NASA is currently developing a space capsule, called Orion, that will eventually carry a crew of four astronauts to Low Earth Orbit and beyond. Should something go catastrophically wrong during launch, an abort system will work to save the lives of the astronauts—but whoa, would they ever be in for a hell of a ride.
The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) will be delivered to space on top of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS)—a monster rocket system capable of producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust. If this thing were to fail before takeoff or during the ascent, the fuel-packed rockets would unleash a massive explosion.
In a nutshell, here’s how LAS works: in event of an emergency on the launch pad or during the ascent, the system will separate the Orion crew module from the rocket using a solid rocket-powered launch abort motor (AM). This booster will produce a short, powerful burst of thrust to quickly create distance between the capsule and the falling—and possibly exploding—rocket.
For the test, NASA will use a fully functional LAS and an uncrewed 22,000 pound Orion test vehicle. These components will be placed atop an Orbital ATK-built booster rocket, and will launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Once at an altitude of 32,000 feet, and traveling at Mach 1.3 (that’s over 1,000 miles per hour), the LAS’s powerful reverse-flow abort motor will spring into action, igniting and pushing the Orion test module away from the booster.
So imagine you’re an astronaut, flying faster than the speed of sound, thinking you’re on your way to the Moon or Mars—or at least space—when all of a sudden you’re rudely shoved away from the rocket. Talk about whiplash. It’s probably at that point you’d be given an unwelcome reminder of what you had for lunch.
The falling capsule will not deploy a parachute during the test, as NASA is primarily assessing the performance of the capsule ejection stage.
“This will be the only time we test a fully active launch abort system during ascent before we fly crew, so verifying that it works as predicted, in the event of an emergency, is a critical step before we put astronauts on board,” Don Reed, manager of the Orion Program’s Flight Test Management Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in an agency release. “No matter what approach you take, having to move a 22,000-pound spacecraft away quickly from a catastrophic event, like a potential rocket failure, is extremely challenging.”
The LAS is comprised of two parts, a fairing assembly that protects the capsule from wind, heat, and acoustics of launch, and a launch abort tower, which includes three motors.
Four billion years ago, Earth was covered in a watery sludge swarming with primordial molecules, gases, and minerals — nothing that biologists would recognize as alive. Then somehow, out of that prebiotic stew emerged the first critical building blocks — proteins, sugars, amino acids, cell walls — that would combine over the next billion years to form the first specks of life on the planet.
A subset of chemists have devoted their careers to puzzling out the early chemical and environmental conditions that gave rise to the origins of life. With scant clues from the geological record, they synthesize simple molecules that may have existed billions of years ago and test if these ancient enzymes had the skills to turn prebiotic raw material into the stuff of life.
A team of such chemists from the Scripps Research Institute reportedNov. 6 in the journal Nature Chemistry that they identified a single, primitive enzyme that could have reacted with early Earth catalysts to produce some of the key precursors to life: the short chains of amino acids that power cells, the lipids that form cell walls, and the strands of nucleotides that store genetic information.
Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy is an associate professor of chemistry at Scripps and lead author of the origins of life paper. For a number of years, his lab has been experimenting with a synthetic enzyme called diamidophosphate (DAP) that’s been shown to drive a critical chemical process called phosphorylation. Without phosphorylation — which is simply the process of adding a phosphate molecule to another molecule — life wouldn’t exist.
“If you look at life today, and how it probably was at least three billion years ago, it was based on a lot of phosphorylation chemistry,” Krishnamurthy told Seeker. “Your RNA, DNA, and a lot of your biomolecules are phosphorylated. So are sugars, amino acids, and proteins.”
The enzymes that trigger phosphorylation are called kinases. They use phosphorylation to send signals instructing cells to divide, to make more of one protein than another, to tell DNA strands to separate, or RNA to form. DAP may have been one of the first primordial kinases to get the phosphorylation ball rolling, Krishnamurthy believed.
To test his theory, Krishnamurthy and his colleagues simulated early Earth conditions in the lab, using both a water base and a muddy paste set to varying pH levels. They combined DAP with different concentrations of magnesium, zinc, and a compound called imidazole that acted as a catalyst to speed the reactions, which still took weeks or sometimes months to complete.
For DAP to pass the test, it had to successfully trigger phosphorylation events that resulted in simple nucleotides, peptides, and cell wall structures under similar conditions. Past candidates for origin-of-life enzymes could only phosphorylate certain structures under wildly different chemical and environmental conditions. DAP, Krishnamurthy found, could do it all, phosphorylating the four nucleoside building blocks of RNA, then short RNA-like strands, then fatty acids, lipids, and peptide chains.
Does that mean that DAP is the pixie dust that transformed random matter into life? Not quite, said Krishnamurthy.
“The best we can do is try to demonstrate that simple chemicals under the right conditions could give rise to further chemistry which may lead to life-like behavior. We can’t make a claim that this is the way that life formed on the early Earth.”
For one thing, Krishnamurthy has no proof that DAP even existed four billion years ago. He synthesized the molecule in his lab as a way to solve one of the fundamental challenges to phosphorylating in wet, early Earth conditions. For most phosphorylation reactions to work, they need to remove a molecule of water in the process.
“How do you remove water from a molecule when you are surrounded by a pool of water?” asked Krishnamurthy. “That’s thermodynamically an uphill task.”
DAP gets around that problem by removing a molecule of ammonia instead of water.
Krishnamurthy is working with geochemists to identify potential sources of DAP in the distant geological past. Phosphate-rich lava flows may have reacted with ammonia in the air to create DAP, or it could have been leached out of phosphate-containing minerals. Or maybe it even arrived on the back of a meteorite forged by a far-off star.
One thing is clear, without DAP or something like it, Earth might still be a lifeless mud puddle.
At Live Science, we delve into science news from around the world every day — and some of those stories can get a little weird. Here are some of the strangest science news articles from this week.
This bizarre image of a mosquito foot sent Reddit into a frenzy as users gave it tens of thousands of upvotes. A bit a digging revealed that this photo — made with a scanning electron microscope by photographer Steve Gschmeissner — shows the end of a mosquito’s leg, including a claw, scales and the pulvillus, a pad with adhesive hairs. [Read more about the magnified mosquito foot]
Sheep can identify a person merely by looking at a photo, new research finds. Scientists showed sheep photos of famous people, including actress Emma Watson and former U.S. President Barack Obama. When given the choice between a stranger’s photo and a photo of the celebrity, the sheep chose the celebrity almost 80 percent of the time, even when the photo was taken from a different angle. [Read more about the smart sheep]
A group of 245 daredevils jumped off a bridge in Brazil and lived to tell the tale, thanks to a keen understanding of physics. The record-setting jump was made possible with a system of ropes, experts told Live Science. After the jump, the daredevils swung like pendulums from the bridge. [Read more about the incredible jump]
If an alien megastructure were the cause of the odd blinking seen from “Boyajian’s Star” (also known as “Tabby’s Star”), it would have to be massive enough to block the star’s light in a noticeable way. In other words, it would have to be on the order of five times the sun’s radius, and larger than the star, known as KIC 8462852, itself. [Read more about the size of the possible alien megastructure]
We’ve all heard of crash test dummies. But what about Robutt: the robot butt that tests car seats? Ford engineers estimate that people sit down on their car seats about 25,000 in a 10-year period. Robutt is now testing the Ford Fiesta to ensure these seats stay durable despite heavy use. [Read more about Robutt, the robot butt]
Bonobo monkeys didn’t earn the nickname “hippie chimps” for nothing. New observations show that they help unfamiliar bonobos get a food reward, even when they didn’t receive a reward themselves. The monkeys also help strangers, regardless of whether the unknown bonobo asked for help in the first place. [Read more about these helpful monkeys]
Researchers found a real treasure: an intricately carved gemstone in an ancient Greek tomb. The gemstone carving depicts a warrior standing over the body of a slain enemy, plunging his sword into another soldier’s neck. [Read more about the gemstone discovery]
Want more weird science news and discoveries? Check out these and other “Strange News” stories on Live Science!
Hundreds of thousands of stone structures that date back thousands of years and dot the deserts and plains of the Middle East and North Africa are, in many cases, so large that only a bird’s-eye view can reveal their intricate archaeological secrets: gorgeous and mysterious geometric shapes resembling a range of objects, from field gates, to kites, to pendants, to wheels.
These are the “Works of the Old Men,” according to the Bedouin when first questioned in the 1920s. And although ancient peoples evidently had their reasons for constructing these stone structures, their purpose has remained relatively opaque to archaeologists today.
I have been studying these Works for two decades, and their inaccessibility has made these sites’ purposes even more elusive. That’s where satellite imagery (used by Google Earth) and aerial reconnaissance, which involves much lower-flying aircraft) come in.
Between the last years of World War I and roughly the early 1950s, some aerial archaeology was carried out in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that were ruled or controlled by Britain and France. Most famously, these archaeologists included Antoine Poidebard in Syria, Sir Aurel Stein in Iraq and Transjordan, and Jean Baradez in Algeria. Then, it ended as these countries achieved independence, and except by Israelfrom time to time, no further aerial reconnaissance for archaeology was carried out, and access even to archival aerial photographs in every MENA country was rarely possible. For half a century, archaeologists working in this extensive region, with its rich heritage, had to do so without the benefit of the single most important tool for prospection, recording and monitoring, much less the valuable perspective the aerial view revealed.
That situation began to change in 1995, when President Bill Clinton ordered the declassification of old CIA satellite imagery. But things changed more rapidly about a decade ago, when the far superior Google Earth’s (and, to a degree, Bing Maps’) seamless photomap of the entire globe became available. Initially, there were few “windows” of high-resolution imagery displayed for any of these countries, but by 2008, there were enough for archaeologists to use regularly, and increasingly easily.
At a stroke, one strand of remote sensing was democratized: Anyone, anywhere with a computer and internet connection could traverse previously hidden landscapes on a photomap and see places perhaps long known to the local inhabitants but never formally defined and recorded in the databases of the national antiquities authorities. Into this space stepped a group of interested and talented amateurs for one of the countries for which aerial photographs had never been generally available: the 770,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah al-Sa’eed, a medical doctor, and colleagues of what they calledThe Desert Team, based in Riyadh, began to explore, via Google Earth, the huge lava field of western Saudi Arabia, called the Harret Khaybar. Then, they visited a variety of sites on the ground that they had discovered through the satellite imagery. In 2008 Dr al-Sa’eed contacted me and we collaborated on an article. [See More Images of the Gates and Other Stone Structures in Saudi Arabia]
Since al-Sa’eed and I published our findings about the stone structures of Harret Khaybar, I have published several articles on the archaeological remains in these lava fields of Arabia as a whole. There are immense numbers of them (at least hundreds of thousands), and each one can be huge (hundreds of metres across). Often, they are enigmatic, as there is no consensus on the purpose of several types of these structures. And they are almost entirely unrecorded and barely acknowledged; the extensive archaeological landscapes were first reported in the 1920s (for Jordan and Syria), but only now are they coming into sharp focus in terms of scale and significance.
Although these stone structures are found extensively in the northernmostharrat — the Harret al-Shaam, stretching from southern Syria across the Jordanian Panhandle and into Saudi Arabia — they appear in equally large numbers in most of the harrat stretching down the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is those harrat in Saudi Arabia that have attracted much recent attention, in part because of their unfamiliarity and the astonishing numbers and types of sites that have emerged, some quite different from those long known in Jordan. [See Photos of Wheel-Shaped Stone Structures in the Middle East]
My own research on Saudi Arabia since 2009 has focused on a group ofharrat in the northwest of the country, where I discovered a high-resolution “window” of pendants, wheels and cairns in the Harret Rahat, northeast of Jeddah; 917 kites in the Harret Khaybar; almost 400 gates, largely in the Harret Khaybar area; and a variety of site types found in various lava fields. All of these discoveries were made using the imagery of Google Earth (with occasional supplements from Bing Maps).
The need for aerial reconnaissance
The number of high-resolution “windows” on Google Earth has increased rapidly, especially since the launch of the Landsat 8 satellite in February 2013. These virtual “windows” are marvelous tools for fulfilling the traditional roles of conventional aerial reconnaissance, which has led many to pose a question: Why do we need aerial reconnaissance now that we have free access to the satellite imagery of Google Earth? [15 Secretive Places You Can Now See on Google Earth]
Of course, Google Earth will remain a useful tool for prospection; it is simple to “pin” and catalog sites, measure them, sketch them and generate distribution maps for interpretation. The limitations are equally obvious, however. The imagery is two-dimensional, and even the best resolution can be very fuzzy when enlarged. Detail is missing, and some sites are effectively invisible for various reasons. And imagery may be months, or even years, old and thus less valuable for routine monitoring of development.
In short, traditional low-level and usually oblique aerial photography continues to have several advantages and uses: It is immediate, if there is a regular flying program; it can be timed to maximize solar and climatic conditions; the oblique view provides an extra dimension to the “flatness” of Google Earth; the high-quality camera photograph from a low altitude reveals details of structures not visible on Google Earth; and with a helicopter as the platform, it is possible to land and obtain ground data immediately for sites that may otherwise be too remote for easy access.
This last point is important: As has always been the case, it is vital that aerial reconnaissance (and interpretation of satellite imagery) be paired with as much ground inspection as possible. Ideally, all three techniques (aerial surveys, satellite imagery and ground inspection) would be used.
In recent years, that ideal situation has been possible in just one MENA country — Jordan — thanks to generous support from its government and from the nonprofit Packard Humanities Institute, which is dedicated partly to archaeology. Since 1997, aerial photos have been taken as part of my project called Aerial Archaeology in Jordan (AAJ), and over 100,000 aerial photographs have been made available for research in an archive (APAAME) established in 1978.
A game-changer in my research happened when the interest sparked by the Live Science article led to my invitation to study these structures in one region of – till now, the least open of these Middle Eastern countries, regarding reconnaissance[CK-ChECK my change here-CK].
Aerial archaeology in Saudi Arabia
Some of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors looked for archaeological sites with aerial reconnaissance before World War II, but even aerial photographs from surveys of this immense kingdom were almost entirely unavailable. Of course, archaeologists knew the kingdom was home to high-profile sites as well as great cemeteries of thousands of tumuli.
As Google Earth has opened a new and extensive area for research, it has indirectly helped to spark a trial season of aerial reconnaissance for archaeology. There is now the possibility that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will become the second MENA country to support a regular program of aerial archaeology to find, record, monitor and research the hundreds of thousands of sites in the country. [25 Strangest Sights on Google Earth]
On Oct. 17, Live Science published an article describing a highly unusual type of site – called gates in the Harret Khaybar area, that my colleagues and I had systematically catalogued and mapped and were to publish in the scientific literature in November. That sparked immediate and extensive international media coverage, including features in The New York Times, Newsweek and the National Geographic Education Blog. Four days after the article was published on Live Science, I got an invitation from publication from the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, in northwest Saudi Arabia, to visit that town. The Al-Ula oasis is famous for hosting the remains of a succession of early cultures and more recent civilizations, all strewn thickly among its 2 million-plus date palms. As a Roman archaeologist, I had known this oasis for over 40 years as the location of Madain Salih, Al-Hijr — ancient Hegra, a world-class Nabataean site adopted by UNESCO.
The expansive area includes thousands of rock-cut tombs and graves — most notably, scores of monumental tombs cut into the rock outcrops of the plain and evoking those of the capital, Petra, about 300 miles (500 kilometers) to the north. After the Roman annexation of the Nabataean kingdom in A.D. 106, a garrison was installed. Some of thesetrooops left their names and units in Latin, as graffiti on a rock outcrop. More recently, a Saudi-French archaeological team recovered a monumental Latin inscription recording construction around A.D. 175 to 177 under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, as well as part of the defenses and barracks of the Roman fort inserted into the town. Not far off are the ruins of the city of Dedan, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and the remarkable “library” of monumental Lihyanite inscriptions and art carved onto rocks and the cliff face.
However, the objective of my visit lay in the lava fields in the wider region. Helicopter flights could give access to the extensive Harret Uwayrid (and contiguous Harret Raha) to the west, stretching some 77 miles (125 km) and rising to an elevation of about 6,300 feet (1,920 meters), much of which could be viewed only from the air. The most recent volcanic eruption occurred in A.D. 640, but the hundreds of sites I had already “pinned” there on Google Earth were evidently far older, most likely prehistoric and a component of the “Works of the Old Men” that I’d encountered in other harrat.
We were also able to fly over the Harret Khaybar and view not just the gate structures but also the kites, pendants, keyholes and much more we had seen on the Google Earth imagery.
Four days after the invitation from the Royal Commission, my colleague Don Boyer, a geologist who now works in archaeology, and I were on our way to Riyadh. Almost immediately, on Oct. 27 to Oct. 29, we began three days of flying in the helicopter of the Royal Commission. In total, we flew for 15 hours and took almost 6,000 photographs of about 200 sites of all kinds — but mainly the stone structures in the two harrat.
Though we didn’t have much notice, Boyer and I spent three days before our visit looking over the sites we had “pinned” and catalogued using Google Earth over several years. We then, relatively easily, planned where we wanted to fly in order to capture several thousand structures in these two lava fields. Our helicopter survey was probably the first systematic aerial reconnaissance for archaeology ever carried out in Saudi Arabia. It was possible only because of the publication of the Live Science feature article describing my research on the gate structures, and the resulting international media coverage, which caught the attention of the Royal Commission.
The latter is significant: Several recent interviews and feature articles in the international media have highlighted the drive of the young Crown Prince to open up his country to development and innovation. The Royal Commission for the city of Al-Ula, an internationally important cultural center for the region that boasts world-class archaeological sites, is one element of this openness. Development is likely to be rapid, and the commission is open to engaging with international experts in its wider project to find, document and interpret the hundreds of thousands of surviving sites. Collaboration with local inhabitants, who know of even the more remote sites, and local archaeologists will be vital to this effort.
Happily, on our flights, we were accompanied by Eid al-Yahya, an archaeologidst, author and expert of Arab culture, who has traversed swaths of these harsh but archaeologically rich landscapes over 30-plus years and has explored many individual sites. Even just the archaeological component of this grand project of the commission comprises several components. One component — and, arguably, one of the most pressing — is to help the commission understand its wider heritage record: where and what, and then when and why.
Because the area is so immense — encompassing some 10,000 square miles, or 27,000 square km — this is a task for remote sensing. This method will be combined with several techniques: the interpretation of Google Earth imagery systematically, the cataloging of the sites located, complementary low-level aerial reconnaissance and photography, and associated ground investigation. We have been interpreting Google Earth imagery for some years. The ground investigation, by contrast, is in its infancy. The aerial reconnaissance part has made a good start over the past few weeks and deserves to be pursued urgently. Based on the 20 years of aerial archaeology research we have conducted in Jordan, my co-director Dr. Robert Bewley and our team can offer our expertise for this last task.
A successful systematic program of aerial archaeology in the Al-Ula region could provide valuable lessons and establish best practices for the far larger task of mapping the archaeology of Saudi Arabia, and those efforts may be assisted by partnerships with the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project at Oxford University.
A “quantum satellite” sounds at home in the James Bond franchise, but there really is a satellite named Micius with some truly quantum assignments. In this case, it helped the president of the Chinese Academy of Science make a video call. A quantum-safe video call.
The Micius satellite has made the news several times this year, thanks to its role in some crazy-sounding science like setting quantum teleportation andentanglement records. The satellite is doing some potentially important, real-life work, however, allowing the Chinese government to set up more secure communications lines with the help of quantum mechanics. Now, the Chinese Academy of Sciences reports the first quantum-safe video call between its president, Chunli Bai, and President Anton Zeilinger of the Austria Academy of Sciences in Vienna.
Essentially what’s going on to make this super safe call happen is rooted in the laws of quantum mechanics, entanglement, and superposition. Individual particles act as both specks and waves simultaneously, with a list of possible properties. If you make these particles interact with one another, the mathematics of quantum mechanics requires that you describe them using the same equation—even if you separate them over large distances. If you entangle a pair of light particles and separate them, measuring one automatically implies what the other one should be.
This is often described as “spooky action at a distance,” but it’s not really that spooky, especially considering how it was used here: to share encryption keys to ensure no one was eavesdropping on the call. Entangling photons over a long distance means that you share a link—but if there’s an eavesdropper on the communications line, then the laws of quantum mechanics causes these particles to lose their spooky connection. The scientists use this link to set up a secure line.
Basically, Micius sends entangled photons to two stations, one in Austria and the other into China, encoded with specific polarizations (the direction of the light wave’s wobble) as the security check. The scientists make measurements of the polarizations and then send back their measurement information, which the satellite reviews to ensure that there hasn’t been a collapse of the entanglement. It then creates the security keys, which the stations can use to encrypt and decrypt the data contained in the video call, according to an Austrian Academy of Sciences press release.
It’s sort of a single-use pad deal solely for the data in the video call, but generated via quantum mechanics.
So, again, no teleporting and nothing that crazy if you think about it, but the move is an important one symbolically. These quantum key distribution systems are meant to be unhackable if done right—though of course, there’s worry one could still find a way to hack such communications.
Anyway, the Micius satellite continues to plow ahead—and it might not be too long before you are sending journalists government document links with a quantum key.
They will never sit on your desk, and they will most certainly never fit in your pocket. Today, they’re fragile, and need to be kept at temperatures close to absolute zero. Quantum computers aren’t much like the desktop PCs we’re all so familiar with—they’re a whole new kind of machine, capable of calculations so complex, it’s like upgrading from black-and-white to a full color spectrum.
Despite what you’ve heard, right now, quantum computing is more or less in the era that classical computing was in the ‘50s, when room-sized hulks ran on vacuum tubes. But it could revolutionize computing. Potentially. Maybe.
Before you learn what a quantum computer is and why it matters, let’s break down the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics. It may sound esoteric, but the rules of quantum mechanics govern the very nature of the particles that make up our universe, including those of your electronics and gadgets.
When one thing is two things at the same time
In our universe, we are used to a thing being one thing. A coin, for example, can be heads, or it can be tails. But if the coin followed the rules of quantum mechanics, the coin would be flipping midair. So until it lands and we look at it, we don’t know if it’s heads or tails. Effectively, it’s both heads and tails at the same time.
We do know one thing about this coin. There is a probability for the flipping coin to be either heads or tails. So the coin isn’t heads, it’s not tails, it’s—for example—the probability of 20% heads and 80% tails. Scientifically speaking, how can a physical thing be like this? How do we even begin describe it?
The most mind-boggling part of quantum mechanics is that for some reason, particles like electrons seem to act like waves, and light waves like particles. Particles have a wavelength. The most basic experiment demonstrating this fact is the double slit experiment:
If you put a pair of parallel slits in a partitionbetween a beam of particles and a wall, and put a detector on the wall to see what happens, a strange pattern of stripes appear. It’s called an interference pattern.
Like waves, theparticles-waves that travel through one slit interfere with those that travel through the other slit. If the peak of the wave aligns with a trough, the particles cancel out and nothing shows up. If the peak aligns with another peak, the signal in the detector would be even brighter. (This interference pattern still exists even if you only send one electron at a time.)
If we were to describe one of these wave-like particles (before they hit the wall) as a mathematical equation, it would look like the mathematical equation describing our coin (before it hits the ground and lands on heads or tails).
These equations can look kind of scary, like this:
But all you need to know is that this equation lists the particle’s definite properties but doesn’t say which one you’ll get. (We don’t know that yet.) You can use this equation to find the probabilities of some of the particle’s properties.
And because this math involves complex numbers—those containing the square root of -1, or i—it doesn’t just describe the probability of a coin being heads or tails, it describes an advanced probability, which could include the way the face of the coin will be rotated.
From all this crazy math, we get a couple of crazy things. There’s superposition—the midair coin being heads and tails at the same time. There’s interference—probability waves overlapping and cancelling each other out. And there’s entanglement, which is like if we tied a bunch of coins together, changing the probability of certain outcomes because they’re, well, entangled now. These three crazy things are exploited by quantum computers to make whole new kinds of algorithms.
How a quantum computer works
“In some sense we’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years. The rules we use to compute have not changed—we’re stuck with bits and bytes and logic operations,” Martin Laforest, Senior Manager of Scientific Outreach at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tells Gizmodo. But that is all about to change. “Quantum computers turn the rules of computers on their heads.”
Traditional computers do their computation using bits, which can be stored as electrical charges in processors or even tiny pits drilled into CDs. A bit only has two choices, which we represent as one and zero. Anything with two choices you can pick from is a bit. All computing is done via setting and relating bits, with operations like “if this bit is a zero and this bit is a one, make this third bit a one, otherwise make it a zero,” and so on and so forth.
The qubit, short for quantum bit, is like a regular bit, but it’s both a zero and a one at the same time (before you look at it). It’s that coin flipping in midair. A quantum computer is like flipping multiple coins at the same time—except while these coins are flipping, they obey the wacky rules of superposition, interference and entanglement.
The quantum computer first bestows the qubits with this quantum mechanical version of probability of what will happen once you actually peep the qubit. (Once you peep the mysterious qubit though, it stops being mysterious and becomes a defined bit.) Quantum mechanical computations are made by preparing the qubits (or adding weights to a coin before you flip it to manipulate the probability of the outcome), then interacting them together (or flipping a bunch of entangled coins at once) and then measuring them (which causes the coins to stop flipping and produces the final value). If done properly, all of this mid-air interaction should result in a best answer (the value) to whatever question you’ve asked the computer.
Quantum computing is special. As we said before, because its math uses complex numbers, it computes a special version of probabilities—not just heads vs. tails but also the orientation of the coin. So as you throw these coins up in the air, they bump into each other with their different sides and orientations, and some of this bumping changes the probability of the side revealed by the outcome. Sometimes they bump into each other and cancel each other out, making certain outcomes less likely. Sometimes they push each other along, making certain outcomes more likely. All this is interference behavior.
“The idea with a quantum computer is that you take this phenomenon and exploit it on a massive scale,” said Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “The idea is to choreograph a pattern of interference” so that everything cancels out except for the answer you were looking for.You want the coins to interfere in the air.
To the observer, the answer just looks like the output of regular bits. The quantum mechanics happens in the background.
What you can do with it, from chemistry to encryption
It was famous physicist Richard Feynman who’s credited as dreaming up the first quantum computer in a 1982 paper—a computer that could use quantum mechanics to solve certain problems. But it was like first coming up with a new way of notating music, but no instrument to play it on and no compositions written. It wasn’t until mathematicians began devising algorithms for this computer to use that it became a more reasonable dream to pursue. Theorists wrote the compositions (the algorithms), while physicists worked on building the instruments (the physical quantum computers).
But okay, now you just have these weird quantum bits whose output you can’t guess beforehand. Now you have to figure out how you can use them. Today, there are several places where researchers think using a quantum computer could solve certain problems better than a classical computer.
Most obviously, you can use these quantum bits to create simulations of other things that follow the crazy rules of quantum mechanics: namely, atoms and molecules. Scientists can use qubits to model entire molecules and their interactions. This could help drug companies devise new medicines, or create new materials with desired properties, before ever setting a foot into a lab.
Scientists have already been able to model these molecules using classical computing, but quantum mechanics offers a huge speedup. Fully representing the behavior of the caffeine molecule, including the relevant quantum mechanical rules of its individual particles, might take 160 qubits, explained Robert Sutor, vice president of Cognitive, Blockchain, and Quantum Solutions at IBM. Doing so with a classical computer to that level of detail would require around the same number of bits (10^48) as there are atoms on planet Earth (between 10^49 and 10^50).
IBM has already modeled the far lighter beryllium hydride molecule using a six qubit quantum computer. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory determined all of the energy state of a hydrogen molecule with their own two qubit quantum computer.
There are other algorithms that researchers think might provide some sort of speedup over classical computers. Grover’s algorithm, for example, can help optimize searching. Some are working on using quantum computing in artificial intelligence, or in optimization problems such as “find the biggest mountain in this mountain range” and “find the fastest route between these two points separated by several rivers crossed by several bridges.”
But perhaps the most talked-about quantum computer algorithm is something called Shor’s algorithm, which could change the way almost all our data in encrypted.
Devised by Peter Shor in 1994, its purpose is to factor numbers into primes. I literally mean the factoring you learned in elementary school, the way that you can break 15 into its factors, 3 and 5. Multiplying numbers together is a simple computational task, but breaking big numbers into their factors takes a far longer time. Modern cryptography is based on this knowledge, so lots of your data is, in its most simplified form, encrypted “securely” by converting things into numbers, multiplying them togetherand associating them with a “key”—instructions on how to factor them. RSA encryption is used almost everywhere, from passwords to banking to your social media. But if a quantum computer can come along that can run Shor’s algorithm and break the encryption, then that old encryption method is no longer secure.
According to everyone I spoke with, breaking RSA encryption is decades away, but scientists are well on their way looking for post-quantum cryptography, new math that can be used for encoding data. The idea is that encryptionbased on these new ideas would be based on mathematics not easier to run with a quantum computer. Meanwhile, other researchers are scrambling to break the popular RSA encryption system with quantum computers before a hacker does.
“I suppose on that level, it’s like the Cold War,” said Stephan Haas, University of Southern California theoretical physicist. “You’re getting nuclear weapons because the other guy is getting nuclear weapons.”
Here’s a physical qubit
Scientists needed transistors, teeny electrical switches, to store bits and make regular computers. Similarly, they need hardware that can store a quantum bit. The key to producing a quantum computer is finding a way to model a quantum system that folks can actually control—actually set the probabilities and orientations of those flipping coins. This can be done with atoms trapped by lasers, photons, and other systems. But at this point, most everyone in the industry who’s presented a quantum computer has done so with superconductors—ultra-cold pieces of specially-fabricated electronics.
They look like teeny microchips. Except these microchips get placed into room-sized refrigerators cooled to temperatures just above absolute zero.
These superconducting qubits stay quantum for a long time while performing quantum computing operations, explained Irfan Sidiqqi from the University of California, Berkeley. He said that other types of systems can stay quantum for longer, but are slower.
There are three kinds of qubits made from these electronics. They’re called flux, charge, and phase qubits, differing by the specifics of their constructions and their physical properties. All of them rely on something called a Josephson junction in order to work.
A Josephson junction is a tiny piece of non-superconducting insulator placed between the superconducting wires, places where electrons travel without any resistance and begin to show off obvious quantum effects in larger systems. Manipulating the current through the wires allows physicists to set up qubits in these systems. As of today, these systems are very fragile. They fall apart into classical bits through any sorts of noise. And every additional qubit adds more complexity. The biggest quantum computers today have less than 20 qubits, with an exception, the D-Wave computer, whose 2,000 qubits operate on a separate, more specific principle that we’ll dig into later.
Actually performing calculations with these qubits can be a challenge. Regular computers have error correction, or built-in redundancies, places where multiple bits perform the same function in case one of them fail. For quantum computers to do this, they need to have extra qubits built into their system specifically to check errors. But the nature of quantum mechanics makesactually doing this error correction more difficult than it does in classical computers. It could take around two thousand physical qubits working in tandem, in fact, to create one reliable “error-corrected” qubit resistant to messing up. But we’re getting closer. “There’s a lot of healthy progress that wouldn’t have been imaginable two years ago,” said Debbie Leung on the faculty at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.
“A quantum computer will always have errors,” said Laforest. Thankfully, modeling molecules doesn’t need quite the same level of accuracy, said Siddiqi, which is why researchers have plowed forward with these types of simulations in few-qubit systems.
Better qubits and further research continue to bring us closer to the threshold where we can construct few-qubit processors. “Now we’re at the junction where the theoretical demand versus the reality of experiments are converging together,” said Laforest.
Who’s doing it
Universities, national labs, and companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel are pursuing qubits set-ups in logic circuits similar to regular bits, all with less than 20 qubits so far. Companies are simultaneously simulating quantum computers with classical computers, but around 50 qubits is seen as the limit—IBM recently simulated 56 qubits, which took 4.5 terabytes of memory in a classical computer.
Each company we spoke to has a slightly different approach to developing their superconducting machines. Sutor from IBM told Gizmodo the company is taking a long-term approach, hoping to one day release a general-purpose quantum computer that classical computers rely on, when needed, through the cloud. Intel has just entered the race with their 17-qubit processor released in October. Microsoft showed off their consumer-facing software suite to Gizmodo, and described a similar long-term goal for quantum computing involving scalable hardware.
Rumors are swelling that before the end of this year, Google will unleash a quantum computer that will achieve “quantum supremacy”with 49 or 50 qubits. Quantum supremacy simply means finding one single algorithm for which a quantum computer always win, and for which a classical workaround can’t be found to solve the same problem. This is just one milestone, though.
“It will probably be a contrived task, something not classically important,” said Aaronson. Still, he said, “I think at that point it raises the stakes for the skeptics, for the people who have said and continue to say that it’s a pipe dream.” The other companies seemed to agree and stressed their long-term goals for quantum computing. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
While 2017 seems to be a year amidst a sort-of quantum boom, everyone I spoke to was realistic about just how far from a consumer-facing product quantum computing is. “Looking at 2020, 2021 we’ll start seeing the advantage for real users, corporations, and scientific research,” Sutor said.
But one controversial company, D-wave, is instead doing a different kind of quantum computing called adiabatic quantum computing. Rather than just a dozen to a few dozen qubits, they’ve announced a computer with 2,000. And rather than rely on quantum logic circuits like the rest of the pack, their computer solves one type of problem—optimization problems, like finding the best solution from a range of okay solutions, or finding the best taxi route from point A to point B staying as far as possible from other taxis. These kind of problems are potentially useful in finance.
Unlike the competitors, D-wave doesn’t need its qubits to be error-corrected. Instead, it overcomes the error correction by running the algorithm many times per second. “Is it a general purpose machine that could run any problem? No,” Bo Ewald, D-Wave’s president, told Gizmodo. “But there aren’t any computers that can run these problems anyway.”
At this point, people agree that D-Wave’s computer is a quantum computer, but are unsure if it’s better than a classical computer for the same problem yet (some of its users report beating classical algorithms, said Ewald). But Ewald just wanted to get quantum computers in front of people now. “If you want to get started with real-world quantum computing today, this is how you do it. NASA, Google, and Los Alamos National Labs have all purchased models or computing space,” said Ewald.
Everyone, even Ewald at D-Wave, agrees that we’re far from seeing quantum computers used in everyday life—there’s a lot of excitement but we’re still in the early days. There are hordes of challenges, like error correction. Then comes the related problem of transmitting quantum information between distant computers or storing quantum information long term in memory.
I asked Aaronsonwhether he thought some startup or some secret effort might come along from out of nowhere and present a super advanced model—he said probably not. “We know who the best scientists are and we’d expect them to be vacuumed up the way physicists were in the Manhattan project,” he said. “I think it remains a very healthy field, but at the same time it’s true that actually building a useful quantum computer is a massive technological undertaking.” You can’t just build one in your garage.
So no, you cannot own a quantum computer now, nor is it likely that you will ever own a quantum computer. It’s more likely that when your classical computer needs quantum help, you won’t notice it working. You may hear about some benefits of quantum computing in the next few years, like biochemical advances, but other advantages could be 20 years down the line. And overall, there’s no proof a quantum computer is any better than a classical computer. Yet.
If you were to fly over Enceladus’ southernmost regions, you’d witness a remarkable sight. With surprising frequency, this ice-covered moon spurts a plume of water into space—a telltale sign that a global ocean lies underneath. Scientists have struggled to explain how such a tiny moon could sustain enough energy to maintain a liquid ocean, but new research shows that a porous core could do the trick, and that Enceladus has been wet for billions of years—a potential sign of habitability.
New research published in Nature Astronomy is the first to show how Saturn’s moon Enceladus is able to produce sustained hydrothermal activity along its rocky core and maintain a warm subterranean global ocean. Remarkably, the 3D models used for the study indicate that this process, which requires a wet, porous core, has been ongoing for potentially billions of years, an observation that bodes well for astrobiologists in search of microbial alien life.
Enceladus measures about 310 miles (500 km) across and it’s completely covered in an icy shell. At its thickest, this ice runs about 12 to 15 miles (20-25 km) deep, but it thins to just a few miles over the southern polar region. It’s in these southern areas where Enceladus’ geysers can be found, spewing jets of water vapor and icy grains (some containing simple organics) through cracks in the ice.
This moon is literally blowing its ocean into space, and thanks to the Cassini probe, we know this vapor includes salt and silica dust. But for these ingredients to exist, the temperature at the bottom of the ocean must be exceptionally hot. Because of what Cassini uncovered, we know there are some serious chemical reactions happening along the boundary that separates the moon’s liquid ocean from its warm, rocky core.
“In order to explain these observations, an abnormally high heat power (>20 billion watts) is required, as well as a mechanism to focus endogenic activity [i.e. processes within the core] at the south pole,” write the authors in the new study.
Exactly where Enceladus gets all this crazy amount of energy isn’t immediately obvious. The heat required is about 100 times more than what would be expected through the natural decay of radioactive elements within the core’s rocks. More plausibly, a major part of the process has to do with the moon’s host: Saturn. Enceladus spins around its gas giant along an elliptical orbit, where the constant gravitational pushing and pulling creates a tidal effect. At the core, this tidal effect produces friction, and by consequence warmth. Yet this is still not enough energy to counterbalance the heat bleeding off the ocean. By all accounts, this moon should’ve frozen over after about 30 million years, according to scientists.
But it hasn’t, and because Enceladus is still extremely wet and active, something else must be going on. To find out, a team from the US and Europe, led by Gaël Choblet from the University of Nantes in France, ran a series of 3D simulations to see what’s going on inside this moon.
“Where Enceladus gets the sustained power to remain active has always been a bit of mystery, but we’ve now considered in greater detail how the structure and composition of the moon’s rocky core could play a key role in generating the necessary energy,” says Choblet in a statement.
According to the models, the only way for Enceladus to maintain a liquid ocean is by having a core made up of unconsolidated, easily deformable, porous rock. With a highly permeable rocky core featuring upwards of 20 to 30 percent empty space, cool liquid water can rush in and get warmed by the tidal friction (temperatures at the core can reach as much as 363 Kelvin or 90 degrees Celsius). When the water gets hotter than its surroundings, it rises and gets flushed out of the core via narrow cracks, similar to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Earth’s oceans. This process repeats itself creating a hydraulic cycle of sorts; every 25 to 250 million years or so, the entire volume of Enceladus’ ocean goes through the moon’s core. Incredibly, this activity can be maintained for billions of years, according to the models.
This study, says NASA Astrobiology Institute scientist Christopher Glein, provides a solution to an important problem: how to make hydrothermal systems inside a small icy moon.
“We are closer than before at bridging observations and theory, and chemistry and physics to arrive at a more complete understanding of how Enceladus works,” explained Glein, who wasn’t involved in the new study, in an email to Gizmodo. “I am very excited by the potential for hydrothermal systems on a world beyond Earth to provide energy and nutrients that could support a form of life. This study advances the case that Enceladus is one of the hottest destinations for this century of space exploration.”
Indeed, in addition to having warm water, organic molecules, and other “building blocks” of life, it’s had an ocean for potentially billions of years—enough time (at least in theory) for simple microbial life to emerge. But we’ll only know by exploring this moon even further.
“These scientists have done great work,” Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (also not involved in the new study) told Gizmodo. “Tidal heating in a heavily fractured wet core makes sense and enhances ocean heating.”
Likewise, Hunter Waite, the program director for NASA’s Space Science and Engineering Division, says the research makes sense, pointing to a study he co-authored earlier this year. “Dissipation of tidal heating within the rock is an important factor in hydrothermal activity and hydrogen production as discussed in our Science paper on molecular hydrogen production,” he told Gizmodo.
The new study, while it explains Enceladus’ liquid global ocean, internal heating, thinner ice at the south pole, and hydrothermal activity, doesn’t explain why the northern polar region features ancient ice covered in craters. The models predict thinning at both poles, so something else is going on that still needs to be studied.