Six physics stories you may have missed in 2015

The biggest physics news stories of last year seemed to be the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, sending back the iconic photo of the dwarf planet complete with its own heart on its surface, and, for the UK, Tim Peake being launched into space to join the International Space Station.

However there were many physics news stories that passed by rather serenely through the pages of just a few national media outlets, and are certainly worth keeping an eye on in the coming year for further developments.

1. CERN may have found a particle 700 times the mass of a proton

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (photo: CERN)

This news was released on the same day Tim Peake was sent into space, so little else was being discussed in mainstream news that day. Outside of the UK, the ATLAS and CMS teams based at CERN presented their end of year seminars, and discussed a collision that produced 13 TeV of energy, a result that also lies outside of the expected spectrum of those energies produced in accordance to the ordinary Standard Model process.

This could be indicative of a new, incredibly heavy particle that decays instantly into light, so although the story is far from over, it was one that deserved a bit more excitement and attention from outside of those already interested in particle physics.

It is certainly one to watch for the future.

2. Akatsuki, the Japanese spacecraft, has finally reached Venus after five year detour

Artist’s impression of the Venus Climate Orbiter (aka. “Akatsuki”) by Akihiro Ikeshita (photo: JAXA)

Akatsuki, an unmanned spacecraft launched by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) finally reached Venus, five years later than previously intended. Akatsuki plans to study the atmosphere and seismic activity of Venus, and could confirm if the planet plays host to any active volcanos.

The spacecraft only took seven months to reach Venus back in 2010. However, once it reached the planet, its thrusters failed to ignite long enough to place Akatsuki into orbit. The craft has had to wait for the chance to approach Venus again as it orbited the Sun, but was finally captured by the planet back in December of last year.

The probe is now in a stable orbit and plans to start collecting data in April. With a camera on board, expect to see some stunning images of the second planet from the Sun sent back to Earth soon.

3. The row over a Hawaii telescope

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An artist’s impression of the finished TMT (photo: courtesy TMT International Observatory)

Debate still rages over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the tallest mountain in Hawaii, Mauna Kea. The proposed TMT will boast a primary mirror 30m wide and be the strongest astronomical instrument on the mountain that already plays host to 13 others – a location favoured for astronomical research because of its high altitude and favourable environmental conditions.

The TMT has been mired in controversy following protests by locals to the area, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs withdrawing its support for the telescope in May. In December, Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled that the construction permit for the telescope was invalid, halting construction further as the telescope’s backers now need to go through the permit application process again.

4. What is actually on the surface of Pluto and its moon, Charon?

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Charon in Enhanced Colour, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft (photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The world was enraptured by what seemed to be a heart shape on Pluto’s surface, captured in photos sent back to Earth from NASA’s New Horizon mission back in July. Since then, researchers have been studying the images and found that the surface of the dwarf planet is an intricate patchwork of landscapes, including a crust of frozen water.

Images taken from the mission also include the surface of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, which images show is just as diverse as that of Pluto itself. Charon also boasts mountains, craters and plains, all suggesting the moon has its own geological activity.

Only six days into 2016, NASA released even more detailed photos of the surface of the dwarf planet’s icy plains, and with the New Horizons spacecraft still sending images back to Earth, we should expect more to surface as the year progresses.

5. The LIGO began the hunt for gravitational waves

Inside the LIGO Hanford Control Room

In September of the this year the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, began the hunt to detect gravitational waves, ripples in the curvature of spacetime that were first predicted in Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The Advanced LIGO, part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and a joint project involving two separate telescopes in Louisiana and Washington, is looking to finally detect the waves, which would allow for a whole new way of understanding the universe.

The LIGO was temporarily shut down until February of this year whilst upgrades were put in place to increase the sensitivity of the equipment. In September, LIGO began its new search for the elusive waves, and its sensitivity for the waves will continue to increase through to 2021, increasing the chances of detecting the waves as they do so.

6. Physicists break records in quantum teleportation

PhysicsWorld 2915 Breakthrough of the Year winners Chaoyang Lu (left) and Jian-Wei Pan in their lab, where they carried out their double quantum-teleportation protocol. (photo: University of Science and Technology of China)

Heralded as the Breakthrough of the Year by Physics World, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei have managed to push the boundaries of quantum teleportation.

The researchers managed to teleport two quantum properties of a photon from one to another some distance away, and with previous work only managing to teleport just one property. This breakthrough represents a significant milestone in the ongoing development of teleportation, so is definitely something to follow into 2016.

  • What do you think of our list? Which physics stories do you think deserved more media attention in 2015? Let us know in the comments down below.
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Philippa Skett

Philippa Skett

Media Officer at Institute of Physics
Philippa was the IOP's media officer
Philippa Skett

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