We Are Witnessing the Return of Supersonic Travel

The potential return of supersonic travel has been a hot topic lately, thanks in no small part to the Denver-based startup Boom Supersonic. Now, the program is getting another boost in the form of an investment by Japan Airlines. JAL announced on Tuesday that it’s investing at least $ 10 million in the startup, which hopes to return supersonic speed to the commercial market. Boom is expected to be faster, more affordable to fly and quieter than its predecessor, the Concorde.

As part of JAL’s investment in Boom, the Tokyo-based carrier now has the option to purchase up to 20 Boom aircraft. The airline will also help Boom by providing its experience and knowledge to help design the aircraft and establish what the passenger experience will look like.

According to Boom founder and CEO Blake Scholl, the two companies have been working together for more than a year. Tuesday’s announcement formalizes the relationship. JAL is the first commercial airline to go public with its funding in Boom. However, the supersonic company, which plans to launch commercial service by the mid-2020s, already has orders for 76 planes, including orders from five global airlines. In addition, the company has received backing from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which has options on the first 10 Boom jets.

When they enter service, Boom’s aircraft are expected to be at least 30x quieter than the Concorde. In addition, the company estimates that its fares would be comparable to business-class fares we’re used to seeing today, and 75% lower than those of the Concorde’s. Among other factors, the Concorde was doomed by its high fuel consumption and high operating costs, components Boom isn’t expecting to have issue with.

The current Boom model is designed to reach speeds of Mach 2.2 while cruising — more than 1,450 miles per hour. In all, the supersonic jet could make the trip between the West Coast of the US and Tokyo in 5.5 hours — less than half of what the trip currently takes. Plus, by 2023, Boom plans to offer lie-flat seats on its supersonic jets.

“We expect to do many deals with many airlines,” Scholl explained to TechCrunch in an email. “Initially, our goal is to select at least one partner in every region of the world. We will continue to engage with other global carriers to maximize the value of JAL’s investment and bring back supersonic commercial travel.”

JAL’s investment isn’t the first time that commercial airlines have ordered or invested in supersonic jets. While Boom has high hopes for what its future will look like in terms of partners, orders and investments from the commercial aviation sector, the Concorde had a similar outlook during its beginning stages. In the 1970s, several airlines places orders for the Concorde before eventually cancelling — TWA, American, Continental, United, JAL and more. Even with this investment, commercial supersonic travel returning to the skies is still a long way off.

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Chicago Climate Charter Signed by Dozens of North American Mayors

A Common Struggle

Mayors across North America are taking action amidst an absence of leadership and responsibility in Washington regarding climate change.

More than 50 mayors from cities and townships participated in the North American Climate Summit in Chicago on Dec. 4-6, whereat they signed the Chicago Climate Charter, an official agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in each of their respective cities. They plan to meet goals comparable to those of the Paris climate accord, the American commitment to which the president vowed to renege.

Former President Barack Obama, who signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 on the behalf of the U.S., voiced his support of the mayors’ actions during a speech at the summit. In it, he noted that rising sea levels, worsening storms and droughts, and steadily climbing global temperatures present irrefutable evidence that climate is changing in our time, and that it’s our fault.

Image credit: Forsaken Fotos
Flooded City Dock in Annapolis, Md. Image credit: Forsaken Fotos / Flickr

“Miami already floods on sunny days,” Obama said, according to reporting from NPR. “Western cities across North [America] are dealing with longer and harsher wildfire seasons. A conveyor belt of some of the strongest hurricanes on record this summer smashed into Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, and more than two months later, they are still struggling to recover.”

He continued; “Obviously, we’re in an unusual time when the United States is now the only nation on Earth that does not belong to the Paris Agreement. And that’s a difficult position to defend. But the good news is that the Paris Agreement was never going to solve climate crisis on its own,” Obama said.

“It was going to be up to all of us.”

Locally-Grown Paris Agreement

To Obama, and leaders nationwide, the current administration’s failure to provide American leadership in combating global climate change has left the work in the hands of local leaders across the nation. The recent summit is an example of how such leaders can band together to make a positive impact on the environment and, ultimately, the future of humanity.

“The North American Climate Summit sends a timely message to leaders around the world that cities are taking strong, swift and measurable action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, ensure their communities are more resilient and transition their local economies to benefit from a low-carbon world,” Global Covenant of Mayors Vice-Chair Christiana Figueres, according to a press release. “Cities and local governments have a critical role to play in stepping up ambition on climate change, and it is very encouraging to see so many coming to the table.”

Paris Climate Agreement
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Mayors from cities in Mexico and Canada joined their American counterparts in taking real steps to reduce carbon emissions.

Leaders of the summit argue that mayors who commit to Chicago Climate Charter are in fact signing a first-of-its-kind implementation of the Paris climate agreement, committing their cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the urban ground that first produced them. The Chicago Climate Charter outlines concrete plans for meeting the carbon emission reduction targets by the year 2025.

“This Charter is a great example of how cities are working together and encouraging one another to aim higher, and it will add momentum to America’s progress fighting climate change,” America’s Pledge Co-Chair Michael R. Bloomberg said, according to the press release.

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A Second Super Earth Spotted 111 Light-Years Away

Super Earth

Resting within the constellation Leo in K2-18, a red dwarf star system roughly 111 light-years away, lies a newly discovered exoplanet. Astronomers call it a Super Earth. Found using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), stumbled upon this planet while exploring an already discovered exoplanet (K2-18b). The findings of this international team of astronomers will be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Supported by the Natural Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets, this research team found a “‘warm’ Super Earth named K2-18c, which has a mass of 7.5 ± 1.3 Earth masses, an orbital period of 9 days, and a semi-major axis roughly 2.4 times smaller than K2-18b,” according to Universe Today

The team had not detected the planet earlier alongside K2-18b because the two exoplanets, while they are within the same system, do not lie on the same orbital plane.

Alien Life

As we discover more and more exoplanets, especially those found to be Earth-like, the question is inevitably raised: “could there be alien life?” But within that question lies another: “what might alien life even look like?”

Recently, scientists discovered bacterial species in Antarctica that survive on air alone. Our understanding of what constitutes life and what life requires to survive is expanding and changing all the time. K2-18c does not lie within what we currently define as the habitable zone, but the possibility for life to exist is still there. According to Ph.D. student Ryan Cloutier, who led the research, “with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) we can probe the atmosphere and see whether it has an extensive atmosphere or it’s a planet covered in water.”

As we continue to learn more about these and other exoplanets, and as we continue to expand our knowledge of what constitutes life, we can get a better idea of what aliens might look like. Some Oxford biologists even suggest that they could look more familiar than we might expect.

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Scientists Have Discovered a New Form of Matter Called “Excitonium”

New Matter

Researchers at the University of Illinois have announced an exciting finding  — the discovery of a new form of matter: excitonium. This material is made up of a kind of boson, a composite particle that could allow the matter to act as a superfluid, superconductor, or even as an insulating electronic crystal.

Physics professor Peter Abbamonte and his team worked together with colleagues at Illinois, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Amsterdam to prove once-and-for-all the existence of this strange and mysterious type of matter that was theorized more than 50 years ago. They described how they detected excitonium in the journal Science.

Excitonium is a condensate made up of excitons, which are what you get when you combine escaped electrons and the “holes” they left. This quirky quantum-mechanical pairing is possible because, in semiconductors, electrons on the edge of one energy level in an atom are able, when excited, to jump into the next energy level, leaving behind a “hole” in the previous level. This hole acts like a positively charged particle, attracting the negatively charged electron that escaped.

To prove the existence of excitons, this team studied crystals doped with dichalcogenide titanium diselenide (1T-TiSe2), a transition metal. They were even able to reproduce their results five separate times.

Quantum Mysteries

Until now, scientists had not had the experimental tools needed to distinguish with certainty whether they were detecting excitonium or another similar phase of matter. Using a novel technique, however, this research team was able to definitively measure, for the first time, the collective excitations of the low-energy bosonic particles, the paired electrons, and the holes, no matter what their momentum might be.

In other words, this was the first-ever observation of a soft plasmon phase that is the precursor to the exciton condensation.

“This result is of cosmic significance,” Abbamonte stated in a press release. “Ever since the term ‘excitonium’ was coined in the 1960s by Harvard theoretical physicist Bert Halperin, physicists have sought to demonstrate its existence. Theorists have debated whether it would be an insulator, a perfect conductor, or a superfluid — with some convincing arguments on all sides. Since the 1970s, many experimentalists have published evidence of the existence of excitonium, but their findings weren’t definitive proof and could equally have been explained by a conventional structural phase transition.”

Super Materials of Tomorrow [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Now that excitonium has been proven to exist and has been concretely observed in experimentation, its properties can be further explored and applied. Most obviously, as a superconductor and superfluid, this material could be used to further existing technologies.

Additionally, since analyzing quantum phenomena is what guides and shapes our understanding of quantum mechanics, this research could help to further de-mystify current quantum puzzles. These applications, especially those in practical technologies, are purely speculative at this point, however. It is impossible to exactly predict what the future might hold for excitonium, but we do know for certain that it has more potential now than it ever has before.

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The Loss of Arctic Sea Ice Cover Could Affect Millions Worldwide

Far from just being bad news for polar bears or vulnerable island chains, melting Arctic sea ice caps can affect areas a long way from the Arctic region, bringing not only higher sea levels, but also severe drought. This may be the case for California, which could see its already extreme lack of water getting worse in the coming decades, according to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, climatologist Ivana Cvijanovic and her team found that shrinking glaciers in the Arctic can modify atmospheric temperatures over the tropical Pacific. In turn, this heat imbalance can push rain-rich clouds away from California towards Alaska and Canada.

“On average, when considering the 20-year mean, we find a 10-15 percent decrease in California’s rainfall. However, some individual years could become much drier, and others wetter,” Cvijanovic said in a press release.

Technological Fixes for Climate Change
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The unprecedented drought that hit the region between 2012 and 2016 was attributed to a Pacific high pressure system known as the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge. “It’s the main reason we’re in a drought,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California. “It’s the persistence of this ridge during the winter months.”

Although the study doesn’t attempt to explain the most recent drought, Cvijanovic said that examining past droughts illustrates what Californians should prepare for in the near future.

The researchers simulated an ice-free Arctic season and compared the model with the sea ice conditions at the end of the twentieth century, showing how the changes reverberated across the planet and diverted rainfall from drought stricken California.

“While more research should be done, we should be aware that an increasing number of studies, including this one, suggest that the loss of Arctic sea ice cover is not only a problem for remote Arctic communities, but could affect millions of people worldwide. Arctic sea ice loss could affect us, right here in California,” said Cvijanovic.

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