Terraforming Mars

Mars after terraforming is completeCongratulations to the great Elon Musk, whose Dragon capsule has successfully docked to the Space Station for the second time. SpaceX is moving along in leaps and bounds. Musk has long since stated that his ultimate goal is to successfully land people on the planet Mars. I fully believe he will accomplish that goal. He has even said that he would like to get the cost down to around half a million dollars, which would make moving to Mars a realistic goal for millions of people. I know that if I had the money, and he had the spacecraft, it’d be a tempting offer.

So when humans get to Mars, obviously the first priority would be survival. Mars is a hostile place. It is a freezing -60°C, there is no oxygen, and the atmosphere is only 1% the pressure of Earth’s. Clearly, we will be living indoors. Moving around outside would be possible with the use of pressure suits and oxygen tanks, but the cold would present a real challenge. Most of the energy produced would be used in just keeping us warm.

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What happens after we die?

There are differing definitions of death, but it is clear that if a person is unconscious, their heart has stopped and their brain ceased to function, that person has died. They are beyond resuscitation, and their body, now just an object that resembles a person, meets none of the criteria for life. The body is no longer a series of self-sustaining chemical reactions; through the same miraculous processes that allowed it to live, it will begin an inexorable return to the ecosystem from whence it came.

Following death, pallor mortis is the first stage in the process of post-mortem disembodiment. As the heart has stopped, blood no longer circulates, and the red blood cells (being denser than the plasma) drift downwards, away from the upper surface of the body. This is the cause of the paleness of dead skin, and happens within the first half-hour of death.

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Is flying actually bad for the environment?

I live in a city almost 300 miles away from the city I was born. When I visit my parents, I generally have two options: I can go by train or by plane. Which to pick?

I know that flying is less energy efficient, and it results in more CO2 emissions than catching the train, but importantly: it can be cheaper. I don’t have a lot of money, and small savings can sometimes make a big difference, meaning I am easily swayed by the economic argument. But how strong is the environmental agreement?

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Weird animal #1 – the giant isopod

This is the first in a series of articles about the weird and wonderful of the animal kingdom. You may or may not know about the animals; some will be common, other rare, but all with be noteworthy for possessing an unusual trait or two. The first is about a deep-sea beastie, one that is familiar is shape but not at all in size: the giant isopod.

The giant isopod is a close relative of the common household woodlouse, only massive: the biggest yet found weighed 17 kg and was 76 cm long. They live a solitary life deep at the bottom of the sea, where they scavenge for dead fish and whales in the muddy gloom.

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What is life?

At my high school, we were taught that the defining life is easy. Living things obey the seven life processes – those being: movement, reproduction, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, respiration and growth (the mnemonic being “Mrs Nerg”). Movement can include anything from physically ambling around to microscopic movements of cellular machinery. Reproduction is the production of offspring by parents. Sensitivity is the ability to detect one’s surroundings. Nutrition is the acquisition of materials for use by the body and respiration is the conversion of nutrients into energy; the products of this conversion are either excreted by the organism or used to help it grow.

This exclusive definition of life is simple: anything that does not adhere to every single process is not alive. It is a good working definition for GCSE biology, and one that belies the historical belief that living things and non-living things are entirely separate.  This is no longer the case, as scientists have realised the boundary between life and death is much more blurry…

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Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

The Earth, at first glance, seems a pretty unique place. It’s the only known planet to support life. However, anyone with a basic grasp of arithmetic can see how that shouldn’t be the case; there are somewhere in the region of 300,000,000,000 (three hundred billion) stars in our galaxy, and most are thought to have planets in orbit around them. Furthermore, our galaxy itself is only one of roughly 1,000,000,000,000 (a trillion) that are known to exist in the universe. If only one in a million stars had a planet around it, and only one in a million of those planets supported life, and one in a million of those living planets had intelligent life, there would be literally hundreds of thousands of civilisations in the universe.

Our human civilisation is really very noisy. We leak communications into space. The Wi-Fi box in your living room doesn’t aim its signal at your computer, it broadcasts in every direction; your mobile phone is the same, broadcasting in every direction. Some of the signal created by your conversations goes straight up into space. Of course, telephones and internet routers are small, low powered devices. The real loud-mouths are the television and radio masts, which boom their signal into the cosmos. So if alien civilisations exist, and if they are as noisy as us, why haven’t we heard them?

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The dawn of private spaceflight

The first fifty years of human spaceflight have been totally dominated by governmental organisations. America, Russia, Europe and China have all used tax revenue to finance the difficult engineering task of sending a human into space and returning him safely. The difficulties involved mean that it is also very expensive – but any man or woman with sufficient cash should be able to organise getting a human off Earth. So who will do it first? And who will do it coolest?

SpaceX are a company based in Los Angeles that is focused on developing affordable access to space. The founder and CEO of SpaceX is Elon Musk, the man who was the real-life inspiration for Iron Man’s Tony Stark. Having become a billionaire after founding PayPal and Tesla Motors, Musk realised that the only way that space could become accessible to the average person was if the cost was lowered tenfold or greater. With reusability in mind, he designed the Dragon capsule and the Falcon family of rockets. The Dragon spacecraft has actually flown, attaining Earth orbit in December 2010 (below are some photographs of the maiden flight). Though it was unmanned, it could have held up to seven passengers, who according to Musk “would’ve had a very nice flight.” Dragon’s next flight is scheduled for April 2012, where it will rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

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