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Small but mighty: A mini plasma-powered satellite under construction may launch a new era in space exploration

Small but mighty: A mini plasma-powered satellite under construction may launch a new era in space exploration

The CubeSat’s thruster, whose development is led by PPPL physicist Yevgeny Raitses, holds the promise of increased flexibility for the tiny satellites, more than a thousand of which have been launched by universities, research centers and commercial interests around the world. The proposed propulsion device — powered by plasma — could raise and lower the orbits of CubeSats circling the Earth, a capability not broadly available to small spacecraft today, and would hold the potential for exploration of deep space.

“Essentially, we will be able to use these miniature thrusters for many missions,” Raitses said.

A fleet of CubeSats

One example: A fleet made up of hundreds of such micropowered CubeSats could capture in fine detail the reconnection process in the magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, said physicist Masaaki Yamada. Yamada is the principal investigator of the PPPL Magnetic Reconnection Experiment, which studies magnetic reconnection — the separation and explosive snapping together of magnetic field lines in plasma that triggers auroras, solar flares and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt cell phone service and power grids on Earth.

Key advantage

The miniaturized engine scales down a cylindrical thruster with a high volume-to-surface geometry developed at the PPPL Hall Thruster Experiment, which Raitses leads and launched with PPPL physicist Nat Fisch in 1999. The experiment investigates the use of plasma — the state of matter composed of free-floating electrons and atomic nuclei, or ions — for space propulsion.

A key advantage of the miniaturized cylindrical Hall thruster will be its ability to produce a higher density of rocket thrust than existing plasma thrusters used for most CubeSats now orbiting Earth. The miniaturized thruster can achieve both increased density and a high specific impulse — the technical term for how efficiently a rocket burns fuel — that will be many times greater than that produced by chemical rockets and cold-gas thrusters typically used on small satellites.

High specific-impulse thrusters use much less fuel and can lengthen satellite missions, making them more cost-effective. Equally important is the fact that a high specific impulse can produce a large enough increase in a satellite’s momentum to enable the spacecraft to change orbits — a feature not available on currently orbiting CubeSats. Finally, high thrust density will enable satellites to accomplish complex fuel-optimized orbits in a reasonable time.

These capabilities provide many benefits. For example, a CubeSat might descend to lower orbit to track hurricanes or monitor shoreline changes and return to a higher orbit where the drag force on a satellite is weaker, requiring less fuel for propulsion.

The foot-long CubeSat, which Princeton has dubbed a “TigerSat,” consists of three 4-inch aluminum cubes stacked vertically together. Sensors, batteries, radio equipment and other instruments will fill the CubeSat, with a miniaturized thruster roughly equal in diameter to two U.S. quarters housed at either end. A thruster will fire to change orbits when the satellite passes the Earth’s equator.

Mechanical and aerospace engineering students

Building the CubeSat are some 10 Princeton graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, with Daniel Marlow, the Evans Crawford 1911 Professor of Physics, serving as faculty advisor. Undergraduates include Andrew Redd (Class of 2020), who leads design and construction of the CubeSat, and Seth Freeman (Class of 2022), who is working full-time on the project over the summer. Working on thruster development is Jacob Simmonds, a third-year graduate engineering student, whose thesis advisors are Raitses and Yamada. “This project began as a prototype of Yamada’s CubeSat and has evolved into its own project as a testbed for the plasma thruster,” Simmonds said.

Also under construction at PPPL is a test facility designed to simulate key aspects of the CubeSat’s operation. Undergraduates working on their own time are building the satellite and this facility. “To the extent that students and their advisors have identified well-defined questions associated with the TigerSat project, they can get independent work credit,” Marlow said.  “Also, some problem sets in the introductory physics course for undergraduates that I teach have questions related to the TigerSat flight plan.”

Simmonds, while working on the thruster, is drafting a proposal for NASA’s Cubic Satellite Launch Initiative that is due in November. Projects selected by the Initiative, which promotes public-private technology partnerships and low-cost technology development, have launch costs covered on commercial and NASA vehicles. Plans call for a TigerSat launch in the fall of 2021.

Value of collaboration

For Raitses, this project demonstrates the value of Princeton engineering students collaborating with PPPL and of University faculty cooperating with the Laboratory. “This is something that is mutually beneficial,” he said, “and something that we want to encourage.”

Materials provided by Princeton University

Strange warping geometry helps to push scientific boundaries

Strange warping geometry helps to push scientific boundaries

Researchers led by Andrew Houck, a professor of electrical engineering, have built an electronic array on a microchip that simulates particle interactions in a hyperbolic plane, a geometric surface in which space curves away from itself at every point. A hyperbolic plane is difficult to envision — the artist M.C. Escher used hyperbolic geometry in many of his mind-bending pieces — but it is perfect for answering questions about particle interactions and other challenging mathematical questions.

The research team used superconducting circuits to create a lattice that functions as a hyperbolic space. When the researchers introduce photons into the lattice, they can answer a wide range of difficult questions by observing the photons’ interactions in the simulated hyperbolic space.

Geometric pattern

Princeton researchers have built an electronic array on a microchip that simulates particle interactions in a hyperbolic plane, a geometric surface in which space curves away from itself at every point. Image courtesy of the researchers

“You can throw particles together, turn on a very controlled amount of interaction between them, and see the complexity emerge,” said Houck, who was the senior author of the paper published July 4 in the journal Nature.

Alicia Kollár, a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Center for Complex Materials and the study’s lead author, said the goal is to allow researchers to address complex questions about quantum interactions, which govern the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles.

“The problem is that if you want to study a very complicated quantum mechanical material, then that computer modeling is very difficult. We’re trying to implement a model at the hardware level so that nature does the hard part of the computation for you,” she said.

The centimeter-sized chip is etched with a circuit of superconducting resonators that provide paths for microwave photons to move and interact. The resonators on the chip are arranged in a lattice pattern of heptagons, or seven-sided polygons. The structure exists on a flat plane, but simulates the unusual geometry of a hyperbolic plane.

“In normal 3-D space, a hyperbolic surface doesn’t exist,” said Houck. “This material allows us to start to think about mixing quantum mechanics and curved space in a lab setting.”

Trying to force a three-dimensional sphere onto a two-dimensional plane reveals that space on a spherical plane is smaller than on a flat plane. This is why the shapes of countries appear stretched out when drawn on a flat map of the spherical Earth. In contrast, a hyperbolic plane would need to be compressed in order to fit onto a flat plane.

“It’s a space that you can mathematically write down, but it’s very difficult to visualize because it’s too big to fit in our space,” explained Kollár.

To simulate the effect of compressing hyperbolic space onto a flat surface, the researchers used a special type of resonator called a coplanar waveguide resonator. When microwave photons pass through this resonator, they behave in the same way whether their path is straight or meandering. The meandering structure of the resonators offers flexibility to “squish and scrunch” the sides of the heptagons to create a flat tiling pattern, Kollár said.

A schematic of the resonators on the microchip, which are arranged in a lattice pattern of heptagons, or seven-sided polygons. The structure exists on a flat plane, but simulates the unusual geometry of a hyperbolic plane.

Courtesy of the researchers

Looking at the chip’s central heptagon is akin to looking through a fisheye camera lens, in which objects at the edge of the field of view appear smaller than in the center: the heptagons look smaller the farther they are from the center. This arrangement allows microwave photons that move through the resonator circuit to behave like particles in a hyperbolic space.

Geometric pattern

A schematic of the resonators on the microchip, which are arranged in a lattice pattern of heptagons, or seven-sided polygons. The structure exists on a flat plane but simulates the unusual geometry of a hyperbolic plane. Courtesy of the researchers

The chip’s ability to simulate curved space could enable new investigations in quantum mechanics, including properties of energy and matter in the warped space-time around black holes. The material could also be useful for understanding complex webs of relationships in mathematical graph theory and communication networks. Kollár noted that this research could eventually aid the design of new materials.

But first, Kollár and her colleagues will need to further develop the photonic material, both by continuing to examine its mathematical basis and by introducing elements that enable photons in the circuit to interact.

“By themselves, microwave photons don’t interact with each other — they pass right through,” she said. Most applications of the material would require “doing something to make it so that they can tell there’s another photon there.”

Kollár plans to continue this line of research as she begins a faculty position at the University of Maryland this summer. Mattias Fitzpatrick, who received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering on June 4, co-authored the study along with Kollár and Houck. On Aug. 15, Fitzpatrick will begin a postdoctoral fellowship with Nathalie de Leon, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Princeton.

Reference: Hyperbolic lattices in circuit quantum electrodynamics

Materials provided by Princeton University

Princeton scientists spot two supermassive black holes on collision course with each other

Princeton scientists spot two supermassive black holes on collision course with each other

Each black hole’s mass is more than 800 million times that of our sun. As the two gradually draw closer together in a death spiral, they will begin sending gravitational waves rippling through space-time. Those cosmic ripples will join the as-yet-undetected background noise of gravitational waves from other supermassive black holes. Even before the destined collision, the gravitational waves emanating from the supermassive black hole pair will dwarf those previously detected from the mergers of much smaller black holes and neutron stars.

“Collisions between enormous galaxies create some of the most extreme environments we know of, and should theoretically culminate in the meeting of two supermassive black holes, so it was incredibly exciting to find such an immensely energetic pair of black holes so close together in our Hubble Space Telescope images,” said Andy Goulding, an associate research scholar in astrophysical sciences at Princeton who is the lead author on a paper appearing July 10 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Supermassive black hole binaries produce the loudest gravitational waves in the universe,” said co-discoverer and co-author Chiara Mingarelli, an associate research scientist at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York City. Gravitational waves from supermassive black hole pairs “are a million times louder than those detected by LIGO.”

“When these supermassive black holes merge, they will create a black hole hundreds of times larger than the one at the center of our own galaxy,” said Princeton graduate student Kris Pardo, a co-author on the paper.

The two supermassive black holes are especially interesting because they are around 2.5 billion light-years away from Earth. Since looking at distant objects in astronomy is like looking back in time, the pair belong to a universe 2.5 billion years younger than our own. Coincidentally, that’s roughly the same amount of time the astronomers estimate the black holes will take to begin producing powerful gravitational waves.

In the present-day universe, the black holes are already emitting these gravitational waves, but even at light speed the waves won’t reach us for billions of years. The duo is still useful, though. Their discovery can help scientists estimate how many nearby supermassive black holes are emitting gravitational waves that we could detect right now.

Detecting the gravitational wave background would help answer some of the biggest unknowns in astronomy, such as how often galaxies merge and whether supermassive black hole pairs merge at all, or if they become stuck in a near-endless waltz around each other.

“It’s a major embarrassment for astronomy that we don’t know if supermassive black holes merge,” said Jenny Greene, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton and a co-author on the paper. “For everyone in black hole physics, observationally this is a long-standing puzzle that we need to solve.”

Supermassive black holes can contain millions or even billions of suns’ worth of mass. Nearly all galaxies, including our own Milky Way, contain at least one of these behemoths at their core. When galaxies merge, their supermassive black holes meet up and begin orbiting one another. Over time, this orbit tightens as gas and stars pass between the black holes and steal energy.

Once the supermassive black holes get too close, though, this energy theft all but stops. Some theories suggest that they stall at around 1 parsec apart (roughly 3.2 light-years). This slowdown lasts nearly indefinitely and is known as the “final parsec problem.” In this scenario, only very rare groups of three or more supermassive black holes result in mergers.

Astronomers can’t just look for stalled pairs, because long before the black holes are a parsec apart, they’re too close to distinguish as two separate objects. Moreover, they don’t produce strong gravitational waves until they overcome the final parsec hurdle and get closer together. (Observed as they were 2.5 billion years ago, the newfound supermassive black holes appear about 430 parsecs apart.)

If the final parsec problem turns out not to be a problem, then astronomers expect that the universe is filled with the clamor of gravitational waves from supermassive black hole pairs in the process of merging. “This noise is called the gravitational wave background, and it’s a bit like a chaotic chorus of crickets chirping in the night,” Goulding said. “You can’t discern one cricket from another, but the volume of the noise helps you estimate how many crickets are out there.”

If two supermassive black holes do collide and combine, it will send a thundering “chirp” that will dwarf the background chorus – but it’s no small task to “hear” it.

The telltale gravitational waves generated by merging supermassive black holes are outside the frequencies currently observable by experiments such as LIGO and Virgo, which have detected the mergers of much smaller black holes and neutron stars. Scientists hunting for the larger gravitational waves from supermassive black hole collisions rely on arrays of special stars called pulsars that act like metronomes, sending out radio waves in a steady rhythm. If a passing gravitational wave stretches or compresses the space between Earth and the pulsar, the rhythm will be thrown off slightly.

Detecting the gravitational wave background using one of these pulsar timing arrays takes patience and plenty of monitored stars. A single pulsar’s rhythm might be disrupted by only a few hundred nanoseconds over a decade. The louder the background noise, the larger the timing disruptions and the quicker the detection will be made.

Goulding, Greene and the other observational astronomers on the team detected the two titans with the Hubble Space Telescope. Although supermassive black holes aren’t directly visible through an optical telescope like Hubble, they are surrounded by bright clumps of luminous stars and warm gas drawn in by the powerful gravitational tug. For its time in history, the galaxy harboring the newfound supermassive black hole pair “is basically the most luminous galaxy in the universe,” Goulding said. What’s more, the galaxy’s core is shooting out two unusually colossal plumes of gas. When they pointed Hubble at it to uncover the origins of its spectacular gas clouds, the researchers discovered that the system contained not one but two massive black holes.

The observational astronomers then teamed up with gravitational wave physicists Mingarelli and Pardo to interpret the finding in the context of the gravitational wave background. The discovery provides an anchor point for estimating how many merging supermassive black holes are within detection distance of Earth. Previous estimates relied on computer models of how often galaxies merge, rather than actual observations of supermassive black hole pairs.

Based on the data, Pardo and Mingarelli predicted that in an optimistic scenario, there are about 112 nearby supermassive black holes emitting gravitational waves. The first detection of the gravitational wave background from supermassive black hole mergers should therefore come within the next five years or so. If such a detection isn’t made, that would be evidence that the final parsec problem may be insurmountable. The team is currently looking at other galaxies similar to the one harboring the newfound supermassive black hole binary. Finding additional pairs will help them further hone their predictions.

“This is the first example of a close pair of such massive black holes that we’ve found, but there may well be additional binary black holes remaining to be discovered,” said co-author Professor Michael Strauss, the associate chair of Princeton’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences. “The more we can learn about the population of merging black holes, the better we will understand the process of galaxy formation and the nature of the gravitational wave background.”

Materials provided by Princeton University