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Heavenly research

Out-of-this-world projects took home several top prizes in the 2014 Intel Science Talent Search for high school seniors

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10:28am, April 24, 2014

Jupiter gives off a spooky glow in this ultraviolet image acquired by the Hubble Space Telescope. An even newer NASA space telescope should be able to capture the full range of X-ray emissions from auroras above this giant gas planet, research by Intel STS finalist John Anthony Clarke suggests. 

NASA and J. Clarke (Univ. of Mich.)

Most science fair projects are pretty down to Earth. Competing in the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) requires going further. It is America’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. This year, four teens landed in the Intel STS finals on the basis of their truly-out-of-this-world research.

Each probed some facet of astronomy. And all but one finished within the top 10 spots in this competition.

Intel Foundation sponsors the contest. Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News for Students, which created the competition in 1942 and still runs it.

Two of the teens studied objects familiar to anyone who has gazed at the night sky: the moon and Jupiter. The other two studied features of two types of extremely dense objects found nowhere near Earth. Neutron stars are one kind. “Primordial” black holes are the other.

Research done by these teens sheds light on mysteries being tackled by older experts working across multiple scientific fields.

Hint: It’s not green cheese

At first glance, the Earth and moon seem to have little in common. Our planet has a substantial atmosphere, loads of liquid water and surface temperatures just right for a huge variety of living things. The moon has none of the above.

Still, both share a lot of chemistry — and history. Research suggests the moon formed when a Mars-sized object slammed into Earth a few million years after it formed. That massive collision blasted material into space. Some of Earth’s cast-offs later coalesced, creating our closest celestial companion.

Plagioclase (PLAY gee oh klayz) minerals form a major part of Earth’s crust. Minerals in this family typically contain aluminum, silicon and oxygen. Some of these minerals are rich in sodium, others contain calcium instead. Not surprisingly, Apollo astronauts returned from their moon walks lugging rocks rich in these minerals.

But a mystery surrounds plagioclase on the moon, says Aron Coraor. He’s a 17-year-old senior at Huntington High School in Huntington, N.Y. Lunar samples contain two distinctly different types. Until now, most scientists have proposed that they formed at different times in the moon’s history. No one, however, was really certain. Now, Aron’s research posits another idea. His lab studies hint that the two types formed at roughly the same time, just at different depths in the moon’s crust.

The moon has always fascinated Aron. He’s been told that “moon” was the first word he uttered. In high school, Aron began meeting with a mentor at Stony Brook University in New York. It was that scientist who first told Aron about the moon’s unsolved plagioclase mystery. That turned on the teen’s quest for answers. The project also allowed Aron to use chemistry, a favorite subject, to tackle a real-world problem.

Aron started out trying to make his own “moon rocks” in the lab. Scientists have chemically analyzed plagioclase samples from the moon. So Aron thought recreating their recipe would be relatively easy. It wasn’t.

He mixed what he thought were the right proportions of calcium oxides, aluminum oxides and silicon oxides. Then he heated them under high pressure inside a laboratory furnace. This created molten rock. But those lab-made plagioclase minerals didn’t match the moon’s.

Sometimes in science, failure can lead to success. Here, Aron’s work suggested that maybe the moon rocks hadn’t formed the way that scientists had presumed. “No one had had the idea,” Aron says, to look at the rocks this way.

So, the teen tweaked his recipe. Then he cooked up more batches. He heated each mix of ingredients to 1,500° Celsius (2,732° Fahrenheit). Afterward, he allowed each batch to slowly cool. This allowed plagioclase crystals to form, just as they might have on the moon billions of years ago.

Some of the rocks that cooled at high pressure resembled one of the types of lunar plagioclase. Other lab-made rocks, which had cooled at lower pressures, resembled the other type of moon rock. The teen’s results suggest that some plagioclases formed near the moon’s surface. Others likely formed at a depth of a few kilometers (miles), his findings suggest. More importantly, he notes, both types could have formed at nearly the same time.

“This is in a completely different way than expected,” Aron says. His research, if accepted, will completely change how people think these rocks formed, he says.

At last month’s finals in Washington, D.C., Aron’s project won him sixth-place and $25,000.

When the atmosphere glows

People who live at high latitudes, either far north or south of the equator, may sometimes see a stunning and shimmering phenomenon in the night sky. In the Northern Hemisphere, this spectacle is called the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The Southern Hemisphere has its own version: the aurora australis, or southern lights.

Auroras typically occur about 80 kilometers (50 miles) or more above Earth’s surface. Electrons and other charged particles streaming from the sun create these light shows as they slam into Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds. Auroras are usually seen only at high latitudes. (That’s because charged particles are accelerated and steered by magnetic fields. Because Earth’s magnetic field enters the atmosphere near the poles, that’s where auroras usually occur.)

Similar light displays dance above the surface of other planets too. Jupiter’s aurora is particularly prominent because its magnetic field is about 14 times stronger than Earth’s, notes John Anthony Clarke. He goes to Regis High School in Syosset, N.Y. Scientists have called the giant gas planet’s magnetic field “the solar system’s largest natural particle accelerator,” John Anthony notes. A particle accelerator uses magnetic fields to make charged particles go faster, either for physics experiments or for medical imaging. (The stronger the magnetic field and the longer its field lines are, the faster the charged particles will move.)

Auroras most often appear green. They can shine in other colors too, as well as in wavelengths that people can’t see, notes John Anthony. On Jupiter, the incoming charged solar particles slam into atoms in the planet’s atmosphere so forcefully that they produce auroras featuring X-ray light.

For his project, John Anthony used a computer program to estimate the full range of X-ray wavelengths that Jupiter’s auroras would emit. That simulation took into account the specific gases found in Jupiter’s atmosphere and the strength of the planet’s magnetic field. It also accounted for how strongly solar flares might interact with Jupiter’s magnetic field to boost that field’s strength. (That, in turn, would make the sun’s incoming particles accelerate even faster than they otherwise would, he explains.)

The teen’s project isn’t just a math exercise. It also suggests that a NASA space telescope launched in 2012 — the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array — should be able to see all of the X-ray wavelengths produced by Jupiter’s auroras. That includes wavelengths beyond low-energy X rays. Previously, the teen contends, it wasn’t certain that this spacecraft could do that.

Thanks to his research, John Anthony says, scientists no longer need worry they might be missing some information when they analyze data gathered by the new telescope.

His new calculations earned the teen ninth place in the Intel STS competition and a cash award of $20,000.

Astronomy has interested John Anthony since junior high school. “I was arrested by images taken by the Voyager probes [in the late 1970s],” he recalls, “which opened up the exploration of Jupiter.”

In the heart of a star

Stars come in all sizes and types. Neutron stars are among the weirdest. These dense, tiny objects are leftovers from supernova explosions. They form when stars that are mid-size — only slightly larger than our sun — collapse at the ends of their lives. A neutron star might have a mass between 1.4 and 3.2 times that of our sun. But all that mass is crammed into an object only about 10 kilometers (6 miles) across. That is about the size of a small city.

“Neutron stars” are aptly named. They aren’t made of atoms, where electrons circle a nucleus (and therefore contain a lot of empty space). Instead, a neutron star starts out so massive that its immense gravitational force causes all of its atoms to collapse into one glob of neutrons. (As a result of the collapse, the particles all come into contact. Here, the positive charges of the protons cancel out the negative charges of the electrons.) In a sense, a neutron star becomes like one big atomic nucleus.

The physics of an atom — and in particular, how its subatomic particles interact with each other — is pretty complicated. And those physics are weird, especially when compared to the phenomena we see and experience under normal circumstances, notes Shaun Datta. This 18-year-old attends Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.

A type of physics called quantum mechanics helps explain interactions between subatomic particles. In particular, Shaun notes, it explains how protons can stick together inside a nucleus, when they’d normally repel each other very strongly. “Without these interactions, an atom’s nucleus would fly apart,” he says.

Quantum physics is surprising in many ways. In particular, says Shaun, even groups of particles that are mostly made of electrically-neutral neutrons have a tendency to fly apart — whether they make up an exceptionally large atomic nucleus or a neutron star. The same processes inside the nuclei of large atoms are probably happening inside neutron stars too, he adds. They’re just happening on a much larger scale. But such interactions aren’t fully understood.

That is one reason why Shaun chose to study how large groups of subatomic particles stick together, without flying apart. “My mentor told me this is a problem that has been formulated but not yet addressed,” he explains.

Shaun’s research used a computer to simulate how subatomic particles inside atomic nuclei and neutron stars interact. The results aren’t easy to explain, he admits. But in simple terms, his simulations suggest that in some situations, small groups of particles within a larger mass stick together (just as they do in atoms) and then act as “glue balls.” They help bind the entire collection of particles together.

Shaun’s project earned him 10th place in the competition and $20,000.

Black holes forever!

Black holes can be weirder than neutron stars. Neutron stars pack together subatomic particles into one city-sized object. In black holes, the gravitational forces are so strong that even tiny-but-tough subatomic particles can’t take the pressure. Instead, all of the mass in the object collapses down to a very small point. According to the simplest theory, a black hole’s gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it. Processes inside a black hole — inside what’s called its event horizon — are forever hidden.

Well not totally. According to quantum mechanics (those weird rules of physics at the atomic level, again!), some things might be able to escape a black hole, says Kaitlyn Shin. This 17-year-old attends Jericho Senior High School in Jericho, N.Y.

Under certain situations, even in empty space, energy can be converted into a pair of particles, she explains. If that happens very close to the event horizon of a black hole, one of those particles can tunnel through the event horizon and reach the outside. There, in theory, such newly escaped particles could be detected. (These emissions are called Hawking radiation. The phenomenon is named after Stephen Hawking, a famous British physicist. He came up with the idea that black holes could emit particles after all.)

For a long time, most astronomers thought black holes could only be large. These objects start out as stars much larger than our sun. They form when the stars collapse at the end of their lifetimes. (Scientists suggest that any star larger than a neutron star will eventually collapse into a black hole.)

Recently, researchers have theorized that many small black holes formed just after the Big Bang that created our universe. As the universe expanded from one very small point, they suggest, massive chunks of matter somehow remained locked in very small pieces. So they failed to spread into large clusters of atoms. These primordial black holes still exist throughout the universe, some scientists believe. (“Primordial” means existing at or from the beginning of time.)

Using complicated math, scientists have estimated the probability of detecting Hawking radiation emitted by primordial black holes. According to Kaitlyn’s calculations, the actual chances are only one-thousandth as high as previous studies suggested. Kaitlyn says that her mentor, a professor at Columbia University in New York City, has reviewed her work. He thinks she’s right. So if primordial black holes do exist, her work suggests, finding them may be tougher than expected.

Kaitlyn first got interested in science at age 8 or 9, she says. “When my dad would tuck me in at night, he’d tell me all about stars like red giants and white dwarfs,” she says. He told her that black holes were like taking a planet the size of Earth, and squashing it down to the size of a peanut. “There’s a magic called physics, and I’ve been sold on it ever since,” says Kaitlyn, one of this year’s teen research leaders.

Power words

aurora     A glow that results when large numbers of high-energy charged particles slam into the atmosphere, usually near a planet’s magnetic poles.

Big Bang  The rapid expansion of dense matter that, according to current theory, marked the origin of the universe. It is supported by physics’ current understanding of the composition and structure of the universe.

black hole  A region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter nor radiation (including light) can escape.

event horizon     An imaginary sphere that surrounds a black hole. The more massive the black hole, the bigger the sphere. Anything that happens inside the event horizon is invisible, because gravity is so strong that under normal circumstances even light can’t escape. But according to some theories of physics, in certain situations small amounts of radiation can escape.

hadron  One of a group of particles that are made up of other, smaller particles held together by a particular kind of force. The protons and neutrons that make up you are hadrons.

Hawking radiation   The particles emitted from the event horizon on the outer edges of a black hole. Energy can be converted into a pair of particles. If that happens very close to outer edge of a black hole, one of those particles can tunnel out and become detected — providing the only direct physical clue to the black hole’s presence. These emissions are called Hawking radiation for Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist who came up with the idea that black holes can emit particles.

lunar     Of or relating to Earth’s moon.

magnetic field  An area of influence created by certain materials, called magnets, or by the movement of electric charges.

mentor  An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students, helping them refine their research questions. Mentors can also offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research. 

mineral  The crystal-forming substances, such as quartz, apatite or various carbonates, that make up rock. Most rocks contain several different minerals mish-mashed together. A mineral usually is solid and stable at room temperatures and has a specific formula, or recipe (with atoms occurring in certain proportions) and a specific crystalline structure (meaning that its atoms are organized in certain regular three-dimensional patterns).

molten    A word describing something that is melted, such as the liquid rock that makes up lava.

neutron  A subatomic particle carrying no electric charge that is one of the basic pieces of matter. Neutrons belong to the family of particles known as hadrons.

neutron star  A small object with very high density. Astronomers believe neutron stars form when large stars undergo a supernova but aren’t massive enough to form a black hole.

particle accelerator    A massive machine that revs up the motion of subatomic particles to great speed, and then beams them at targets. Sometimes the beams are used to deliver radiation at a tissue for cancer treatment. Other times, scientists crash the particles into solid targets in hopes of breaking the particles into their building blocks.

physics  The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physicsAn explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. It’s an alternative to quantum physics in explaining the motions and behavior of matter.

primordial black hole  A hypothetical type of black hole that formed not from the collapse of a massive star but from a clump of extremely dense matter present during the universe’s early expansion (in the few moments after the Big Bang).

quantum theory  A way to describe the operation of matter and energy at the level of atoms. It is based on an interpretation that at this scale, energy and matter can be thought to behave as both particles and waves. The idea is that on this very tiny scale, matter and energy are made up of what scientists refer to as quanta — miniscule amounts of electromagnetic energy.

quantum physics  A branch of physics that uses quantum theory to explain or predict how a physical system will operate on the scale of atoms or sub-atomic particles.

simulate   (in computing) To try and imitate the conditions, functions or appearance of something. Computer programs that do this are referred to as simulations.

solar wind  A flow of charged particles (including atomic nuclei) that have been ejected from the surface of the star, such as our sun. It can permeate the solar system. This is called a stellar wind, when from a star other than the sun.

subatomic  Anything smaller than an atom, which is the smallest bit of matter that has all the properties of whatever chemical element it is (like hydrogen, iron or calcium).

supernova  (plural: supernovae or supernovas) A massive star that suddenly increases greatly in brightness because of a catastrophic explosion that ejects most of its mass.

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