Space

New Satellite Experiment Helps Confirm Einstein's Equivalence Principle (presse.cnes.fr) 71

Part of Einstein's theory of general relativity posits that gravity equals inertial mass -- and for the first time in 10 years, there's new evidence that he's right. Slashdot reader orsayman reports: Most stories around space today seem to revolve around SpaceX, but let's not forget that space is also a place for cool physics experiments. One such experiment currently running into low orbit is the MICROSCOPE satellite launched in 2016 to test the (weak) Equivalence Principle (also knows as the universality of free fall) a central hypothesis in General Relativity.

The first results confirm the principle with a precision ten times better than previous experiments. And it's just the beginning since they hope to increase the precision by another factor of 10. If the Equivalence Principle is still verified at this precision, this could constrain or invalidate some quantum gravity theories. For those of you who are more satellite-science oriented, the satellite also features an innovative "self destruct" mechanism (meant to limit orbit pollution) based on inflatable structures described in this paper.

"The science phase of the mission began in December 2016," reports France's space agency, "and has already collected data from 1,900 orbits, the equivalent of a free fall of 85 million kilometres or half the Earth-Sun distance."
Medicine

What It Looks Like When You Fry Your Eye In An Eclipse (npr.org) 135

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Doctors in New York say a woman in her 20s came in three days after looking at the Aug. 21 eclipse without protective glasses. She had peeked several times, for about six seconds, when the sun was only partially covered by the moon. Four hours later, she started experiencing blurred and distorted vision and saw a central black spot in her left eye. The doctors studied her eyes with several different imaging technologies, described in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, and were able to observe the damage at the cellular level.

"We were very surprised at how precisely concordant the imaged damage was with the crescent shape of the eclipse itself," noted Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, in an email to NPR. He says this was the most severely injured patient they saw after the eclipse. All in all, 22 people came to their urgent care clinic with concerns about possible eclipse-related damage, and most of them complained of blurred vision. Of those, only three showed some degree of abnormality in the retina. Two of them had only mild changes, however, and their symptoms have gone away. The young woman described in this case report, at last check, still has not recovered normal vision.
For your viewing pleasure, The Verge has embedded several images of the woman's retinas in their report.
Space

Flat Earther's Homemade Rocket Launcher Breaks Down in His Driveway (desertsun.com) 246

The Desert Sun has an update on the progress of 61-year-old self-taught rocket scientist 'Mad' Mike Hughes: A man who believes Earth is flat, and was ready to launch himself from a rocket in California on Saturday afternoon to prove it, has canceled his plans. At least for now. Not having the required federal permits plus mechanical problems with his "motorhome/rocket launcher" forced self-taught rocket scientist "Mad" Mike Hughes to put his experiment on hold. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management "told me they would not allow me to do the event ... at least not at that location," Hughes said in a YouTube announcement, amid international attention over his plans to launch into the "atmosflat."

"It's been very disappointing," he said... "My feeling is that one of the top executives at the Bureau of Land Management called Needles, California, saying... 'What's going on? Who permitted this?'" Hughes said. Plus, as he and his team were preparing to leave Wednesday, the motorhome/rocket launcher broke down in his driveway, he said... His plan is to try again next week.

Space

Astronomers Find An Earth-Size World Just 11 Light Years Away (arstechnica.com) 175

Astronomers have discovered a planet 35 percent more massive than Earth in orbit around a red dwarf star just 11 light years from the Sun. "The planet, Ross 128 b, likely exists at the edge of the small, relatively faint star's habitable zone even though it is 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun," reports Ars Technica. "The study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics finds the best estimate for its surface temperature is between -60 degrees Celsius and 20 degrees Celsius." From the report: This is not the closest Earth-size world that could potentially harbor liquid water on its surface -- that title is held by Proxima Centauri b, which is less than 4.3 light years away from Earth and located in the star system closest to the Sun. Even so, due to a variety of factors, Ross 128 b is tied for fourth on a list of potentially most habitable exoplanets, with an Earth Similarity Index value of 0.86. In the new research, astronomers discuss another reason to believe that life might be more likely to exist on Ross 128 b. That's because its parent star, Ross 128, is a relatively quiet red dwarf star, producing fewer stellar flares than most other, similar-sized stars such as Proxima Centauri. Such flares may well sterilize any life that might develop on such a world.
Open Source

Oracle Engineer Talks of ZFS File System Possibly Still Being Upstreamed On Linux (phoronix.com) 131

New submitter fstack writes: Senior software architect Mark Maybee who has been working at Oracle/Sun since '98 says maybe we "could" still see ZFS be a first-class upstream Linux file-system. He spoke at the annual OpenZFS Developer Summit about how Oracle's focus has shifted to the cloud and how they have reduced investment in Solaris. He admits that Linux rules the cloud. Among the Oracle engineer's hopes is that ZFS needs to become a "first class citizen in Linux," and to do so Oracle should port their ZFS code to Oracle Linux and then upstream the file-system to the Linux kernel, which would involve relicensing the ZFS code.
AI

When an AI Tries Writing Slashdot Headlines (tumblr.com) 165

For Slashdot's 20th anniversary, "What could be geekier than celebrating with the help of an open-source neural network?" Neural network hobbyist Janelle Shane has already used machine learning to generate names for paint colors, guinea pigs, heavy metal bands, and even craft beers, she explains on her blog. "Slashdot sent me a list of all the headlines they've ever run, over 162,000 in all, and asked me to train a neural network to try to generate more." Could she distill 20 years of news -- all of humanity's greatest technological advancements -- down to a few quintessential words?

She trained it separately on the first decade of Slashdot headlines -- 1997 through 2007 -- as well as the second decade from 2008 to the present, and then re-ran the entire experiment using the whole collection of every headline from the last 20 years. Among the remarkable machine-generated headlines?
  • Microsoft To Develop Programming Law
  • More Pong Users for Kernel Project
  • New Company Revises Super-Things For Problems
  • Steve Jobs To Be Good

But that was just the beginning...


Transportation

Elon Musk Begins Digging a Hyperloop Tunnel In Maryland (baltimoresun.com) 146

Elon Musk has been granted permission by Maryland to start digging tunnels for his hyperoop transit system that he wants to build between New York and Washington. "Hogan administration officials said Thursday the state has issued a conditional utility permit to let Musk's tunneling firm, The Boring Co., dig a 10.3-mile tunnel beneath the state-owned portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, between the Baltimore city line and Maryland 175 in Hanover," reports Baltimore Sun. From the report: It would be the first portion of the underground system that Musk says could eventually ferry passengers from Washington to New York, with stops in Baltimore and Philadelphia, in just 29 minutes. Maryland's approval is the first step of many needed to complete the multibillion-dollar project. Gov. Larry Hogan toured a site in Hanover that aides said could become an entry point for the hyperloop. The state does not plan to contribute to the cost of the project, aides said. Administration officials said they will treat the hyperloop like a utility, and permitted it in the same way the state allows electric companies to burrow beneath public rights-of-way. It was not immediately clear Thursday what environmental review or other permitting procedures must be completed before the company breaks ground.
Science

Astronomers Strike Gravitational Gold In Colliding Neutron Stars (npr.org) 109

For the first time, scientists have caught two neutron stars in the act of colliding, revealing that these strange smash-ups are the source of heavy elements such as gold and platinum. From a report: The discovery, announced today at a news conference and in scientific reports written by some 3,500 researchers, solves a long-standing mystery about the origin of these heavy elements -- which are found in everything from wedding rings to cellphones to nuclear weapons. It's also a dramatic demonstration of how astrophysics is being transformed by humanity's newfound ability to detect gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time that are created when massive objects spin around each other and finally collide. "It's so beautiful. It's so beautiful it makes me want to cry. It's the fulfillment of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people's efforts, but it's also the fulfillment of an idea suddenly becoming real," says Peter Saulson of Syracuse University, who has spent more than three decades working on the detection of gravitational waves. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of these ripples more than a century ago, but scientists didn't manage to detect them until 2015. Until now, they'd made only four such detections, and each time the distortions in space-time were caused by the collision of two black holes. That bizarre phenomenon, however, can't normally be seen by telescopes that look for light. Neutron stars, by contrast, spew out visible cosmic fireworks when they come together. These incredibly dense stars are as small as cities like New York and yet have more mass than our sun. Further reading: 'A New Rosetta Stone for Astronomy' (The Atlantic), and Gravitational Wave Astronomers Hit Mother Lode (Scientific American).
The Almighty Buck

In a Cashless World, You'd Better Pray the Power Never Goes Out (mises.org) 453

schwit1 quotes the Mises Institue: When Hurricane Maria knocked out power in Puerto Rico, residents there realized they were going to need physical cash — and a lot of it. Bloomberg reported that the Fed was forced to fly a planeload of cash to the Island to help avert disaster. "William Dudley, the New York Fed president, put the word out within minutes, and ultimately a jet loaded with an undisclosed amount of cash landed on the stricken island. [Business executives in Puerto Rico] described corporate clients' urgent requests for hundreds of thousands in cash to meet payrolls, and the challenge of finding enough armored cars to satisfy endless demand at ATMs... As early as the day after the storm, the Fed began working to get money onto the island."

For a time, unless one had a hoard of cash stored up in ones home, it was impossible to get cash at all. 85 percent of Puerto Rico is still without power... Bloomberg continues: "When some generator-powered ATMs finally opened, lines stretched hours long, with people camping out in beach chairs and holding umbrellas against the sun." In an earlier article from September 25, Bloomberg noted how, without cash, necessities were simply unavailable:

"Cash only," said Abraham Lebron, the store manager standing guard at Supermax, a supermarket in San Juan's Plaza de las Armas. He was in a well-policed area, but admitted feeling like a sitting duck with so many bills on hand. "The system is down, so we can't process the cards. It's tough, but one finds a way to make it work."


Space

Scientists Discover Ring Around Dwarf Planet Haumea Beyond Neptune 49

A ring has been discovered around one of the dwarf planets that orbits the outer reaches of the solar system. Until now, ring-like structures had only been found around the four outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Guardian reports: "In 2014 we discovered that a very small body in the Centaurs region [an area of small celestial bodies between the asteroid belt and Neptune] had a ring and at that time it seemed to be a very weird thing," explained Dr Jose Ortiz, whose group at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia in Granada made the discovery described in the journal Nature. "We didn't expect to find a ring around Haumea, but we were not too surprised either." Haumea was recognized by the International Astronomical Union in 2008 and is one of five dwarf planets, alongside Pluto, Ceres, Eris and Makemake. They are located beyond Neptune -- 50 times farther away from the sun than Earth. Haumea, named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, is unusual because of its elongated shape, comparable to a rugby ball, and its rapid rotation, spinning around once every 3.9 hours. Its diameter is approximately a third of the size of Earth's moon.
Earth

Neanderthal Ancestors May Be To Blame For Why You Can't Get a Tan (telegraph.co.uk) 118

turkeydance shares a report from The Telegraph: If you struggle to get a tan, consider yourself a night owl or are plagued with arthritis, then your Neanderthal ancestors could be to blame, a new genetic study has shown. Although Neanderthals are often portrayed in drawings as swarthy, in fact they arrived in Northern Europe thousands of years before modern humans, giving time for their skin to become paler as their bodies struggled to soak up enough sun. When they interbred with modern humans those pale genes were passed on. Likewise, genetic mutations which predispose people to arthritis also came from our Neanderthal ancestors, as did the propensity to be a night owl rather than a lark, as northern latitudes altered their body clocks. A raft of new papers published in the journals Science and the American Journal of Human Genetics has shed light on just how many traits we owe to our Neanderthal ancestors.

Scientists also now think that differences in hair color, mood and whether someone will smoke or have an eating disorder could all be related to inter-breeding, after comparing ancient DNA to 112,000 British people who took part in the UK Biobank study. The Biobank includes genetic data along with information on many traits related to physical appearance, diet, sun exposure, behavior, and disease and helps scientists pick apart which traits came from Neanderthals. Dr Janet Kelso, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Germany, said: "We can now show that it is skin tone, and the ease with which one tans, as well as hair color that are affected."

Medicine

Chinese Researchers Correct Genetic Mutation In Embryos Using Base Editing (bbc.com) 35

dryriver writes: Chinese researchers have taken tissue from a beta-thallasemia patient, created cloned embryos from that patient's cells, and used a genetic editing technique known as Base Editing to correct the gene mutation that causes beta-thallasemia. The embryos were not implanted in a womb, so no actual babies were created during the procedure. The BBC reports: "Precise 'chemical surgery' has been performed on human embryos to remove disease in a world first, Chinese researchers have told the BBC. The team at Sun Yat-sen University used a technique called base editing to correct a single error out of the three billion 'letters' of our genetic code. They altered lab-made embryos to remove the disease beta-thalassemia. The embryos were not implanted. The team says the approach may one day treat a range of inherited diseases. Base editing alters the fundamental building blocks of DNA: the four bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Base editing works on the DNA bases themselves to convert one into another. Prof David Liu, who pioneered base editing at Harvard University, describes the approach as 'chemical surgery.' He says the technique is more efficient and has fewer unwanted side-effects than Crispr. He told the BBC: 'About two-thirds of known human genetic variants associated with disease are point mutations. So base editing has the potential to directly correct, or reproduce for research purposes, many pathogenic [mutations].'"
Space

A Fourth Gravitational Wave Has Been Detected (theguardian.com) 67

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Astronomers have made a new detection of gravitational waves and for the first time have been able to trace the shape of ripples sent through spacetime when black holes collide. The announcement, made at a meeting of the G7 science ministers in Turin, marks the fourth cataclysmic black-hole merger that astronomers have spotted using Ligo, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. The latest detection is the first to have also been picked up by the Virgo detector, located near Pisa, Italy, providing a new layer of detail on the three dimensional pattern of warping that occurs during some of the most violent and energetic events in the universe.

A tiny wobble in the signal, picked up by Ligo's twin instruments and the Virgo detector on 14 August, could be traced back to the final moments of the merger of two black holes about 1.8 billion years ago. The black holes, with masses about 31 and 25 times the mass of the sun, combined to produce a newly spinning black hole with about 53 times the mass of the sun. The remaining three solar masses were converted into pure energy that spilled out as deformations that spread outwards across spacetime like ripples across a pond. Detecting these tiny distortions has required detectors sensitive enough to measuring a discrepancy of just one thousandth of the diameter of an atomic nucleus across a 4km laser beam.
A paper about the latest discovery has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Space

Most Powerful Cosmic Rays Come From Galaxies Far, Far Away (space.com) 97

A new study finds the highest-energy cosmic rays to bombard Earth come from galaxies far, far away. Space.com reports: The sun emits relatively low-energy cosmic rays. However, for more than 50 years, scientists have also detected ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, ones far beyond the capability of any particle accelerator on Earth to generate. One way to discover the origins of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays is to study their directions of travel. However, ultra-high-energy cosmic rays only rarely strike Earth's atmosphere, with one hitting any given area about the size of a soccer field about once per century, the researchers said. In order to detect ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, scientists look for the spray of electrons, photons and other particles that result when ultra-high-energy cosmic rays hit the top of Earth's atmosphere. Each of these showers contains more than 10 billion particles, which fly downward in a disk shaped like a giant plate miles wide, according to the statement. Scientists examined the sprays from ultra-high-energy cosmic rays using the largest cosmic-ray observatory yet: the Pierre Auger Observatory built in the western plains of Argentina in 2001. It consists of an array of 1,600 particle detectors deployed in a hexagonal grid over 1,160 square miles (3,000 square kilometers), an area comparable in size to Rhode Island. A connected set of telescopes is also used to see the dim fluorescent light the particles in the sprays emit at night.

The researchers analyzed data collected between 2004 and 2016. During these 12 years, the scientists detected more than 30,000 ultra-high-energy cosmic rays. If ultra-high-energy cosmic rays came from the Milky Way, one might perhaps expect them to come from all across the sky, or perhaps mostly from the direction of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center. However, the researchers saw that ultra-high-energy cosmic rays mostly came from a broad area of sky about 90 degrees away from the direction of the Milky Way's core.

Space

Idaho Wants To Establish America's First 'Dark Sky Preserve' (idahostatesman.com) 136

schwit1 shares a story from the AP: Tourists heading to central Idaho will be in the dark if local officials get their way. The first International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States would fill a chunk of the state's sparsely populated region that contains night skies so pristine that interstellar dust clouds are visible in the Milky Way... Supporters say excess artificial light causes sleeping problems for people and disrupts nocturnal wildlife and that a dark sky can solve those problems, boost home values and draw tourists. Opposition to dark sky measures elsewhere in the U.S. have come from the outdoor advertising industry and those against additional government regulations.

Researchers say 80 percent of North Americans live in areas where light pollution blots out the night sky. Central Idaho contains one of the few places in the contiguous United States large enough and dark enough to attain reserve status, Barentine said. Only 11 such reserves exist in the world... The proposed Idaho reserve is mainly land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and contains the wilderness of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area... Leaders in the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, the tiny mountain town of Stanley, other local and federal officials, and a conservation group have been working for several years to apply this fall to designate 1,400 square miles (3,600 square kilometers) as a reserve. A final decision by the association would come about 10 weeks after the application is submitted.

Earth

What's Causing The Hurricanes? (yahoo.com) 442

An anonymous reader quotes AFP: Hurricane Irma, now taking aim at Florida, has stunned experts with its sheer size and strength, churning across the ocean with sustained Category 5 winds of 183 miles per hour (295 kilometers per hour) for more than 33 hours, making it the longest-lasting, top-intensity cyclone ever recorded. Meanwhile Jose, a Category 4 on the Saffir Simpson scale of 1 to 5, is fast on the heels of Irma, pummeling the Caribbean for the second time in the span of a few days. Many have wondered what is contributing to the power and frequency of these extreme storms. "Atlantic hurricane seasons over the years have been shaped by many complex factors," said Jim Kossin, a NOAA hurricane scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "Those include large scale ocean currents, air pollution -- which tends to cool the ocean down -- and climate change"...

Some think a surge in industrial pollution after World War II may have produced more pollutant particles that blocked the Sun's energy and exerted a cooling effect on the oceans. "The pollution reduced a lot of hurricane activity," said Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences at Princeton University's Environmental Institute. Pollution began to wane in the 1980s due to regulations such as the Clean Air Act, allowing more of the Sun's rays to penetrate the ocean and provide warming fuel for storms. Vecchi said the "big debate" among scientists is over which plays a larger role -- variations in ocean currents or pollution cuts. There is evidence for both, but there isn't enough data to answer a key question...

The burning of fossil fuels, which spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and warm the Earth, can also be linked to a rise in extreme storms in recent years. Warmer ocean temperatures yield more moisture, more rainfall, and greater intensity storms. "It is not a coincidence that we're seeing more devastating hurricanes," climatologist Michael Mann of Penn State University told AFP in an email. "Over the past few years, as global sea surface temperatures have been the warmest on record, we've seen the strongest hurricanes -- as measured by peak sustained winds -- globally, in both Southern and Northern Hemisphere, in both Pacific and now, with Irma, the open Atlantic," he added. "The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We're seeing them play out in real time, and the past two weeks have been a sadly vivid example."

Space

Are We Being Watched? Tens of Other Worlds Could Spot the Earth (eurekalert.org) 94

A group of scientists from Queen's University Belfast and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany have turned exoplanet-hunting on its head, in a study that instead looks at how an alien observer might be able to detect Earth using our own methods. From a report: They find that at least nine exoplanets are ideally placed to observe transits of Earth, in a new work published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Thanks to facilities and missions such as SuperWASP and Kepler, we have now discovered thousands of planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, worlds known as 'exoplanets.' The vast majority of these are found when the planets cross in front of their host stars in what are known as 'transits,' which allow astronomers to see light from the host star dim slightly at regular intervals every time the planet passes between us and the distant star. In the new study, the authors reverse this concept and ask, "How would an alien observer see the Solar System?" They identified parts of the distant sky from where various planets in our Solar System could be seen to pass in front of the Sun - so-called 'transit zones' -- concluding that the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) are actually much more likely to be spotted than the more distant 'Jovian' planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), despite their much larger size. To look for worlds where civilisations would have the best chance of spotting our Solar System, the astronomers looked for parts of the sky from which more than one planet could be seen crossing the face of the Sun. They found that three planets at most could be observed from anywhere outside of the Solar System, and that not all combinations of three planets are possible.
Earth

A Powerful Solar Storm Is Bringing Hazards and Rare Auroras Our Way (fastcompany.com) 72

tedlistens shares a report from Fast Company: The Space Weather Prediction Center has upgraded a geomagnetic storm watch for September 6 and 7 to a level only occasionally seen, but scientists say it's nothing to be too alarmed about. They do recommend looking for an unusual display of the aurora -- the northern lights caused by a disturbance of the magnetosphere -- in areas of the U.S. not used to seeing them: "really in the upper tier of the United States," says Robert Rutledge, lead of operations at the center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The storm could pose an "elevated radiation risk to passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at far north or south latitudes," a NOAA warning says, and intermittently impact high frequency RF communications, which may require some transpolar flight routes to divert to lower geomagnetic latitudes (a shift that would cost the airlines more). There's a slim chance of isolated interfere with high-precision GPS readings, but those issues usually only tend to arise with stronger storms.

The so-called G3 level storm is the result of what's called a coronal mass ejection, where magnetic interactions on the sun launch part of its outer atmosphere of superheated plasma into space. When that burst of radiation gets near earth -- barreling toward us at a million miles per hour, it takes about two days to make the journey -- its magnetic field interacts with Earth's, Rutledge says. Northern U.S. and Canadian residents hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora will get their best shot on Wednesday night and early Thursday, and the Space Weather Prediction Center posts 30-minute forecasts of the colorful sky phenomenon's intensity.

Earth

The Solar Eclipse of 2017 Destroyed Lots of Rental Camera Gear (petapixel.com) 140

Despite numerous warnings sent out to renters, a number of LensRental's camera equipment came back damaged and destroyed from the solar eclipse of 2017. PetaPixel provides pictures in a report that shows some of the damage. One photo, for example, "shows a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens that had its aperture blades partially melted by the sun during the eclipse," while another shows a Canon 7D Mark II shutter being burned so bad that "the heat went past it and damaged the sensor behind it as well." LensRentals, one of the leading camera rental companies, writes about the destruction in a blog post on their website: The most common problem we've encountered with damage done by the eclipse was sensors being destroyed by the heat. We warned everyone in a blog post to buy a solar filter for your lens, and also sent out mass emails and fliers explaining what you need to adequately protect the equipment. But not everyone follows the rules, and as a result, we have quite a few destroyed sensors. To my personal surprise, this damage was far more visually apparent than I even expected, and the photos below really make it visible.

The images above are likely created because people were shooting in Live View mode, allowing them to compose the image using the back of their screen, instead of risking damage to their eyes by looking through the viewfinder. However, those who didn't use live view (and hopefully guess and checked instead of staring through the viewfinder), were more likely to face damage to their camera's mirror. While this damage was far rarer, we did get one particular camera with a damaged mirror box caused by the sun.

Communications

Germany Unveils World's Most Powerful X-Ray Laser (theguardian.com) 49

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The world's most powerful X-ray laser has begun operating at a facility where scientists will attempt to recreate the conditions deep inside the sun and produce film-like sequences of viruses and cells. The machine, called the European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), acts as a high-speed camera that can capture images of individual atoms in a few millionths of a billionth of a second. Unlike a conventional camera, though, everything imaged by the X-ray laser is obliterated -- its beam is 100 times more intense than if all the sunlight hitting the Earth's surface were focused onto a single thumbnail. The facility near Hamburg, housed in a series of tunnels up to 38 meters underground, will allow scientists to explore the architecture of viruses and cells, create jittery films of chemical reactions as they unfold and replicate conditions deep within stars and planets.

XFEL is the world's third major X-ray laser facility -- projects in Japan and the U.S. have already spawned major advances in structural biology and materials science. The European beam is more powerful, but most significantly has a far higher pulse rate than either of its predecessors. "They can send 100 pulses out per second, we can send 27,000," said Robert Feidenhan'l, chairman of the European XFEL management board. This matters because to study chemical reactions or biological processes, the X-ray strobe is used to capture flickering snapshots of the same system at different time-points that can be stitched together into a film sequence.

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