#Astronomy

#Astronomy


Future Tech: Floating colonies on Venus

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 06:05 AM PST

An artist's impression of a floating city in the atmosphere of Venus.

An artist’s impression of a floating city in the atmosphere of Venus. Image Credit: Adrian Mann

It's hot, at a searing average temperature of 460 degrees Celsius – some 410 degrees hotter than the muggiest deserts on Earth. Its atmosphere is thick with choking carbon dioxide, laced with poisonous sulphuric acid clouds which hang above a parched desert-like landscape, renewed by the angry eruptions of volcanoes. Without a shadow of a doubt Earth's evil twin, Venus, with its additional high pressure environment – that has a crushing power 100 times that of Earth – is unfriendly for life. Sending astronauts onto a world that can cook, crush and choke in a few seconds flat and hoping for their survival is ambitious to say the least.

However, according to some – such as the likes of Geoffrey Landis of NASA's Glenn Research Center – where there's a will there's a way. And, in a concept that sees fiction meet science, Venus could be the next go-to destination for colonisation. Forget attempting to touch-down onto the parched, unpredictable surface. Forget trying to pass through the suffocating atmosphere – there's a new concept, and it's straight from the pages of futuristic novels. Floating cities akin to levitating island Laputa of Gulliver's Travels fame or airborne habitats are the new way forward, creating an unusual twist that would see humans living in relatively comfortably in hostile conditions, surfing above the temperate surface.

It's clear that, in general, Venus is unfit for habitation but some 31 miles above the surface, a different story is told; the dense carbon dioxide atmosphere gives way to an environment similar to our own as it cools down to somewhere between zero and fifty degrees Celsius and the pressure is a more forgiving one bar. However as possible future Venusian dwellers, we might be able to discard our pressurised suits but we still would not be able to wander around quite as comfortably as we do here on Earth – the air is still toxic for us to breathe and the acid that rains down would spell disaster. Yet with a supply of air and the right protection, this is a seemingly small hurdle to overcome.

According to Landis getting an entire city say, the size of New York, to float might seem like a great feat but with the simple premise of buoyancy what might seem like a far-flung idea might actually become feasible. It's just a question of finding some type of lifting gas, Landis says and that gas is the nitrogen and oxygen that can be found in our very own atmosphere. When the air we breathe meets with carbon dioxide floating occurs, bringing a lifting power just over half that of helium – which we find gives hot air balloons their effortless flight. It’s here that floating colonies have envisioned breathable air domes to lift a city off of the ground, with storage tanks of readily available hydrogen and helium allowing the lifting power to be adjusted. The problems that a Venusian colony seems to pose at first glance seem to gradually disappear as it slowly builds height in the Venus skies.

Further still, hanging above the carbon dioxide laden clouds, solar panels take advantage of the sunlight reflected from the thick atmospheric smog,  providing almost twice the energy Earth can above its cloud layer. The almighty 95 mile per hour winds – that rage around Venus' circumference and provide this terrestrial planet with its so-called super-rotation – sweep up even more power for these levitating platforms. Venus might be unwelcoming, but with these tricks to avoid its hostility, why shouldn't we head to the second planet from the Sun?

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Heroes of Space: Frank J Malina

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 06:00 AM PST

Malina was awarded the Order of Merit from the French Society for the Encouragement of Research and Invention

Malina was awarded the Order of Merit from the French Society for the Encouragement of Research and Invention. Image Credit: NASA

From an early age Frank J Malina was driven by the pursuit of knowledge in the face of adversity. Born in 1912 in Brenham, Texas, Malina’s interest in the world of science led him to a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University. But what really piqued his interest was space travel and rockets, something that was scoffed at in the 1930s as belonging to the realm of science fiction.

Regardless of the critics, Malina followed his dreams and achieved a PhD in Aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology, focussing on rocket flight and propulsion. However, this did not come easily and Malina had to use all his intelligence and skill to persuade Theodore von Kármán, the professor of Aeronautics, to allow him to focus on such outlandish areas of study. The main focus of Malina’s study was to produce a sounding rocket, one that carries instruments to space in order to conduct different scientific experiments.

Malina’s pursuit of knowledge and drive to succeed soon attracted a group of like-minded students. The group of six became known around Cal Tech as the ‘suicide squad’ due to the dangerous lengths they went to and terrible failures they experienced while testing the designs of their rockets. Regardless, Malina and his group kept pushing their research forward and eventually moved their operations into what would later become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group attracted the attention of the US Army Air Corps who agreed to fund the project.

With funds and support behind him, Malina was free to develop and explore the realms of rocket technology to his heart’s content. In October 1945 Malina was finally able to witness one of his dreams become a reality when his WAC Corporal sounding rocket became the first US rocket to reach more than an 80-kilometre (50-mile) altitude and the first to reach the edge of space.

Malina was also a pacifist and artist at heart. Image Credit: NASA

Malina was also a pacifist and artist at heart. Image Credit: NASA

Although he had achieved a feat many told him was impossible, not everything was smooth sailing for Malina. Growing up during the Great Depression had caused Malina to have a negative view of capitalism, which he believed had failed. In his early student days he had expressed a passing interest in communism and labour activism. Throughout World War II Malina found himself under heavy criticism by the Federal Bureau of Investigation due to his communist sympathies and in 1946 bureau agents raided his house. Malina had also watched while his rocket development was instead being utilised for nuclear weapons and war.

By 1947 he’d had enough and moved to France, where he joined the fledgling United Nations as secretariat of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) working under the biologist Julian Huxley. By 1951 he was the head of UNESCO’s division of scientific research. However, even though he had moved countries, Malina still found himself pursued by the FBI. America was determined to track down and condemn anyone who showed even the slightest of communist sympathies. Because Malina had not listed his Communist Party membership on a questionnaire while at Caltech he was declared a fugitive. Malina and his lofty dreams helped to lay the foundations for the US space program, but now if he returned to the country he would be arrested immediately.

A pacifist and artist at heart, Malina quit his position at UNESCO and instead decided to focus on his kinetic art. His art career was groundbreaking, with revolutionary work in the realm of light and motion. Perhaps most significant however was his founding of Leonardo, a research journal that combined his two greatest loves, art and science. Leonardo is still being published to this day, bringing together the talents of artists, students and scientists.

Malina enjoyed one final foray into the world of rocketry in the late 1950s when he helped found the International Academy of Astronautics. In 1963 he was elected president of the academy and, finally comfortable to return to his first love, drafted a plan for a Lunar International Laboratory where the greatest minds in science would work together for peaceful purposes in space.

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Heroes of Space: Vera Rubin

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 05:55 AM PST

Rubin, who is most famous for her inferring the existence of dark matter, is seen here measuring spectra

Rubin, who is most famous for her inferring the existence of dark matter, is seen here measuring spectra

Vera Rubin was born in Philadelphia, United States in 1928. Her father worked as an electrical engineer, her mother for the Bell Telephone Company and her sister pursued a career as an administrative judge. Rubin was different, however, and was always fascinated by physics and astronomy.

After earning her undergraduate degree at Vassar College, Rubin attempted to enroll at Princeton University where she hoped to continue her dreams of becoming an astronomer. But despite her obvious talent, she was told that “Princeton does not accept women”. This extremely unfair policy was not lifted until 1975.

Rubin wasn't put off and applied to Cornell University where she was accepted onto a Master's degree. She studied under highly respected physicists Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe. During this time, and unknown to her, she would make one of the first observations of the motions of galaxies. At the time it was suggested that galaxies moved outwards in accordance with the Big Bang theory, but Rubin figured that these structures swirled around some unknown centre. Unfortunately, her suggestion was not well received by the scientific community. Undeterred, she went on to earn her PhD in 1954 from Georgetown University in Washington DC. Her advisor was George Gamow, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who was an early supporter of the Big Bang theory. Under his supervision, the young Rubin concluded that galaxies were clumped together in clusters, rather than randomly distributed throughout the universe. The idea of galaxy clusters was ludicrous according to the majority of scientists and it wasn't for another two decades that they would be persuaded otherwise.

In 1965, she successfully became the first woman to be granted permission to use the instruments at Palomar Observatory, California. In the same year, Rubin successfully secured a position at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where she began work on galaxy clusters – what she found was even more extraordinary than her previous work and would have consequences for our understanding of today's cosmos. When Rubin observed her galaxies, she found that their rotation curves didn't match up to theory. What could the explanation be?

Dark matter cannot be seen directly with telescopes

Dark matter cannot be seen directly with telescopes

Little did she know, she had found the first indicator for dark matter, an elusive material believed to make up around 25 per cent of the "missing" mass of the universe. Rubin knew that her new findings would be criticised and so, in a bid to avoid it, she decided to slant her research more towards the study of the rotation curves of singular galaxies, rather than the wildly debated galaxy clusters. She began her research with our closest spiral, the Andromeda galaxy.

Luckily, her theory was greeted with open minds as well as prestigious awards. Rubin believed that since galaxies are rotating so fast, the gravity that holds the stars together alone wouldn't be enough to stop the structure from flying apart. There must be something – an unseen mass – holding them together. This binding material would be dark matter.

However, Rubin admitted that she prefers the alternate theory to dark matter, known as MoND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics), a theory that has very little support. "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances," she has said. "That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub- nuclear particle."

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Is dark matter hiding a mirror world?

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 05:50 AM PST

Since we don't understand a great deal about dark matter, there is a great deal of speculation that surrounds it. Image Credit: Stanford University 

Since we don't understand a great deal about dark matter, there is a great deal of speculation that surrounds it. Image Credit: Stanford University

Asked by Rebecca Hunt

Dark matter is a poorly understood material that dominates our universe. As a result of this lack of understanding there is a lot of speculation surrounding it.

One of these ideas is that dark matter could hide a lot of information new to science. Because we think that the majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, it means we still have a lot to understand.

However it may not be that simple, because the very existence of dark matter is still being called into question. The reasoning behind the name 'dark' is that it doesn't interact with most of the universe around us. This makes it incredibly tricky to detect. While we have found and can observe the effects of this material, direct observations are few and far between.

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How did Mars get its polar ice caps?

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 05:45 AM PST

The existence of the Red Planet's poles support the theory that Mars once had a wet and warm history. Image Credit: NASA

The existence of the Red Planet's poles support the theory that Mars once had a wet and warm history. Image Credit: NASA

Asked by Thomas Green

The average temperature on Mars is around -60 degrees Celsius (-76 degrees Fahrenheit) and can get even colder at the poles. This gives Mars permanent polar ice caps consisting primarily of water ice.

Like on Earth, there is seasonal variation on Mars which causes annual changes of the Martian ice caps. During the Red Planet's winter, a pole will exist in extended periods of darkness. This makes it cold enough to allow layers of carbon dioxide to freeze, building up the ice caps. During the summer this carbon dioxide ice sublimes and the polar ice cap shrinks. The existence of these poles support the theory that Mars once had a wet and warm history on its surface.

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