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.

Super Brain Network

Although it may seem directly taken from a science fiction movie, scientists at Duke University have actually managed to connect the brains of several organisms so that without any real communication they have been able to work together to carry out tasks.

In a series of experiments, researchers opened the skull of both monkeys and rats and using electrodes and wires, linked members of the same species together so that, even if they could not share complex thoughts or emotions, they could synchronise their neural activity.

When doing some experiments on rats, the connection was investigated by having one of the animals undergo an electrical stimulus, so its brain activity increased. The other rats, despite not being stimulated directly, automatically changed their neural activity to match that of the first rat, so it looked like they too had received the stimulus, and felt its effects.

But not only does this connection make them more ‘empathic’, it also makes them more intelligent. When scientists sent temperature and atmospheric pressure information into their brains, coded by electrical impulses, the rats could put all the information they had received together and solve problems regarding the chance of rainfall. They could do this by themselves, without any linking, but the brain network helped them obtain better scores.


Linking brains is no longer a science fiction movie plot

With monkeys, three of them were connected through the motor region of their brains, after being trained individually to control a virtual arm with thoughts alone. Once they were connected, each was able to control only certain aspects of the arm’s movement, like only being able to move the arm horizontally and vertically, and even those abilities it had to share with another monkey, so that each had an equal contribution to the movement in that direction. However, as messy as this sounds, they synchronised and managed to work with each together, combining their skills to control the arm and grab an imaginary ball displayed on the computer.

The applications for this are not to make a huge human population brain network, where we can share our thoughts and emotions, as not only are they too complex for it to be possible to share them this way, but it would also be unethical and have privacy issues. However, it can be used in people who have had some damage to their brain. For example, someone who has suffered from a stroke and can no longer talk normally can be connected to a healthy person, so said area synchronises with the healthy area and accelerates the healing process.


We live in a world where energy is currency. Wars are fought over petrol and other fossil fuels, whilst millions of people work tirelessly to provide alternatives like solar energy to prevent global warming and provide a greener and safer future for our planet.

Since energy is so important, a lot of research is put into it, yielding fascinating results. The most recent one has to do with lithium-sulfur batteries. Their mechanism is not new; in fact, it has been known for decades. But there have always been practical imperfections with their functioning. Scientists seem to have discovered a way to solve them and create one of the most useful batteries to date.

lithium sulfur battery

Lithium-sulfur cells coould soon power your phone, your computer, your car, etc…

Normally, this battery consists of two electrodes, one made of lithium and the other of a carbon-sulfur compound. When the battery works, ions from one electrode move to the other through the electrolyte, creating a current. Unfortunately, lithium can react with the sulfur and form lithium sulphides, which dissolve into the electrolyte and slowly use up the sulfur electrode. Up until now, the solution had been to add some other chemicals, like titanium oxide or manganese dioxide, which would stabilise the sulfur and prevent it from dissolving so easily in the electrolyte. But the method which seems the most promising is actually the most unexpected: adding DNA.

Yes, you read that right. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the organic molecule that codes for all of our characteristics actually improves lithium-sulfur batteries. DNA is made of oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus, and luckily for material scientists, all these elements easily bond with sulfur. This makes DNA ideal for trapping sulfides, preventing them from dissolving in the electrolyte. In turn, it improves the efficiency of these batteries by almost 3 times. Even better: DNA is cheap and biodegradable, and a very small amount is needed for it to improve the battery’s performance.

The interest in this specific type of batteries is not unjustified. They have a high energy density (can deliver up to 3 times as much energy as lithium ion cells), are cheaper to produce and greener for the environment. It is therefore not strange that scientists are trying to do as much work as possible to help improve this technology. However, the battery world is a slow one, and although an idea may look good in the lab, it is harder to extrapolate that into the industry. But keep your hopes up! Lithium-sulfur batteries could very well substitute the widely used lithium ion cells in only 15 years, with original ideas like the one exposed on this article to push it through.

Magnifying Eyes

It is a popular depiction of the futuristic world to show contact lenses that can display smartphone information: text messages, emails, phone calls… Don’t get too excited, this isn’t today’s news exactly. What has actually been created is a set of contact lenses that allow the user to zoom in and out of everyday life.

The gadget is basically a slightly larger contact lens that covers both your retina and the whites of the eye. It is also thicker and much more rigid than normal contacts, but can still be worn comfortably. In addition, it is covered with strips of aluminium mirror forming a circle, which cause light to be reflected many times within the lens, creating a magnification of 2.8 times. For the apparatus to work at its finest, it has to be joined to a pair of electronic glasses. When the subject winks with one eye, it activates the glasses, so they switch from normal mode to polarised mode. Then, they filter light so only light of one wavelength passes through (polarises) and focuses it on the telescopic area of the lens, which gives a zoomed in view. By winking with the other eye, the glass switches back to normal mode so there is no zoom.

At the moment, there have been no human trials due to the risk of harming the eye. The lenses are naturally thick, so it is difficult for air to pass through and keep the surface of the eye fresh and oxygenated. The newest model of this contact includes many little pores that allow air to pass, so the lenses can be worn for a longer period of time with a much lower risk.

contact lens zoom

These lenses were originally planned as a substitute for binoculars for soldiers

Designing these lenses was not only for entertainment or a cool technological device, but rather for medical purposes. These zooming contact lenses can help people with limited visibility, like those with macular degeneration, a disease which affects muscles in the retina. They offer a much easier and practical alternative than surgery or special, expensive glasses.

Light Sprints

light pulse

Small light pulses can now be modified so they slow down

Remember any physics lessons during your high school years? How it was always said the speed of a light was the most unchangeable constant of all? Well… keep reading. In a perfect example of how science changes to perfect itself, scientists at the University of Glasgow have carried out a very interesting set of experiments which ultimately showed that the speed of light can in fact change.

Now, we all know that when light enters a medium, such as water or glass, it slows down. Whereas the speed in a vacuum is said to be 299 792 458 m/s, it can go down to 225 056 264 m/s in water and even 124 018 189 m/s in diamond. This is due to the increased density through which the light has to pass through, so the light particles suffer more collisions which slow it down. But the news come from the idea that speed can also change in a vacuum, even if there is no change in medium and therefore in density.

However, there is a trick. This change in speed won’t happen spontaneously, it has to be slightly triggered. Although it is usually simplified as ‘straight’ or plane waves, where every point travels parallel to each other, light is a bit more complex than that. Two points in a ray of light can actually converge and join, bending their shape. When this effect happens, light speed is affected.

The experiment consisted of a source emitting only two photons. One of them was directed to flow through an optical fibre, so its journey was not interrupted and was as smooth as possible. The other one was passed through a series of apparatus which changed its structure for a short period of time and then restored it back to normal. The time it took each of the photons to arrive to the finish line was measured very precisely. No matter how many repeats the team conducted, the modified photons were always slightly slower and arrived after the untouched one.

The change is speed is not immense, and will have no effect on day-to-day calculations, but it could be have some importance on experiments which use short pulses of light. The fact this effect exists is already worth noting, as it is theoretically obvious but no one had proved it before.

How to help your city by waiting for the bus

As a frequent user of buses as a medium of transport, I know from first hand experience that the time spent waiting for a bus can get really boring and useless. That’s why I’m very excited about this idea researchers in a University of Finland have come up with.

They decided to place a few touchscreen at a bus stop, with a button saying ‘Touch Me’ to attract users. This would allow them to access a system of activities that could be carried out to contribute to public services. The main activity was to detect blood cells infected with malaria to train detection software. The results were quite satisfying: they found out that this method was as relatively accurate as those made by paid workers.

Other possible activities could include users adding information of the nearby areas (which is the best park to take your children o, where to walk your dog, cleared signs…) that could help people make the most of their city.

Also, they might add games to this system. The most prosper one is the so-called Game of Words, where users describe their view of the city in one word. Then, other users can vote on the words they think work the best, therefore creating a dictionary of the area.

This project is not only useful and entertaining, it also helps analyze the behaviour of people in groups or alone, and how they react t certain tasks. The best part, though, is the fact that it shows how altruistic human beings can be.




The New Chinese GPS System

A GPS from the Chinese company Beidou

On Monday 30th April, the Chinese company Beidou has launched 2 new satellites to increase the precision of its own global positioning system, named global positioning Beidou / Compass.

The machinery has been sent to outer space from the Chinese base of Xichang, in the Chinese province of Sichuan.

These 2 new satellites are the number 12 and 13 of the Beidou project for the Chinese GPS and are the first mechanisms sent to outer space that the country has launched at once with only one propulsor.

China is also planning to send another 3 robots to the space during this year.

This system or project started to operate last December 2011, after 10 years of calculations and practices, to preparate every scenario and possible situations.

The Asian country has created this plan to continue to innovate with technology, and to increase the information available in different topics, like weather, fire control, telecommunications… The scheme will also help the economy, as it will help the government to find about transport and oil prospecting.

The project is calculated to end in 2020, with more than 30 satellites orbiting the Earth.


The Chinese project is not the only idea governments have had to make new GPS systems so not only the American one is use.

In Europe, there is also the Galileo project where many of the countries in the continent are taking part with millionaire investments.

India has also got its own GPS navigation, although it is not completely ready yet. The Indian scheme, the Geo Augmented Navigational system (GAGAN), will soon launch a satellite too, followed by some others to cover the full Indian landmass.