This week in science: Prep for TRAPPIST-1 system research, supersolid state, and more

This week in science is a review of the most interesting scientific news of the week.

TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. Source: NASA-JPL/Caltech.

Follow up from last week

Following last week’s confirmation of the existence of at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, scientists are now getting ready to further our knowledge about them. Three of those planets are inside the habitable zone, which means their distance to the star they are orbiting is appropriate to accommodate life, but many other questions still need answers.

Among those questions, the composition of those planet’s atmospheres is of critical importance to determine if life can thrive there. To answer this question, scientists can use a method called spectroscopy, which analyzes light by separating it into distinct wavelengths. Because each chemical component has a unique wavelength signature, it is possible to determine the components of those planets' atmospheres by analyzing the light emitted by them.

Rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope from 2015. Source: Northrop Grumman.

To do so, scientists will use the James Webb Space Telescope, under development by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) to substitute NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The new telescope is capable of capturing light in the same wavelength range as Hubble does plus infrared. As stated by Hannah Wakeford, postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland:

"The Webb telescope will increase the information we have about these planets immensely. With the extended wavelength coverage we will be able to see if their atmospheres have water, methane, carbon monoxide/dioxide and/or oxygen."

Also, because ozone and methane can be created by biological processes, scientists will be able to use them as a possible indicator of life. Finally, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2018.


Illustration of a supersolid state.
Source: ETH Zurich / Julian Léonard.

We have finally created supersolids

For the first time, two different teams of researchers, one from ETH Zurich and other from MIT, have obtained a new state of matter experimentally: supersolid. This exotic state of matter is achieved when both crystalline structure and frictionless flow, also known as superfluidity, occur together.

The first team to report its findings was the one from ETH Zurich. They have created a Bose-Einstein condensate, which behaves like a superfluid, by cooling a small amount of rubidium gas to a temperature just above absolute zero. After that, they have introduced the condensate into a sophisticated device where it was illuminated with laser light.

The condensate then acquired a crystal-like structure while retaining its superfluid properties, or a supersolidity state. As stated by Tilman Esslinger, professor of quantum optics at the Institute for Quantum Electronics:

"We were able to produce this special state in the lab thanks to a sophisticated setup that allowed us to make the two resonance chambers identical for the atoms."

The second team, from MIT and led by Wolfgang Ketterle, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at MIT, has used a different experimental approach to obtain a supersolid. The team has also created a Bose-Einstein condensate, this time with sodium atoms, but has used a laser to manipulated the motion of the atoms, instead. As stated by Ketterle, who was laureated with the 2001Nobel Prize in physics for co-discovering the Bose-Einstein condensate:

"The challenge was now to add something to the Bose-Einstein condensate to make sure it developed a shape or form beyond the shape of the 'atom trap,' which is the defining characteristic of a solid.”

The team has first used lasers to convert half of the condensate's atoms to a different quantum state, which created two different condensates. After that, by using a different set of lasers, the team has moved atoms from one condensate to the other, creating the supersolid state.

Source: [1] [2]

Researchers Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski. Source: New York Genome Center.

DNA as a hard drive

As reported here at Neowin last Friday, two scientists from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center have demonstrated that a tiny amount of DNA can not only be used to store data, but in fact huge amounts of it. By using new techniques, the pair of researchers could store a movie, an operating system, and other data in DNA strands and retrieve them error-free. As stated by Yaniv Erlich, a computer science professor at Columbia Engineering and co-author of the study:

"DNA won't degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs, and it won't become obsolete—if it does, we have bigger problems."

Extrapolating their experimental results, the researchers have also demonstrated that their coding strategy could store 215 petabytes of data on a single gram of DNA. Unfortunately, the technique is currently too expensive to be commercially viable. For example, to synthesize the DNA containing the two megabytes of data used in the experiment, the researchers have spent $7,000, not to mention the $2,000 spent to read the data.

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