By measuring elusive antimatter particles formed within the Earth's mantle, physicists can determine how much heat forms inside the Earth.
April 19, 2012 --
Forty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 16 captured this image of Earth rising above the lunar landscape. The Apollo missions enabled humanity to see for the first time our planet as it appears from space. As Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell once said: “When I was orbiting the moon and could put my thumb up to the window and completely cover the Earth, I felt a real sense of my own insignificance. Everything I'd ever known could be hidden behind my thumb.” As we approach Earth Day on April 22, we look at the efforts of people throughout the ages to explore, understand and portray our world and its place in the Universe.
Trustees of the British Museum (image rotated
Babylonia Believed to be the earliest known representation of Earth, this stone tablet from Babylon shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River." The world is dominated by the area surrounding Babylon itself, and the Euphrates River bisects most of the inner circle. Unearthed in southern Iraq in the late 1800s, the tablet is housed in the British Museum.
Sixteenth-century interpretation of Ptolemy's
Celestial Spheres In his 2nd century treatise, the "Almagest," Claudius Ptolemy proposed an explanation for the apparent movement of stars and planets, in which Earth was central and immovable, and surrounded by, at progressively greater distances, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and a sphere of ‘fixed stars.’ This geocentric view of the cosmos did not meet its first real challenge until Copernicus proposed that the planets revolved around the Sun, and Galileo used his telescope to observe the phases of Venus.
Library of Congress, via the History Blog
Flat Earth The Greek philosopher Aristotle determined that Earth was spherical and not flat almost 2,500 years ago. The notion of a flat earth retained at least a few die-hard devotees for a surprisingly long time. For example, this 1893 map by Orlando Ferguson, recently acquired by the Library of Congress, cites “Scripture that condemns the globe theory” and promotes a book that “knocks the globe theory clean out.”
ANALYSIS: What if Earth Were a Cube?
De Costa, B.F. (September 1879). "The Lenox G
Lenox Globe It is popularly believed that ancient cartographers filled in unknown and unexplored areas of the world with the phrase ‘Here be dragons’. In fact, only one known ancient map – the so-called Lenox Globe, which is believed to date to around 1510 - displays the phrase ‘HC SVNT DRACONES’, from the Latin “hic sunt dracones.” (The phrase is written near the equator on the eastern cost of Asia.) Some nineteenth-century writers, however, believed that it referred, not to dragons, but to the ‘Dagroians’, a people who “feasted upon the dead and picked their bones.”
PHOTOS: Sea Monsters Real & Imagined
Image Database of the Kano Collection, Tohoku
Terra Australis Incognita In this copy of a 1602 map that was created on behalf of China’s Wanli emperor by Italian Matteo Ricci and collaborators, the familiar outlines of most of the world’s continents are coming into shape, although obviously many details remain unfinished. To the map’s makers, however, the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica are not even figments of the imagination, replaced instead by an enormous southern landmass. The notion of an unknown southern land – a terra australis incognita - was first mooted by Aristotle in 322 BCE; not until 1820 did Fabian von Bellingshausen become the first man to see the Antarctic continent.
South Pole For centuries, gaps in maps were filled by explorers who set out across land and sea, often at immense personal risk. The true nature of “Terra Australis” had long been established by the time Robert Falcon Scott and comrades stood at the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912; but existing knowledge could not diminish the terrible toll the conditions exacted on the men. “Great God!” wrote Scott in his journal, “this is an awful place.” All five members of Scott’s polar team died before they could reach their base camp.
PHOTOS: Forgotten Discoveries of Scott's Antarctica
Moscow at night Time and technology have enabled us to explore, not just across the surface of the globe or even beneath its waves, but from on high. Here, Moscow is seen at night from the International Space Station, flying at an altitude of approximately 240 miles on March 28, 2012. A solar array panel for the space station is on the left side of the frame. The Aurora Borealis, airglow and daybreak frame the horizon.
Pale Blue Dot In contrast to earlier suppositions about our place in the firmaments, we know now that our globe is not at the center of the cosmos, and that other celestial bodies are not attached to interlaced spheres that rotate around us. We are but one world among many, in one solar system among many, in one galaxy among many. In this image, taken by the Voyager I spacecraft from a distance of 4 billion miles, Earth is but a speck – a pale blue dot – in the cosmic night.
NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
Blue Marble If satellite images of Earth now seem almost routine, they never lose their ability to enthrall. This picture of the western hemisphere was captured on January 25 by NASA’s latest Earth observation satellite, Suomi NPP. By February 1, it had registered over 3 million views on Flickr – testament to the beauty and fascination of our Blue Marble.
PHOTOS: Earth's Blue Marble Beauty
Scientists have tentatively identified several particles lurking deep inside the Earth's mantle that could reveal how much heat the planet produces and confirm that the Earth formed from materials from the sun.
The wacky particles are called geoneutrinos, or the antimatter partners of neutrinos (exotic fundamental particles that can pass right through Earth), that form deep within the Earth's mantle. Every matter particle has an antimatter partner particle that has an opposite charge, and when the two meet they annihilate each other. The findings were detailed described March 11 in the preprint journal arXiv.org.
Geoneutrinos aren't the only particles scientists are hoping to find inside Earth. An experiment using the Earth as a source of electrons recently narrowed down the search for a new force-bearing particle, possibly the so-called unparticle, placing tighter limits on the force it carries.
When Earth formed, the radioactive elements thorium and uranium were distributed in Earth's interior at different concentrations within the crust (the planet's outer layer) and mantle. As these elements within the mantle radioactively decay, they give off heat and also form subatomic particles known as geoneutrinos, said study co-author Aldo Ianni, a physicist at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy.
The heat formed from this decay is the engine that drives the motion of the viscous, oozing material that forms the Earth's mantle. That, in turn can shift the tectonic plates, causing earthquakes. Whereas researchers have models to predict how much heat is generated inside the Earth, measuring it has proved tricky. (50 Amazing Facts About Planet Earth)
That's partly because mantle lies miles beneath the Earth's surface, so "if you want to understand how much heat is produced by these radioactive elements, the only way today to understand how much is this so-called radiogenic heat is through the geoneutrinos," Ianni said.
To do so, researchers at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory, which is nearly a mile below a mountain in Italy, looked for signals in a vast pool of oil-based liquid that scintillates, or produces flashes of light when particles such as protons pass through it. When geoneutrinos pass through the scintillating liquid they bump into protons and emit a positron and then a neutron, creating a distinctive signal, Ianni told LiveScience.
Many of the particles they initially identified actually came from nuclear reactors from power plants. But by measuring the energy levels of the neutrinos, they could isolate the 30 percent that came from the Earth's mantle, Ianni said.
The geoneutrinos are created from the decay of radioactive thorium and uranium in a reaction that gives off a known amount of heat. As a result, how frequently the researchers find the particles can reveal the quantity of the radioactive elements lurking in Earth's mantle, and in turn how much heat they generate. That can help scientists refine their knowledge of plate tectonics, Ianni said.
But it may also confirm the theory that the Earth formed from the sun, Ianni said. Meteorites that come from the solar system's early history contain distinctive ratios of uranium and thorium that very closely mirror the composition of the sun's surface. By comparing that ratio with the amount found inside the Earth, they can confirm the Earth's solar origins.
More from LiveScience:
Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature
What's That? Your Physics Questions Answered
Image Gallery: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth
This article originally appeared on LiveScience. Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.