects images to a much higher degree than standard adaptive optics, allowing faint objects and structures close to bright sources of light to be seen in greater detail. They are the first published results from this mode and the most detailed of such a star.
ZIMPOL can produce images that are three times sharper than those from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and the new observations show the dust that surrounds L2 Puppis in exquisite detail . They confirm earlier findings, made using NACO, of the dust being arranged in a disc, which from Earth is seen almost completely edge-on, but provide a much more detailed view. The polarisation information from ZIMPOL also allowed the team to construct a three dimensional model of the dust structures .
The astronomers found the dust disc to begin about 900 million kilometres from the star — slightly farther than the distance from the Sun to Jupiter — and discovered that it flares outwards, creating a symmetrical, funnel-like shape surrounding the star. The team also observed a second source of light about 300 million kilometres — twice the distance from Earth to the Sun — from L2 Puppis. This very close companion star is likely to be another red giant of slightly lower mass, but less evolved.
The combination of a large amount of dust surrounding a slowly dying star, along with the presence of a companion star, mean that this is exactly the type of system expected to create a bipolar planetary nebula. These three elements seem to be necessary, but a considerable amount of good fortune is also still required if they are to lead to the subsequent emergence of a celestial butterfly from this dusty chrysalis.
Lead author of the paper, Pierre Kervella, explains: “The origin of bipolar planetary nebulae is one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics, especially the question of how, exactly, stars return their valuable payload of metals back into space — an important process, because it is this material that will be used to produce later generations of planetary systems.”
In addition to L2 Puppis’s flared disc, the team found two cones of material, which rise out perpendicularly to the disc. Importantly, within these cones, they found two long, slowly curving plumes of material. From the origin points of these plumes, the team deduces that one is likely to be the product of the interaction between the material from L2 Puppis and the companions star’s wind and radiation pressure, while the other is likely to have arisen from a collision between the stellar winds from the two stars, or be the result of an accretion disc around the companion star.
Although much is still to be understood, there are two leading theories of bipolar planetary nebulae, both relying on the existence of a binary star system . The new observations suggest that both of these processes are in action around L2 Puppis, making it appear very probable that the pair of stars will, in time, give birth to a butterfly.
Pierre Kervella concludes: “With the companion star orbiting L2 Puppis only every few years, we expect to see how the companion star shapes the red giant’s disc. It will be possible to follow the evolution of the dust features around the star in real time — an extremely rare and exciting prospect.”
 SPHERE/ZIMPOL use extreme adaptive optics to create diffraction-limited images, which come a lot closer than previous adaptive optics instruments to achieving the theoretical limit of the telescope if there were no atmosphere. Extreme adaptive optics also allows much fainter objects to be seen very close to a bright star. These images are also taken in visible light — shorter wavelengths than the near-infrared regime, where most earlier adaptive optics imaging was performed. These two factors result in significantly sharper images than earlier VLT images. Even higher spatial resolution has been achieved with VLTI, but the interferometer does not create images directly.
 The dust in the disc was very efficient at scattering the stars’ light towards Earth and polarising it, a feature that the team could use to create a three-dimensional map of the envelope using both ZIMPOL and NACO data and a disc model based on the RADMC-3D radiative transfer modeling tool, which uses a given set of parameters for the dust to simulate photons propagating through it.
 The first theory is that the dust produced by the primary, dying star’s stellar wind is confined to a ring-like orbit about the star by the stellar winds and radiation pressure produced by the companion star. Any further mass lost from the main star is then funneled, or collimated, by this disc, forcing the material to move outwards in two opposing columns perpendicular to the disc.
The second holds that most of the material being ejected by the dying star is accreted by its nearby companion, which begins to form an accretion disc and a pair of powerful jets. Any remaining material is pushed away by the dying star’s stellar winds, forming an encompassing cloud of gas and dust, as would normally occur in a single star system. The companion star’s newly created bipolar jets, moving with much greater force than the stellar winds of the dying star, then carve dual cavities through the surrounding dust, resulting in the characteristic appearance of a bipolar planetary nebula.