Tag Archives: x-ray

Uranus is leaking radiation, researchers say

Astronomers have detected a new, potentially deadly emanation coming from Uranus: X-rays. While most of these are likely produced by the sun and then reflected by the blue planet, the team is excited about the possibility of a local source of X-rays adding to these emissions.

A composite image with Chandra X-ray data from 2002 in pink over on an optical image from the Keck-I Telescope from 2004.

The seventh planet from the sun has the distinction of being our only neighbor that rotates on its side. But that’s not the only secret this blue, frigid dot in space seems to hide, according to new research. The planet also seems to be radioactive — after a fashion. This discovery currently leaves us with more questions than answers, but it could help us better understand Uranus in the long run.

Deep space rays

Since it’s so far away, we’ve had precious few opportunities to interact with the planet. In fact, the only human spacecraft to ever come near Uranus was Voyager 2, and that happened in 1986. So most of our data regarding the frozen giant comes from telescopes, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

A new study based on snapshots of Uranus taken by Chandra in 2002 and 2017. These revealed the existence of X-rays in the data from 2002, and a possible burst of the same type of radiation in the second data set. The 2017 dataset was recorded when the planet was approximately at the same orientation relative to Earth as it was in 2002.

The team explains that the source of these X-rays, or at least the chief part of them, is likely the Sun. This wouldn’t be unprecedented: both Jupiter and Saturn are known to behave the same way, scattering light from the Sun (including X-rays) back into the void. Earth’s atmosphere, actually, behaves in a similar way.

But, while the team was expecting to observe X-rays coming off of Uranus due to these precedents, what really surprised them is the possibility that another source of radiation could be present. While still unconfirmed, such a source would have important implications for our understanding of the planet.

One possible source would be the rings of Uranus; we know from our observations of Saturn that planetary ring systems can emit X-rays, produced by collisions between them and charged particles around the planets. Uranus’ auroras are another contender, as we have registered emissions coming from them on other wavelengths. These auroras are also produced by interactions with charged particles, much like the northern lights on Earth. Auroras are also known to emit X-rays both on Earth and other planets.

The piece that’s missing in the aurora picture, however, is that researchers don’t understand what causes them on Uranus.

Its unique magnetic field and rapid rotation could create unusually complex auroras, the team explains, which further muddies our ability to interpret the current findings; there are too many unknown variables in this equation. Hopefully, however, the current findings will help point us towards the answers we need.

The paper “A Low Signal Detection of X‐Rays From Uranus” has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.

Ankle x-ray color.

Color X-Ray imaging is just around the corner — and we have the photos to prove it

After 10 years of research and development, one company has now unveiled the first-ever color X-ray scanner.

Mars Bioimaging.

Image credits MARS Bioimaging.

The boring old black-and-white X-ray slides are a thing of the past — after 10 years spent in development, MARS Bioimaging has unveiled the first-ever color X-ray scanner. The device offers physicians an unprecedented tool to peer into the bodies of patients, with potential applications ranging from research to diagnostics.

Color me surprised

X-ray imaging works by pushing high-energy radiation through your body onto a recording plate (or ‘film’). The denser bits inside you, most notably bone, block or absorb these rays. Your more fleshy bits — such as muscle, organs, and other soft tissues — generally allow X-rays to pass straight through. Radiation enters a particular area, exits the body, and reacts with the recording plate. Soft tissue, which lets a lot of this radiation pass, will appear dark on the recording. Areas that allowed relatively little radiation to pass through will show up as white.

It’s a really nifty way of looking inside the body. It only produces black and white images, and often with blurry contours — but it’s typically accurate enough for what we need it to do. A doctor can still tell if one of your bones is broken by looking at an X-ray. It doesn’t matter very much if the image only shows two colors without crisp lines, as bones tend to be quite obvious.

With the new technology, the ‘X-ray’ part of the new device works largely the same way. The real advance is what it does with the readings.

Ankle x-ray color.

A human ankle as seen through the new X-ray device.
Image credits: MARS Bioimaging.


Strictly speaking, the scanner itself doesn’t produce the colors — they’re generated after the readings are completed. The device draws on a combination of Medipix technology. “Medipix is a family of read-out chips for particle imaging and detection,” Cristina Agrigoroae wrote for CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). It works like a camera, detecting and counting each individual particle hitting the pixels when its electronic shutter is open.

Medipix was first developed to help CERN researchers track particles in the Large Hadron Collider — and computer algorithms to ‘gauge’ the color of your tissues.

Essentially, it all boils down to how the device records radiation after it passes through a patient’s body. Traditional X-ray devices record whether these waves pass through bone or soft tissue; meanwhile, MARS Bioimaging’s device records the intensity of the outcoming radiation. Based on these values, which are contingent on the make-up of the tissues they pass through, the algorithm fills in colors to represent your bones, muscles, and other tissues.


Timepix3, one of the read-out chips of Medipix.
Image credits CERN.

But, if traditional X-rays are just good enough to spot broken bones, why do we even need all these colors? Won’t just they confuse our doctors? Well, not really.

The main benefits of the new technology are much better resolution (crisp images) and the ability to spot issues with both the bones and their surrounding tissues.

“This technology sets the machine apart diagnostically because its small pixels and accurate energy resolution mean that this new imaging tool is able to get images that no other imaging tool can achieve,” says Phil Butler — a physics professr, co-founder of MARS Bioimaging, and one of the researchers behind the device — in a CERN news release.

For example, Phil and his partner Anthony Butler (Phil’s son and a bioengineering professor) have already made the device available for a number of studies in areas that typically had little use for X-ray scanners — such as cancer or stroke research.

“In all of these studies, promising early results suggest that when spectral imaging is routinely used in clinics it will enable more accurate diagnosis and personalization of treatment,” Anthony Butler explains.

The duo plans to test their scanner in a New Zealand trial focused on orthopedic and rheumatology patients. However, they caution that even if the trial goes swimmingly, it might still take years for the technology to get all the regulatory approval it requires before it can be used on a wide scale.

X-Rays could sterilise alien planets that would be otherwise habitable

Intense radiation could peel off the ozone layer around Earth-like planets, essentially wiping out all land life in the process.

A diagram of the Habitable Zone, sometimes called the Goldilocks Area. Shown is temperature vs starlight received. Some notable exoplanets are placed on the diagram, plus Earth, Venus, and Mars. Image credits: Chester Harman.

Astronomers have already discovered over 3,700 planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. Out of them, several are rocky and comparable in size to Earth, and out of these, some are in the so-called Habitable Zone — orbiting their stars in just the right range that allows for liquid water to exist on the surface. But just because they’re in the Habitable Zone that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re habitable.

Most planets we’ve found so far (and presumably, most in our galaxy) orbit red dwarf stars — relatively cool stars, significantly smaller than the sun. In order to be in the habitable zone, planets around red dwarfs need to be closer to their star, which exposes them to X-rays.

Although they’re smaller and cooler, red dwarfs can produce significant X-ray emissions, often during large flares of radiation and eruptions of particles in so-called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). In order to assess the risk of such an ejection, Eike Guenther of the Thueringer Observatory in Germany has been monitoring CMEs from red dwarfs. Just last month, he observed a giant flare from the star AD Leo, located 16 light years away in the constellation of Leo.

AD Leo hosts a known giant planet and potentially many others which we haven’t discovered yet. Guenther’s initial results showed that the giant planet was unaffected, and unlike most flares in our solar system, the radiation flare was not accompanied by a CME. This is good news for life around red dwarfs — around smaller stars, X-ray ejections aren’t that common, so there’s a smaller chance of a devastating X-ray event.

But even so, if such an ejection does take place, it could easily cut through the atmosphere of an Earth-like planet, reaching the surface, and wiping out 94% of the planet’s ozone layer — enough to destroy all land life. Astronomers warn that if there’s an event that could be fatal for most or all life on the planet, a small chance isn’t small enough.

“Astronomers are mounting a global effort to find Earth-like worlds, and to answer the age-old question of whether we are alone in the Universe. With sporadic outbursts of hard X-rays, our work suggests planets around the commonest low-mass stars are not great places for life, at least on dry land,” Guenther concludes.

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed and will be presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science.

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.

Supermassive black hole spotted struggling with its galactic meal

Even supermassive black holes can bite off more than they can chew, it seems, based on observations of a nearby pair of colliding galaxies.


NGC 5194 & 5195.
Image credits NASA, ESA.

A study analyzing emissions throughout the electromagnetic spectrum released by a nearby supermassive black hole gobbling up matter has revealed that even they can suffer from ‘indigestion’.

The mammoth body, weighing in at some 19 million times the mass of the Sun, lies at the center of a small galaxy named NGC 5195. Once every few hundred millions of years, NGC 5195 collides with the outer arms of its larger neighbor, known as NGC 5194 or (the more palatable) ‘Whirlpool’ galaxy. This happens because the two are locked in a gravitational wooing period that — in a few billion more years — will see them merge into a single galaxy.

But in the meantime, when these two galaxies touch, the supermassive black hole at the center of NGC 5195 picks up a lot of matter from Whirlpool into an accretion disk — so much matter, in fact, that it can’t absorb it all. But it still collapses onto the black hole since it’s subjected to enormous gravity. So all that excess matter eventually gets blown out into space. Last year, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory caught a whiff of X-ray emission that appeared to result from this process, but we didn’t really understand the how it happens.

Now, using high-resolution images of NGC 5195’s core taken with the e-MERLIN radio array, and drawing from archive images of the area taken with the Very Large Array (VLA), Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics revealed the details of how these huge blasts of matter occur, and their behavior in space.

Letf: Image of the Whirlpool galaxy and NGC 5195.
Right: False colour image of NGC 5195 created by combining the VLA 20 cm radio image (red), the Chandra X-ray image (green), and the Hubble Space telescope H-alpha image (blue).
Image credits Jon Christensen.

They report that when the accretion disk surrounding NGC 5195’s supermassive black hole breaks down, the immense forces and pressures involved create a shock wave which blasts all that matter back out into space — if you’re thinking this is kinda like how supernovae form, you’re pretty much on point.

Electrons, accelerated by this event close to the speed of light, interact with magnetic fields from neighboring bodies and emit energy in the radio wavelength spectrum. The X-ray emissions e-MERLIN picked up are created when the shock wave hits the gasses in the interstellar medium, inflating and heating them up. This process strips electrons from hydrogen gas atoms and ionizes them, creating the features seen by Chandra and Hubble.

“Comparing the VLA images at radio wavelengths to Chandra’s X-ray observations and the hydrogen-emission detected by Hubble, shows that features are not only connected, but that the radio outflows are in fact the progenitors of the structures seen by Chandra and Hubble,” explains Dr Hayden Rampadarath, who will be presenting his findings at the National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Hull explains.

“This is an event of galactic proportions that we can see right across the electromagnetic spectrum.”

According to him, the arcs seen in the NGC 5195 system are 1 to 2 million years old, meaning the first bits of matter were being pushed away from the black hole at about the same time as humans were learning how to make fire.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a black hole struggling to eat everything on its plate, and that event also had many of the features Dr Rampadarath identified here. Knowing this, it may be easier to spot overly-greedy black holes in the future.

Neutron and X-ray imaging reveal how ancient weapons were made

When two different fields of science team up — in this case, physics and archaeology — the results are often spectacular.

Three-dimensional reconstruction of the sample analyzed using white beam neutron tomography. Image credits: Salvemini et al, 2017.

While ancient weapons are not the most important archaeological artifacts, they certainly do a lot to ignite people’s imagination and interest, and they do tell us a lot about ancient people. Historic weapons are also worth a lot of money to collectors, which is why an impressive number of forgeries have emerged in times both recent and long gone.

It can be quite tricky to assess the nature and authenticity of such pieces, which is where this study steps in. Filomena Salvemini of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, working in close collaboration with the Wallace Collection in London and the Neutron Imaging team at the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin, has demonstrated a non-invasive technique which can tell if a weapon is authentic or not, as well as offer some clues on its creation.

They focused on two pieces:

  • a kris — an asymmetrical dagger with distinctive blade-patterning associated with Indonesian culture, but also indigenous to Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines.
  • a khanjar — a traditional dagger originating from Oman, worn especially at ceremonial occasions.

They used tomographic methods, similar to those used in medicine (and to a lesser extent, in geophysics) — specifically, neutron and X-ray imaging techniques. With this, they were able to study the surface as well as the deeper parts of the weapons in high resolution. For instance, they could see inner cracks and inhomogeneities and corrosion patterns, two important elements in all metallic artifacts. Metal layers of a different composition provide good indications of the fabrication (or forging) process.

Both bulk and microstructure characteristics are important, and through comparison with known fabrication processes, scientists were able to show that the khanjar was authentic, with the material distribution fitting with traditional fabrication processes. However, the material distribution in the kris was inconsistent with any fabrication technique existing in the literature and was therefore almost certainly a fake. Its overall internal structure indicated it quite clearly.

It’s not the first time something like this was attempted. In 2011, a study used 3D neutron imaging to study bronze and brass artifacts excavated at the ancient city of Petra, in present day Jordan. Salvemini herself previously analyzed ancient Japanese swords using a similar technique.

Journal Reference: Filomena Salvemini, Francesco Grazzi, Nikolay Kardjilov, Frank Wieder, Ingo Manke, David Edge, Alan Williams, Marco Zoppi. Combined application of imaging techniques for the characterization and authentication of ancient weapons. The European Physical Journal Plus, 2017; 132 (5) DOI: 10.1140/epjp/i2017-11496-6


Researchers found a supermassive black hole choking on its meal

Scientists have found a supermassive black hole that seems to have bit more than it can chew. At the center of a galaxy some 300 million light years away from Earth, the black hole is straining to absorb the mass of a star it recently collapsed, “chocking” on its remains.

Artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole at a galaxy’s center. The blue color represents radiation pouring out from material very close to the black hole.
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A team of researchers including members from MIT and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have recently reported picking up on a peculiar “tidal disruption flare”, a massive burst of electromagnetic energy released when a black hole collapses a hapless star. The flare, named ASASSN-14li, first hit our sensors on Nov. 11, 2014, and researchers have since pointed all kinds of telescopes towards the source to learn as much as possible about how black holes evolve.

Led by MIT postdoc at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research Dheeraj Pasham, the team looked at data obtained with two different telescopes and found a strange pattern in the energy levels of the flare. As the supermassive black hole (I’ll just call it a SBH from not on) first began absorbing the former star’s matter, the team picked up on slight variations in the visible and ultraviolet intervals of the electromagnetic spectrum. Which in itself isn’t that weird — we’ll get to it in a moment. But the same pattern of fluctuations was picked up again 32 days later, this time in the X-ray band.

A flare of gluttony

So first off let’s get to know what these flares are and how they usually behave.

As I’ve said, tidal disruption flares are huge bursts of energy released when a black hole’s immense gravitational pull rips a star apart. The bursts propagate all over the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio, visible, and UV all the way to X-ray and gamma ray intervals. They’re pretty rare, so we didn’t witness that many of them despite the fact that they really stand out. But when we do, it’s a dead give away for hidden black holes — which would be almost impossible to spot otherwise.

“You’d have to stare at one galaxy for roughly 10,000 to 100,000 years to see a star getting disrupted by the black hole at the center,” Pasham, who’s also the paper’s first author, says.

“Almost every massive galaxy contains a supermassive black hole. But we won’t know about them if they’re sitting around doing nothing, unless there’s an event like a tidal disruption flare.”

So in a way we were lucky, but our sensors were also ready for it. The ASASSN-14li flare was picked up by the ASASSN (All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae) network of automated telescopes. Soon after, researchers pointed other telescopes towards the black hole, including the X-ray telescope aboard NASA’s Swift satellite — designed to monitor the sky for bursts of extremely high energy.

Artist’s rendering of the supermassive black hole that generated the flare and its accretion disk.
Image credits NASA / Swift / Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.

“Only recently have telescopes started ‘talking’ to each other, and for this particular event we were lucky because a lot of people were ready for it,” Pasham says. “It just resulted in a lot of data.”

By looking at all the data they gathered on the event, Pasham and his team answered a long-standing mystery: where did these bursts of light originate in flares? By modeling a black hole’s dynamics, scientists have previously been able to explain that as a black hole rips its star apart, the resulting material can produce X-ray emissions very close to the event horizon. But the source for the visible and UV light proved elusive.

The team studied the 270 days after ASASSN-14li was first detected, with particular emphasis on the X-ray and optical/UV data taken by the Swift satellite and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope. Two broad peaks in the X-ray band were identified (one around day 50, and the other around day 110), and one short dip (around day 80). This was the exact same pattern they recorded for the visible/UV spectrum just 32 days earlier.

Their next step was to run simulations of the flare produced by a star collapsing next to a black hole and the resulting accretion disc (similar to how planets get them) — along with its presumed speed, size, and the rate which material falls onto the black hole.

Tug of war


The results suggest these energy fluctuations are a kind of electromagnetic echo. After the star was torn apart, its remains started swirling the supermassive black hole. As it drew nearer to the event horizon, the cloud of matter accelerated and became more tightly packed, releasing bursts of UV and visible light when its particles collided at high speeds. As the matter was pulled closer to the black hole it got even faster and denser, which also made it heat up. In this excited state of matter close to absorption into the event horizon, the collisions produced X- and gamma ray bursts instead of the lower-energy visible and UV bursts.

In the case of ASASSN-14li, this process happened much more slowly that usually because the great quantity of matter proved a bit too much for the black hole to chew in a single bite.


“In essence, this black hole has not had much to feed on for a while, and suddenly along comes an unlucky star full of matter.” Pasham explains. “What we’re seeing is, this stellar material is not just continuously being fed onto the black hole, but it’s interacting with itself — stopping and going, stopping and going. This is telling us that the black hole is ‘choking’ on this sudden supply of stellar debris.”

“For supermassive black holes steadily accreting, you wouldn’t expect this choking to happen. The material around the black hole would be slowly rotating and losing some energy with each circular orbit,” he adds.

“But that’s not what’s happening here. Because you have a lot of material falling onto the black hole, it’s interacting with itself, falling in again, and interacting again. If there are more events in the future, maybe we can see if this is what happens for other tidal disruption flares.”

The full paper “Optical/UV-to-X-Ray Echoes from the Tidal Disruption Flare ASASSN-14li” has been published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.



A rendering of China's XPNAV-1 satellite (CAST).

What China’s latest X-ray positioning satellite means for deep-space exploration

A rendering of China's XPNAV-1 satellite (CAST).

A rendering of China’s XPNAV-1 satellite (CAST).

On November 10, aboard a Long March 11 rocket, China launched a suite of satellites into space. Among them was the innovative X-ray Pulsar Navigation 1 (XPNAV 1) satellite which is equipped with a world’s first instrument that offers X-ray-based navigation. Unlike classical satellites and spacecraft that rely on GPS-like features, the XPNAV 1 uses X-ray sources from space like those emitted by pulsars to triangulate its position. In other words, this tiny satellite is paving the way for a new class of spacecraft that will not only breach the final frontier but also find its way around it.

To send spacecraft to Jupiter or land them on a comet, scientists require deep space navigation with incredible precision, as otherwise, the spacecraft would just crash in the first junk it encounters in space. To navigate these spacecraft, we generally set our own planet as a reference point. We know Earth’s  orbital parameters and inherent motions very well, so it’s just a matter of measuring the craft’s distance from Earth, the component of its velocity that is directly toward or away from Earth, and its position in Earth’s sky. These parameters are then converted to a sun-centric model.

This workflow has worked very well so far, but what happens if you want to exit the solar system? Because the craft is now many billions of miles away from Earth, it’s much harder to track and navigation can become increasingly skewed. As the craft gets farther and farther away from Earth, it will eventually travel in the dark.

The XPNAV 1 bypasses these limitations by reading deep space X-ray pulses given off by pulsars —  highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars. The pulsar rapidly rotates around its own axis producing X-ray pulses at short intervals. The way your phone uses GPS to find your location is it sends electromagnetic pulses to multiple satellites then, based on the response time, it triangulates the position. Similarly, XPNAV 1 reads various X-ray pulses of predictable nature and location to locate itself with an accuracy of 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). The error sounds like a lot (it really is too close for comfort) but scientists believe they can get more accurate positioning by finding pulsars with more consistent pulses.

NASA has it’s own X-ray pulsar navigation satellite too, the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) mission. However, the satellite will launch in 2017 and China seems to have undercut NASA by a couple of months.

XPNAV 1 is innovative, a word you won’t normally use to describe something made in China, but that may soon change. China’s President Xi Jinping is betting on space big time and wants to triple government spending on scientific research. His hope is a new wave of innovations will come out of China, one that will inspire future generations and startups.

“China has been relying on the knowledge discovered by others,” said in a statement Wu Ji, director-general of the National Space Science Center, who’s spearheading the effort to lobby for more space missions with possible economic spinoffs. “If China wants to rejuvenate the economy, it needs to put more resources into developing groundbreaking technologies.”

As part of China’s ongoing five-year-plan, the nation hopes to produce 70 percent of key technology components—such as semiconductors and software— domestically by 2025.

Other major milestones for Chinese space exploration which happen this year include the launch of the Tiangong-2 space lab, the world’s first quantum science satellite and the debut of the new generation Long March 7 rocket.

Astronomers may have discovered a new cosmic phenomena — and we don’t really know what it is

Two mysterious objects which erupted into dramatic X-ray bursts have been detected, and astronomers are hard at work trying to understand just what they are.

Galaxy NGC 5128, with the flaring object highlighted in the square. Image credits NASA / J.Irwin et al. 2016

University of Alabama astronomer Jimmy Irwin set out to look for unusual X-ray activity following the detection of an extremely bright flaring near the NGC 4697 galaxy. The flaring took place in 2005, but nobody had any idea what caused it. So Irwin and his team set to work on finding similar phenomena by shifting through archival data collected by NASA’s Chandra Observatory recording 70 different galaxies. The team found two X-ray sources in two different galaxies that might be the same thing as the mysterious NGC source.

At their peak emissions, these objects qualify as ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULX). However, their flaring behavior doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen up to now, leaving astronomers quite baffled.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” says astronomer Jimmy Irwin from the University of Alabama. “Astronomers have seen many different objects that flare up, but these may be examples of an entirely new phenomenon.”

The first object was found near NGC 4636, roughly 47 million light-years away from us, and flared in February of 2003. The second one, which was captured five times between 2007 and 2014, is found near galaxy NGC 5128, only 14 million light-years from Earth.

While that could make it sound that the flares take place only rarely, it may not necessarily be the case. Since Chandra has had a limited amount of time to look at each galaxy, these events could be taking place much more frequently, and we’d have no way of knowing about them. They could go off every day, and we’d have no idea.

“These flares are extraordinary,” says co-author Peter Maksym from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. “For a brief period, one of the sources became one of the brightest ULX to ever be seen in an elliptical galaxy.”

The most similar activity to these flarings come from magnetars, young neutron stars with hugely powerful magnetic fields. When these “pop”, however, the X-rays decline in just a few seconds after the burst. These mysterious sources build-up more slowly, taking about a minute to peak, then taking about an hour to decline. From what we know to date, the phenomena seems to originate from normal binary systems, which are composed of a black hole or neutron star accompanied by a regular star just like our Sun. Whatever their source may be, the bursts don’t seem to disrupt the systems in which the sources are located.

So while we don’t know for sure what causes these bursts, astronomers have advanced a few theories. It’s possible that the X-rays are generated by matter being sucked from the companion star into the black hole or neutron star. Whatever the case may be, scientists are now eager to get to the bottom of the truth — especially since the NGC 4697 outbursts don’t seem to have been a fluke.

“Now that we’ve discovered these flaring objects, observational astronomers and theorists alike are going to be working hard to figure out what’s happening,” says Gregory Sivakoff from the University of Alberta.

The full paper titled “Ultraluminous X-ray bursts in two ultracompact companions to nearby elliptical galaxies” was published in the journal Nature.

One of the oldest known New Testament copies could have been written in pee-based ink

Restoration experts have identified the materials that went into making the purple dye of the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, one of the oldest known New Testament manuscripts, and they aren’t exactly ecclesial: the ink was made from a combination of lichens and fermented urine.

The debate over exactly how the ancient bookmakers, most likely hailing from today’s Syria, crafted the amazing book using the simple tools and limited resources available to them 1,500 years ago has been ever since the manuscript was found.

The beginning of the gospel of Mark in the codex.
Image via wikimedia

“Even though early medieval illuminated manuscripts have been deeply studied from the historical standpoint, they have been rarely fully described in their material composition,” lab director Marina Bicchieri, from the Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage (ICRCPAL) in Rome, told Discovery News.

The strikingly beautiful book is usually housed in the Museum of the Diocese in Rossano, a town in southern Italy. The work is 188 pages long, containing the gospels of Matthew and Mark written down in gold and silver ink. Its exact history is unknown, but it’s believed that Italian monks brought the manuscript from Syria. It was re-discovered in 1879 in the Cathedral of Rossano, and since then the debate over how it was written rages on.

Sadly, much of the book has been lost over time, and the book is extremely fragile. Most of it was destroyed in a fire inside the cathedral, and Bicchieri’s team also had to deal with the damage left by earlier restoration efforts. These conducted by an unnamed team around 1917 and irreversibly modified some of the pages.

“Most likely, what we have today represents half of the original book,” museum officials suggest.

The discovery of the purple ink’s materials was made during the book’s restoration by the ICRCPAL. Aiming not to further damage the work, the team only mended a few of its stitches to keep it from falling apart, then used X-rays to examine the composition of the inks in the codex. They compared their findings with dyes recreated in the lab using recipes found in the Stockholm papyrus – a Greek ink recipe book that’s been dated to around 300 AD.

The team reports that the purple dye, thought to have been made out of Murex (a species of sea snail,) was actually produced with orcein, a dye extracted from the lichen Roccella Tinctoria, and sodium carbonate. The latter was obtained from natron — a salt-like material used to mummify bodies in ancient Egypt, Lorenzi explains. But, to bring out the best shade of purple, the dye-making process seems to have involved using fermented urine to mix the compounds.

The pages are dyed with the purple ink.

The pages are dyed with the purple ink.


“Fibre optics reflectance spectra (FORS) showed a perfect match between the purple parchment of the codex and a dye obtained with orcein and an addition of sodium carbonate,” Bicchieri told Rosella Lorenzi at Discovery News.

To you and me this might seem pretty….gross. But in the day it was actually a very practical choice, as urine was the only readily available source of ammonia available 1,500 years ago.

The team is still preparing their findings for publication, and have yet to pass the test of peer-review — but once they do, they could finally end the century long debate around the purple ink.

x-ray liquids

Most powerful X-ray machine blasts water droplets for science

x-ray liquids

Credit: YouTube

Stanford researchers fired extremely bright flashes of light from the world’s most powerful X-ray laser onto droplets of liquid. These vaporized instantly, but not before the whole process was imaged in full detail. The work will help researchers make better X-ray experiments since they can better  understand how liquids from sample explode when illuminated by the lasers.

Claudiu Stan of Stanford PULSE Institute and colleagues injected liquid into the path of the X-ray laser in two ways: as individual droplets and as a continuous jet.

After each pulse hit the sample, an image was taken. That’s every five billionths of a second to one ten-thousandth of a second. The images were then stitched together into movies.

“Thanks to a special imaging system developed for this purpose, we were able to record these movies for the first time,” says co-author Sébastien Boutet from LCLS. “We used an ultrafast optical laser like a strobe light to illuminate the explosion, and made images with a high-resolution microscope that is suitable for use in the vacuum chamber where the X-rays hit the samples.”


When the lasers hit a droplet, these are ripped apart. As seen in the footage, a cloud of smaller particles and vapor is generated which expands damaging the neighboring drops. The damaged drops then merge with the nearest drops. As for liquid jets, the X-ray pulse initially plugs a hole in the stream. The gap then expands, all while the ends of the jet on either side of the gap form a thin liquid film. The film eventually turns into an umbrella shape before finally folding back and merging with the jet. The videos also show for the first time how X-rays create shock waves that rapidly travel through a liquid jet. This is important because these shockwaves can be used to probe materials.

Based on these experiments, the Stanford team made a mathematical model which can predict how liquids behave in similar conditions when exposed to the powerful X-ray lasers, as reported in Nature Physics.

“Understanding the dynamics of these explosions will allow us to avoid their unwanted effects on samples,” says Stan. “It could also help us find new ways of using explosions caused by X-rays to trigger changes in samples and study matter under extreme conditions. These studies could help us better understand a wide range of phenomena in X-ray science and other applications.”

“The jets in our study took up to several millionths of a second to recover from each explosion, so if X-ray pulses come in faster than that, we may not be able to make use of every single pulse for an experiment,” Stan says. “Fortunately, our data show that we can already tune the most commonly used jets in a way that they recover quickly, and there are ways to make them recover even faster. This will allow us to make use of LCLS-II’s full potential.”

A radioactive couple: the glowing legacy of the Curies

A motif present in virtually all Balkan countries’ folklore is that of the creator sacrificing part of himself for his work. In Romanian folklore, this theme surfaces in the story “Meşterul Manole“, who immured his wife in the walls of the monastery he was tasked with building. I couldn’t help but remember that story as I was reading about the Curies, who laid the groundwork on which our understanding of radioactivity is based.

Marie and Pierre Curie.
Image via Wikimedia, author unknown.

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, was the daughter of a secondary-school teacher. She received a general education in local schools with some scientific training from her father. In 1891, she went to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne University where she obtained Licentiateship in Physics and Mathematical Sciences. There, she met Professor of Physics Pierre Curie and in 1895 they got married.

But that’s just context — this story starts in 1895, when German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-Rays but couldn’t uncover the mechanisms by which they formed. One year later, in 1896, French Nobel Laureate Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts spontaneously emit radiation very similar to X-Rays and proved that they originate from the uranium atoms.

Uranite (or pitchblende) crystals from Topsham, Maine.
Image via wikipedia, credits to Rob Lavinsky.

Intrigued by these findings, Marie started her own research on pitchblende, today sought-after as an uranium ore. Using a version of the electrometer that her husband had developed fifteen years earlier, she discovered that the “uranium rays” caused the air around the samples to simply conduct electricity. Using this method, she observed that the pitchblende with higher uranium content would give off stronger radiation. She also recorded this behavior in minerals containing thorium.

Then one day, as she was performing radioactivity measurements on a samples of pitchblende, she recorded a much higher radioactivity than its uranium content would allow for — and there’s no thorium in pitchblende. The only explanation was the presence of another, unknown radioactive element. This is when Pierre, excited by the idea of discovering a new element, put his own research aside and started working with Marie.

The two would go on to discover Polonium, named for Marie’s home country, and Radium, from the Latin word for ray, in 1898. They also coined the term “radioactivity” to describe the effects seen by Becquerel. Either together or separately, they published more than 32 papers, including the first paper to describe how tumors can be destroyed by exposure to radium. Their work attacked the previously held beliefs that atoms are indivisible.

Their work wasn’t even sponsored by the University, the couple drawing on private, corporate and government funds. Unaware of the dangers they were exposing themselves to, they worked either in their home laboratory or out in a converted, leaky shed next to the School of Physics and Chemistry. They wore no protective gear, just woefully inadequate lab coats.

Their achievements and vision helped shape the world as we know it. But as Uncle Ben used to say, “with great scientific results comes great genetic damage by processes you don’t yet fully understand,” or something close to that.

The Curies’ work literally bathed them in radiation, day in and day out for decades. They handled samples without any care or protective gear. They took the pieces of radium they were able to refine — and today we know this is the most radioactive element in the periodic table — in their bare hands to examine. Even when she wasn’t in the lab, Marie carried her passion with her: she would have test tubes of radioisotopes in her pocket or stashed in her desk drawer.

Radium clock-hands from 1940-1950’s watches.
Image credits Mauswiesel.

The Curies knew about radioactivity but had no idea of the damage it was wreaking on them. Their research attempted to find out which substances were radioactive and why, so many dangerous elements–thorium, uranium, plutonium–were just sitting there in their home laboratory.

“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was a really lovely sight and one always new to us,” she wrote in her autobiography.

“The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.”

Pierre died 19 April 1906, aged 46, run over by horse-drawn carriage on a rainy day in Paris. Marie continued their research and had several breakthroughs. She died at age 66 in 1934 from aplastic anemia, believed to be an effect of her prolonged exposure to radioactive materials.

Now, researching any famous historical figure is a daunting task, and there are mountains of obstacles to overcome if you want to get your hands on any of their papers or objects. But in the Curies’ case, it’s actually dangerous to do so. Because of how they worked, their papers, clothes, pretty much every worldly possession is still dangerously radioactive — and will be for at least 1,500 years to come. If you want to look at her manuscripts at France’s Bibliotheque Nationale, you first have to sign a liability waiver. Only then can you access the papers, which are stored in a lead-lined box.

Marie Curie’s manuscript. A book to die for. Literally.
Image credits The Wellcome Trust.

Their house remained in use up to 1978 by the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation. Authorities finally became aware of how insanely dangerous it was when people in their neighborhood, suffering from very high rates of cancer, blamed the Curies’ home. The building and laboratory were decontaminated in 1991.

Marie Curie was an incredibly gifted person, and her achievements speak for themselves. From a humble birth, she was to become the first woman to ever hold the position of Professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first and only woman to win it twice, the only person to have ever received the award in different fields of research and the first woman to be entombed for her merits at the Panthéon in Paris. Pierre was a pioneer in the fields of crystallography, magnetism and piezoelectricity, in addition to his work with Marie, for which he jointly received the Nobel Award.

Together, these two brilliant people forever changed how we understand the world we live in. They did so at a huge cost, with incredible levels of radiation exposure, that would in the end claim Marie’s life. But by tackling some of the deadliest forces known to man with their bare hands, they earned life unending in the scientific community.


High-resolution spectroscopy could revolutionize seawater uranium capture

New imaging techniques might revolutionize the technologies currently used to capture uranium from seawater, as researchers gain a better understanding of the way the compounds that bind the atoms interact with them.

Using high-energy X-rays, researchers discovered uranium is bound by adsorbent fibers in an unanticipated fashion.
Image via phys

A research team led by Carter Abney, Wigner Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, used ultra-high-resolution imaging to study the polymer fibers that bind uranium from seawater. Their results, gained through collaboration with the University of Chicago and published in a paper in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, shows that these materials don’t behave the way computational models say they should.

“Despite the low concentration of uranium and the presence of many other metals extracted from seawater, we were able to investigate the local atomic environment around uranium and better understand how it is bound by the polymer fibers,” Abney said.

By looking at the polymeric absorbent materials with X-ray Absorption Fine Structure spectroscopy at the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory, the researchers found that the spectrum response from the polymers were very different from what they were expecting to see based on previous small molecule and computational investigations.

They concluded that for this system the approach of studying small molecule structures and assuming that they accurately represent what happens in a bulk material simply doesn’t work. What is needed is to consider the behavior of the molecules in-bulk, to take into account interactions that only start working in a large-scale setting, says Abney.

“This challenges the long-held assumption regarding the validity of using simple molecular-scale approaches to determine how these complex adsorbents bind metals,” Abney said. “Rather than interacting with just one amidoxime, we determined multiple amidoximes would have to cooperate to bind each uranium molecule and that a second metal that isn’t uranium also participates in forming this binding site.”

(Amidoximes are the chemical group attached to the polymer fibers that bind the uranium atoms.)

Armed with this knowledge, Abney and colleagues hope to develop absorbents that can efficiently harvest the vast quantities of uranium dissolved in seawater.

“Nuclear power production is anticipated to increase with a growing global population, but estimates predict only 100 years of uranium reserves in terrestrial ores,” Abney said. “There is approximately 1,000 times that amount dissolved in the ocean, which would meet global demands for the foreseeable future.”

Millions of supermassive black holes are hiding under thick blankets of dust and gas

Our Universe may be riddled with millions of supermassive black holes, a new study reports. The reason why we haven’t yet discovered them is because they are shrouded in thick clouds of dust and gas, and because we weren’t looking with the right telescope.

A montage of images showing an artist’s concept of NuSTAR (top); a color image of one of the galaxies targeted by NuSTAR (lower left); and artist’s concept of a hidden black hole.
Credits: Top: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Lower-left: Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA, ESA. Bottom-right: NASA/ESA

Using NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite observatory, astronomers from Durham University in Britain detected the X-Ray signatures of five supermassive black holes which previously went under the radar. According to measurements, these are actually some of the most massive black holes ever discovered; if such “big bad” black holes can hide under gas, then it seems very likely that many other, smaller ones are doing the same.

“We have been able to clearly see these hidden monsters that were predicted to be there but had been elusive because of their ‘buried’ state,” said lead author George Lansbury, post-graduate student in the centre for extragalactic astronomy. “When we extrapolate our results across the whole universe, then the predicted numbers are huge and in agreement with what we would expect to see”, Lansbury added.

In case their name isn’t descriptive enough, supermassive black holes are the largest type of black holes, generally found in the center of most massive galaxies. These objects are the most massive things in the known Universe, ranging from hundreds of solar masses to billions of solar masses.

Because black holes are typically detected by observing their X-Ray emissions, the launch of NuSTAR allowed astronomers to make observations which weren’t possible before. The telescope, which launched in 2012 is able to detect much higher-energy X-rays than previous satellite observatories.

“Thanks to NuSTAR, for the first time, we have been able to clearly identify these hidden monsters that are predicted to be there, but have previously been elusive because of their surrounding cocoons of material,” said George Lansbury of Durham University, lead author of the findings accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Being able to detect high-energy X-rays makes a huge difference, as Daniel Stern, the project scientist for NuSTAR at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California explains:

“High-energy X-rays are more penetrating than low-energy X-rays, so we can see deeper into the gas burying the black holes. NuSTAR allows us to see how big the hidden monsters are, and is helping us learn why only some black holes appear obscured.”

So the Universe seems to be hiding many more black holes than previously believed, but additional observations need to be made in order to confirm this. If the results are indeed confirmed, then this leaves us with one question: why? Why are so many black holes scattered across the Universe, and how did they all form? It’s a difficult question – astrophysicists have their work cut out.

Strange “X-Ray Rainbow” could be used to calculate stellar distances

NASA released the breathtaking image you see below, announcing that it is basically X-ray light echoes reflecting off clouds of dust. But this image does more than thrill us amateur stargazers – it helps astronomers figure out how far away the double star system Circinus X-1 is from Earth.

A light echo in X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has provided a rare opportunity to precisely measure the distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy. The rings exceed the field-of-view of Chandra’s detectors, resulting in a partial image of X-ray data.
Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz

“It’s really hard to get accurate distance measurements in astronomy and we only have a handful of methods,” said Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who led the study. “But just as bats use sonar to triangulate their location, we can use the X-rays from Circinus X-1 to figure out exactly where it is.”

Circinus X-1 is an X-ray binary star system that includes a neutron star, a type of stellar remnant that can result from the gravitational collapse of a massive star after a supernova. Neutron stars are the densest and smallest stars known to exist in the universe; with a radius of only about 12–13 km (7 mi), they can have a mass of about two times that of the Sun. Observation of Circinus X-1 in July 2007 revealed the presence of X-ray jets normally found in black hole systems, the first neutron star ever observed  that displays this similarity to black holes.

“Circinus X-1 acts in some ways like a neutron star and in some like a black hole,” said co-author Catherine Braiding, also of the University of New South Wales. “It’s extremely unusual to find an object that has such a blend of these properties.”

In 2013, the Circinus system created a burst of X-rays; the X-rays bounced off clouds of interstellar dust, resulting in rings of X-ray light which were ultimately picked up by the Chandra X-Ray observatory. The results are as beautiful as they are useful for astronomers.

“We like to call this system the “Lord of the Rings,” but this one has nothing to do with Sauron,” says study co-author Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Australia. “The beautiful match between the Chandra X-ray rings and the Mopra radio images of the different clouds is really a first in astronomy.”

By comparing the Chandra data to prior images of dust clouds detected by the Mopra radio telescope in Australia, astronomers learned that each ring was actually the result of X-Ray reflections of a different dust cloud. Knowing that X-rays travel at the speed of light, this lets them know what the distance to different clouds is, and the X-ray echo then lets them determine the relative position of Circinus X-1 to the clouds. By analyzing the rings and the combined radio data and using simple geometry, researchers managed to accurately determine the distance of Circinus X-1 from Earth. These results have been published in The Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

The system is also interesting from another point of view: astronomers believe it is the youngest X-ray binary yet discovered, starting emitting X-rays only 2,500 years ago.

X-Ray Technique Reveals Charred Scrolls From Vesuvius Eruption

Using a new X-Ray technique, archaeologists may be able to read the words from the charred, rolled up scrolls that survived the Vesuvius eruption that wiped out the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum nearly 2000 years ago. This could open up a new window to the past, revealing much information about the way the Romans lived and is a spectacular technological achievement in itself.

Charred scrolls from Herculaneum. Credit Salvatore Laporta/Associated Press.

“Hundreds of papyrus rolls, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and belonging to the only library passed on from Antiquity, were discovered 260 years ago at Herculaneum. These carbonized papyri are extremely fragile and are inevitably damaged or destroyed in the process of trying to open them to read their contents. In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls”, the research writes.

In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted in one of the most catastrophic and infamous eruptions in history, wiping out two thriving Roman cities. The volcano sent fumes up to a height of 33 kilometres (21 mi), ejecting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second. Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely obliterated. A thousand bodies have been found by archaeologists, but the number of victims is certainly much higher.

Along with the lives and buldings which were claimed, a lot of information was lost as well. Most of the papyri were burned, while others were not burned, but charred beyond recognition. Ironically, even though lava engulfed Pompeii and destroyed pretty much everything from the city, Herculaneum was destroyed by a mix of superhot gases and ash. While this didn’t make much of a difference for the city’s inhabitants, it helped partially preserve some scrolls. When scholars of the 1700s, tried to decipher their secrets, even more damage was caused. But now, a new technique described in the journal Nature gives hope to researchers who have until now been unable to read these delicate scrolls.

The charred remains of the rolled papyrus scroll from Herculaneum. Photograph: E Brun

They want to study the scrolls from a library which includes the works from Greek and Roman authors, such as the lost books of Livy’s history of Rome. Researchers led by Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy used a laserlike beam of X-rays from the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, With this, they were able to pick up slight contrasts between the papyrus fibers and the ancient ink. They tested this technique several times and it worked quite fine, and now the team is working on ways to refine it. While they did figure out some letters and words, it will be quite a while before these works hit the bookshelves.


“At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally,” Dr. Mocella said in an interview. His team is considering several ways to refine the power of their technique. “If the technology is perfected, it will be a real leap forward,” said Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan who has translated some of the few scrolls that can be read.

Scientists believe that the author of the scrolls they studied is the philosopher and poet Philodemus. However, there are some limits to what this technique can do. The papyri are so damaged that some of the writing has actually been distorted beyond the point of recognition, and without actually opening them, you can only read a part of the scroll. So far, researchers have been able to  make up the words for “would fall” and “would say” in one parchment, and some individual letters in another one. It may not seem like much, but it’s a great start.

The remains of Pompeii. Image via Passport Files.

“This pioneering research opens up new prospects not only for the many papyri still unopened, but also for others that have not yet been discovered, perhaps including a second library of Latin papyri at a lower, as yet unexcavated level of the Villa,” the study authors wrote.

Journal Reference: Vito Mocella, Emmanuel Brun, Claudio Ferrero & Daniel Delattre. Revealing letters in rolled Herculaneum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 5895 doi:10.1038/ncomms6895

image CT scan

Inside the human body in real time: GIFs demo the power of CT scan

image CT scan

The skull and the Circle of Willis – a structure which supplies blood to the brain and surrounding area.

Computed Tomography (CT) is based on the x-ray principal: as x-rays pass through the body, they are absorbed or attenuated (weakened) at differing levels creating a matrix or profile of x-ray beams of different strength. But while x-rays can only be used to image the outlines of bones and organs, CT creates three-dimensional images of the body one narrow slice at a time.

ct scan

The abdomen and the aorta.

A CT scanner basically looks like a square shaped doughnut fitted with an x-ray tube mounted on one side and the banana shaped detector mounted on the opposite side. As the frame rotates, it takes timely snapshots of whatever or whoever rests inside it. Each time the x-ray tube and detector make a 360° rotation, an image or “slice” has been acquired and by stacking each slice atop another you eventually get a full 3-D image. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because CT is very similar to functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Some key differences are that fMRI exploits powerful magnet and pulsing radiowaves, which do not emit potentially harmful radiation, unlike CT.

CT scan

Where CT shines, however, is in its ability to image tissue inside the body otherwise unapproachable using other methods. All of the GIFs in this post were made from computer images taken using General Electric’s  Revolution CT, first introduced in 2013. The device is designed to emit less radiation and provide more comfort. Guts, veins, brains and hearts have now been imaged in the gruesomest detail ever.

CT scan

Another view of the Circle of Willis. It is located at the base of the brain and forms a circle of arteries around it.

CT scan

Another view of the Circle of Willis.

An image of a complete heart in just a single heartbeat.

An image of a complete heart in just a single heartbeat.

BONUS: still, high definition images taken with the Revolution CT

The skull and carotid arteries.

The skull and carotid arteries.

An image of the abdomen and pelvis.

An image of the abdomen and pelvis.

The rib cage, the heart and the chest cavity. The Revolution CT can image the heart in a single heartbeat.

The rib cage, the heart and the chest cavity. The Revolution CT can image the heart in a single heartbeat.

The whole aorta and kidneys.

The whole aorta and kidneys.

Three Egyptian mummies receive CT scans

The Washington University received some unusual patients to scan: three Egyptian mummies.

Curators and radiologists examine the mummy of Pet-Menekh on Sunday, Oct. 12, at Washington University Medical Center. From left are Lisa Çakmak, PhD, assistant curator of ancient art at Saint Louis Art Museum; Karen K. Butler, PhD, associate curator of Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum; Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging at the School of Medicine; and Vincent Mellnick, MD, a Washington University radiologist. Pet-Menekh was scanned in a computerized tomography (CT) scanner at the medical center.

The scanning took place Sunday, Oct. 12, at the Center for Advanced Medicine on the Medical Campus. The mummies, two of which are on long-term loan to the Saint Louis Art Museum from the Kemper Art Museum, were scanned using state-of-the-art CT scans.

CTs and mummies

According to Wikipedia, X-ray computed tomography (x-ray CT) is a technology that uses computer-processed x-rays to produce tomographic images (virtual ‘slices’) of specific areas of the scanned object. Basically, CT scans allow you to see “slices” of the inside of a human body without actually having to cut. It’s not the first time this technique has been used for archaeological purposes.

CT scanners use special equipment that emits a narrow X-ray beam to obtain images from different angles around the body, generating 3-D images that can show the skeleton, tissues and organs. Photo of scan: Robert Boston

The first scan revealed that the mummy still had its brain, heart and lungs; this is pretty unusual, because the heart and the lungs were usually taken out in Ancient Egypt’s mummification. The study also revealed that the mummy had several other objects in its head – but what they are is not clear. It may be something to do with the mummification technique, or it could simply be debris.

The second mummy revealed a much more gruesome truth. It appeared to be significantly shorter than the sarcophagus, and researchers quickly observed that it lacked a head. The head was probably removed when grave robbers ransacked his tomb. They found an item on his chest that may have been a burial amulet missed by grave robbers. They plan to reconstruct the item using 3-D printing.

Karen K. Butler, PhD, associate curator of the Kemper Art Museum, said Pet-Menekh and Henut-Wedjebu were donated to the university in 1896 by Charles Parsons, a St. Louis banker and prominent art collector. Since then, they pretty much became an important part of the University.

The computer adds color to the 3-D images to exaggerate differences in tissue. Photo of scan: Robert Boston

“The mummies have been part of Washington University for more than 100 years,” Butler said. “Faculty from anthropology, classics, art history and archaeology all take students to see them. They are very much part of university life.”

When the old meets the new

The use of CT scans in mummies has been used for over 20 years but the technology is developing all the time. Now, we are able to study them in much more detail, focusing and zooming in on any points of interest; this wouldn’t have been possible a couple of decades ago – and this is really important.

Mummies present archaeologists with an extremely rare opportunity – they are actually time capsules, giving clues of societies and life habits long gone. They can show us not only the life style and spiritual beliefs, but also a number of disease, habits and even general lifestyle. Cutting them open is not an option, as it would not only desecrate the memory of these people, but also possibly destroy unique cultural treasures. This is why non-invasive techniques are used in modern mummy research.

More than 2,000 years after his body was wrapped in bandages, the mummy of Pet-Menekh is eased into a state-of-the-art CT scanner at Washington University Medical Center. Photo: Robert Boston

For example, an indication of ancient lifestyle is artery hardening. Indicators of heart disease have been detected in prior mummy scans, but it’s not clear yet if this is reflective of the elite lifestyle – that is, if people rich enough to be mummified were more likely to suffer from heart disease.

Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging lead this study.

“This new CT scanner has higher spatial resolution and quickly can assemble slices in a variety of ways, providing more medical details about the mummies,” Bhalla said.

Logistically, the study was very difficult. They had to be removed from their display cases, and it wasn’t clear if each sarcophagus would fit in the machine, but they ultimately did. Also, there was the problem of being humane. Bhalla viewed this as the most challenging aspect.

“It was very important for us to remember that these were human beings we were scanning,” he said. “We had to do the scanning in an atmosphere of spiritual and physical respect, and with the help of museum staff who acted as a kind of surrogate family for the mummies, we did that.”



Heart injected with liquid metal imaged with unprecedented detail

Imaging the fine and intricate structures of blood vessels in the human body is paramount to modern anatomy. By knowing the body in greater detail, scientists are able to devise better treatments. Conventional imaging, however, is limited in how far it can peer through blood vessels. This may be set to change for the better after Chinese researchers have found an unconventional way to X-ray image blood vessels with unprecedented detail: filling the blood with liquid metal.

[ALSO READ] Scientists engineer heart that beats on its own 

A heart of metal

Typically, blood vessels are imaged by means of X-ray tomography, which produces strikingly beautiful 3D pictures of the heart hard at work. For it to work nicely, the X-rays need to be absorbed more aggressively, so a contrast agent that  absorbs X-rays more than the surrounding tissue is pumped in the heart. Usually, this contrast agent is iodine, which has a high electron density. Some other fluids, denser (these produce the most effective tomography) or otherwise, are also being used. Seems like everybody’s been missing the obvious, though: using a metal.

Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing  used gallium as a contrast agent – a metal which melts at about 29 degrees centigrade and so is liquid at body temperature.  What makes it perfect for the job, however, is that it’s chemical stable and doesn’t react with water. This way it flows easily even through the thinnest blood vessels. 

The image below shows two pig hearts, one injected with liquid gallium (left) and the other with a standard iodine-based contrast agent. The differences are striking – even capillaries with a diameter of only 0.07 millimetres can be seen. The researchers boast that using higher resolution techniques, even smaller blood vessels can be imaged. 


Image: Quantitative Biology

“The capillaries that used to be hardly detectable are now easily seen on the image with outstanding clarity,” the authors write.

Injecting metals in the heart doesn’t sound like the safest job in the world. In truth, gallium at this temperature is chemically inert and isn’t toxic for humans. Pumping out the metal is easy and doesn’t leave residues. More tests are required before any clinical trials are made. Soon enough, by the likes of it, we’ll have a new sharp look at the human body.

Journal article

Patients would drink the 'nanojuice' like water. The liquid allows for easier and better quality imaging of the small intestine. Most importantly, a real-time video imaging can be achieved, greatly improving diagnosis conditions. Photo: : Jonathan Lovell

Suspended nanojuice allows real-time imaging of the gut

Patients would drink the 'nanojuice' like water. The liquid allows for easier and better quality imaging of the small intestine. Most importantly, a real-time video imaging can be achieved, greatly improving diagnosis conditions. Photo: : Jonathan Lovell

Patients would drink the ‘nanojuice’ like water. The liquid allows for easier and better quality imaging of the small intestine. Most importantly, a real-time video imaging can be achieved, greatly improving diagnosis conditions. Photo: : Jonathan Lovell

By virtue of its clogginess, the human gut, particularly the small intestine, is difficult to examine and diagnose for potential diseases or afflictions. Irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease are just a few of the most common diseases that affect the small intestine and can lead to severe complications. In fact, some 35,000 deaths occurred in 2010 as a result of inflammatory bowel disease.

University at Buffalo in the US have developed what they call a ‘nanojuice’ that can effectively image the small intestine and its surroundings in real time, something that wasn’t possible until now.

Typically, when you have your bowls thoroughly examined by a physician, you’ll be asked to drink a thick (somewhat disgusting) liquid called barium. A combination of X-rays, ultrasound imaging and magnetic resonance then work together to paint of picture of what’s going in inside. The results aren’t that great though. For one, the quality of the image itself isn’t quite the best, hindering accurate diagnosis. It’s not all that safe either. Worst of all, however, you can’t image the small intestine in real-time using this technique, so you can’t see muscle contract and so on – the kind of information doctors often have to fill out by imagining.

The nanojuice is filled with nanoparticles designed to bind to the inner walls of the small intestine. Once it’s ingested (there’s no word of how fowl or pleasant the concoction is), the juice reacts with the light fired by a harmless laser into the patient’s bowls. Dye molecules called naphthalocyanines, packed inside the juice in special nanoparticles called ‘nanonaps’, absorb the infrared light from the laser. A computer processes the images and offers a clear, non-invasive and real-time look into the working organ.

“Conventional imaging methods show the organ and blockages, but this method allows you to see how the small intestine operates in real time,” said one of the team, Jonathan Lovell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, in a press release. “Better imaging will improve our understanding of these diseases and allow doctors to more effectively care for people suffering from them.”

The team reports its work in the journal Nanotechnology.