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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fossils on the Moon


the moon

The answer to the origin of life on Earth may actually not be on Earth

Although the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, life took a lot longer to develop. Estimates say that life ‘happened’ up to 17 million years ago somewhere in the Universe, but only spread through the Earth 3 million years ago. There are various theories as to how life developed on Earth specifically. Some think that the random collisions of molecules that give rise to life happened independently on Earth, since it had favourable conditions. Others think that this may have occurred someplace else, deep in the vastness of space, and that those small living creatures were transported to Earth via a meteorite.

At the moment, there is no way to confirm which of these theories is correct. It was thought that analysing fossil records could show whether any meteorite that arrived at the time life started actually contained living organisms. But Earth is an active planet, and its continuous geological activity has pretty much erased all evidence of it. But scientists have thought of an alternative.

If 17 million years ago there were meteorites containing life roaming around the universe colliding with planets like the Earth, they could have hit the Moon, since they are so close together. And the great thing about this possibility is that it is actually verifiable. The Moon has a much calmer tectonic history, since it currently does not contain any lava in its center to wreck fossil records. But at the time life is thought to have spread on Earth, the Moon was covered in lava, which is more helpful than you imagine. Several experiments in the past have shown that complex organic molecules that made up early life are able to withstand the high temperatures in the lava, and may have actually been protected from radiation by being buried deep inside the hot liquid.

So now we only need to go on a mining expedition to the Moon to find any fossils that may give us the next clue as to when and how life started in this wonderful Solar System of ours.

Charles Duke’s Space Adventure


Charles Duke (October, 1935, North Carolina) is a retired astronaut, that participated in one of the Apollo missions, specifically the Apollo 13 and 17, but most importantly in the Apollo 16, in which he worked with the other 2 NASA astronauts Mattingly and Young, with the objective of getting samples of the moon’s land and other various experiments.

He has a Bachelor of Science in Naval Sciences and a Master Degree in aeronautics.

His fame is due to being the youngest person to walk on the moon, which he did in 1972 at the age of 36. He is also known for being one of the 12 people who have been in the moon.

 The news about this man is the recent exhibition opening in Madrid about the journey that made him famous, the Apollo 16, which lately has celebrated its 40th birthday. Here is part of an interview that was made to him about the exhibition and his trip to the moon by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo:

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Charles Duke in one of his conferences

What did you feel in the moment you set foot on the moon?

It was an intense excitement. Many things going through my mind. I am one of the lucky few who has lived that experience. I was not afraid, I felt like at home. I felt that was where I belonged.

 Is it easy for an astronaut to get used to gravity?

Initially, I felt dizzy, but hours later the fact of not having gravity ended up being fun. You can move as you want to in a very easy and fun way. Sleep is very refreshing; you do not get tired as it can sometimes happen in a bed. However, in the moon there is gravity. But, if you weigh 90 kilos in the Earth, on the moon you turn up to weigh 15k. The feeling is of being very light.

 What is it that you would have liked to do in the moon but you didn’t have time to?

It’s a good question. I wish I had done an experiment with temperature, but we had a problem with the electronic connection, so I could not complete the experiment. It was a great setback.

 What attracted more your attention about the moon?

It’s beauty. It has the most impressive desert I have ever seen. The earth was grey with a completely black background. You felt you could touch the absolute darkness.

 Mr. Duke, what do you think about the image that was broadcast when the first man set foot on the moon, the one with the flag flying? How is this possible if the moon has no atmosphere?

There is gravity on the moon. The flag was attached by a rod, not waved alone. When stabbed and set, the flag is put up by the rods. If it looked as if it was fluttering it’s because it was wrinkled, as it spent many hours in a box and we could not stretch it anymore.

 Will you give any conference these afternoons or in the weekend, at the exhibition in Madrid?

The conference I will give will be tomorrow afternoon and I will talk about how I became an astronaut, my desire to get a job like this, the adventure of becoming an astronaut, I’ll also show a film about my mission, and I will answer questions and talk about what I think about the future.

 If you want to see more details about the interview, although it’s in Spanish, you can visit http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/encuentros/invitados/2012/03/27/charles-duke/index.html where all the questions answered by the astronaut can be accessed.