A look at a selection of the most important and interesting science stories from the first week of May 2018, including NASA’s INSIGHT probe’s mission to Mars, nuclear fusion for space exploration, photosynthetic sea-slugs and Stephen Hawking’s final research-paper.
A Week of ups and downs for NASA
Saturday (05/05/18) saw the launch of NASA’s INSIGHT (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission to Mars from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The aim of the project is to study for the first time the interior of the Red Planet. The journey to Mars will take six months with landing predicted for 26th November 2018. Operations will then be conducted until 24th November 2020. The probe will collect seismic data on so-called ‘marsquakes’ and the planet’s interior heat-flow in order to learn more about both our red neighbour and the processes that shape rocky planets in general.
InSight will help us unlock the mysteries of Mars in a new way, by not just studying the surface of the planet, but by looking deep inside to help us learn about the earliest building blocks of the planet,” said JPL Director Michael Watkins.
In other NASA news, the space agency announced the successful testing of its space-based nuclear fission system, Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY), at a press conference on Wednesday (02/05/18). The system, created in conjunction with Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), is designed to facilitate long-term manned missions to the moon, Mars and possibly beyond.
“Safe, efficient and plentiful energy will be the key to future robotic and human exploration,” said Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington. “I expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.”
The prototype system uses a Uranium-235 reactor roughly the size of a roll of paper towels to create electricity via nuclear fission. The tests conducted were designed to demonstrate the reactor’s ability to function in harsh environments and under a series of mechanical challenges as well as test the system’s ability to generate electrical energy.
“We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios and KRUSTY passed with flying colours,” Said David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The system provides exciting possibilities with regards to the possibility of both long-term manned and automated mechanical space missions.
This week hasn’t been all positive for NASA though. Also on Wednesday NASA announced the shut-down of the agency’s only currently operating lunar-rover, the Resource Prospector. The department in charge of the rover’s operation, the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) was informed on 23rd April that operations were to cease immediately. No explanation was given for the shutdown and the move has caused considerable confusion given President Trump’s recent lip-service regarding space exploration.
As Dana Hurley, a planetary scientist and LEAG executive committee member told the Washington Post: “If we want to go back to the moon and really work on the moon and make it a place that we can set up research stations and study processes that are occurring on the moon … all these things are really enabled by being able to use resources on the moon for making fuel, propellant, life support, that sort of thing. This mission is a first step in trying to understand how we’re going to exploit those resources,”
The solar-powered sea-slug
A research team at Rutgers University-New Brunswick published a study in the Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution this week detailing the discovery of a remarkable photosynthetic sea-slug. The sea slug, Elysia chlorotica, a mollusc that can grow to more than 2 inches long, which has been found in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and Florida, consumes non-toxic brown algae in order to become photosynthetic. The organism ‘steals’ millions of algae plastids, which operate almost like tiny solar panels, and stores them in its gut lining.
As of yet, the researchers are unsure how the sea-slug maintains the plastids in order to provide a lifetime’s supply of solar energy, which they believe it uses to survive at times of food scarcity. The researchers believe that if this aspect is solved, that mechanism may provide a unique solution to a looming energy crisis.
“It’s a remarkable feat because it’s highly unusual for an animal to behave like a plant and survive solely on photosynthesis,” said Debashish Bhattacharya, senior author of the study “The broader implication is in the field of artificial photosynthesis. That is, if we can figure out how the slug maintains stolen, isolated plastids to fix carbon without the plant nucleus, then maybe we can also harness isolated plastids for eternity as green machines to create bioproducts or energy.”
Stephen Hawking’s final insights on the ‘multiverse’ theory
As Stephen Hawking’s family was preparing for his funeral, colleagues discovered that he had left behind a final paper, co-authored with Thomas Hertog whilst Hawking was on his death-bed. The paper, published on Wednesday in the Journal of High Energy Physics, proposes to set out the mathematics necessary for physicists to confirm the existence of ‘multiverses’ created in the earliest moments of rapid expansion at the beginning of the universe.
Carlos Frenk, a professor of cosmology at Durham University in England explained the paper’s significance to The Sunday Times. “A consequence of inflation is that there should be a multitude of universes, but we have never been able to measure this. The intriguing idea in Hawking’s paper is that [the multiverse] left its imprint on the background radiation permeating our universe and we could measure it with a detector on a spaceship,” Frenk added. “These ideas offer the breathtaking prospect of finding evidence for the existence of other universes. This would profoundly change our perception of our place in the cosmos.”
Co-author Hertog told CBC news “If there’s an infinite range of worlds in your theory, as you can imagine, your theory is not going to say much about how our own universe should be. That was the problem. The old theory was not very predictive.”
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the paper is that it demonstrates even at the end of his life, Hawking never stopped considering the most profound questions of the universe, even suggesting avenues for future research and investigation. Surely nothing exemplifies the scientific endeavour more than Hawking’s endless curiosity.