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Dying star could unleash powerful gamma-ray burst in our galaxy

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About 8,000 light-years from Earth lies a star system unlike any astronomers have ever seen. And within that star system lies a ticking bomb: a large star that could one day produce one of the most powerful explosions in the universe, known as a gamma-ray burst.

Gamma-ray bursts have been observed in other galaxies, but never in our own. These powerful explosions come in two types: long-duration and short-duration. They can give off more energy in a few seconds than our sun will in its entire lifetime. They are so powerful, that it’s believed a gamma-ray burst could be behind an extinction event on Earth about 450 million years ago.

The objects responsible for this poorly understood phenomenon are just as interesting as the gamma-ray bursts themselves. Wolf-Rayet stars are massive, more than 20 times that of our sun. These titans live only a few million years — a blink of an eye when you consider stars like our own sun live for 10 billion years.

In a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, an international team of researchers reveals their findings on this new object, dubbed Apep.

Apep had been seen in X-ray and radio observations more than 20 years ago, but had never been studied in-depth.

In 2012, astronomer Joe Callingham, then working on his Ph.D at the University of Sydney, came across the observations. It left him scratching his head. There was clearly something unusual going on.

In a gamma-ray burst, depicted here, powerful flashes of energetic gamma rays release a tremendous amount of energy in a short time. (ESO/A. Roquette)

Hoping to get more data, he booked time on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. What he got back stunned him. There, as clear as day, was an image unlike anything ever seen before: a beautiful pinwheel.

“This is kind of a once-in-a-career image … that’s just nature right there,” Callingham said. “And it kind of captures something special, almost poetic or artistic, rather than just scientific.”

It’s believed that the curved tails of Apep form as the two stars orbiting at the centre throw dust into the expanding winds, almost like a rotating lawn sprinkler.

What the researchers suggest in Monday’s paper is that at the heart of the pinwheel are two massive Wolf-Rayet stars (with a third much further away) with winds that collide in the centre and produce dust.

They calculate the winds are travelling at almost 12 million kilometres an hour, or one per cent of the speed of light. One of the stars is at the end of its life, and will undoubtedly die in a powerful explosion, called a supernova.

“There’s no doubt it will explode. It will go supernova, probably in 100,000 years,” Callingham said. “The question is, will it go in a gamma-ray burst? Well, at the moment, if it exploded today, yes, it would.”

But whether or not the conditions will remain, astronomers can’t say for certain.

The good news is that, even if it does, it looks like Earth isn’t in the line of fire.

Curiouser and curiouser

The more the researchers studied these stars, the stranger it became.

It’s believed that gamma-ray bursts can only occur in stars with low metallicity, as metals produced in a star’s core would slow its rotation.

But this rapidly rotating Wolf-Rayet star is turning that theory on its head, as our young galaxy holds stars with high metallicity.

“It’s an oddball in every way,” Callingham said.

This chart shows the location of 2XMM J160050.7-514245, nicknamed Apep, in the constellation of Norma (The Carpenter’s Square). (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)

Excited by these findings, Callingham and his team of researchers decided to conduct further observations, hoping to see the dust that would be released from the star moving over time.

Once again, this weird little star system left astronomers scratching their heads. The dust barely moved.

The researchers theorize that one star is rapidly rotating, producing fast winds at poles, but not at the equator where the dust would be.

But another possibility is the system is farther away than believed. Still, that would make it the brightest object in our galaxy.

“We say that that the best model is that it’s a long gamma-ray burst progenitor, but actually it’s a really unique system that we don’t understand, and that’s our best model,” said Benjamin Pope, a co-author and astronomer at New York University.

“But we need more data. Whatever it is is a highly unusual stellar system … and that’s our best model for it.”

The research team hopes to do follow-up observations with other telescopes, and believe that this is just the start of Apep’s story.

“I think people are going to be writing about this star for years,” Pope said. “This has baffled all the experts in the field that we’ve shown it to, which is essentially all of them. I think we’re at the beginning of a really interesting story.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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