Research into a quantum physics discrepancy that could one day aid in the development of electricity generating fusion reactors is being undertaken in New Zealand.
AUT PhD student Jordan Alexander is researching giant atoms orbited by distant electrons that are found in outer space.
These atoms emit radio waves that are impossible to detect using current laboratory vacuums, including that found at CERN on the border of France and Switzerland, he said.
"The electrons would never be able to get very far away from the atom before they were just knocked away through a collision," said Alexander.
However, in the space between stars, where these giant atoms are found, there is less matter so the distance between them is much greater.
Alexander said interstellar space contained only about one atom in each cubic centimetre.
"If you think of the air we breathe, there's ten million trillion atoms there in each cubic centimetre."
Collisions happen less often in outer space, so the electrons can move further away from the atom, which makes atoms up to a million times larger.
"It turns out to be approaching a tenth of a millimetre."
While current vacuums on Earth are unable to create the conditions necessary for these electron orbited atoms, the ones in space can be observed using radio telescopes.
In the 1990s Canadian radio astronomers observed the Orion nebula, 1300 light years away, which Alexander said is the nearest area to Earth where stars form.
They found that as the electron orbits of atoms increased, peaks in the spectrum of the emitted radio waves got narrower.
This was contrary to quantum physics, however, as it predicted that the spectral lines should get wider.
"This was completely unexpected, a total surprise," said Alexander, who said his research can resolve this discrepancy as he believes there was a problem with the Canadians' measurements.
"Much of my thesis has been spent trying to understand the technique that was used by this group."
Now that the analysis has been done, Alexander said it needs to be tested against some actual data.
"At the end of the day, I still have not proven anything, because I need to repeat those measurements."
Alexander has applied to use one of the largest radio telescopes in the southern hemisphere, the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales.
The telescope received television transmissions from the Apollo 11 Moon landing and has been used to test Einstein's general theory of relativity.
"These telescopes are highly competitive to get time on," said Alexander.
Alexander and his supervisor, AUT professor Sergei Gulyaev, published the research in The Astrophysical Journal, the most prestigious journal in their field.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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