“Blacked-out San Juan with lights only showing in buildings that have generators”

Severe power failures in Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean spur new push for renewable energy
by Chris Mooney / September 28

“The ongoing electricity disaster in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria — and on several other Caribbean islands slammed at full force by strong storms — is driving new interest in ways of shifting island power grids toward greater reliance on wind, solar and even, someday, large batteries.

“For the most part, these island grids were completely devastated, and it will be four to six months before most of them can power their islands completely again,” said Chris Burgess, director of projects for the Islands Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Adding more renewables, and moving away from centralized power grids to more so-called “microgrids,” could lower costs and increase resilience in the face of storms, several energy experts said.

“Combination NOAA Satellite images taken at night show Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria: Top, Puerto Rico on July 24, 2014, and bottom, Sept. 24, 2017, after Hurricane Maria knocked out the island’s power grid.”

And island nations, already at the forefront of pushing for action on climate change, have been moving this way for a while. Members states of CARICOM, a consortium of Caribbean nations, already have a goal of reaching 47 percent renewable energy by 2027. The storms now only give greater impetus. “You look at islands like Dominica, Anguilla and the other islands affected by the recent hurricanes, I’ve spoken to a couple of the utilities, and they say they would prefer to rebuild using distributed generation with storage, and just trying to reduce the amount of transmission lines,” said Tom Rogers, a renewable energy expert at Coventry University in Britain who previously was a lecturer in energy at the University of the West Indies in Barbados. “Because that’s where their energy systems fail. It’s having these overhead cables.”

Even in good weather, islands like those in the Caribbean have an energy problem: They’ve tended to burn fossil fuels, such as diesel or heavy fuel oil, to drive centralized power plants. But being an island without its own fossil energy resources makes shipping in the fuel quite expensive — in turn translating into sky-high electricity bills — to say nothing of the environmental costs incurred by burning it.

“A solar and battery-powered microgrid got San Juan’s Children’s Hospital quickly back online after Hurricane Maria”

“They have energy prices which are some of the highest in the world,” Rogers said. “And that has a massive economic impact, especially as a lot of these islands’ economic dependence is on tourism, which introduces a high energy demand for their hotels, in particular from air conditioning loads.” And then when a storm comes through, the power lines stretching across the island lead to grid vulnerability.

“Solar generators like this one are being shipped to community centers in Puerto Rico by a group of islanders in the mainland United States.”

A different model would be to rely on wind, solar and batteries to store the electricity — with fossil-fuel backup ready to go when needed — and to set up small grids powered by renewables that link to a main grid but that also can be “islanded” from it and do not necessarily go down at the same time. Wind is very predictable in the Caribbean because of the trade winds, and being located in the tropics makes for a very efficient use of solar panels, Rogers pointed out.

“Sunrun brought over smaller solar panels with batteries to power water desalination tanks, left. Firefighters and Sunrun employees install panels on the roof of the Barrio Obrero fire station in San Juan to set up a microgrid to keep the lights and communications equipment running.”

“A PV [photovoltaic] system installed in the tropics will generate over one and a half times more than exactly the same PV system installed in the higher latitudes, say in Washington or Europe,” he said. However, at least until battery storage becomes more widely affordable, islanded grids could not solely be powered by the sun, which is only out during the day. They would instead need to alternate solar with some continuing use fossil fuels to ensure a continual electricity supply. Still, adding renewables would lessen dependence on burning a fuel that has to be continually replaced — which in turn means that it must be continually shipped to the island.

Some lessons here can actually be learned from Alaska. While not an island, it contains many remote communities, and so has been a testing ground for the deployment of hundreds of microgrids — smaller grids that can connect to a larger grid but also can operate independently of one — and for beginning to switch these villages from a strict reliance on burning shipped-in diesel fuel to more renewable resources.

“A coffee shop during a power outage in San Juan, Puerto Rico”

“When we are facing the sort of infrastructure destruction we have seen this hurricane season, it only makes sense to give some pause before reinvesting in the exact same system that proved to vulnerable,” Gwen Holdmann, who directs the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said by email. Referring to Puerto Rico, she continued, “If the system were redesigned around microgrids incorporating local power production, there would still be losses, but the number and duration of outages due to severe weather events would decrease.”

However, the Trump administration may have other plans, at least as far as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands go. For instance, Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently tossed out the idea of the potential for small modular nuclear reactors to be used in situations like the current disaster. “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 [military cargo] aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in?” Perry said recently, according to Bloomberg BNA.

And not all analyses of island energy changes focus solely on renewables. A recent report by the energy analytics firm GTM Research found that for islands, the most economical solution right now would actually be swapping in liquefied natural gas for diesel or heavy fuel oil at power plants. But before long, the report said, a combination of liquefied natural gas and solar would be the economic winner.

“Ta’u, an island in American Samoa, runs nearly 100% on renewable energy using Tesla technology”

Finally, once battery costs fall far enough, solar combined with energy storage would make the most sense — but the firm doesn’t expect that to happen until the late 2020s. “The potential market for displacing oil with new sources of power supply is very large,” said the report by Tom Heggarty, a senior analyst at GTM Research. “We estimate that there are around 3,600 islands around the world where oil products currently provide a large proportion of power supply.”

Some islands are already shifting — Jamaica has plans to convert diesel plants to natural gas, and the Hawaiian island of Kauai hosts combined solar and battery storage. “In Kauai, they actually produce about 90 percent of the island’s power during the midday peak just from solar and battery,” said Burgess.

“An Outback Power inverter, left, and battery storage, right, installed at fire station unit 60 in Barrio Obrero in San Juan to store solar power.”

Operating a centralized power plant with natural gas, rather than diesel or heavy fuel oil, would save costs but would not necessarily increase resilience when hurricanes strike. You would still have a central plant, distribution stations and a large number of transmission lines to get electricity out across the island.

This is where the idea of combining renewables with microgrids comes in. Microgrids naturally pair with renewables because you can generate electricity at, say, a number of rooftop and community solar installations and then build a local grid based around these resources, often backed by some fossil-fuel-powered generation as well.

Individual components of the grid may or may not fare well in a storm, but its fate would not affect other microgrids or the central grid. “A microgrid’s multiple generation sources and ability to isolate itself from the larger network during an outage on the central grid ensures highly reliable power,” a recent report from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association found.

“A damaged solar panel plant is seen in Humacao, eastern Puerto Rico”

It isn’t, to be sure, that solar panels are somehow especially resistant to the damage from hurricanes — images from Puerto Rico, for instance, show damaged panels at one major array, the Humacao solar project. However, if some panels go down, that doesn’t mean the others won’t work any longer, Burgess noted. “It’s like New Age Christmas lights: You lose a bulb here and there, but you don’t lose all of them.” In the future, “we’re going to see microgrids within the islands, but also the large generation being augmented, if not solely replaced, by renewables,” said Burgess.”




The Plasma Universe of Hannes Alfvén
by David Talbott / October 23, 2011

“In the 20th century no scientist added more to our knowledge of electromagnetism in space than Hannes Alfvén (1908–1995). His insights changed the picture of the universe, revealing the profound effects of charged particle movement at all scales of observation. But recognition never came quickly, and never easily, and mainstream journals typically regarded Alfvén as an outsider, often rejecting his submissions. In retrospect, Alfvén’s difficulties in gaining acceptance can only highlight the inertia of institutionalized ideas in the sciences, reminding us of the obstacles faced by all of history’s great scientific innovators.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his contribution to physics, Alfvén emerged as a towering critic of directions in astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics. Though he was surely not correct on everything he proposed, decades of space exploration eventually confirmed a lifetime of observations and hypotheses, often with implications that many space scientists did not want to hear. “In the world of specialized science,” wrote plasma scientist Anthony Peratt, “Alfvén was an enigma. Regarded as a heretic by many physicists, Alfvén made contributions to physics that today are being applied in the development of particle beam accelerators, controlled thermonuclear fusion, hypersonic flight, rocket propulsion, and the braking of reentering space vehicles.”1

But Alfvén’s impact reached far beyond new technologies. He devoted much of his life to the study of plasma, a highly conductive, elementary form of matter characterized by the presence of freely moving charged particles, not just electrically neutral atoms. Normal gases become plasma through heating and partial ionization as some percentage of the atoms give up one or more of their constituent electrons. Often called “the fourth state of matter” after solids, liquids, and gases, plasma is now known to constitute well over 99 percent of the observed universe.

Alfven is the acknowledged father of “plasma cosmology,” a new way of seeing formative processes in the heavens. Proponents of plasma cosmology suggest that vast but invisible electric currents play a fundamental role in organizing cosmic structure, from galaxies and galactic clusters down to stars and planets. The Big Bang hypothesis, black holes, dark matter, and dark energy are only a few of today’s popular cosmological themes disputed by scientists working with this new perspective. Many central tenets of plasma cosmology emerged from laboratory experiments with plasma and electric discharge, and it was Alfvén himself who showed that plasma behavior in the laboratory can be scaled up to galactic dimensions: vast regions of plasma in space behave similarly to plasma on earth.

Underscoring the enormity of ignoring cosmic electromagnetic effects in cosmology is the fact that the electric force between charged particles is some 39 orders of magnitude (a thousand trillion trillion trillion) times stronger than the gravitational force.

In comparative terms, gravity is incomprehensibly weak; a hand-held magnet will raise a small metallic sphere against the entire gravity of the Earth. Alfvén’s documentation of laboratory plasma experiments eventually made it impossible to ignore the role of electricity in space. He explained the auroras based on the work of his predecessor Kristian Birkeland; correctly described the Van Allen radiation belts; identified previously unrecognized electromagnetic attributes of Earth’s magnetosphere; explained the structure of comet tails; and much more.

Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén was born on May 30th, 1908, in Norrköping, Sweden. Astrophysicist Carl-Gunne Fälthammar, perhaps Alfvén closest colleague, notes two childhood experiences influencing the pioneer’s intellectual development and eventually his scientific career.2 One was a book on popular astronomy by Camille Flammarion, sparking a lifelong fascination with astronomy and astrophysics. The other was his active role in a school radio club, a role that included building radio receivers. His natural facility for electronics can be seen at an early age and continued through his formal education. “…As a scientist,” writes Fälthammar, “Hannes was inclined to look at astrophysical problems from an electromagnetic point of view, and this turned out to be very fruitful.”

While a graduate student Alfvén wrote a paper interpreting the source of cosmic rays. He submitted the article to the distinguished scientific journal Nature, which published it in 1933. In this first peer-reviewed article by Alfvén, one sees his early confidence in laboratory experiments as pointers to events in space. Alfvén received his PhD in theoretical and experimental physics from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 1934. Early highlights of his academic career, beginning the year of his PhD, include teaching physics at the University of Uppsala and at Sweden’s Nobel Institute for Physics. He later served as professor of electromagnetic theory and electrical measurements at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. For many years he served as Chair of Electronics, a title changed to “Chair of Plasma Physics” in 1963. He also spent time in the Soviet Union before moving to the United States, where he worked in the departments of electrical engineering at both the University of California,

In 1937 Alfvén observed that the charged particles of a rarified plasma appear to pervade interstellar and intergalactic space. And he suggested that these particle motions were responsible for the detected magnetic fields. A few years later, in the early 1940s, Alfvén proposed that the Sun and planets emerged from a cloud of ionized gas and that, in such processes, “electromagnetic forces have been more important than mechanical forces.” The latter claim, together with other emphases on electric currents, would place Alfvén’s work in direct conflict with a cardinal tenet of astronomy at the beginning of the space age—the assumption that only gravity can perform “real work” across interstellar or intergalactic distances.

Alfvén’s interest in magnetic fields laid the foundations of today’s magnetohydrodynamic theory, a theory widely employed by astrophysicists. In the original formulations of the theory, Alfvén spoke of magnetic fields being “frozen” into neutral plasma, and the magnetohydrodynamic equations he formulated implied that the electric currents that create magnetic fields could be effectively ignored. Hence, the plasma activity on the Sun and in more remote space could be analyzed without reference to any larger domain of electric currents or electric circuits. To this notion astronomers were readily attracted, and for a time they thought they had an ally in the brilliant electrical engineer. Although his “fundamental work and discoveries in magnetohydrodynamics” led to his Nobel Prize in 1970, the background to this occasion is paradoxical.

Through much of the 19th and 20th century, most astronomers and cosmologists had assumed the “vacuum” of space would not permit electric currents. Later, when it was discovered that all of space is a sea of electrically conductive plasma, the theorists reversed their position, asserting that any charge separation would be immediately neutralized. Here they found what they were looking for in Alfvén’s frozen-in magnetic fields and in his magnetohydrodynamic equations. Electric currents could then be viewed as strictly localized and temporary phenomena—needed just long enough to create a magnetic field, to magnetize plasma, a virtually “perfect” conductor.

The underlying idea was that space could have been magnetized in primordial times or in early stages of stellar and galactic evolution, all under the control of higher-order kinetics and gravitational dynamics. All large scale events in space could still be explained in terms of disconnected islands, and it would only be necessary to look inside the “islands” to discover localized electromagnetic events—no larger electric currents or circuitry required. In this view, popularly held today, we live in a “magnetic universe” (the title of several recent books and articles), but not an electric universe. The point was stated bluntly by the eminent solar physicist Eugene Parker, “…No significant electric field can arise in the frame of reference of the moving plasma.”3

But the critical turn in this story, the part almost never told within the community of astronomers and astrophysicists, is that Alfvén came to realize he had been mistaken. Ironically—and to his credit—Alfvén used the occasion of his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize to plead with scientists to ignore his earlier work. Magnetic fields, he said, are only part of the story. The electric currents that create magnetic fields must not be overlooked, and attempts to model space plasma in the absence of electric currents will set astronomy and astrophysics on a course toward crisis, he said.

In accord with Alvén’s observations, American physicist, professor Alex Dessler, former editor of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, notes that he himself had originally fallen in with an academic crowd that believed electric fields could not exist in the highly conducting plasma of space. “My degree of shock and surprise in finding Alfvén right and his critics wrong can hardly be described.”4

In retrospect, it seems clear that Alfvén considered his early theoretical assumption of frozen-in magnetic fields to be his greatest mistake, a mistake perpetuated first and foremost by mathematicians attracted to Alfvén’s magnetohydrodynamic equations. Alfvén came to recognize that real plasma behavior is too “complicated and awkward” for the tastes of mathematicians. It is a subject “not at all suited for mathematically elegant theories.” It requires hands-on attention to plasma dynamics in the laboratory. Sadly, he said, the plasma universe became “the playground of theoreticians who have never seen a plasma in a laboratory. Many of them still believe in formulae which we know from laboratory experiments to be wrong.”

Again and again Alfvén reiterated the point: the underlying assumptions of cosmologists today “are developed with the most sophisticated mathematical methods and it is only the plasma itself which does not ‘understand’ how beautiful the theories are and absolutely refuses to obey them.”

The fundamental truth discerned by Alfvén, but ignored by proponents of his “magnetohydrodynamic” model, is that plasma in space cannot have a magnetic field permanently “frozen” in to it. In space plasma environments, electric currents are required to create and sustain magnetic fields. “In order to understand the phenomena in a certain plasma region, it is necessary to map not only the magnetic but also the electric field and the electric currents. Space is filled with a network of currents that transfer energy and momentum over large or very large distances. The currents often pinch to filamentary or surface currents. The latter are likely to give space, interstellar and intergalactic space included, a cellular structure.”5

Of course when Alfvén discussed these issues, electric currents and cellular plasma configurations in space were simply off the grid of theoretical astrophysics: “…Space in general has a ‘cellular structure,’” he wrote, observing that the cellular walls are not visible and could only be measured by sending a space probe through those inaccessible regions. Based on his own laboratory research and backed by the work of Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir and others, he noted that the plasma cell boundaries, called “double layers,” tend to insulate the regions inside these cells from the regions outside.

Plasma experiments show that strong electric fields can be present across the walls of these cellular sheaths (double layers), and the presence of the these fields is essential to understanding plasma behavior. To ignore this cellular structure in the cosmos, Alfvén observed, is to assume that deep space plasmas “have properties which are drastically different from what they are in our own neighborhood. This is obviously far more unpleasant than our inability to detect distant ‘cell walls.’ Hence, a thorough revision of our concept of the properties of interstellar (and intergalactic) space is an inevitable consequence of recent magnetospheric discoveries.”6

Even before the space age, Alfvén had come to realize that, for stars, the electrical circuitry will show up in equatorial current sheets and polar current streams. Based on laboratory plasma experiments, Alfvén noted that electromagnetic energy could be stored in a star’s equatorial ring until a critical juncture when that energy switched to a polar discharge. The resulting jet would be energized by a particle-accelerating double layer: the gravity of a star would then give way to the incomparably more powerful electric force, accelerating matter away from the star.

And now, thanks to more powerful telescopes, we see exactly what Alfvén envisioned. One noteworthy form is the Herbig Harro (HH) object; such objects are now counted in the hundreds and observed in sufficient detail to invalidate all early, non-electric theories of such formations. The unsolved mysteries confronting mainstream astronomy were popularized in the “Astronomy Picture of the Day” (APOD) on Feb 3, 2006. The caption identified this stellar jet as a “cosmic tornado” light-years in length, with gases moving at 100-kilometers per second.

Of course, gravitational models featured in twentieth century astronomy never envisioned narrow jets of anything streaming away from stellar bodies. Neither gravity nor standard gas laws would allow it. The Hubble Space Telescope website compares the whirling, pulsating, and oscillating jets to the effects of lawn sprinkler nozzle: “Material either at or near the star is heated and blasted into space, where it travels for billions of miles before colliding with interstellar material.”7 Does a star have the ability to create collimated, high energy jets across billions of miles by merely “heating” material in its vicinity? The matter in the jet is hot and it is moving through a vacuum. If one is to use an analogy with water, the better example would be a super-heated steam hose. But it will not form a jet of steam for more than a few feet before the steam disperses explosively.

The Hubble page poses two additional questions: “What causes a jet’s beaded structure?” and “Why are jets ‘kinky?” Ironically, the questions point directly to two of the most prominent features of electric discharge in plasma—“beading” and “kink instabilities.” Both occur not just in laboratory discharge experiments but in everyday lightning on earth.

Herbig Haro objects do not just defy all traditional astrophysics; they explicitly confirm Alfvén’s vision of the polar discharging of stars. Axial currents, confined by a currentinduced, toroidal magnetic field, flow along the entire length of the jet, in precise accord with Alvén’s expectations. Only an electric field can accelerate charged particles across interstellar space. There is no canon-like explosion, and there is no “nozzle” on one end. The jet is defining astrophysical objects in fundamentally new terms, confirming Alfvén’s suspicions more than 60 years ago, that interstellar space is alive with electric currents.

Alfvén’s view of space was radically different from that of mainstream astronomy before the electromagnetic spectrum became a door to discovery in space. In the first years of the space age astronomers were generally satisfied with seeing objects in visible light alone. Earth’s upper atmosphere shielded the surface of our planet from most emissions at the higher end of the spectrum, and there was little reason to expect a broader spectrum of electromagnetic emissions from space. That all began to change in the 1930s, when an engineer named Karl Jansky accidently discovered the existence of radio waves from space. The eventual interest in space telescopes detecting ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray wavelengths came largely through incremental surprises such as Jansky’s.

The intense electromagnetic activity across the cosmos requires a vast complex of electric fields and electrical circuitry, just as Alfvén confidently predicted decades before the new telescopes were launched into space. Prior to the launch of the X-ray telescope Uhuru in 1970, for example, astronomers knew of only two X-ray sources in the heavens—Scorpius X-1 and the Crab Nebula. But the Chandra and XMM-Newton X-ray telescopes, more recently launched into space, began to reveal X-ray activity in virtually every corner of the universe, even in the deepest vacuum between galaxies. X-rays require an acceleration of charged particles up to speeds far beyond the capabilities of thermal expansion or gravitational acceleration. So it’s understandable that most astronomers did not anticipate an X-ray universe. Of course, we routinely employ electric fields today to produce X-rays, and if Hannes Alfvén had lived to see the recent results, he would have not been surprised at all.

Then at the upper limit of the electromagnetic spectrum, just above X-rays, lie the wavelengths of Gamma-rays. The name for a full complex of electromagnetic emissions—including Gamma-rays—is “Synchrotron radiation,” a radically new phrase in the astronomer’s lexicon. Such radiation is produced by electrons moving at close to the speed of light while spiraling along magnetic fields. Magnetic fields require electric currents—of this fact no reasonable dispute is possible. Ironically, it was in 1950, well prior to the space age, that Hannes Alfvén predicted synchrotron radiation in space, based on an electrical interpretation of galactic activity. Astronomers could not imagine such a thing at the time. But in 1987, astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge detected synchrotron radiation emitted by a spectacular jet along the axis of a galaxy called M87. And the fact that these frequencies have now been detected abundantly in space is perhaps the greatest surprise of all.

As every electrical engineer knows, charged particle acceleration is routinely achieved by electric fields. The ubiquitous synchrotron radiation from space simply confirms that the isolated islands envisioned by traditional astrophysics do not exist. But the specialized training of astronomers had suggested no need for electricity. As a result, the discovery of intensely energetic events in space have provoked exotic and untestable amendments to traditional theory—from “black holes” to “dark matter” and “neutron stars”—all based on phenomena unknown in our practical world and disconnected from any verifiable behavior of nature.

Though the history and practice of science is often cluttered with dismissals of scientific “outsiders” and obstructive allegiance to dogma, it can at least be said that in the last 40 years astronomers have grudgingly come to accept an entirely different view of the universe from the one they started with. And for this, no one deserves more credit than the cosmic electrician, Hannes Alfvén.

1. Anthony L. Peratt, “Dean of the Plasma Dissidents,” The World & I, May 1988, pp. 190-197.
2. Comments made in a Hannes Alfvén “birth centennial celebration” pictorial tribute: Alfven100.html
3. Eugene Newman Parker, Conversations on Electric and Magnetic Fields in the Cosmos (Prineceton, 2007), p.1.
4. Quoted in Anthony L. Peratt, “Dean of the Plasma Dissidents,” Washington Times, supplement: The World & I (May 1988), p. 195
5. Alfvén, H., Nobel lecture 1970, emphasis ours.
6. Alfvén, H., Cosmic Plasma, Chapter II: “Electric Currents in Space Plasmas.”
7. “Hubble Observes the Fire and Fury of a Stellar Birth,” NASA News Release, June 6, 1995: newscenter/archive/releases/star/1995/24/background/ results/50/


“Researchers capture first ‘image’ of a dark matter web that connects galaxies. Dark matter filaments bridge the space between galaxies in this false colour map. The locations of bright galaxies are shown by the white regions and the presence of a dark matter filament bridging the galaxies is shown in red.”

Flecks of Extraterrestrial Dust, All Over the Roof
by William J. Broad  /  March 10, 2017

“His book, “In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters,” due out in August, details the secret of his extraordinarily successful hunts. Its 150 pages and 1,500 photomicrographs, or photos taken through a microscope, tell how Mr. Larsen taught himself to distinguish cosmic dust from the minuscule contaminants that arise from roads, shingles, factories, roof tiles, construction sites, home insulation and holiday fireworks. As his book puts it, “To pick out one extraterrestrial particle among billions of others requires knowledge both about what to look for and what to disregard.”

The diminutive flecks to which Mr. Larsen, 58, has devoted himself represent the smallest parts of a cosmic downpour that has lashed the Earth for billions of years. Careful observers of the night sky are familiar with shooting stars — speeding bits of extraterrestrial rock that plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere, often burning up completely. The biggest can strike the ground, some forcefully enough to dig craters. In 2013, a relatively small rock exploded over the Russian city Chelyabinsk, releasing a shock wave that injured hundreds of people, mainly as windows shattered into flying glass.

But all that represents a tiny fraction of the downpour. Scientists say most of the cosmic material is remarkably small — barely the width of a human hair. Known as micrometeorites, they rain down on the planet more or less continuously but have proved remarkably hard to find. Some bits are so small and lightweight that they drift down to the Earth’s surface without melting. The dust consists of tiny remnants from the solar system’s birth, including debris from comets and from ages of smashups among planets and the big rocks known as asteroids. While most of the particles are interplanetary in nature, some contain grains of matter from outside the solar system, or true stardust. Their diversity makes them excellent windows on the cosmos.

These examples of space dust found on Earth are collected in a new book, “In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters,” and were found on buildings, parking lots, sidewalks and park benches.”

Scientists have found micrometeorites mainly in the Antarctic, remote deserts and other places far from civilization’s haze. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, investigators tried to find them in urban areas but eventually gave up because of the riot of human contaminants. Significantly, it turns out that specialists trying to establish the cosmic origins of the tiny specks have tended to examine their chemical signatures rather than their overall appearance. That left a large opening for Mr. Larsen. Matthew J. Genge, one of the Geology paper’s four authors and a senior lecturer in earth and planetary science at Imperial College, London, used an electron microprobe at the Natural History Museum in London to determine the chemical makeup of Mr. Larsen’s finds and confirm their cosmic origin.

In an interview, he said that, over all, the grains that survive the atmospheric plunge and land on the Earth’s surface add up to more than 4,000 tons annually, or more than 10 tons a day. “He’s done a valuable thing in classifying the contaminants,” Dr. Genge said of Mr. Larsen’s work. “It has wide-reaching implications.” Donald E. Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington who helped establish the field, called Mr. Larsen a true citizen scientist whose work will aid the global hunt for the tiny specks. “Your car is covered with cosmic dust,” Dr. Brownlee said. “We inhale this stuff. We eat it every time we eat lettuce. But normally, it’s incredibly difficult to find.”

“Jon Larsen looking for micrometeorites on a roof. He was an enthusiastic rock collector as a child in Norway but became a professional musician. His quest for space dust began in 2009.”

Mr. Larsen came to what he calls Project Stardust as a jazz guitarist in Norway, perhaps known best as the founder of Hot Club de Norvège, a string quartet. His group helped spur the global revival of gypsy jazz. As Mr. Larsen tells the story, he was an enthusiastic rock collector as a child but did so well as a musician that he set aside his early scientific ambitions. Then, in 2009, at a country house outside Oslo, he was cleaning an outdoor table when a bright speck caught his eye. “It was blinking in the sunlight,” he recalled. He touched the fleck. “It was angular in some way, kind of metallic but so small — a tiny dot.”

Intrigued, Mr. Larsen suspected it was a cosmic visitor and began to look for more. He collected dust samples from Oslo and cities around the globe, moonlighting as a scientist while vacationing or touring with his jazz group. He took samples from roads, roofs, parking lots and industrial areas Put indelicately, he collected hundreds of pounds of dreck — sludge from drains, gutters and downspouts, the dregs of civilization that most people try to avoid. “Still, I didn’t find a single micrometeorite,” he recalled. “It was very frustrating.”

Mr. Larsen then changed tactics. Rather than looking exclusively for cosmic dust, he taught himself how to classify the dozens of different kinds of earthly contaminants, starting a process of elimination that slowly narrowed the candidates and raised the chances that some tiny fraction of the urban debris might turn out to belong to the cosmos. The breakthrough came two years ago. In London, Dr. Genge studied one of the gathered particles — from Norway, not Timbuktu — and confirmed that it was indeed a traveler from outer space. Mr. Larsen quickly identified hundreds more. “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere,” he said.

In the Geology paper, the scientific team reports the discovery of about 500 micrometeorites — collected mainly from roof gutters in Norway — and tells of the detailed analysis of 48 of the extraterrestrial specks. The team includes two of Dr. Genge’s students, Martin D. Suttle of Imperial College and Matthias Van Ginneken of the Université Libre in Brussels. The team described the cosmic dust as the youngest collected to date, because gutters tend to get cleaned fairly regularly. Also, urban surfaces are recent arrivals in the global landscape compared to polar ice and ancient deserts.

“Varieties of space dust, barely the width of a human hair. These photomicrographs were made with a special camera setup that magnifies the dust grains nearly 3,000 times”

In his travels, Mr. Larsen recently visited with Michael E. Zolensky, an extraterrestrial materials scientist in Houston at the Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They not only talked shop but also went up to the roof of the large building that houses rocks from the Apollo moon program. “It was pretty cool,” Dr. Zolensky said. “The curation building is now a collector of cosmic dust.”

In an interview, Mr. Larsen described his method — sorting through the contaminants in a process of elimination — as “something that anybody can do. It could and should become part of teachings in schools, an aspect of citizen science.” Dr. Brownlee of the University of Washington agreed. He said that, while many schools try to find cosmic dust particles in programs meant to make science classes more inviting and accessible, few if any succeed. “It could help a lot,” he said of Mr. Larsen’s method. “For education, it’s pretty cool.” Dr. Genge of Imperial College said Mr. Larsen’s techniques, if adopted widely, might also open a new lens on the cosmos.

The gravitational pull of the planets, he noted, appear to tug on the dust clouds of the solar system and slowly change their orbits. He said a wave of new terrestrial finds could help scientists better map the clouds, raising more questions for science about the structure of the universe. “I consider my microscope a telescope,” Dr. Genge said. “It can give you a pretty big picture.”

Yale-led team puts dark matter on the map
“A 3-D visualization of reconstructed dark matter clump distributions in a distant galaxy cluster, obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields data. The unseen matter in this map is comprised of a smooth heap of dark matter on which clumps form.”

Team puts dark matter on the map  /  March 1, 2017

“A Yale-led team has produced one of the highest-resolution maps of dark matter ever created, offering a detailed case for the existence of cold dark matter—sluggish particles that comprise the bulk of matter in the universe. The dark matter map is derived from Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields data of a trio of galaxy clusters that act as cosmic magnifying glasses to peer into older, more distant parts of the universe, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan led an international team of researchers that analyzed the Hubble images. “With the data of these three lensing clusters we have successfully mapped the granularity of dark matter within the clusters in exquisite detail,” Natarajan said. “We have mapped all of the clumps of dark matter that the data permit us to detect, and have produced the most detailed topological map of the dark matter landscape to date.” Scientists believe dark matter—theorized, unseen particles that neither reflect nor absorb light, but are able to exert gravity—may comprise 80% of the matter in the universe. Dark matter may explain the very nature of how galaxies form and how the universe is structured. Experiments at Yale and elsewhere are attempting to identify the dark matter particle; the leading candidates include axions and neutralinos.

“While we now have a precise cosmic inventory for the amount of dark matter and how it is distributed in the universe, the particle itself remains elusive,” Natarajan said. Dark matter particles are thought to provide the unseen mass that is responsible for gravitational lensing, by bending light from distant galaxies. This light bending produces systematic distortions in the shapes of galaxies viewed through the lens. Natarajan’s group decoded the distortions to create the new dark matter map.

Significantly, the map closely matches computer simulations of dark matter theoretically predicted by the cold dark matter model; cold dark matter moves slowly compared to the speed of light, while hot dark matter moves faster. This agreement with the standard model is notable given that all of the evidence for dark matter thus far is indirect.”

Saturn’s Weirdest Moon Is Full of Electric Sand
by Rae Paoletta   /  3/29/17

“A new study from Georgia Tech, published on March 27th in Nature Geoscience, sought to shed light on the massive and mysterious sand dunes engulfing Titan. Through laboratory experiments, the researchers found that under Titan-like atmospheric conditions, sand grains collide and become electrically charged, clumping together and remaining clumped for an incredibly long time. While wind-blown sand on Earth can also become electrically charged, the electrostatic forces are typically ephemeral and much weaker. The team compared the adhesive quality of the sand on Titan to packing peanuts and cats. “If you grabbed piles of grains and built a sand castle on Titan, it would perhaps stay together for weeks due to their electrostatic properties,” Josef Dufek, the Georgia Tech professor who co-led the study, said in a statement. “Any spacecraft that lands in regions of granular material on Titan is going to have a tough time staying clean. Think of putting a cat in a box of packing peanuts.”

To reach this conclusion, the team created a modified pressure vessel and inserted naphthalene and biphenyl grains—hydrocarbon compounds similar in composition to what the sand is probably like on Titan. On Earth, naphthalene and biphenyl are considered toxic and are used moth balls and citrus fruit wrappings, respectively.  The team then added Titan-like “wind” by rotating the tube for 20 minutes in pure nitrogen environment, since that’s what the moon’s atmosphere is almost entirely composed of. Overwhelmingly, the sand stuck together, which doesn’t happen on Earth unless you add water to the mix. Speaking of Earth, our sand is mostly silica-based, and didn’t have the same sticky quality when the researchers used it to repeat their experiments.

“Radar imaging from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows dunes stretching across the Shangri-La Sand Sea of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Research suggests the dunes’ shape and orientation are influenced by powerful electrostatic charges.”

“These non-silicate, granular materials can hold their electrostatic charges for days, weeks, or months at a time under low-gravity conditions,” study co-author George McDonald, said in a statement. The new study offers the latest indication that although Titan looks astonishingly similar to Earth—it’s the only other world in the solar system with surface oceans, for one—many of the processes shaping its surface are truly alien. “Titan’s extreme physical environment requires scientists to think differently about what we’ve learned of Earth’s granular dynamics,” Dufek said. “Landforms are influenced by forces that aren’t intuitive to us because those forces aren’t so important on Earth. Titan is a strange, electrostatically sticky world.”