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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Is there life on Mars? How space travel helps find food and water, tectonic activity on Ceres, and why the Moon might be a planet...

Hi all, some real life tasks I've been putting off have reached the point where I need to deal with them, so I'm taking a few days break. I should be back early next week. John.

Is there life on Mars?

The title sums the subject of this Physics World podcast up: The possibilities for Martian life and what forms it might take.

Above: Artwork depicting a pool of life-sustaining water on the Red Planet.


Using space resources to watch our crops.....

While it hasn't got the 'wow' factor of landing on Mars, or figuring out how to build habitats on the Moon, this is a good demonstration of how space as a resource can improve lives here on Earth: Stanford researchers have hit upon a novel way to monitor the growth of crops from space using solar-induced fluorescence, a type of light only emitted by growing plants.


Above: A video rundown of the new crop monitoring system. Courtesy of Stanford University. 


...and find drinkable water.


Along a very similar vein: India is launching four more 'Indian Regional Navigation Satellite Systems'  in the first quarter of the next academic year. So far India has benefited hugely from its space program, which has found sites for wells, warned of approaching tropical storms, helped disaster relief, and  guided fishermen to their catch.


Under new definition the Moon would be a planet.

The never ending argument over what constitutes a planet goes on, with one interesting twist: Under a definition recently suggested by  Jean-Luc Margot at the University of California the Earth-Moon system would be classed as a double planet.  Jean-Luc's definition is based on whether or not a world has enough mass to clear out it's orbit, and as both the earth and moon are over this limit they would jointly be considered a double planet.
“Of course it’s just a proposal,” says Margot. “I don’t know whether it will stick, whether people will love it, hate it or be indifferent.”

Above: The Moon would be a planet, under the proposed definition. So there.


Flowers grown on the ISS

The ISS crew have started using the 'Veggie' system to grow flowering plants in space. the investigation is part of ongoing studies to see how microgravity influences growth and reproduction, and this is the first time that the crew have tried to grow flowering plants. The results could impact how fresh fruit and vegetables are grown (or if they're grown) on future space missions, as well as feeding into studies of plant growth and productivity on Earth.


Above: Zinias, the type of flower being grown and tested. I think. I know nothing about botany, although I'm sure they're not tulips.


Dawn sees evidence of tectonic activity on Ceres


The Dawn space probe has seen hints of ancient tectonic activity on the dwarf planet Ceres. Although the mission has been fairly quite recently team have been hard at work with the probe, in its new Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO), and they're seeing more and more evidence that Ceresmust have been quite an active place in its youth - although they still don't have a definitive answer for what those bright spots are.... 


Above: Dantu crater on Ceres, which shows signs of tectonic activty in the past. Courtesy of NASA.


50 years of infra red astronomy 


This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of infra red astronomy. CalTech has been celebrating with a two day symposium, in honour of the fields founders. Today infra red astronomy is used to study everything from dust clouds, to stars nearing the end of their lives, to the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. 

Above: A mock up of the James Webb space telescope, which will work in the infra red. Courtesy of JPL.

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