Wednesday, 31 January 2018


10 Transportation Methods of the Future
By Adrian Chirila,
Toptenz, 31 January 2018.

It is somewhat safe to say that, without transportation, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. The discovery of fire, speech, writing, and all the other man-made inventions, have definitely brought us a long way. But without the ability to transport these inventions to other parts of the world, many of them would have simply faded back into obscurity. And many of them have, by the way. Nevertheless, transportation freed us up to become the dominant species on the planet, moving from one place to the other with relative ease, colonizing new places and meeting new cultures - sometimes with bad consequences.

We went from simply walking, to riding horses, to inventing the wheel, to crossing vast oceans, to flying over them entirely, and finally, to going into outer space. But even with how much transportation has evolved over the centuries, especially during the past several decades, innovation is only picking up steam. Who knows how people will be moving around in 20 years? Well, these examples might offer us a glimpse of what is to come.

10. Gliding Taxis

Up until the invention of flying, water was the fastest means of transportation. But even to this day, traveling by water is still the cheapest. In any case, by combining the benefits of both air and sea travel, two men, Alain Thébault and Anders Bringdal, have designed a water taxi that seems to be gliding right above the water surface. Known as Sea Bubbles, these transportation vehicles are perfect for overly-congested cities that also have a major river, or another body of water, passing through. Not only are they able to take you to, or close to, your destination in a fraction of the time, but they will do it in a completely clean way.

Each individual Sea Bubble can hold up to five people, and can be accessed via special docks along the river. They are battery-powered, and have a 50-62 mile range at speeds of up to 20 mph. What’s particularly interesting about these vehicles is their ability to glide over the water surface, thus reducing friction with the water, and improving both its speed and range in the process. They do this by making use of two wings submerged below the water surface. When in motion, the Sea Bubble lifts up from the water, with only its two wings making contact. Because of this, the ride will be less bumpy as compared to ordinary boats, and there will be little to no waves generated. And because it is battery-powered, the Bubble is completely silent.

They made their debut on Paris’ River Seine in the summer of 2017. Anne Hidalgo, the city’s mayor, said in a statement, “I really believe in the development of river transport. Most of the world’s big cities were built on riverbanks, an advantage we have to use to reduce our reliance on polluting cars.”

9. Hoverbikes

How long have we’ve been waiting for hoverbikes? Probably ever since we first saw them being used in Star Wars, at least. Well, they are finally here and they work. Looking more like a commercial drone on steroids, the Hoversurf Scorpion-3 is the brainchild of a Russian drone start-up. These hoverbikes are programmed to fly at altitudes of 16.4 feet for 25 minutes, and at maximum speeds of up to 44 mph. They are capable of going much higher than that, setting a record of 93.5 feet, but for safety reasons they are limited to only 16.4 feet. It weighs only 229 pounds, which luckily is below the 250-pound threshold - the maximum weight allowed before you would need a registration or a pilot’s license in most countries.

According to their website, these hoverbikes are made for extreme sports enthusiasts who don’t shy away from heights and high speeds. But someone else has shown interest in acquiring an entire fleet of them - the Dubai Police. With them, the officers could zip over traffic, or reach inaccessible areas, in a moment’s notice. But before they will unleash them onto the city streets, the Dubai Police will conduct further testing to explore what other possible uses these hoverbikes might have.

8. Flying Cars

If there are hoverbikes around, then flying cars shouldn’t be too far behind. Now, even though the project is still under development and has some way to go before it will become available to the general public, Uber and NASA have come together in order to make flying cars a reality. Known as Uber Elevate, this project involves the development of a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which will most likely have a fixed-wing design. Mobile propellers at each end of the wings will be able to rotate up and down, thus allowing the VTOL to land and takeoff on the spot, without the need of a runway.

The aim of this project will be to bring an airborne version of present-day Uber taxis to large, congested cities all around the world. Uber is also aiming to make their vehicles autonomous, so as to eliminate the human error element. The hope is to have these flying cars take people from one place to another over the city and land on specifically-designed helipads or on the rooftops of certain buildings.

But in order to do that, a special system needs to be developed that will manage the airspace above the city. NASA has been working on a project called Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System (UAS in the NAS) which aims to achieve just that. In a statement, Uber’s Chief Product Officer said that “Uber Elevate will be performing far more flights over cities on a daily basis than has ever been done before. Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace-management technologies.”

They hope that by 2020, some of these flying cars will be operational. The company has also announced that LA, Dallas, and Dubai will be the cities where this technology will be implemented first. Uber is not the only one with such grand plans in mind. Airbus is also developing its own CityAirbus program, which will work, more or less, on the same principles as Uber Elevate.

7. Personal Submarines

In recent years, Aston Martin, the British luxury car manufacturer best known as James Bond’s car-maker of choice, has entered the seafaring market with a 1,000-horsepower motorboat. More recently, however, they’ve designed and created a submarine. Together with Florida-based Triton Submarines LLC, Aston Martin has developed a high-end, luxury submersible, codenamed Project Neptune, and worth US$4 million. Built around a platform specifically designed for super yachts, Neptune will only be 5.9 feet in height and with a total weight of about 8,800 pounds. It will be able to carry three people to a depth of 1,650 feet and at speeds of up to 3 knots, or about 3.5 miles per hour. Oh, and it’s also air conditioned.

Now, based primarily on its price, this submarine will not be for everyone. Like their cars, Aston Martin is providing for the higher-ups in society. With those super rich people in mind, Marek Reichman, the company’s chief creative officer, said in a statement that “what they want to experience is changing. It’s no longer about just having a launch or having your tender. It’s about having some other way of entertaining your guests.”

6. City-to-City Rockets

“If you build a ship that’s capable of going to Mars, what if you take that same ship and go from one place to another on Earth? We looked at that and the results are quite interesting,” said Elon Musk in an interview not that long ago. Over the past several years, Musk’s SpaceX has been experimenting with reusable rockets in an attempt at lowering the cost of going to Mars. If the cost of sending people and cargo into space was at around US$10,000 per pound, after Musk’s many test flights and experimentation with reusable rockets, that price has dropped to around US$1,000 per pound. This price reduction has ignited some debate about a possible intercontinental transportation system involving rockets.

Now, the plan is pretty out there and it may take some time before it could become a reality and available to the general public. Nevertheless, if it’s ever put into practice, it could connect any two cities anywhere on the face of the Earth. One such rocket would be able to transport 100 people from New York to Shanghai at speeds of 17,000 miles per hour and in just 39 minutes. It would, thus, take most people more time commuting to work every day than it would to travel half-way around the world.

5. The Self-Driving Monorail

Back in 2015, a company by the name of SkyTran opened a 900-foot test station near Tel Aviv, Israel. This station is used as a testing ground for a self-driving monorail system capable of transporting people 20 feet above the ground, and at speeds of 155 mph. The system involves a series of 300-pound pods traveling on a network of rails suspended above the ground. Together with NASA, SkyTran designed differently-sized pods that can accommodate two or four people, one for the disabled, and another, larger one used for transporting cargo. Somewhat similar to a Maglev train, these pods glide on the suspended rail by making use of electricity, gravity, and magnetism. Using the same amount of electricity as two hairdryers, each pod reaches a speed of 10 mph, after which it accelerates on its own, without any additional power.

Due to their small design, these pods can even go through buildings, with stations being located within the buildings’ lobbies themselves. Unlike normal public transport, SkyTran pods do not have a precise schedule. Passengers will get on the first pod that shows up and will input their destination of choice. They will then be taken there automatically in only a fraction of the time it would take traveling on the ground. The first such suspended rail system will be implemented in Lagos, Nigeria by 2020. There are also plans of building one in Abu Dhabi.

4. Self-Balancing Wheelchairs

An obvious sign of a developed society is how well it treats its weakest members. When we look at disabled people, for instance, that progress presents itself in the form of integrated infrastructure such as ramps, special platforms, toilets, and so on. But this infrastructure, especially if not built right from the start, can cost well into the billions nationwide. One other way to address this issue, while still providing for the disabled, is to redesign wheelchairs so as to get around without the need of this costly infrastructure. This is what four university students have managed to achieve by independently funding, designing, and creating the scewo wheelchair.

By making use of state of the art technology, this wheelchair uses two large wheels to drive on flat terrain, while two sturdy rubber tracks allow it to climb and descend stairs with ease. Thanks to its wide base, the wheelchair is also able to go up and down spiral staircases. Its design is also compact enough so as to maneuver easily indoors and fit through standard doors. It can also rotate on the spot, drive on slippery terrain such as snow or loose gravel, and can raise itself so as to bring the user at eye-level, as well as to reach overhead objects.

3. The Float

With the tremendous potential the Maglev system has when it comes to fast transportation, it is no wonder that more and more companies are looking to implement it in the coming decades. But while this system is still restricted to rail networks for the time being, some have envisioned it being used on our roads and highways. Short for magnetic levitation, the Maglev system makes use of two magnets - one that lifts the train off the tracks, and another that pushes it forward. The train is, thus, able to accelerate without actually making contact with the rails themselves. This way, it can reach speeds of up to 375 mph - making a trip from NYC to LA last only around 7 hours. Anyway, the Float is a car concept designed by student Yunchen Cai which makes use of the Maglev system.

The design makes the Float look like a bubble floating just above the street. Each individual pod is able to seat one or two passengers, but several of these pods can clamp up together (like bubbles in a bubble bath), allowing for more people to travel together. The Float also has bucket seats and sliding doors, making it easy for people of all ages to get in or out. And like several other entries on this list, the Float will not necessarily be private property, owned by individuals, but rather, they could be better seen as taxis which one could call upon anywhere, by using an app.

2. Windowless Planes

At first glance, windowless planes (and definitely not windowless in the way you’re probably thinking) do not sound like a particularly good idea. But after seeing this new design, some may just change their minds. Conceptualized by Technicon Design, an international agency, this proposed idea was designed to make use of already existing technology, or one that will be available in the very near future. Instead of the standard plane windows, these private jets will have no windows whatsoever. Instead, they will make use of high-resolution, low-voltage screens located on the sides and ceiling of the plane. Cameras mounted on the outside will capture the surrounding views and will display them in real-time in the inside of the plane.

These screens will be powered by solar panels mounted on the roof of the plane. Now, besides making the flight a more pleasurable experience, this technology will make these private jets sturdier and less cumbersome. By removing the windows altogether, the overall weight of the plane will drop significantly, thus making it much more fuel efficient. And with a simplified fuselage, there is much more flexibility for the interior design, as well. These displays can also project other images, besides the outside view - changing the mood inside the jet, depending on preference. If desired, they can also display a traditional plane interior.

1. The Space Train

With so many proposed plans of colonizing the solar system these days, it would only be fair to address at least one means of future space travel. Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, humans will begin forming a colony on Mars. If this ends up being the case, we will need to develop a means of transportation that is fast and reliable enough to get us to and from there in only a fraction of the time. Today, a manned mission to the Red Planet is expected to last somewhere around six months, or even more. During this prolonged period of time, astronauts and colonists will be exposed to microgravity which has a long series of negative effects on the human body. One proposed transport system is a hypothetical space train, known as the Solar Express.

When it comes to space travel, the most expensive and time-consuming portions are the acceleration and deceleration phases. This proposed space train would, thus, never stop, going back and forth between Earth and Mars indefinitely. The Solar Express will first begin to accelerate by making use of rocket boosters. It will then use the planets’ gravity to continuously slingshot itself back and forth between the two. This way, the train would be able to reach 1% of the speed of light, or about 1,864 miles per second. This speed would reduce an Earth-to-Mars trip to just 2 days. Geez, Matt Damon would be pissed.

Unmanned probes would mine for water or other resources from asteroids and would rendezvous back with the train on its return journey. Boarding the train from the planets would be done in somewhat the same fashion, without it ever needing to stop. We are still a long way away from developing one such space train - with much of the technology required not even existing at this point. Nevertheless, the entire concept is intriguing, to say the least.

Top image: Solar Express, the concept space train. Credit: Video screenshot Imaginactive/YouTube.

[Source: Toptenz. Top image added.]

Tuesday, 30 January 2018


Plastic - both a wonderful invention and a scourge on our planet. It's wonderful because it's durable, but it's also terrible because of its durability. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. Almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet in some form or another. Most are never recycled and remains on our land and in our seas forever. This video by the United Nations shows the damage plastic brings to all creatures who depend on the ocean for their food - from birds…to us.

Monday, 29 January 2018


10 More Objects Clearly Invented to Annoy Physics
By Karl Smallwood,
Toptenz, 29 January 2018.

A while ago we personified the nebulous concept of physics and wrote an article about 10 objects we feel were seemingly invented just to annoy it. Join us today as we discuss another 10 inventions that thumb their nose at physics and slaps its friend science right in the chops.

10. Vantablack - AKA super-black paint

Vantablack is, to put it simply, a man-made substance that absorbs over 99% of the visible light that touches it, making anything coated in it look like a hole in space-time. Like all cool future stuff, Vantablack is made using carbon nanotubes and has numerous theoretical applications, such as coating the inside of space-telescopes and potentially being used to create skinny jeans that never fade.

3D objects coated in Vantablack absorb so much light that it’s largely impossible to make out any surface detail on any object covered in it. As a result, most objects coated Vantablack look 2D. So for example, a mannequin coated in the substance would look like a free-standing shadow you could manipulate with your bare hands, or alternatively, a secret character you’ve not yet unlocked.

Amazingly, Vantablack is so black that most people’s eyes have trouble adjusting to what they’re seeing and some people simply cannot deal with looking at an object coated in it for any length of time, admitting that it simply looks “wrong.” Sadly, Vantablack is rather expensive, which means our dream of doing donuts in a car covered in it will remain just that.

9. Graphene Aerogel - AKA a material lighter than your farts

Aerogel is the name of a subset of synthetic materials that can be made from a variety of base ingredients. Incredibly light and a fantastic insulating material, a piece of aerogel weighing less than a feather could protect your hand from the heat of a blowtorch indefinitely, and a regular adult male could easily lift a piece bigger than a house without trying…or a piece as big as two houses while only trying a little if girls were watching.

Seemingly just to show they could, Chinese scientists recently created graphene aerogel, which is literally lighter than air itself. So light is this new form of aerogel that a cubic meter of it would weigh just 5 ounces and a reasonably sized block can rest effortlessly on a single blade of grass without bending it.

As an insulating material that weighs virtually nothing there’s a lot of interest from scientists to use aerogel as a space-age insulator for rockets, though personally we’d prefer duvets that rise 3 feet in the air when we fart too hard.

8. Programmable Ferrofluid - AKA the T-1000’s granddaddy

In the simplest sense, Ferrofluid is just nanoscopic iron fragments suspended in oil. While this doesn’t sound all that complicated, with careful manipulation of magnetic fields it’s possible to “program” ferrofluid to perform rudimentary actions or even take on specific shapes. The actual uses of ferrofluids are limited with most applications being theoretical in nature, such as using it as a rocket fuel in a zero gravity environment. As a result, the primary use of most ferrofluids is to demonstrate what exactly a ferrofluid is, usually by manipulating it ever more intricate and elaborate ways using magnetic fields.

You could say that this is a waste of a frankly marvelous creation, but tell us you wouldn’t pay good money to see someone program a pool of ferrofluid to assume the form of Robert Patrick’s face for just a second before turning into a giant, revolving steel middle finger as the Terminator theme played on a boombox.

7. Anechoic Chambers - AKA the room where sound is measure in negative decibels

Anechoic chambers are special rooms designed to absorb as much sound as possible, making them totally and utterly silent. In fact, anechoic chambers are so quiet that the ambient noise level inside them is measured in negative decibels. How is this possible, you ask? Well, 0 decibels, contrary to common wisdom, doesn’t mean something is silent, it just means it doesn’t make enough noise for a human ear to detect. In other words, 0 decibels is the limit at which sounds become wholly imperceptible to the average human. For anyone interested, you can read a more comprehensive and science-y overview here. Due to the way anechoic chambers are constructed there is no ambient noise whatsoever, making them useful for testing exactly how loud given products are or allowing astronauts to adjust to the silence of space.

Speaking of which, few people can physically stand in an anechoic chamber for more than a few minutes at a time due to the fact it allows you to hear things like the sound of your own heart beating, or your eyeballs scratching the inside of your skull as you move around. This understandably makes many people uncomfortable to the point even people who work with anechoic chambers on a daily basis refuse to physically step inside them lest the sound of their own bones straining under gravity drives them mad.

6. Non-Newtonian Fluids - AKA punch-proof liquids

Non-Newtonian fluids are, as their name suggest,  fluids that don’t obey the traditionally established rules physics; specifically, Newton’s law of Viscosity. In a nutshell, most well-known non-Newtonian fluids like Oobleck (a substance commonly made from cornstarch and water) become more viscous and harden when a direct physical force is exerted upon them. In practice this results in a fluid that near-instantly repels physical damage by hardening like a rock in response to extreme trauma, like the creature from The Thing or the Symbiote from Spider-Man. In short, it’s a liquid that would break your hand if you tried to punch it.

The practical applications of non-Newtonian fluids are admittedly limited, but a potential use would be body armor that instantly hardens upon being shot but remains malleable during everyday wear. A problem, however, is that if too much force is applied to a non-Newtonian fluid it shatters like glass before melting into a big pool of goop, meaning a person wearing body armor made of it could potentially have their organs skewered by hypersonic shards of mystery fluid if they were hit by a car or something. Which, as you can imagine, isn’t ideal.

5. Prince Rupert’s Drops - AKA naturally formed bulletproof glass

Prince Rupert’s Drops are curious, tadpole-looking pieces of glass that display an unusual property in that the tail end is almost shockingly sensitive. So much so that that the lightest touch can cause it to explode like a tiny tadpole-shaped grenade. In contrast, the “head” of the drop is virtually indestructible, being able to shrug off most forms of damage including hits from a sledgehammer and bullets.

Largely considered a scientific curiosity more than anything, Prince Rupert’s Drops are made by dripping molten glass into cold water, and they serve no real purpose beyond being kind of cool to watch explode. For anyone curious about how they work, as the molten center of the “head” of the drop cools, it draws the already solidified outer layer inward, hardening itself considerably and turning the drop into a natural kind of tempered glass. The whole thing is in a delicate state of flux with both extreme tensile and compressive stress being in near perfect balance inside the drop. This balance is near-impossible to upset with physical force to the drop’s head but can be effortlessly displaced by little more than a gentle tap to the tail. Meaning while one end is literally bulletproof, the other can’t survive being hit with by a Nerf gun.

4. BAM - AKA a material more slippery than a non-stick frying pan and harder than diamond

BAM is a material created entirely by accident in the late 1990s. Tougher than a diamond plated T-Rex skull and nearly impossible to cut, polish, or shape in any way, BAM was created by combining boron, aluminum, and magnesium with titanium boride. The original intention behind BAM was to create a material that generated electricity when it was exposed to heat; instead they created a material that is simultaneously harder than diamond and more slippery than Teflon.

There are countless possibly applications for BAM, though the most exciting would be an “eternal lubricant” for machinery that provided an everlasting non-stick surface that never wore away. As the coefficient of friction for BAM is only marginally worse than lubricated steel, it could theoretically be used in motors to provide a permanently lubricated surface. This is because, for reasons experts can’t quite explain, BAM continually replenishes its own non-stick surface, meaning a gear or joint made with it would never need to be lubricated. Outside of the energy industry (where it’s estimated BAM could save hundreds of millions of dollars per year) it has more mundane applications in home appliances where it could be used to create non-stick pans that never scratch or cars that bird poop slides right off of.

3. Superabsorbent Polymers - AKA magic water-drinking balls of plastic

Superabsorbent polymers are an unusual material capable of absorbing their weight in water a hundred times over and then some. This property allows clear polymer crystals that absorb exactly the right amount of liquid to take on the same index of refraction as pure water. In lay terms this means that upon being placed into water they totally disappear.

Due to their ability to absorb water almost infinitely (a pound of these things can absorb like 50 gallons of water) superabsorbent polymers are used extensively by the diaper and sanitary towel industry to create lightweight products that can absorb a substantial amount of liquid while remaining bone-dry to the touch.

More frivolously, they can be used to make people believe you’re some kind of wizard due to their aforementioned ability to instantly disappear the moment they’re submerged in water. While this ability is admittedly less impressive than the ability to absorb its weight in water a hundred times over from a physics standpoint, theoretically if you filled a pool with these things you could moonwalk across the surface dressed like Prince, and you know what? That’s kind of awesome too.

2. LiquiGlide - AKA ketchup’s worst nightmare

LiquiGlide is essentially a hyper-non-stick coating so effective even the most viscous and sticky liquid cannot hope to cling to any surface covered in it. Described as having “limitless” potential applications by its inventor, the most visually impressive example of LiquiGlide in action arguably is among its most simple: a LiquiGlide treated ketchup bottle.

As the video above shows, when poured from a LiquiGlide-treated bottle, ketchup flies out like it’s possessed, leaving no residue whatsoever on the inside of the bottle itself. In addition to making it - to use the technical term - “piss-easy” to use every last drop of a bottle of ketchup, LiquiGlide could theoretically save consumers millions by reducing food waste and even help save the world by completely negating the need to clean packaging that has been recycled.

In a world where LiquiGlide is used in everyday products, common, eternally annoying problems like running out of mascara because it dried up and stuck to the inside of the bottle will be totally eliminated. Also, because LiquiGlide also non-toxic and cheap it could be theoretically used inside of anything. Jars of peanut butter you don’t need to scrape the inside of with a knife when they’re half finished, cans of paint that won’t stick to the inside of the lid, and tubes of toothpaste you can squeeze from the middle would all be a reality in a world where LiquiGlide is commonplace. So of course, nobody seems to want to pay to use it because we don’t deserve a world that perfect.

1. The Standard Kilogram - AKA the world’s roundest ball

Sitting in a vault somewhere under the watchful eye of labcoat-wearing scientist is a hunk of silicon so round and smooth that if you scaled it to the size of the Earth, its highest peak would only be about 30-feet high. Crafted from a single silicon crystal, the sphere is designed to be a replace a similar, but not as smooth, sphere of platinum used to define the kilogram.

As mundane as the ball looks, it cannot be overstated how impressive a feat of engineering this is. For starters, the silicon was purified in a Soviet centrifuge originally used to refine nuclear material before being artificially aged by a German meteorological institute to create a giant, 10-kilo hunk of material. Finally, the silicon was cut in half before each half was painstakingly smoothed, atom by atom, into a near-perfect sphere by a guy who spent his entire life making very round objects, who they dragged out of retirement, named Achim Leistner. Leistner calls the resulting orbs of silicon his “masterpieces” and due to their uniqueness, they’re considered to be priceless by the scientific community.

Understandably, each orb is kept under lock and key and few people are even allowed to see them, let alone touch them. Which is fair, because we know for a fact if we ever had a chance to touch one we’d coat it in Vantablack and roll it into Stephen Hawking’s office.

Top image: Prince Rupert's Drops. Credit: Mg3kc/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Toptenz.]

Saturday, 27 January 2018


8 telescopes that will change how we see space
By Russell McLendon,
Mother Nature Network, 25 January 2018.

Our view from Earth has always been pretty good, aside from clouds and glare. It was transformed by telescopes in the 1600s, though, and has improved wildly ever since. From X-ray telescopes to the atmosphere-bypassing Hubble Space Telescope, it's hard to even believe what we can see now.

And despite all they've done, telescopes are just getting started. Astronomy is on the verge of another Hubble-like disruption, thanks to a new breed of mega-telescopes that use huge mirrors, adaptive optics and other tricks to peer deeper into the sky - and further back in time - than ever before. These billion-dollar projects have been in the works for years, from hulks like Hawaii's controversial Thirty Meter Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's highly anticipated successor.

Today's largest ground-based telescopes use mirrors 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter, but Hubble's 2.4-meter mirror steals the show because it's above the atmosphere, which distorts light for observers on Earth's surface. And the next generation of telescopes will outshine them all, with even more enormous mirrors as well as better adaptive optics - a method of using flexible, computer-controlled mirrors to adjust for atmospheric distortion in real time. The Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile will be 10 times more powerful than Hubble, for example, while the European Extremely Large Telescope will gather more light than all existing 10-meter telescopes on Earth combined.

Most of these telescopes won't be operational until the 2020s, and some have faced setbacks that could delay or even derail their development. But if any really do become as revolutionary as Hubble was in 1990, we better start preparing our minds now. So, without further ado, here are a few up-and-coming telescopes you'll probably hear a lot about in the next few decades:

1. European Extremely Large Telescope (Chile)

Image: L. Calçada/ESO

Chile's Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth, almost completely lacking the precipitation, vegetation and light pollution that can muddle skies elsewhere.

Already home to the European Southern Observatory's La Silla and Paranal observatories - the latter of which includes its world-renowned Very Large Telescope - and several radio astronomy projects, the Atacama will soon also host the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT. Construction on this aptly named behemoth began in June 2014, when workers blasted away some flat space atop Cerro Armazones, a 10,000-foot mountain in the northern Chilean desert. Construction on the telescope and the dome began in May 2017.

Projected to start operation in 2024, the E-ELT will be the largest telescope on Earth, boasting a main mirror that stretches 39 meters across. Its mirror will be composed of many segments - in this case 798 hexagons measuring 1.4 meters each. It will collect 13 times more light than today's telescopes, helping it scour the skies for hints of exoplanets, dark energy and other elusive mysteries. "On top of this," the ESO adds, "astronomers are also planning for the unexpected - new and unforeseeable questions will surely arise from the new discoveries made with the E-ELT."

2. Giant Magellan Telescope (Chile)


Another addition to Chile's impressive telescope collection is the Giant Magellan Telescope, planned for Las Campanas Observatory in the southern Atacama. The GMT's unique design features "seven of today's largest stiff monolith mirrors," according to the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. These will reflect light onto seven smaller, flexible secondary mirrors, then back to a central primary mirror and finally to advanced imaging cameras, where the light can be analyzed.

"Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence," the GMTO explains. "These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear, steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope."

As with many next-generation telescopes, the GMT is setting its sights on our most vexing questions about the universe. Scientists will use it to search for alien life on exoplanets, for instance, and to study how the first galaxies formed, why there's so much dark matter and dark energy, and what the universe will be like a few trillion years from now. Its target for opening, or "first light," is 2023.

3. Thirty Meter Telescope (Hawaii)

Image: Thirty Meter Telescope/Wikimedia Commons

The Thirty Meter Telescope's name speaks for itself. Its mirror would be triple the diameter of any telescope in use today, letting scientists see light from farther and fainter objects than ever before. Beyond studying the birth of planets, stars and galaxies, it would also serve other purposes like shedding light on dark matter and dark energy, revealing connections between galaxies and black holes, discovering exoplanets, and searching for alien life.

The TMT project has been in the works since the 1990s, envisioned as a "powerful complement to the James Webb Space Telescope in tracing the evolution of galaxies and the formation of stars and planets." It would join 12 other giant telescopes already perched atop Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on Earth from base to peak and a mecca for astronomers around the world. The TMT received final approval and broke ground in 2014, but work was soon halted due to protests opposing the telescope's placement on Mauna Kea.

TMT has offended many Native Hawaiians, who oppose further construction of large telescopes on a mountain that is considered sacred. Hawaii's supreme court ruled TMT's construction permit invalid in late 2015, arguing the state didn't let critics voice their grievances at a hearing before it was granted. The state's Board of Land and Natural Resources then voted to approve the construction permit in September 2017, although that ruling is reportedly being appealed.

4. Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (Chile)


Larger mirrors aren't the only key to building a game-changing telescope. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will measure just 8.4 meters in diameter (which is still pretty huge), but what it lacks in size it makes up for with scope and speed. As a survey telescope, it's designed to scan the entire night sky rather than focus on individual targets - only it will do so every few nights, using Earth's largest digital camera to record colorful, time-lapse movies of the sky in action.

That 3.2 billion-pixel camera, about the size of a small car, will also be able to capture an extremely wide field of view, taking images that cover 49 times the area of Earth's moon in a single exposure. This will add a "qualitatively new capability in astronomy," according to the LSST Corporation, which is building the telescope along with the U.S. Energy Department and National Science Foundation.

"The LSST will provide unprecedented three-dimensional maps of the mass distribution in the universe," the developers add - maps that could shed light on the mysterious dark energy that drives the universe's accelerating expansion. It will also produce a full census of our own solar system, including potentially hazardous asteroids as small as 100 meters. First light is scheduled for 2022.

5. James Webb Space Telescope

Image: Northrop Grumman/NASA

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has big shoes to fill. Designed to succeed Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope, it has generated high expectations - and expenses - during nearly 20 years of planning. Cost overruns pushed the launch date back to 2018, then testing and integration delayed it further until 2019. The price tag soared past its US$5 billion budget in 2011, nearly leading Congress to nix its funding. It survived, and is now limited to an US$8 billion cap set by Congress.

As with Hubble and Spitzer, JWST's main strength comes from being in space. But it's also three times the size of Hubble, letting it carry a 6.5-meter primary mirror that unfolds to reach full size. That should help it top even Hubble's images, providing longer wavelength coverage and higher sensitivity. "The longer wavelengths enable the Webb telescope to look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies," NASA explains, "as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today."

Hubble is expected to remain in orbit until at least 2027, and possibly longer, so there's a good chance it will still be at work when JWST arrives on the job in a few years. (Spitzer, an infrared telescope launched in 2003, was designed to last 2.5 years but may keep working until "late in this decade.")


The JWST isn't the only exciting new space telescope on NASA's plate. The agency also acquired two repurposed spy telescopes from the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 2012, each of which has a 2.4-meter primary mirror along with a secondary mirror to enhance image sharpness. Either of these secondhand telescopes could be more powerful than Hubble, according to NASA, which now plans to use one for a proposed mission to study dark energy from orbit.

That mission, titled WFIRST (for "Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope"), was originally going to use a telescope with mirrors between 1.3 and 1.5 meters in diameter. The NRO spy telescope will offer big improvements over that, NASA says, potentially yielding "Hubble-quality imaging over an area of sky 100 times larger than Hubble."

WFIRST is expected to settle fundamental questions about the nature of dark energy, which makes up roughly 68 percent of the universe yet still defies our attempts to understand what it is. That could reveal all kinds of new information about the evolution of the universe, but as with most high-powered telescopes, this one is a multi-tasker. Beyond demystifying dark energy, WFIRST will also join in the rapidly growing quest to discover new exoplanets and even entire galaxies.

"A picture from Hubble is a nice poster on the wall, while a WFIRST image will cover the entire wall of your house," team member David Spergel said in a recent statement. WFIRST is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s.

7. Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (China)

Photo: FAST

China recently opened a giant radio telescope with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) project, located in Guizhou province. With a reflector diameter roughly the size of 30 football fields, FAST is almost twice as large as its cousin, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. While both FAST and Arecibo are massive radio telescopes, FAST can shift its reflectors, of which there are 4,450, to different directions to better investigate the stars. Arecibo's reflectors, in contrast, are fixed in their positions and rely on a suspended receiver. The US$180 million telescope will seek out gravitational waves, pulsars and, of course, signs of alien life.

FAST was not without controversy, though. The Chinese government moved 9,000 people who were living within a 3-mile radius of the telescope site. Residents were given roughly US$1,800 to aid their efforts to find new homes. The goal of the move, according to government officials, was to "create a sound electromagnetic wave environment" for the telescope to operate.

China also recently approved another, even larger radio telescope, the Chinese Academy of Science announced in January 2018. It's scheduled to open in 2023.

8. ExTrA project (Chile)

Photo: Petr Horálek/ESO

Its three telescopes may be small compared with some of the giants in this list, but France's new ExTrA ("Exoplanets in Transits and their Atmospheres") project could still be a huge deal in the search for habitable planets. It uses three 0.6-meter telescopes, located at the ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, to regularly monitor red dwarf stars. They collect light from a target star and from four comparison stars, then feed the light through optical fibers into a near-infrared spectrograph.

This is a novel approach, according to the ESO, and helps to correct the disruptive effect of Earth's atmosphere, as well as errors from instruments or detectors. The telescopes are meant to reveal any slight dips in brightness from a star, which is a possible sign that star is being orbited by a planet. They're focused on a specific type of small, bright star known as an M dwarf, which are common in the Milky Way. M dwarf systems are also expected to be good habitats for Earth-sized planets, the ESO notes, and thus good places to look for potentially habitable worlds.

On top of searching, the telescopes can also study the properties of any exoplanets they find, offering details about what it might be like in their atmospheres or on the surface. "With ExTrA, we can also address some fundamental questions about planets in our galaxy," team member Jose-Manuel Almenara says in a statement. "We hope to explore how common these planets are, the behavior of multi-planet systems, and the sorts of environments that lead to their formation."

Top image: Artist's concept of the completed Giant Magellan Telescope which will be situated in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope - GMTO Corporation/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Mother Nature Network. Some images added.]

Friday, 26 January 2018


10 Things We Know (or Don’t) about ‘Oumuamua
By Ed Hingston,
Toptenz, 26 January 2018.

Comets and asteroids come and go, but few make as much of a stir as ‘Oumuamua. Toward the end of last year, its virtually unprecedented appearance from interstellar space made urgent headlines around the world. And, in various ways, it left an indelible footprint.

While numerous mysteries remain about this curious galactic traveller, astronomers managed to glean several key pieces of information during its recent fly-by. Here are some of the most interesting.

10. It Probably Isn’t Alien Technology

The discovery of ‘Oumuamua was oddly coincidental with last year’s revelations about the Pentagon’s secret black money UFO program. And indeed the first thought among even seasoned astronomers like Stephen Hawking was that it could be an alien starship, or at least an artifact from some extraterrestrial civilization.

With the backing of Hawking (as well as Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner) the Breakthrough Listen initiative set out to detect signs of intelligence from the object, specifically listening for artificial radio signals. And while at the time of writing they hadn’t found any, the team accumulated a massive 90 terabytes of raw data across billions of individual channels, so a full analysis (including pulsating signals as well as continuous) may take some time. That said, another research team carried out spectroscopic observations and concluded that the object is natural.

Nevertheless, the spot-on timing of ‘Oumuamua’s discovery (and the inevitable comingling of media coverage) has fueled a “false flag” conspiracy theory that the military-industrial complex is preparing us for a staged alien invasion. Such a bigger, badder menace, it is feared, could potentially clear the way for unlimited military spending and harsher civil restrictions.

9. It’s Seen as a “Messenger from Afar”


Officially designated 1I/2017 U1 by the International Astronomical Union - the first of a brand new class - the object’s unofficial (but for some equally unwieldy) nickname ‘Oumuamua was given by the Pan-STARRS team that discovered it.

Pronounced oh-MOO-uh MOO-uh, the word is Hawaiian for “messenger from afar arriving first,” and it’s particularly apt considering the potentially breakthrough data the object carries about the formation of other solar systems.

Assuming it doesn’t turn out to be artificial (and even, or especially, if it does!), there’s a lot more we can learn from it too, including the long-term effects of exposure to cosmic rays. Astronomers studying the origins of ‘Oumuamua have been especially poetic in their appraisal, describing the object as a “messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us.”

8. It’s Among the Fastest Objects Ever Detected


One of the most surprising things about ‘Oumuamua was its incredible speed. The average asteroid travels at 25 km/s and the average comet at 40 km/s relative to the Earth. But when ‘Oumuamua was discovered in October 2017, it was going an impressive 60 km/s relative to the Earth and only picking up speed as it approached the Sun.

At its fastest, just as it slingshot around the star, it reached a blinding 87.3 km/s, or 196,000 miles per hour (315,431 km/h) relative to the Sun, which kept it from falling in completely and burning up for good.

Although ‘Oumuamua lost speed considerably as it climbed away, owing to the intense gravitational pull of the Sun, it maintains a velocity of around 26 km/s (93,600 km/h) as it flies along its new trajectory.

7. It’s Pink


Although a great deal of media attention has focused on the reddish hue of ‘Oumuamua, it’s not actually all that remarkable - and it’s not actually all that red.

Outside of a star’s magnetic field, drifting through interstellar space, objects like ‘Oumuamua are continually exposed to high-energy radiation from cosmic rays. And, as is well known among astronomers, this continual bombardment substantially alters surface properties over time. In fact, the process of color change is so reliable that the redness of an object can be used to gauge, approximately, how long it’s been floating in space.

Since ‘Oumuamua is pinkish in color it’s unlikely to have been wandering for the billions of years that some have suggested (and for which our solar system has existed). Instead, its relatively neutral color suggests exposure for hundreds of millions of years at the most, a “relatively young” age when it comes to celestial driftwood.

6. It’s Not Really the First Interstellar Visitor


Another media focus has been the rarity of interstellar objects in our solar system, with many claiming that ‘Oumuamua is in fact the first. It’s certainly interesting to note that none of the 750,000 or so asteroids and comets within our solar system are thought to have come from outside it - even though planet formation ejects plenty of material into interstellar space.

That said, ‘Oumuamua is extremely unlikely to be the first interstellar object to visit. There are estimated to be more than 46 million such objects crossing our solar system each year, most of which are just too far away to be seen. It is, however, the first detectable object known to be interstellar in origin. And we know this because of its hyperbolic trajectory (a trajectory outside of any central body’s gravitational pull) and its speed at infinity (a velocity higher than escape velocity, the minimum speed required to escape a massive body’s gravitational pull).

That we haven’t seen more of these is really just a limitation of our technology; we were lucky to catch even this one. As more advanced telescopes come online, astronomers expect to see plenty more interstellar objects flying through our solar system. Among other things, this means more opportunities for research and more potential targets for extraterrestrial life.

5. It Defies Categorization


When it was discovered by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope, ‘Oumuamua was thought to be a comet. But it had more rock than ice and, although it heated up when it passed the Sun - reaching a surface temperature of 550 degrees Fahrenheit - no surface ice boiled off and no tail developed.

But it’s not an asteroid either; researchers found no signs of the usual minerals, speculating instead that ‘Oumuamua consists of a robust carbon casing around an icy core - frozen alien water shielded for hundreds of millions of years and unable to boil off in starlight. In other words, says astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast, it looks like an asteroid but it’s built like a comet - albeit one that’s turned inside out. Even this theory has been thrown into question more recently, though, since there’s no evidence of water either.

For now, ‘Oumuamua is simply referred to as an “interstellar object,” or sometimes more romantically as a sola lapis or “lonely rock.”

4. It Looks Like a Cigar (or a Needle, or an Oddly Shaped Pen, or Maybe Even a Monolith from 2001)


Widely circulated images like the one above are of course artists’ impressions. Nobody’s seen ‘Oumuamua up close. So the question arises: How do we know what it looks like?

The truth is we don’t - not exactly. All we know is that it’s around ten times as long as it is wide, and we base this on observations of light. As the object spins on its axis (once every 7.3 hours or so), huge fluctuations in brightness suggest a greater aspect ratio than anything seen before - comet or asteroid. Imagine a shiny cylinder spinning toward a light in slow motion; you’d see relatively little light reflected from the ends but, as it rotated, substantially more from the sides. Even if you didn’t know the shape, you’d be able to guess the dimensions.

As such, ‘Oumuamua is thought to be around 400 meters (or one quarter mile) in length and just 40 meters wide, although some estimates put it at 800×80 meters or even 160 meters in width. Whatever the case, the shape is certainly weird, and this could give us clues as to how other solar systems form.

3. We May Never Know Where It Came From


There are various theories as to the origins of ‘Oumuamua, but none can be taken as fact. According to one theory, it could be from the Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud and not interstellar at all. In this case, its speed would suggest the presence of an as yet undiscovered planet whose gravity would be required to boost it.

In earlier simulations, ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory was tracked back to the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra; however, because it would have taken 300,000 years to reach us (even at such speeds), Vega wouldn’t have been in the same position when ‘Oumuamua is supposed to have left.

Wherever the object originated, it’s likely to have been ejected from the debris surrounding a young star (also known as the protoplanetary disk) - perhaps in the Pleiades - hundreds of millions of years ago.

It may now be part of an immense interstellar asteroid field, through which our Sun and its satellites are currently cruising on our journey around the Milky Way’s core. There are estimated to be around 700 trillion such objects per cubic parsec, which is pretty dense considering a parsec is equivalent to just 30 trillion kilometers. Based on these figures, anywhere between 2 and 12 interstellar objects should be passing through the solar system, inside Earth’s orbit, every year.

2. It’s Leaving Us, But It’ll Take Some Time


‘Oumuamua is now on its way out of the solar system, headed back out to the stars at a rate of 26 km/s. But even at that speed, it’ll take 20,000 years for it to leave our solar system entirely.

Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly difficult (if it’s not yet impossible) to observe ‘Oumuamua with existing telescopes - an especially unfortunate situation given its rarity. Understandably, astronomers are clamouring for a closer look, and sending a probe to the object - however far-fetched that sounds - is one of their highest priorities.

Of course, that means chasing ‘Oumuamua down and intercepting it at speeds higher than 26 km/s, which isn’t really plausible given current technology. Even Voyager 1, the fastest object ever launched, can only reach 16.6 km/s.

The longer we leave it, though, the faster we’ll need to go to catch up within a reasonable time-frame, that is, before ‘Oumuamua travels too far out for our probe to return data to Earth.

Laser propulsion - whereby ultra-light, wafer-thin craft are propelled to within 25 percent of the speed of light by multi-megawatt lasers in orbit - could hold promise, but the technology is nowhere near ready. As such, some astronomers are banking instead on laser sails being available in time for the next interstellar arrival.

1. It Shows Us How Unprepared We Are for Possible Asteroid Impacts


One of the things ‘Oumuamua can teach us is how to better detect near-Earth and potentially hazardous objects. But its sudden appearance to our telescopes is a bit of a wake up call. Were ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory headed toward Earth, it would have hit us before we’d even seen it.

The worst case scenario, according to amateur researchers, would have been the leveling of an entire city with a force equivalent to 2,057 Hiroshima bombs. Entering the atmosphere at 233 times the speed of sound, ‘Oumuamua could have vaporized everything within at least a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius of ground zero, killing hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.

Bigger, more sophisticated telescopes - such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope currently under construction in Chile - will no doubt help us to better detect objects in the future. But, for now at least, ‘Oumuamua highlights a worrying vulnerability to space rocks - especially considering the Pan-STARRS telescope that discovered it (after it passed by) is specifically tasked with our protection.

Top gif image: Simulation of ʻOumuamua spinning and tumbling through space. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/YouTube.

[Source: Toptenz. Top image added.]