Meeting Pluto (The Planet)

NASA made history this week, once again, when the project New Horizons, launched 9 years ago, reached the ‘ex-planet’ Pluto and its surrounding moons. Ever since it has arrived, it’s been sending us information from there, and putting it lightly, it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Scientists previously believed Pluto to be a calm, inactive dwarf planet; just a mass of ice and frozen gases floating around the Solar System. But defying all these expectations, Pluto seems to be very geologically active, actually similar to Earth, (or rather, one of Neptune’s moons, since it has a large ice mantle).

The clues that point to this surprising conclusion are many. For one, there are areas with no signs of craters caused by asteroid collisions, which would be impossible unless these sections are relatively new, as they would be if they had been formed recently by geological activity. There are also fault lines and rift valleys, both characteristic features of tectonic movement.

However, scientists are still puzzled as to how these movements are brought about. In Earth, tectonic movements happen because of the melted rock in the core of the planet, but this is not possible in Pluto, so a popular theory suggests that since it is filled with radioactive material (like most astronomical bodies), this somehow produces enough energy to heat up the surface of Pluto and causes the movement of large amounts of ice that act as tectonic plates.

But don’t think this trend of unexpectedness stops at Pluto. Its largest moon, Charon, is not far behind. It also displays signs of being geologically active, as it has deep canyons and very smooth expanses.


Pluto sure is a sweetheart

Since many new areas in Pluto and Charon have been true wonders, scientists have decided to give them appropriate names. The most famous one, unofficially nicknamed ‘The Heart’ because it is heart-shaped, is now probably going to be known as Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto in 1930. Another feature is a plane made of ice, which shows troughs at regular intervals, and has been dubbed the Sputnik Planum, in honour of the first spaceship. The Norgay Mountains are named after the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest, and are a range of 3300 meter-high mountains made entirely of frozen ice which behaves like rocks. Astronomers also seem to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as they have named a feature in Pluto ‘Balrog’, a monster from this series, and a dark region in the pole of Charon is being called Mordor.

The mission also offered an opportunity to accurately measure Pluto’s diameter for the first time. The results show that it is 2.370 km large, possibly the largest of the five recognized dwarf planets in the Solar System.

Although the official flyby has ended, New Horizons’ adventures are not over. All this baffling information it has sent us only represents about 2% of all the data it has collected, so we can still expect many surprises from this mission for about 16 months as the rest comes in. And after the visit to Pluto, it is going to fly to the Kuiper Belt, a zone beyond the planets full of small icy bodies that may contain some interesting information as to how the Solar System was formed.

The Moon Is Keeping You Awake

You may have heard people justify a bad night of sleep because ‘it was a full moon’, and immediately dismissed it as a myth. Well, think again.

The moon affecting our sleep is not as weird and irrational as it sounds. In fact, it’s not even unheard of in the animal kingdom, as this is known to happen in many other organisms, from small worms to large marine animals, and can not only affect their sleep, but also their reproductive cycles. It even has its own name: the circalunar rhythm.


Now you know who to blame for a lack of rest

But to see if it could happen in humans too, a group of researchers from University of Basel, Switzerland, followed a group of patients who, like normal human beings, fell asleep every night, and every time gave the scientists their opinion on how well it went. Most agreed that on the day of or close to full moon, the sleep quality was lower and they felt less rested. But this could be a subjective or biased opinion by the patients. So the scientists backed this up with the most undeniable proof of all: science.

They measured the hormone levels, brain activity and any eye movements before, during and after falling asleep. In case you’re confused about why bother measuring eye movement; it is because during REM phase, where we actually ‘rest’, our eyes subconsciously move around (in fact, REM phase stands for Rapid Eye Movement phase). After conducting this research at different times of the month, and therefore at different stages in the moon cycle, what they found only supported what the people had said themselves: there was a decrease, of up to 30%, in the people’s brain patterns during sleep. Not only was the quality worse, but it was also shorter, as they took 5 more minutes to become unconscious and in total were deprived of almost 20 minutes of blissful sleep.

This could’ve all been due to a decrease in the levels of melatonin, a very interesting hormone which can be found in animals that somewhat ‘predicts’ when it is going to get dark and prepares us for sleep, so a lack of it could lead to us not sleeping as deeply.

But researchers don’t know how the moon can even affect the amount of this hormone in our body and can end up causing the other symptoms. It’s not the presence of moonlight, as this was eliminated by keeping the test subjects in closed rooms. So this leaves the two most plausible ideas being either that the moon’s gravity somehow manages to affects us even though it is extremely weak at such a large distance, or that humans have a physiological clock inside of them which keeps track of the moon cycles. Although this may sound just bizarre, it already exists; but instead of with the moon, it uses the Sun. You may have heard of it: it’s called the circadian rhythm and it has a great effect on us as thanks to it, our body knows how to behave at the different times of the day.

The test was only done on 33 people, quite a small sample regardless of how standardised the whole procedure was. So in future investigations, larger groups of people should be investigated to not only support these scientists’ hypothesis, but maybe to even find out the mechanism by which the moon manages to ruin a good night’s sleep.

Philae Fall

The misadventures of the famous Philae lander have been the hot scientific topic of the week. 10 years of preparation, hard work and effort finally came to fruition when the robot detached itself from the Rosetta Spacecraft after being together for a decade and set off on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.


How Philae was supposed to look on the surface of 67P

A couple days before the actual separation, ESA, the European Space Agency, which has been supervising the mission all these years; carried out a series of tests to make sure all the machinery in the lander worked perfectly. There was a minor problem with the thrusters, but since there was nothing scientists at Earth could do to fix it, they decided to keep the mission going anyway.

On the 12th of November of 2014, Philae made history when it became the first object to ever land in a controlled manner on a comet. And although this feat is outstanding and impressive by itself, there were some technical difficulties. The idea was that the lander would fire some harpoons to adhere to the comet and use thrusters so that together, they would push the robot towards the comet. But neither of these devices worked as planned, so when Philae did ‘land’, it bounced back. Twice. The first bounce made Philae jump almost 1km high into space (another record), and took the incredible amount of 2 hours for it to fall back. The second leap was much smaller, and only took a couple of minutes for it to settle down. But this was not the last obstacle in Philae’s way. Due to all the bouncing around, the machine ended up about 1 km away from the original landing site, and on top of that, it has stopped in a rather unusual posture. Instead of having its three legs on the pressed on the ground, one of them is dangling midair.

Facing these problems head-on, scientists still tried to carry out some of the proposed experiments. For example, they wanted Philae to take a sample of the comet dust using a drill incorporated into it. This apparatus comes out of the bottom part of the robot, but since Philae is sloping, the drill couldn’t actually reach the ground.

But Philae actually has more pressing problems at the moment. After bouncing all around 67P, it stopped in an area of the comet where the sun rays can’t reach; a fatal location for a solar powered machine like Philae. This soon alerted scientists regarding the duration of the battery, which would quickly run out. The solution was to turn on a ‘power-saving’ mode, but right in the middle of this process they lost contact with the robot. As of the 15th, Philae has used up all its stored energy and has basically shut down. There is still hope that when 67P reaches areas closer to the Sun, the lander will become powered again, but chances are slim.

Regardless of the many problems with the landing and its consequences, Philae did end up on a moving comet, and that’s reason enough to congratulate scientists at ESA for so many years of dedication and a successful mission.

Alien Molecule

isopropyl cyanide

Isopropyl Cyanide, the molecule found light years away that could tell us about how we were formed

Where did life come from? Are we alone in the universe? These are common questions which scientists from all around the world are trying to answer everyday, and that have yet to be answered. But we could be closer to understanding the origin of life thanks to the combined work of researchers at Cornell University, the Max Planck Institute, and Cologne University in Germany, who have discovered a complex organic molecule deep in the heart of the universe.

The molecule itself is isopropyl cyanide and consists of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Compared to other chemicals floating around in space, it’s special because it’s branched, rather than straight, and larger than usual. In fact, it may be the largest molecule ever detected in a region of space without a fully formed star.

Obviously, scientists didn’t go all that way themselves to retrieve a sample of the compound to analyse it, and sounding rockets don’t go that far. Instead, they used ALMA, a set of radio telescopes in Chile which can detect microwaves produced by chemicals many light years away, to scan an area of space an examine its chemical makeup. Surprisingly, they found isopropyl cyanide, 400 light years away, in gas cloud Sagittarius B2, where a star is in the process of being formed.

It is not a clear sign or of life, so all you crazy UFOs enthusiasts can calm down, but it is an interesting discovery. Its complex structure, although simpler, is reminiscent of amino acids, the building blocks of life. These are often found in meteorites, so a popular theory is that the ingredients for life were formed in space and then drifted onto our planet, where they became ‘alive’.

Finding out more about how this chemical is formed and the conditions under which it is produced could be used to paint a better picture of how life managed to originate in our planet.


Rosetta Pioneer

rosetta spacecraft

The Rosetta Spacecraft, an inspiration to all other spacecrafts

After ten years of travelling (Are we there yet?), the spacecraft Rosetta, lead by investigators in ESA (European Space Agency), has finally reached its destiny: the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

Since the 2nd of March of 2004, the explorer has travelled the unimaginable distance of 400 million kilometres, and it was only now, on the 6th of August of 2014, that it managed to move close enough to the comet and actually obtain a relative velocity of 1 m/s compared to the space rock. This makes Rosetta the first man made object to rendezvous with a comet.

67p comet

[67P Comet] Does it look like a rubber duck to you?

 67P, which resembles a rubber duck due to the odd shape formed by two rocks fusing in space, is of interest because it was formed from the remnants of the original formations in the beginning of our Solar System, so it could provide vital information on water and the origin of life. That’s why Rosetta will now spend the next 16 months investigating 67P’s characteristics, first from 100km away to study its shape and eventually moving closer. But Rosetta won’t work alone. A small probe named Philae will soon land on the surface of the comet, after scientists at the ESA decide on a safe landing spot. Once there, it will dig into the surface and analyse what its composition, and even use X-rays to visualise the structure. Meanwhile, the dusty and icy comet will travel at 55000 km/h towards the Sun, heating up expelling dust which Rosetta will analyse.

There’s a lot to be learned form this comet, and this will take time, but after ten years, the climax of the story has only but started. Be prepared to hear amazing discoveries from this dedicated project.