In Space, Ice Flows Like Honey and Pops Like Champagne

Scientists discover that ice in space bubbles, pops, and flows.

The first clue appeared in 2016, when researchers found that water, ammonia, and methanol ice — the kind found in interstellar clouds where stars form, and in comets — could contain a range of molecule types, including ribose, a precursor of RNA. One of the great mysteries surrounding the origin of life on earth is the question of where its life-starting RNA came from. Maybe this meant it could have come from space, but some were skeptical: Was the ribose found in the ice a natural occurrence, or just lab contamination? Now a new study of ice’s weird behavior under space-like conditions answers that question: Ribose happens.


(JOHN TEWELL)

The new study, from a team led by Shogo Tachibana of Hokkaido University, was published in the September 2017 issue of Science Advances. It presents their findings of what happens to ammonia/methanol ice when subjected to ultraviolet radiation — standing in for starlight — and sub-zero temperatures from ‒263° C to ‒258° C — standing in for space. What they found is a bit weird. Two thermal sweets spots at which the ice behaved unexpectedly:

Below -213° C, the ice was a brittle solid, but at -206°, it began to form bubbles. “We were so surprised when we first saw bubbling of ice at really low temperatures,” Tachibana tells ScienceNews. “It is like bubbling in champagne.”

The ice bubbles popping. (TACHIBANA, ET AL)

The researchers saw spikes in hydrogen readings as they irradiated the ice, suggesting the bubbles were made of hydrogen split away from the ice’s ammonia and methane molecules by the ultraviolet light to which the ice had been exposed.

Even more surprising, as the temperature was brought up to -185° C, something else happened: The bubbly ice semi-liquified, becoming oozy like frozen honey. This persisted up to -161° C, at which point it solidified again. The bubbles nonetheless persisted up to -123° C, at which point the ice turned crystalline. Seeing space-ice ice in this liquid-like state supports the possibility of chemical interactions occurring within in it.

(SHAWN DALL)

Cornelia Meinert was one of the authors of the earlier research that found ribose, and she sees the new study as evidence for what her team found, telling Science News that it strengthens her conclusion because “at this very low temperature, the small precursor molecules can actually react with each other. This is supporting the idea that all these organic molecules can form in the ice, and might also be present in comets.”

It may just be that life on earth began, in a sense, on chunks of ice spinning across the galaxies.

Related Articles

Are people with more self-discipline happier?

Why self-control makes your life better, and how to get more of it.

Buddhist monks of all nations mediate in Thailand. Monks are well known for their self-discipline and restrictive lifestyle. Is it possible that this leads them to happiness?
(Photo by Geem Drake/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Research demonstrates that people with higher levels of self-control are happier over both the short and long run.
  • Higher levels of self-control are correlated with educational, occupational, and social success.
  • It was found that the people with the greatest levels of self-control avoid temptation rather than resist it at every turn.
Keep reading Show less

Quantum computing is on the way

Ready your Schrödinger's Cat Jokes.

Quantum entanglement. Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles or events (left and right) interacting at a distance. Quantum entanglement is one of the consequences of quantum theory. Two particles will appear to be linked across space and time, with changes to one of the particles (such as an observation or measurement) affecting the other one. This instantaneous effect appears to be independent of both space and time, meaning that, in the quantum realm, effect may precede cause.
Technology & Innovation
  • For a time, quantum computing was more theory than fact.
  • That's starting to change.
  • New quantum computer designs look like they might be scalable.

Quantum computing has existed in theory since the 1980's. It's slowly making its way into fact, the latest of which can be seen in a paper published in Nature called, "Deterministic teleportation of a quantum gate between two logical qubits."

To ensure that we're all familiar with a few basic terms: in electronics, a 'logic gate' is something that takes in one or more than one binary inputs and produces a single binary output. To put it in reductive terms: if you produce information that goes into a chip in your computer as a '0,' the logic gate is what sends it out the other side as a '1.'

A quantum gate means that the '1' in question here can — roughly speaking — go back through the gate and become a '0' once again. But that's not quite the whole of it.

A qubit is a single unit of quantum information. To continue with our simple analogy: you don't have to think about computers producing a string of information that is either a zero or a one. A quantum computer can do both, simultaneously. But that can only happen if you build a functional quantum gate.

That's why the results of the study from the folks at The Yale Quantum Institute saying that they were able to create a quantum gate with a "process fidelity" of 79% is so striking. It could very well spell the beginning of the pathway towards realistic quantum computing.

The team went about doing this through using a superconducting microwave cavity to create a data qubit — that is, they used a device that operates a bit like a organ pipe or a music box but for microwave frequencies. They paired that data qubit with a transmon — that is, a superconducting qubit that isn't as sensitive to quantum noise as it otherwise could be, which is a good thing, because noise can destroy information stored in a quantum state. The two are then connected through a process called a 'quantum bus.'



That process translates into a quantum property being able to be sent from one location to the other without any interaction between the two through something called a teleported CNOT gate, which is the 'official' name for a quantum gate. Single qubits made the leap from one side of the gate to the other with a high degree of accuracy.

Above: encoded qubits and 'CNOT Truth table,' i.e., the read-out.

The team then entangled these bits of information as a way of further proving that they were literally transporting the qubit from one place to somewhere else. They then analyzed the space between the quantum points to determine that something that doesn't follow the classical definition of physics occurred.


They conclude by noting that "... the teleported gate … uses relatively modest elements, all of which are part of the standard toolbox for quantum computation in general. Therefore ... progress to improve any of the elements will directly increase gate performance."

In other words: they did something simple and did it well. And that the only forward here is up. And down. At the same time.

Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
Mind & Brain
  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
Keep reading Show less