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When life exploded (in a good way)

 

WHETHER IT EMERGED from a primeval soup of organic chemicals, left to simmer in some warm little pond, or it was boiled up in a deep-sea volcanic cauldron, it took only (in geological terms) a billion years for the simplest life to inhabit our infant planet. But then it rather dragged it heels (not that it had heels) and it took another 2.6billion years to evolve into anything more complex than a sponge.

By the time the planet was four billion years old, evolution had only progressed as far as creating some weird, immobile creatures that were still more plant than animal. Then, almost over night, evolution went nuts. In the space of just 20million years, between 540 and 520 million years ago, a multitude of creatures emerged that were not only advanced compared to what came before, but had actually set many of the standards around which life today is built.

The next wonder of the modern world

 

FOR THE ANCIENTS, pyramids, colossi, hanging gardens and other great monumental structures represented the ultimate physical manifestation of mankind’s technological prowess. But today, the wonders of the modern world aren’t monuments hewn from stone or cast in bronze, they are the great global science experiments like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – monuments to ideas that push those ideas to breaking point and that give birth of ideas of their own.

The next of these ‘great wonders of science’ is, arguably, even more ambitious than even the great particle accelerator at Cern. Like the LHC, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is a global endeavor but, where the LHC’s structure spanned a political border, the SKA’s will span continents.

The SKA will be the ultimate in Universe-probing radio telescopes. Made up of hundreds of thousands of individual radio telescopes and built across South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the SKA will have the resolving power equivalent to telescope with lens measuring one square kilometre. 

A new guardian at the outer limits

 

FROM THE MOMENT SCIENCE shattered the Earth-orbiting celestial spheres of religious doctrine in the 17th century, defining the ‘edge’ of the Solar System has been a difficult task. 

For a while it seemed that its perimeter was marked by the distant patrol of the ringed gas giant, Saturn, but his claim was usurped in 1781 when a more distant border guard was revealed in the shape of the icy gas giant, Uranus, (titter ye not). Then, little over half a century later, Uranus lost his seat to an even more remote body, Neptune.

For almost 90 years Neptune marched safe in the knowledge that everything there was lied within, until a cheeky little upstart called Pluto snuck up behind him and nicked his title. But Pluto wasn’t quite the planet he appeared to be. When more distant objects of similar diminutive size, Sedna and Eris, were discovered in 2003 and 2005, he not only lost his privileged border location to Sedna, but (thanks to Eris) suffered the indignity of being demoted to the lowly rank of ‘dwarf planet’.

Opening a window on creation


[Above: It may not look like much, but this image can transport us back to the first billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a second of the Universe’s existence]

LAST WEEK IT WAS ANNOUNCED that scientists had detected the fingerprint of primordial gravitational waves in the ‘afterglow’ of the Big Bang. If confirmed, the discovery has been hailed as the most significant breakthrough in cosmology in decent decades. But why?

The breakthrough was made by a team working on a telescope based at the South Pole, called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization experiment) who have been studiously measuring the orientation of photons (light particles) in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

They were searching for a particular pattern, or fingerprint, in the light called B-mode polarisation, which has a distinctive (if difficult to detect) curl – a curl that can only be caused by the unique way gravitational waves bend and stretch the fabric of the Universe as they pass through it.

Shooting down space junk with lasers

 

Space isn’t as empty as you’d think – especially in the first few thousand miles above the Earth. Here, the once pristine heavens, are littered with the detritus of half a century of space travel. Defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, nuclear reactors, bags of rubbish, items of space clothing, nuts, bolts and flecks of paint – it’s staggering what you can find up there (though rumours of orbiting space turtles might be exaggerated). 

In short, space on Earth’s doorstep is a junk yard – a junk yard that streaks through space faster than a speeding bullet. 

Nor is this a purely aesthetic problem. Traveling at more than 17,000mph, even the tiniest fragment of discarded junk is imbued with enough kinetic energy to tear through the walls of space stations – anything larger than a tennis ball could destroy it (as dramatically demonstrated in the movie ‘Gravity’). 

At this very moment, the Earth is wrapped in an orbiting shell containing hundreds of thousands of deadly projectiles – that is threatening to become an impenetrable wall of spacecraft-destroying detritus (pretty dramatic eh?).

Happy birthday Yuri Gagarin...

To mark the birthday of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, here's a Cosm from 2011... or is it 1961? 

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