Star Wars Redux" --Harvard and MIT Scientists Create New State of Matter
- Light sabers will be available at Costco next Christmas
Sent: 9/29/2013 6:03:37 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time
Subj: The Daily Galaxy: News from Planet Earth & Beyond
Posted: 29 Sep 2013 09:09 AM PDT
"Most of the properties of light we know about originate from the fact that photons are massless, and that they do not interact with each other," said Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin. "What we have done is create a special type of medium in which photons interact with each other so strongly that they begin to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules. This type of photonic bound state has been discussed theoretically for quite a while, but until now it hadn't been observed.Harvard and MIT scientists are challenging the conventional wisdom about light, and they didn't need to go to a galaxy far, far away to do it. Working with colleagues at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms, a group led by Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic have managed to coax photons into binding together to form molecules -- a state of matter that, until recently, had been purely theoretical.
The discovery, Lukin said, runs contrary to decades of accepted wisdom about the nature of light. Photons have long been described as massless particles which don't interact with each other -- shine two laser beams at each other, he said, and they simply pass through one another.
"Photonic molecules," however, behave less like traditional lasers and more like something you might find in science fiction -- the light saber.
"It's not an in-apt analogy to compare this to light sabers," Lukin added. "When these photons interact with each other, they're pushing against and deflect each other. The physics of what's happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies."
To get the normally-massless photons to bind to each other, Lukin and colleagues, including Harvard post-doctoral fellow Ofer Fisterberg, former Harvard doctoral student Alexey Gorshkov and MIT graduate students Thibault Peyronel and Qiu Liang couldn't rely on something like the Force -- they instead turned to a set of more extreme conditions.
Researchers began by pumped rubidium atoms into a vacuum chamber, then used lasers to cool the cloud of atoms to just a few degrees above absolute zero. Using extremely weak laser pulses, they then fired single photons into the cloud of atoms.
As the photons enter the cloud of cold atoms, Lukin said, its energy excites atoms along its path, causing the photon to slow dramatically. As the photon moves through the cloud, that energy is handed off from atom to atom, and eventually exits the cloud with the photon.
"When the photon exits the medium, its identity is preserved," Lukin said. "It's the same effect we see with refraction of light in a water glass. The light enters the water, it hands off part of its energy to the medium, and inside it exists as light and matter coupled together, but when it exits, it's still light. The process that takes place is the same it's just a bit more extreme -- the light is slowed considerably, and a lot more energy is given away than during refraction."
When Lukin and colleagues fired two photons into the cloud, they were surprised to see them exit together, as a single molecule.
An effect called a Rydberg blockade, Lukin said, which states that when an atom is excited, nearby atoms cannot be excited to the same degree. In practice, the effect means that as two photons enter the atomic cloud, the first excites an atom, but must move forward before the second photon can excite nearby atoms.
The result, he said, is that the two photons push and pull each other through the cloud as their energy is handed off from one atom to the next.
"It's a photonic interaction that's mediated by the atomic interaction," Lukin said. "That makes these two photons behave like a molecule, and when they exit the medium they're much more likely to do so together than as single photons."
"We do this for fun, and because we're pushing the frontiers of science," Lukin added. "But it feeds into the bigger picture of what we're doing because photons remain the best possible means to carry quantum information. The handicap, though, has been that photons don't interact with each other."
To build a quantum computer, he explained, researchers need to build a system that can preserve quantum information, and process it using quantum logic operations. The challenge, however, is that quantum logic requires interactions between individual quanta so that quantum systems can be switched to perform information processing.
"What we demonstrate with this process allows us to do that," Lukin said. "Before we make a useful, practical quantum switch or photonic logic gate we have to improve the performance, so it's still at the proof-of-concept level, but this is an important step. The physical principles we've established here are important."
The system could even be useful in classical computing, Lukin said, considering the power-dissipation challenges chip-makers now face. A number of companies -- including IBM -- have worked to develop systems that rely on optical routers that convert light signals into electrical signals, but those systems face their own hurdles.
Lukin also suggested that the system might one day even be used to create complex three-dimensional structures -- such as crystals -- wholly out of light.
"What it will be useful for we don't know yet, but it's a new state of matter, so we are hopeful that new applications may emerge as we continue to investigate these photonic molecules' properties," he said.
The work is described in a September 25 paper in Nature.
The Daily Galaxy via Harvard University and Nature
Image credits: With thanks to Arcchaeopteryx
Posted: 29 Sep 2013 09:27 AM PDT
"When Spitzer launched back in 2003, the idea that we would use it to study exoplanets was so crazy that no one considered it," said Sean Carey of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "But now the exoplanet science work has become a cornerstone of what we do with the telescope."
Now approaching its 10th anniversary, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has evolved into a premier observatory for an endeavor not envisioned in its original design: the study of worlds around other stars, called exoplanets. While the engineers and scientists who built Spitzer did not have this goal in mind, their work made this unexpected capability possible. Thanks to the extraordinary stability of its design and a series of subsequent engineering reworks, the space telescope now has observational powers far beyond its original limits and expectations.
Spitzer views the Universe in the infrared light that is a bit less energetic than the light our eyes can see. Infrared light can easily pass through stray cosmic gas and dust, allowing researchers to peer into dusty stellar nurseries, the centers of galaxies, and newly forming planetary systems.
This infrared vision of Spitzer's also translates into exoplanet snooping. When an exoplanet crosses or "transits" in front of its star, it blocks out a tiny fraction of the starlight. These mini-eclipses as glimpsed by Spitzer reveal the size of an alien world.
Exoplanets emit infrared light as well, which Spitzer can capture to learn about their atmospheric compositions. As an exoplanet orbits its sun, showing different regions of its surface to Spitzer's cameras, changes in overall infrared brightness can speak to the planet's climate. A decrease in brightness as the exoplanet then goes behind its star can also provide a measurement of the world's temperature.
While the study of the formation of stars and the dusty environments from which planets form had always been a cornerstone of Spitzer's science program, its exoplanet work only became possible by reaching an unprecedented level of sensitivity, beyond its original design specifications.
Researchers had actually finalized the telescope's design in 1996 before any transiting exoplanets had even been discovered. The high degree of precision in measuring brightness changes needed for observing transiting exoplanets was not considered feasible in infrared because no previous infrared instrument had offered anything close to what was needed.
Nevertheless, Spitzer was built to have excellent control over unwanted temperature variations and a better star-targeting pointing system than thought necessary to perform its duties. Both of these foresighted design elements have since paid dividends in obtaining the extreme precision required for studying transiting exoplanets.
The fact that Spitzer can still do any science work at all still can be credited to some early-in-the-game, innovative thinking. Spitzer was initially loaded with enough coolant to keep its three temperature-sensitive science instruments running for at least two-and-a-half years. This "cryo" mission ended up lasting more than five-and-a-half-years before exhausting the coolant.
But Spitzer's engineers had a built-in backup plan. A passive cooling system has kept one set of infrared cameras humming along at a super-low operational temperature of minus 407 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 244 Celsius, or 29 degrees above absolute zero). The infrared cameras have continued operating at full sensitivity, letting Spitzer persevere in a "warm" extended mission, so to speak, though still extremely cold by Earthly standards.
To stay so cool, Spitzer is painted black on the side that faces away from the Sun, which enables the telescope to radiate away a maximum amount of heat into space. On the sun-facing side, Spitzer has a shiny coating that reflects as much of the heat from the Sun and solar panels as possible. It is the first infrared telescope to use this innovative design and has set the standard for subsequent missions.
Fully transitioning Spitzer into an exoplanet spy required some clever modifications in-flight as well, long after it flew beyond the reach of human hands into an Earth-trailing orbit. Despite the telescope's excellent stability, a small "wobbling" remained as it pointed at target stars. The cameras also exhibited small brightness fluctuations when a star moved slightly across an individual pixel of the camera. The wobble, coupled with the small variation in the cameras, produced a periodic brightening and dimming of light from a star, making the delicate task of measuring exoplanet transits that much more difficult.
To tackle these issues, engineers first began looking into a source for the wobble. They noticed that the telescope's trembling followed an hourly cycle. This cycle, it turned out, coincided with that of a heater, which kicks on periodically to keep a battery aboard Spitzer at a certain temperature. The heater caused a strut between the star trackers and telescope to flex a bit, making the position of the telescope wobble compared to the stars being tracked.
Ultimately, in October 2010, the engineers figured out that the heater did not need to be cycled through its full hour and temperature range -- 30 minutes and about 50 percent of the heat would do. This tweak served to cut the telescope's wobble in half.
Spitzer's engineers and scientists were still not satisfied, however. In September 2011, they succeeded in repurposing Spitzer's Pointing Control Reference Sensor "Peak-Up" camera. This camera was used during the original cryo mission to put gathered infrared light precisely into a spectrometer and to perform routine calibrations of the telescope's star-trackers, which help point the observatory.
The telescope naturally wobbles back and forth a bit as it stares at a particular target star or object. Given this unavoidable jitter, being able to control where light goes within the infrared camera is critical for obtaining precise measurements. The engineers applied the Peak-Up to the infrared camera observations, thus allowing astronomers to place stars precisely on the center of a camera pixel.
Since repurposing the Peak-Up Camera, astronomers have taken this process even further, by carefully "mapping" the quirks of a single pixel within the camera. They have essentially found a "sweet spot" that returns the most stable observations. About 90 percent of Spitzer's exoplanet observations are finely targeted to a sub-pixel level, down to a particular quarter of a pixel. "We can use the Peak-Up camera to position ourselves very precisely on the camera and put light right on the best part of a pixel," said Carey. "So you put the light on the sweet spot and just let Spitzer stare."
These three accomplishments -- the modified heater cycling, repurposed Peak-Up camera and the in-depth characterization of individual pixels in the camera -- have more than doubled Spitzer's stability and targeting, giving the telescope exquisite sensitivity when it comes to taking exoplanet measurements.
"Because of these engineering modifications, Spitzer has been transformed into an exoplanet-studying telescope," said Carey. "We expect plenty of great exoplanetary science to come from Spitzer in the future."
The image at the top of the page shows exoplanets around the star HR8799 using a Vortex coronagraph on a 1.5m portion of the Hale telescope.
The Daily Galaxy via http://www.astrobio.net/
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