A little known chunk of information that is floating around the intellectosphere is that since 2014, June 30th has been “Asteroid Day”. Why is this? Because just over a hundred years ago, in the northern forests of Siberia, an asteroid impact with the Earths atmosphere caused mile-wide devastation. The Tunguska event, as it is now commonly known, was the first encounter with space objects that humanity had seen in modern times. Completely unexpected, but luckily far away from civilisation, the explosion in the sky caused unprecedented damage to the local surroundings. Trees were flattened as far as could be seen, and anything alive in the blast zone would no-doubt have been instantly crushed and burned.
Since those early days of black and white photography, astronomers have learned fairly little about asteroids. They are thought to be the remains of the early solar system, made up of either the original rocks that went to form planets or the debris from collisions that shattered larger worlds in the long distant past. By inspecting the contents of the samples of meteorite that fall to Earth, it can be detected than some pieces seem to have undergone metamorphosis, and some have not. This would validate the theory as to the origins of these rocks in space.
Several teams of astronomers are searching the skies for objects including asteroids. The main purpose is to predict and detect if any are on a collision course with Earth, so far none of these have been found and published however, many objects have been discovered, catalogued, and tracked with computer models. Near Earth Objects are those asteroids and comets (slushy balls of ice and rock whose origins are from the outer reaches of the solar system in a place called the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud) which are projected to orbit within close proximity to Earth and therefore pose a certain degree of risk.
Many ideas are around as to how to deter an object from colliding with the Earth in the future. In films it is often a bomb which blows the object into tiny bits, which harmlessly burn up in the atmosphere. We actually have never done anything like this in real life so it's difficult to predict exactly what would happen to an asteroid if hit with a bomb, but the risk is that it will simply produce a bigger threat of several equally as dangerous chunks which have unpredictable movement. The most likely way we will use according to current thinking is the placement of a large source of gravity in the path of the object that will cause it to move out of the way. This would be a giant ship filled with material that would have a large mass and therefore a significant gravity. Placing it in the right place would only require the object to move a few inches to one side for the path to swing way off our line of travel.
The moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, are believed to be captured asteroids. These would have been pulled into orbit around Mars from other orbits around the Sun. The gravity of Mars at close range would have been enough to attract and keep the irregularly shaped moons. Most asteroids can be found in the asteroid belt, which is a river of free floating debris that orbits the Sun in between Mars and Jupiter. The gravity of Jupiter is believed to be the reason these rocks didn't coalesce into a new planet. It is also the gravity of Jupiter that sometimes upsets the order of flow and sends rocks into the direction of the inner planets, including ours. It is believed however that because of this giant world on our cosmological doorstep, we have been shielded from many more impacts which could have halted life from forming.
Find out loads more about space, astronomy, and mind-blowing questions.
What on Earth is archaeoastronomy? Find out more.
New Biofuel on the Horizon
Fossil fuels are made of natural ingredients, laid down by something alive millions or more years ago. Finding ways of getting the same kind of fuel from modern life is one of science's big problems. Not only is it dirty stuff and causes problems for many, but the supply of fossil fuel is limited. We will use it up one day and so the race is on to find sustainable alternatives.
We farm plants and animals for food, wool, milk, and eggs, we keep bees for honey, so why not do something along these lines for energy? Finding a way to get life doing what we want is not always easy, it tends to do what it wants instead. And why not? We didn't put it here for ourselves. That's where the ball stops bouncing, because with genetic modification we can create new life that behaves in different ways.
Another, perhaps more ethical approach, is to search the abundance of life on Earth until we find something that produces what we want naturally. These organisms range from bugs for food colouring to silk worms for textiles, and now algae is joining the ranks of organisms that can work for us. A special species of algae has been discovered that loves to make fats. But the only catch is that in order for them to do this, they have to be starved of other nutrients.
Nannochloropsis gaditana has been genetically enhanced to produce even more fats when starved to create a super fat making machine. But why fats? I know, we're always trying to cut them out, but fats can be easily converted into diesel. Diesel is usually made from fossil fuel and is used to power the majority of the global logistic infrastructure. Boats, trains, lorries, and cars all rely on this fuel for their energy so finding ways of producing diesel that doesn't lean on the dwindling oil industry is extremely important.
Because the fats are made when nitrogen food is withheld from the algae, it's impossible to continually grow fats and algae. It's only possible to grow one at a time, so a method of staggering the vats is being implemented so that a continual harvest can be reaped. By employing a bloom and bust method, colonies can be brought to maturity and then made to create their payload of fatty substances ready for extraction. Work is currently ongoing to find ways of making the algae produce fats without being starved. So far however, the response has been to stop growing also, even when there was enough food.
Bio-chemical processes that work with life to find solutions to human problems are perhaps some of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the world we live in. With the ingredients of nature at our fingertips, is there anything stopping us from going even further? Should there be?
When it comes to neuroscience, we really know very little. The brain to a scientist is a machine capable of many functions, you being either one of the functions of a simple by-product of the combination of things it does. Either way, to a neuroscientist, you are a thinking machine with a body. These avenues don't suit everybody, and the implications of some common scientific thinking seem to suggest that our personalities and souls are simply illusions created by this multi-functional device known as the brain. That's fine, we don't all need to agree with the materialistic view on the phenomenon known as life, many of us don't.
The reason neuroscience is somewhat useful to us as a whole, regardless of its controversial methods and ideas, is that the medical side of things gets a real boost. We as people have developed some pretty amazing cures to various brain problems already and we are on the way to discovering many more. Some of the most sought after cures and preventative methods are in the area of mental health and neurological diseases.
Often the way we think and our ability to think are directly related to the health of our brain. A psychological issue will also have a basis in the brain, as thoughts, feelings, and correlations between them are stored as chemicals and connections between cells. So when neuroscience makes a discovery about the function of the brain, it has a real impact on the lives of those affected by related disorders.
A study published in Frontiers of Computational Neuroscience has shown that our brain is capable of forming these connections in extremely complicated ways. Structures named “sandcastles” are built in real time as the brain learns information brought in by the senses. As we process information and think about it, these structures are reinforced and grow further. The team has shown that it is possible to track the evolution of neural networks and how they interact via the medium of algebraic topography. This is a branch of mathematics that plots complex graphs according to variable data.
When a neuron connects to another and creates a line, it is said to have a one dimensional connection. When three get together and make a triangle, it has a two dimensional shape. A pyramid is a 3D shape. With the algebraic topography it has been shown that neurons structure themselves into upto eleven dimensions, although only theoretical in our material world, in the world of mathematics it is entirely possible. When artists draw in extra dimensions on a 2D piece of paper, the use of perspective and angles give the appearance of these extra directions. The huge amount of lines needed to draw an 11D shape is staggering, but we build them all the time, without even thinking.
Ice Giants Revisited
It's been forty years since our native Earthling boffins sent a spacecraft to inspect the mysterious outer worlds. 1977's Voyager 2 expedition saw the craft swing past both planets on its way towards the edge of the solar system and beyond in the furthest distance travelled in our entire history.
Despite a century of observing Neptune and the slightly longer legacy of Uranus watching, we know very little about these distant spheres. This is simply because they are extremely far away from us and the Sun, making them dimly lit and difficult to resolve. The second trip we make to these mostly uncharted sectors of space will undoubtedly increase our understanding of these worlds dramatically.
New plans detail four separate missions which include vehicles capable of orbiting for over ten years and sending probes into the atmosphere and gaseous surfaces. The major aim of the design plan is to discover the working geology of the frozen planets. They are called the ice giants because at their frigid temperatures, chemicals which would be gaseous on Earth freeze out to form ice and slushy liquids. Only the very light gasses would remain in that state.
Scientists want to know more about what both of the worlds are made of and why Neptune emits more heat than Uranus does, despite it receiving significantly less sunlight. Studies can also be made of the 27 moons orbiting Uranus and 14 moons of Neptune. Perhaps there are more out there, waiting to be found. The Voyager 2 craft only flew past both worlds for a single look, and likely missed many fascinating and important facts.
Other works being finalised by NASA include a new Mars rover and a trip to Europa, which is one of the larger Jovian moons. Robotics and computerised probes seem to be the preferred method of deep space exploration, as people do laboratory work in the close to home orbit of the ISS. It makes sense to protect individuals from the effects of long distance space travel and use instruments that can do the job instead. Clever stuff.
Educational Wiki Mind Maps
A new project has recently been unveiled that is designed to help people learn what ever they want. By using internet resources, mapped into systematic mental lists, an open source search engine is able to provide the world of information in properly formatted and arranged lists. Because the lists and maps are generated by the general public, making the open source project similar to a wiki site, experts from all areas of study can potentially create a wealth of everything important and true.
A whole host of mind maps have already been sorted and they are all open to be added to. The creation of this resource has been a labour of love and it shows that the world truly cares about delivering the best education available. The internet has been utilised for this purpose time after time, but with the free speech policy, nothing is stopping people from uploading false information. By adding a layer like this site we can just make it easier to find the up to date and true information about the subjects that matter.
Visit Learn Anything and have a play. It might not stand up to real life tutored education which is free in limited doses, but it definitely gives us a head start we didn't have before.
It may be the most abundant substance in the entire universe but Hydrogen is notoriously tricky to acquire. On Earth, it's rarer than you may think, because it's so light it just floats off into space. Our humble 1G gravity just doesn't have enough pulling power to hold on to those tiny atoms. Most of the hydrogen on Earth is actually stored in water, combined with oxygen in the guise of the fundamental molecule required for Earth-like life.
Hydrogen loves to react with oxygen to make water, and when it does, it releases a lot of energy. Scientists have been using hydrogen as an energy source for a long time, rocket fuel is a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. It's a clean fuel, because the only by-product is water. This makes it highly valuable when considering the effects of fossil fuels on the environment and our health. The toxic fumes from petrol and diesel don't do any favours for anyone and if their energy can be replicated with cleaner technology, it only pushes us forward.
Finding hydrogen is expensive and so far the financial benefits of sticking to dirty fuels have caused the gasoline culture to continue despite the ill effects. But this may be coming to an end someday soon, as many alternatives are being seriously researched. Hydrogen is one real alternative, and now it seems that we are one step closer to finding a way of mass producing the gas on a scale required to feed the road hungry public.
Plants make hydrogen as part of their photosynthesis which they use to make sugar. Photosynthesis is a very complicated process that works on such subtle levels of chemistry that it's near impossible to discover the exact mechanical steps involved. We only know the basics, to put it another way. However, a team of scientists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Virginia Tech in the USA have created a molecule capable of doing the first bit. Isolating hydrogen with a chemical process is a goldmine area of research in new fuel technology, as the implications are potentially global.
Two years ago the team developed a pair of supramolecules capable of isolating the hydrogen, but the rates were variable and they didn't know why. It couldn't be pinned down to a scientifically valid process until all the facts were known so they had to get to the root of the issue. Because these supramolecules were doing a lot of work, absorbing photons of light, transferring electrical charge, and then isolating hydrogen, there was a lot of scope for error within their structure. They discovered that the larger of the two molecules had slightly less electrons which made it more efficient. Knowing this, they are armed with the know-how to truly utilise the technology.
Releasing their findings in this paper, which is summarised here, we all wait for the advancement of this process so they can make it commercially viable.
Rowan Blair Colver for Alternative Fruit
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