Tag Archives: observatory

World’s biggest X-ray laser comes online in the Germany city of Hamburg

The enormous facility, which cost over one billion euros, will be used to study matter atom by atom.

A bigger X

A swathe of discoveries across biology, chemistry, and physics is expected. Image credits: XFEL.

In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen identified a new type of electromagnetic radiation. It was so bizarre he called it an X-ray, because so many things about them were unknown (X). Unbeknownst to him, he was laying the foundation for a revolution in medicine. As is so often the case, the ripples sent by scientific progress are far reaching and few people — if any — would have guessed how important X-rays would become in modern life. Now, researchers are pushing the limits of the technology even further.

European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) will offer unprecedented power, allowing researchers to use X-rays to see how chemical bonds form or break. Just like Röntgen’s initial work, researchers expect new findings which will eventually pass on to medicine, opening new avenues for diagnosis and treatment. Up to 2010, over 5 billion X-ray scans have been performed in hospitals around the world.

Prof Robert Feidenhans’l is the MD of the non-profit company established to run the facility. He was thrilled to announce the start of the project.

“It’s a fantastic and exciting day for us to open the European XFEL for operation after more than eight years of construction,” he stated during the inauguration ceremony. “I now declare we are ready to take data; we are ready to meet the challenge of getting groundbreaking results.”

More than medicine

Overhead shot of the European XFEL X-ray Free Electron laser facility, near Hamburg, northern Germany. Image credits: XFEL.

The concept of the laser is not innovative — many research facilities run similar machines, called synchrotrons. However, the XFEL is about a billion times stronger than the average synchrotron. It’s the biggest and most powerful source of X-rays ever made, says Olivier Napoly, a member of the French Atomic Energy Commission who helped build the complex. The required energy will be provided via a 1.7 kilometres (one mile) superconducting linear accelerator.

But it’s not just about the power. XFEL has another particularity: the super-fast time structure in its flashes. It can deliver trillions (1,000,000,000,000) of X-ray photons in a pulse lasting just 50 femtoseconds (0.000,000,000,000,05 sec), and it can repeat this process 27,000 times a second. This will offer an unprecedented view into small-scale processes, such as the making and breaking of chemical bonds. The wavelength of the x-ray laser may be varied from 0.05 to 4.7 nanometers, enabling measurements at the atomic length scale. Researchers are especially interested in studying biological molecules, something which has proven notoriously difficult.

“The huge hope for XFEL is that we will be able to do single particle imaging. So, you just put a stream of your protein complex or virus into the beam and you’d have enough photons that an individual biological entity would scatter those photons for you to get the shape of it,” explained Oxford University’s Prof Elspeth Garman, who sits on the committee that will allocate scientists experimental time in Hamburg.

Although the facility is just starting its operation, researchers are already working on replacement parts for it. The XFEL’s high-energy beam is so intense it actually destroys the samples, so it’s expected that the camera recording the process will also degrade in time.

But as good as XFEL is, it won’t reign supreme for long. The United States Department of Energy National Laboratory is already working on a similar laser, part of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory project. Operated by Stanford University, SLAC’s X-ray laser will be able to fire one million times per second.

[AMAZING VIDEO] Chilean sky light up by heavens

A regular starry night at the ALMA site.

I just stumbled onto this spectacular time-lapse video of the Chilean ALMA site skyline, where an entire night from the observatory’s high ground is fast forwarded. A regular starry night at the ALMA site. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is an international partnership between Europe, North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile to build the largest astronomical project in existence, and sits on top of the Chajnantor plateau at 5000 meters altitude in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Oh, and it’s no surprise or wonder to anyone anymore why they chose this exact site to invest more than $1 billion in the most ambitious ground-based telescope currently under construction.

Be sure to play the video at 720pp (HD) and watch it in full screen. Enjoy!

Many thanks to SciGuy for sharing this.

A solar tsunami set to generate celestial show tonight

A huge plasma eruption that took place on the Sun has caused a “solar tsunami” of ionized atoms that are on a course for our planet on Tuesday night. Nothing to be too alarmed here, except for the disruption of some satellites.

It will however generate quite a show, a rare and unpredictable one too.

“It’s the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time,” Leon Golub of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Space.com

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched in February, with the goal of looking into the Sun and figuring out how phenomena such as this work. The best show will be in North America, and it could also trigger some aurorae, which will make it even more awesome. Be sure to keep an eye on the sky tonight.

NASA launches observatory to study sun

It’s NASA’s second launch in just 4 days (after Endeavour), and this time it’s about the most advanced solar observatory ever built. It was first placed on a shuttle station complex and it was orbiting the Atlantic when it was rocketed into space in an unmaned rocket.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory (as it was named) will pursue it’s five year quest to answer numerous questions regarding the star our planet revolves around (despite what 20% of all Americans think, it’s not the other way around). The major point of interest is understanding the phenomena that affect Earth directly, mostly the “violent” space weather that affect communications, satellites and endanger astronauts.

SDO will provide insight on the Sun by transmitting high quality and resolution images and also measuring readings and the magnetic activity. You can get the full live coverage here, courtesy of NASA.

‘Fossil’ fireballs found from supernovae

The US-Japan Sukazu observatory reported the finding of some never-before seen embers from the high temperature fireballs that immediately follower the supernovae explosions. Even after thousands of years in which they haven’t been exposed to any heat source, gas within these stellar wrecks is 10.000 hotter than the Sun’s surface.


“This is the first evidence of a new type of supernova remnant — one that was heated right after the explosion,” said Hiroya Yamaguchi at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan.


Supernovae usually cool off quickly, due to the massive expansion that follows the explosion; after that it basically sweeps stellar gas and during the following thousands of years, starts to heat up again. In this studied supernova from the Jellyfish Nebula they also found some structures that raise questions.

“These structures indicate the presence of a large amount of silicon and sulfur atoms from which all electrons have been stripped away,” Yamaguchi said. These “naked” nuclei produce X-rays as they recapture their lost electrons.