Archive for April, 2017

Looking back, 1997 had a few standout moments as far as science was concerned. Dolly the sheep was cloned and born, the Pathfinder probe landed on Mars and the ThrustSSC set the first super sonic land speed record. It was also the year that the Cassini probe launched from Cape Canaveral on a 20 year expedition to explore Saturn and its 53 moons.

During the mission, the European Space Agency deployed the Huygens probe to Titan. This secondary unit provided the first on-site data about the moon’s nitrogen rich atmosphere, its weather conditions and potential for surface floods of liquid methane and ethane as well as a sub-surface ocean.

This was all back in 2005. Since then Cassini has extended its primary mission, waiting for Saturn’s equinox and solstice in relation to the Sun. Over this period, it has sent back a wealth of information about the dynamics of the planet’s moons, the nature of its signature rings and a stack of jaw dropping imagery.

Now the long enduring spaceship is set for its swan song (see video above). However, to avoid contaminating the neighbouring celestial bodies, NASA have planned a daring sequence of manoeuvres. Sweeping in an elliptical orbit, Cassini has already made its first pass between the body of Saturn and its innermost ring, bringing back fresh images of the polar vortex – a hurricane of gargantuan proportions. From this point it will then perform a number of further passes until it ultimately plunges into the gaseous depths of the planet sometime in September. The spacecraft will continue to collect and transmit scientific data, but NASA are expecting connection with the vessel to be severed as soon as it starts to tumble. Regardless, it’s an audacious finale to the mission, and one cleverly orchestrated to appeal to a much wider audience than just die-hard NASA fan-base.

So then, it seems apt on a Saturn Day such as today, to consider Cassini’s final months orbiting around our gaseous neighbour, and to even listen to the voice of its rings as we prepare to bid it a temporary farewell.

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So are we completely screwed environmentally? With America, sorry The Donald, turning his back on the 2015 Paris climate accord there’s a fresh sense of doom about the future of our planet’s climate. Interestingly, it’s a sentiment echoed by James Lovelock, the originator of the Gia theory. In an interview with The Guardian at the tail end of 2016, he had revised his initial timeline for complete environmental disaster, but only because the predictions resulting from early computer modelling had proven wildly inaccurate. Always the provocateur, he’s now toying with the idea of a future ruled by autonomous robots, while retaining a happy-go-lucky approach to the chances of us ever changing our ways. He famously detected the hole in the ozone layer created by spent CFC emissions, but also put forward the idea of shipping all the remaining banned products off to Mars to bolster our neighbour’s atmosphere. However, as part of the recent BBC series of documentaries on colonising the red planet, Lovelock voiced the opinion that we really didn’t want to go there. Better to at least try and get our house in order. We’ll take the liberty then of passing on his apologies to Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkings, both advocates of increasing our chances of species survival by establishing off-world colonies.

Elsewhere, Musk has been increasing his personal carbon footprint with a level of rocket-based dexterity that continues to capture imaginations. Yes, the successful reuse of one of his Space X booster rockets released a ton of carbon dioxide, but we can forgive him. His dogged pursuit of technologies that will help humanity have to be taken into account. Not only was Tesla part of the vanguard of desirable electric cars, now joined by the Sci-Fi styled i-series from BMW, but Musk’s work in car battery technology has led to the Powerwall. The premise behind the device harks back to early differential tariffs like Economy 7 in which charging happens at low-cost, non-peak periods. Power can then be drawn during peak demand times within your household, thus driving energy usage and bills down.

Sticking with batteries, and older scientists for that matter, John Goodenough (94 to James Lovelock’s 97) has just had a breakthrough in relation to solid state batteries. He and his team have been working with glass electrolytes, of all things, and have recorded a tripling of battery longevity – something Mr Musk will no doubt be interested in.

While it’s heartening to see innovation and business get behind halting an ecostrophy, we have to be watchful that an impending sense of disaster doesn’t lead to inaction. It’s also sad to note that these innovations above are coming out of the USA, especially when the New Scientist is calling for ecological import taxes on The Donald’s homeland. On an individual level, a bit of basic research means it’s relatively easy to source your needs from companies outside of the US. Plus, there’s the daily consideration of diet, and the simple fact that beef and lamb production outstrips motor usage as generators of green house gasses. Seems that the old adage of think global, act local might still hold true.

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