Breakthrough Initiatives – Upgrading the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life

The overwhelming size and age of the Universe are both indications that earthlings should not be the only living creatures within it. Human exploration has already shown that there are a large amount of habitable planets in other galaxies. Scientists believe that our limited technology is the main reason that we have not been able to access these other intelligent beings in their star systems. They constantly aim at improving space technology so that we will be able to make contact with aliens sooner rather than later.

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In 2015, Julia and Yuri Milner, in collaboration with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, formed the Breakthrough Initiatives Program. Its aims are to ‘explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.’ The program consists of three main areas which are simultaneously being developed:

Breakthrough Listen – This is a comprehensive search of the universe, using telescopes and other space exploration devices, which aims at locating the slightest possible artificial radio and/or optical signals. The study currently includes the 100 nearest galaxies to ours, 1,000,000 stars and the plane and centre of our galaxy, the Solar System. The public will have access to all that is observed, as the Breakthrough Initiatives designers believe that space exploration should include the entire world.

The National Astronomical Observatories of China has recently formed a partnership with Breakthrough and this has allowed the world’s largest telescope, FAST, to join others which are already a part of the project, including the Green Bank Telescope in the USA and the Parkes Observatory in Australia.

shutterstock_356797187Breakthrough Message – A competition with the top prize of $1,000,000 has been announced for individuals, or groups, to design a complete message about life on our planet and its people. This should be made with the intention of communicating with any extra-terrestrials that might be found. The public is included in order to create awareness of the mission, and get the general outlook behind space exploration.

Breakthrough Starshot – This branch of the program is in charge of producing technology which will be able to facilitate our expansion. The main aim is enable an unmanned flight to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, within the next 25-30 years. It is believed that the craft would need to travel at 20% the speed of light in order to get there, and would be transporting Nano craft space robots on its initial voyage.

As our search for aliens continues, the likelihood of projects like the Breakthrough Initiatives arising continues, and with it the possibility of finding them increases.

Wind Turbines – The Future of Clean Energy Sources

In 1888, Charles F. Bush invented the first electricity-generating wind turbine in Cleveland, Ohio. It had a diameter of 17 metres and was able to generate 12 kW of power. Wind turbines have evolved significantly since, and the Wind Engineering Section of Kushu University, in Japan, has found a way to potentially triple their energy output. One of the aims is to make wind energy cheaper than both coal and nuclear power in the country, and eventually the world.

windlens-ed02During the Yokohama Renewable Energy International Exhibition 2010, they unveiled the new design, which works by putting a wind lens around the turbine blades. This also makes it possible to increase their safety levels, as well as decrease the unbearable noise usually associated with wind turbines. The wind lens is a brim that surrounds the inside of the blades and diverts the air from the exhaust outflow, which is located behind them. The turbulence then creates a low pressure zone behind the turbine, which causes more wind to pass through it. The blade rotation increases and subsequently the energy output. The engineers believe that each lens would be able to provide enough energy for an average household.

The proposed end structure would be similar in shape to a giant honeycomb, but the Wind Engineering Section of the University finds it challenging to apply these lenses to larger sized turbines. To test the theory they constructed two wind turbines on the campus, which are each 34m high and able to generate 100kW of power. They will use these models to figure out ways to apply the technology to larger turbines in the future. Each turbine also has a rotor which spans 12.8m and a diffuser with a diameter of 15.4 m.

windlens-ed01These wind turbines are being monitored as part of their larger project to build an offshore energy farm. The wind turbines will be mounted on a hexagonal shaped base, which is low in cost but sufficiently sturdy to withstand the marine conditions. Placing these in coastal areas will take advantage of the sea breezes, and reveal the probability of them being a main source of power for the country. The bases also make it possible to link other turbines together and create larger platforms.

The technology has already been applied to smaller units, averaging between 3 and 5 kW of output, which are being used by businesses to increase their energy while lowering the costs. Kushu University believes that the design will extend worldwide after the field tests prove that it is a much more efficient energy source. This would be good for both the countries involved and the world in general as this clean energy source would significantly decrease atmospheric pollution.

Proxima B – The Closest Earth-like Planet to our Solar System

The infinite nature of the Universe indicates that there are or should be other habitable planets. Our natural curiosity, as human beings, dictates that we will continue searching until we find them. After that we will make it a priority to explore these planets, and the life that we find there, in the most thorough way possible. A team of international scientists, based at the Queen Mary University in London and led by astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escude, have recently discovered a planet in the habitable zone of our neighboring star system. Temporarily called Proxima B, the team believes that this is the closest we have come to verifying the existence of life outside of our Solar System.

The closest star system to ours is the Alpha Centauri which consists of three stars; Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B and Proxima Centauri, which is a red dwarf meaning that it is smaller and cooler than our sun. The planet has been discovered orbiting this star and, because of its distance, is believed to be warm enough for water to remain in liquid form on some parts of its surface. This is one of the main criteria that determines whether a planet will be able to sustain life.

shutterstock_413371993Proxima Centauri is a more active star than our sun, which would result in the planet being exposed to 100 times more radiation. Without any protective magnetic field, this level would be detrimental to any living organism. If the planet does have an atmosphere, however, life would still be able to survive especially in its water bodies.

Proxima B is 30% larger than earth and 95% closer to its sun, being only 4 million miles away as opposed to our planet’s 93 million.  It orbits the star every 11.2 days, and is located approximately 4.2 light years away from us. This distance means that, even with current technology, it will be possible to send a probe there in as short as a few years. The biggest mystery about Proxima B, even though it is centred in a habitable zone, is whether or not there is actually life on the planet.

If the planet was formed by being blown away by stellar radiation, it means that without an atmosphere it would be unable to sustain life. Another obstacle to the presence of any living species is the fact that Proxima B may be tidally locked, meaning that the same side of the planet always faces the sun. An atmosphere as thick as earth’s would allow it to rotate in a way that would provide the entire surface with the necessary warmth, in order to create habitats in which plants and animals would be able to survive. Since there is so much potential for life on this new planet, some scientists have ventured as far as to say that we can assume that life exists there until it is proven that there isn’t.

Rio Olympics 2016 – Protecting the Athletes

There has been a rampant outbreak of the Zika virus in warmer climates, including Brazil, over the past few months. The disease is mosquito borne, and passed to humans when they are bitten. Even though the majority of the people who contract the virus are asymptomatic, athletes and spectators are being warned that there are serious health risks to unborn babies. If infection occurs in the mother while pregnant, there is the possibility of the child being born with an abnormally small head and incomplete brain development.

WHO (The World Health Organization) has declared this outbreak a global emergency and have recommended that athletes, and anybody else attending the Olympics in Rio, take precautionary methods. This means wearing mosquito repellent, using condoms or abstaining from sex completely while in Brazil and for eight weeks after returning home, and wearing cool clothing that covers most of the body.

shutterstock_363993479The Brazilian organisers have given Olympic teams the option of having a mosquito screen in the athletes’ rooms. These would need to be paid for by each country requiring them. The Brazilian team has already put in their request, as well as suggested that their main sponsor, Nike, provide more long-sleeved apparel. The rooms that the athletes will be staying in are also air conditioned to prevent mosquitos from accessing the interiors. Spectators are advised to book accommodation with ac themselves wherever possible.

Other countries are also doing their best to protect their athletes. The British Olympic Association has been meeting with specialists from the London School of Tropical Medicine to find strategies that will lessen the chance of being bitten and acquiring the virus. Australia has taken a common sense approach to keeping their team safe. All the athletes are being supplied with condoms that have shown ‘near complete’ defence against the Zika virus in laboratory studies. These dual protection condoms have a physical barrier as well as an anti-viral lubricant. The Olympic team has also signed a contract with a repellent supplier to ensure an adequate amount for the duration of the games.

Most athletes have accepted that the bug bites and possibility of being affected with Zika are just a disadvantage associated with the host country, but others have taken their safety concern into their own hands. Greg Rutherford, the United Kingdom long jump champion, has every intention of going to defend his title but will be freezing his sperm before he attends. His partner will also remain in the UK, in order to ensure the health of any children they have afterwards.

Other athletes have pulled out of the games this year altogether, feeling that their health is more important than their performance. Australian golfer, Marc Leishman, and American cyclist, Tejay van Garderen, whose wife is pregnant, are among these. The Olympic Games themselves will continue as planned, however, and the competition will more than likely be no less fierce than it always has been.

Spaced Out

What would your life be like without your cell telephone or GPS or Internet or satellite television? Could we function as a society?

Imagine satellites crashing in space. Colliding with each other. Bouncing and banging like billiard balls. The first one smacks a second which cracks a third that whacks a fourth and on and on. Could it happen? Yes. Should we worry? Yes! Why? Our world depends on satellites.

There is not as much space up in space as you think. According to NASA, there are currently around 22,000 objects in orbit that are big enough for officials on the ground to track and countless more smaller ones that could do damage to human-carrying spaceships and valuable satellites. Overall, it is estimated that there are as many as 370,000 pieces of space junk floating in Earth’s orbit, travelling at speeds of up to 22,000 mph. The amount of space junk orbiting Earth has reached a tipping point.

shutterstock_70801954How did all of this space junk and clutter arrive in the atmosphere surrounding us? Well, accidents do happen. For example, In February 2007, a Russian Briz-M booster stage exploded in orbit over South Australia. The booster had been carrying an Arabsat-4A communication satellite but malfunctioned before it could use all of its propellant creating a cloud of space debris or junk.

But as I learned recently while researching to write a military exercise scenario, one major source of debris is the result of the testing of anti-satellite weapons carried out by the US and Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. That testing of anti-satellite weapons stopped for a while, but now it is back and worse than before. In 2007, for example, China destroyed one of its own satellites in its first successful anti-satellite weapons test, an exercise that produced thousands of particles in Earth’s orbit and threatened hundreds of spacecraft. And this is the development that should worry us all.

Russia and China are currently developing anti-satellite weapons systems, which could disrupt operations by the militaries of their adversaries (like the US) and create debris clouds that threaten all satellites and spacecraft. Both nations have already tested their versions of direct ascent anti-satellite missiles. Also in 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites in its first successful anti-satellite weapons test, an exercise that produced thousands of particles in Earth’s orbit and threatened hundreds of spacecraft. Gen. John Hyten, the commander of Air Force Space Command, recently reported that Russia and China’s construction of “kinetic energy anti-satellite weapons” poses long-term problems for space travel. “It creates an environment that will be there for decades, if not centuries,” he said. “And you can’t get rid of it.”

Thus, creating space junk and debris by exploding satellites in space could be the battles of the next war. It will be a battle we will never actually see or hear, but it will be just as destructive to our society as any war. And just as with nuclear weapons, the fact that the US can destroy Russia’s or China’s satellites and Russia or China can destroy US satellites deters it from happening.

So, the next time you look up into the sky think about the importance to your life of those things that you cannot see, and those things you hope you never see.

Watermelon Snow – A Beautiful but Hazardous Phenomenon

The Arctic is one of the coldest regions on the earth, and has a protective snow blanket for much of the year. Unfortunately, the ice and snow in the Arctic has started to melt at an alarming rate over the past few years. This is partially due to the unique phenomenon of watermelon or pink snow, which is the result of a species of algae that are able to survive well in extremely cold temperatures. Even though the algae are green they take on a pink hue, which is then transferred to the snow. Although the effect is quite beautiful, the pink snow is causing ice in the Arctic to fall below the level that should be maintained.

The algae are mostly dormant during the winter, but when the temperature increases in spring they blossom and spread out into the ice and snow. The study of 21 glaciers in the European Arctic shows that this expansion is increasing the amount of snow that is melting each season, as well as the speed at which it is doing so. This is because the algae reduce the snow’s reflectivity (albedo), meaning that more heat is absorbed melting the snow faster. With the glacier melts occurring earlier every year, the algae’s growth is faster than ever.  This creates a cycle that keeps increasing the rate at which the ice and snow melt, which is having adverse effects on the Arctic environment.

shutterstock_30191596The Effects of Watermelon Snow

  1. The planet is absorbing more heat – As the snow’s albedo decreases, more heat is absorbed into the ocean. After this, the heat is released into the atmosphere causing warmer temperatures around the globe.
  2. Rising sea levels – As the sea rises coastal areas are flooded, which destroys the habitat of many creatures. In addition, permanent residents for humans as well as many food sources are no longer within easy access.
  3. Permafrost Melting – Once permanent frozen land masses are now melting and are releasing carbon dioxide and methane while doing so. Both carbon dioxide and methane add significantly to the greenhouse effect, with methane having a global warming potential that is 21 times that of carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases are the main cause of the atmosphere’s unnatural temperature increase.
  4. Unforeseeable Weather Changes – Winter in the northern hemisphere has become unpredictable. Each year it seems that spring arrives earlier and winter approaches later. Animals that are used to the climate changes are now unable to adapt, as well as unexpected landscape changes that are taking place throughout the region.

Scientists plan to continue observing the watermelon snow, and the algae that produce it, and decide whether or not the changes can be slowed down or even stopped altogether without harming the species.