Friday Roundup: Curiosity Lands on Mars, Sound Lens Built, Parrots Think Like 3-Year-Olds

For today’s Friday Roundup, a rover successfully lands on Mars, parrots can reason in some ways like 3-year-old humans, and sound waves are being focused by metamaterials. Metamaterials are also used to great diodes out of beams of light, and quantum discord, once thought of as noise, may actually be helpful. Also, don’t miss an important breakthrough in the physics of the Higgs.

Curiosity Lands on Mars

Mt. Sharp, the central mound of Gale Crater. The rover landed just South-East of here

After it’s 352 million mile, 9 month journey, the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars after it’s “7 Minutes of Terror” through the planet’s atmosphere. The rover landed in Gale Crater, which is 96 miles across, next to a 3.4 mile high mountain located at its center.

Scientists believe that back when water flowed on the surface of Mars, it would have pooled in this crater. Probes suggest that water-related minerals and clay should be found here.

Because the rover is 15 times heavier than previous Mars rovers, it couldn’t safely land using the usual bubble of airbags, and Mars’s atmosphere is too thin for a parachute alone to support the craft.

A heat shield, which reached temperatures of 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit, slowed the craft from 13,000 to 1,000 miles per hour. A 60 foot parachute then slowed the craft down to 200 mph, withstanding 65,000 pounds of force. It then separated from the parachute into a rover strapped to a “rocket backpack,” called the Sky Crane. The rocket slowed its descent and dropped it off on the Martian surface via nylon straps before cutting its ties and shooting away.

The rover carries advanced equipment, some of which has never before been brought to Mars. The tools include:

Descent Video Camera – This color video camera filmed the spacecraft’s descent to the Martian surface. You can see the video of the heat shield separating and the landing here.

Rover Image/Video Camera – The color image/video camera is the probe’s eye and will be used to study the landscape and weather.

Mineral Hand Lens – This is providing NASA with close-up images of minerals and structures in Martian rocks and dust. It is capable of seeing down to 12.5 micrometers, smaller than a human hair. It carries white light and ultraviolet lights to see at night.

Spectrometers – These will allow the probe to measure chemical compositions of things it comes across. The rover carries 4 different types of spectrometers, one of which is capable of identifying organic compounds if they exist, which are the building blocks of life.

Radiation Detectors – Two radiation detectors will allow the rover to determine how viable a human mission to Mars will be. It will also use beams of neutrons, neutral particles from the center of atoms, to detect ice or water on and below the Martian surface.

Atmospheric Sensors – These sensors will detect just about anything scientists would want to know about Martian weather. A sensor was also deployed during the descent to Mars, which will provide NASA engineers with data that will make landings easier in the future.

It currently takes 14 minutes for a beam of light to bounce between Earth and Mars, making it impossible to remote control the probe. Instead, it’s computer brain (essentially a 2-core Power Mac G3) makes most of the small decisions, although big-picture decisions can be made at NASA and communicated to the rover.

Solar panels powered previous rovers, but dust storms and short Martian days limited mobility. The rover’s comparatively enormous size would also have made this less than viable. Instead, the probe is powered by a nuclear battery, which uses the energy from decaying plutonium dioxide to generate electricity.  (The Viking probes used a similar nuclear battery). The battery is expected to last almost 2 Earth-years, just over 1 Martian year.

For those concerned about damage caused by the device to any possible lifeforms on Mars, the radiation comes from alpha particles, which aren’t even strong enough to penetrate a sheet of paper, making them less dangerous than the solar radiation already on the planet’s surface.

Related: Mars Landing 2012: Inside the NASA Curiosity Mission

Parrots Think Like 3-Year-Olds

Experimenters shook a box with food in it and allowed parrots to choose which box to choose from. If the experimenters shook an empty box, the parrots were able to reason that the other box likely had food in it.

This ability to reach a conclusion from the absence of evidence has previously only been seen in humans and great apes. Human children aren’t capable of thinking this way until the age of 3.

The experiment suggests that parrots have an understanding of cause and effect.

An important implication of this is that this kind of reasoning has evolved more than once on our own planet. If it had only been great apes and humans who could think like this, we could conclude that higher reasoning had only evolved once on this planet.

The fact that it also evolved in birds, who belong to a different evolutionary branch, means that it is more likely to have occurred on other planets if life exists elsewhere.

Related: Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process

A Sound Lens is Developed

A new type of material, belonging to the new class of materials called metamaterials, is capable of manipulating sound waves in much the same way that a glass lens manipulates beams of light.

For the first time, the new material will make it possible to manipulate a wide variety of sound waves in different ways using the same device.

The new device will improve sonic imaging devices, and will enable more precise ultrasonic medical therapies, such as those that can attack tumors without surgery.

Metamaterials have recently been used to produce similar optical devices that enable cloaking devices and nearly perfect lenses. This is the first time similar goals have been achieved with sound.

Internal structures within the material make it possible to bend and focus sound waves, producing sonic lenses that weren’t possible before.

Metamaterials get their properties not from chemistry, but from the patterns that they form on a large scale. Scientists also recently proposed it could be possible to create a metamaterial that will expand when you compress it, or compress when you try to stretch it out.

Related: The Physics of Invisibility: A Story of Light and Deception

Metamaterial Reflects Zero Light

Yet another breakthrough on the metamaterial front has made it possible to develop a material that reflects zero light, so that all the light that passes through it continues in one direction. This is similar to an electronic diode, making it more likely that computers will be able to use beams of light instead of electricity.

The advantage of this material over other exotic materials is that it not only allows zero reflection, it allows nearly all of the light to pass through it, and it can be made using common materials. Previous attempts absorb energy, making it impossible to produce complex circuits because they would absorb all the light.

Quantum Computers Could Be Closer than Previously Thought

Quantum mechanics treats everything in the universe as waves of energy carried in discrete units. Quantum computation usually relies on a mechanism called entanglement, which takes advantage of this wave nature.

The fact that quanta move as waves means that they can be in more than one place at once, a fact that can be harnessed to perform certain types of calculations much faster than would be possible with traditional computers.

Unfortunately, entanglement doesn’t typically last very long, making quantum computation difficult. Quantum waves interfere with one another and create “noise,” which is referred to as quantum discord.

But now, at the University of Singapore, researchers discovered that it was possible to harness this quantum discord, previously thought of as noise.

The team encoded quantum information in laser light, introduced discord, and was able to extract the information back out of it. This is similar to a “simulcast,” making it possible to embed more information within the signal than would otherwise be possible.

While this experiment isn’t yet considered a calculation, it opens up the door for the possibility that what was once thought of as noise can actually be harnessed to improve quantum technologies.

Related: Quantum Physics: A Beginner’s Guide (Beginners Guide (Oneworld))

Friday Roundup: New Breakthrough at LHC, Record Shattering Entanglement, and Plate Tectonics on Mars

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