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Breakthrough extends quantum state stability by 10,000 times

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Aug. 14 (UPI) — Scientists in Chicago have developed a way to keep quantum states operating for longer periods of time — a breakthrough they say could accelerate the development of quantum communication, computing and sensing.

Hundreds of studies have hinted at the power of quantum mechanics, and scientists have predicted quantum technologies will provide a speed boost to computers, beef up cyber security, enhance the resolution of astronomical images and more.

For now, however, these applications remain relegated to the realm of theory. While scientists have successfully created quantum systems, they have proven delicate, unstable and frequently finicky.

One of the challenges of building useful quantum technologies is that most quantum systems remain operational, or “coherent,” for extremely brief periods of time, scientists say.

But, according to a study published this week in the journal Science, researchers at the University of Chicago claim to have developed a tweak that helps quantum states work 10,000 times longer than before.

“This breakthrough lays the groundwork for exciting new avenues of research in quantum science,” study author David Awschalom said in a news release.

“The broad applicability of this discovery, coupled with a remarkably simple implementation, allows this robust coherence to impact many aspects of quantum engineering,” said Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “It enables new research opportunities previously thought impractical.”

Quantum systems involve the storage and movement of information that is governed by quantum mechanics — the physics that describes the behavior of atomic particles.

Because quantum systems and states are so delicate — easily disturbed by background vibrations, temperature changes and interfering electromagnetic fields — they need extremely quiet, stable spaces to operate.

Traditional solutions to this problem, like physically isolating quantum states or using only extremely pure materials, are complex, expensive and impractical.

“With [our] approach, we don’t try to eliminate noise in the surroundings; instead, we ‘trick’ the system into thinking it doesn’t experience the noise,” said postdoctoral researcher Kevin Miao.

In the lab, researchers exposed their quantum system to electromagnetic pulses, which are normally used to influence the system, as well as a continuous alternating magnetic field. The team of physicists was able to tune the magnetic field to the rapid rotation of the electron spins inside their quantum system, causing the system to “tune out” interfering noise.

“To get a sense of the principle, it’s like sitting on a merry-go-round with people yelling all around you,” Miao said. “When the ride is still, you can hear them perfectly, but if you’re rapidly spinning, the noise blurs into a background.”

The trick kept the quantum system operational for a total of 22 milliseconds, four orders of magnitude greater than if the quantum system was left unshielded. Researchers used the same technique to tune out temperature fluctuations, physical vibrations and electromagnetic noise.

“This approach creates a pathway to scalability,” said Awschalom. “It should make storing quantum information in electron spin practical. Extended storage times will enable more complex operations in quantum computers and allow quantum information transmitted from spin-based devices to travel longer distances in networks.”

Researchers claim their method is relatively easy to execute, and that it could be used to reevaluate various quantum systems that were prematurely cast aside because they couldn’t achieve long-lasting coherence.



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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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