We’re About to Find Out How Well Biomining Works in Space

Mining is traditionally thought of as an activity that utilizes picks and shovels, or in more modern times, huge machines that can tear apart entire mountainsides in minutes.  Industrial might isn’t the only way to rip apart rock though.  A scalable and much more environmentally friendly way to access the materials mining seeks to extract is to use microbes.  Such techniques are already widely used in terrestrial mining operations.  But recently, a team led by the University of Edinburgh have launched an asteroid mining experiment using microbes on the International Space Station (ISS).

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A Company is Hoping to Race Rovers on the Moon

Artist Rendering of the lunar race rovers

There is an argument to be made about playing sports in space.  Differences in gravity, atmospheres, and even “weather” can make for some interesting variation of well known sports.  And if there’s one sport that’s been around for as long as humanity, it’s racing.  Viewers that tune in for the entertainment could provide a great source of funding revenue that could help support other, more scientifically rigorous programs.  Now a company called Lunar Outpost has announced plans to hold the first ever extraterrestrial robotic race – on the moon.

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Glycine Can Form In Interstellar Clouds

Author’s note: This article was written in collaboration with Vincent Kofman, a co-author of the paper it discusses and Post Doctoral Researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Amino acids are one of the most important building blocks of life as we know it. At its core, they contain an amino and an acid group, through which they can link together with other amino acids. That linking process can form long chains, which is how they form proteins. In humans, 20 different amino acids make up all proteins, and the difference between them is in the molecular side chain between the amino and the acid group. The different groups make interconnections in the chain, folding it into highly specific forms, allowing the proteins to perform highly specific tasks, ranging from metabolism, to muscle movement, and cell duplication.

Given that their presence is a necessary, though not necessarily a sufficient, condition for the development of life, scientists have spent many decades exploring where they first formed.  With a paper in Nature Astronomy published last month, they moved one step closer to that understanding, by discovering that it is possible to form glycine, the simplest amino acid, in the star nurseries of interstellar clouds.

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Spiral-shaped Planetary Disks Should Be More Common. Giant Planets Might Be Disrupting Their Formation

Planetary system formation is a process that involves astounding and complex forces.  Humans have only just started trying to understand what goes on in this extraordinarily important phase of the development of new worlds.  As such, we are continuing to make new discoveries and come up with better models that better fit the observations that our instruments are able to collect.

The most recent of those improved models was announced by a research team at the University of Warwick.  A paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters explores possible reasons for why there is a lack of spiral structures in newly formed protoplanetary discs.  Their answer is a simple one: massive planets that form on the outside of the disc might be disrupting the spiral formation.

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Satellites can see the pollution trails from individual ships

All hands have to be on deck if the world is going to tackle degradation, and one of the biggest emitters is also one of the least well known – international shipping.  A 2018 study estimated that pollution emitted from cargo ships resulted in 400,000 annual premature deaths from lung cancer and heart disease.  Many of those deaths resulted from the sulfur dioxide the ships were belching into the air.  Since the beginning of the year, sulfur dioxide has been capped at .5% of emissions, compared to 3.5% previously.  While the long term benefits of that emissions cap will take some time to appear, there’s another pollutant that could potentially be tackled in the near future: nitrogen dioxide.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is one of the emissions from diesel engines, and has been strictly capped in the automotive market for a number of years.  While the shipping industry so far has escaped regulation, there is a strong possibility that restrictions may be coming in the near future.  Regulations in themselves are great, but they are useless if not enforced, and the open ocean is a notoriously difficult place to enforce them.  That difficult task might have just gotten easier, as scientists at the European Space Agency realized they can use satellite data they are already collecting to track the nitrogen dioxide emissions of individual ships on the open ocean.

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Figuring Out How To Breathe the Moon’s Regolith

Oxygen ranks right up there as one of the most important resources for use in space exploration.  Not only is it a critical component of rocket fuel, it’s also necessary for astronauts to breathe anywhere outside Earth’s atmosphere.  Availability of this abundant resource isn’t a problem – it’s widely available throughout the solar system.  One place it is particularly prevalent is lunar regolith, the thin material layer that makes up the moon’s surface.  The difficulty comes from one of the quirks of oxygen – it bonds to almost everything.

Approximately 45% of the weight of regolith is oxygen, but it is bonded to materials such as iron and titanium.  To utilize both the oxygen and the materials it’s bonded to they must be separated.  And a British company, with support from the European Space Agency, has begun testing a technique to judge its potential effectiveness on the moon.

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ESA Is Going To Spend $102 Million To Remove a Single Piece of Space Junk

How much would you be willing to spend to remove a piece of space debris?  Does $102 million sound like enough?  That is how much a contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and a Swiss start-up named ClearSpace SA is worth, and the entire contract is to simply remove a single piece of space debris.

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There’s Fabric on the Space Station That Scientists Are Using to “Listen” for Space Dust Impacts

One of the biggest threats to the International Space Station (ISS) comes from micrometeoroid impacts.  A small hole in the wrong place can throw the resident astronauts into a life threatening situation.  Currently, there is no active program to monitor these types of impacts, though scientists think they must be common given the ubiquity of small objects in the ISS’s orbit.  An interdisciplinary team from MIT hopes to provide some data to support that theory by using an extremely unusual impact sensor made almost entirely out of fabric.

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Geysers on Europa might come from pockets of water under the ice

Observations have already confirmed the existence of a sub-surface ocean on Europa, and there has been rampant speculation about whether they could contain life.  While there have been tentative plans to send a submersible spacecraft to this ocean, we are still a long way from uncovering what lies in those depths.

Which is one big reason why the geysers that occasionally shoot out of Europa’s ice sheet have garnered such interest.  Scientists hoped that some of the ejected water could come from that ocean.  It could then be sampled with a simple fly-by mission, such as Europa Clipper, rather than a submersible craft.  However, a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters suggests a much more mundane source of the geysers – local liquid water buried in the moon’s thick ice shelf.

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The First Civilization We Contact Will Have Been Around Much Longer Than Humanity

Recently at UT, author Matt Williams has been writing a series called “Beyond Fermi’s Paradox”, which takes a look at possible resolutions to one of the most famous questions in science: “Where is everybody?”  As Matt discusses, there are multiple hypothetical solutions, but there may eventually come a day when we can definitively answer it.

Consideration of that day opens up a whole host of new questions, not the least of which is what will an intelligent civilization we find be like?  Carl Sagan popularized the notion that it is very unlikely that any extraterrestrial civilization would be equivalent to ours in terms of technological progress.  What he did not address was the relative age of the civilization and what that might mean in terms of their interest in communicating with us.  Now a team of astronomers have come up with an answer to that question using one of the most underappreciated mathematical tools: statistics. Their model provides a simple answer: any intelligent civilization is likely older than us, and potentially much older.

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