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Star light, star bright (last star I see tonight)

Will there be a day when the stars will vanish from the night sky?

WE USED TO BELIEVE THAT THE STAR WERE ETERNAL and the Universe was infinite and immutable, but we now know that this is not the case.

From vast clouds of cosmic gas, stars condense, ignite and burn themselves to death. Even the Universe had a moment of birth and one day it too will die. But surely, as long as there is a Universe to house them, there will be stars?

Maybe not. Could it be that, one day, mankind’s distant descendants will gaze at the night sky and see a starless carpet of perfect black?

A new study suggests that the best days of the Universe’s star formation are long behind it and that most of all the stars that will ever be born already have been and are now creeping into old age.

Mars, on a beach

The weather was glorious yesterday – a perfect autumnal mix of bright sunshine with a hint of winter chill – so my wife and I went down to the stunning beach at West Wittering in Sussex.

The tide was as low as it goes and the beach's sandbanks were celebrating the clemency of the weather by hosting a gathering of frolicking dogs and sauntering humans. 

With a rapidly-cooling hot chocolate on one arm and my wife on another, I took to pondering the sand itself and was inspired to snap a few photos of sand formations that reminded me of orbital images of Mars and other alien worlds.

This was the result – Mars, on a beach (pics below the turn):

The search for Spock (or, how the hunt for exoplanets will become a search for alien life)


[Above: A newly discovered exoplanet, HD 40307g, could be the best candidate for alien life yet found. It is the closest Earth-like world discovered that isn’t tidally locked to its star (it rotates rather than always having one side facing the star). Image: ESO]

IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, the Italian philosopher-cum-astronomer Giordano Bruno speculated that stars (which, at that time, were thought to be little more than God’s way of decorating the firmament) were in fact suns around which might be ‘... an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own’.

Bruno’s heretical speculations led to him being burned at the stake by the Inquisition (not solely for his astronomical thinking). But he wouldn’t be the last great thinker to suggest Earth may not be the only world in the heavens capable of nurturing life – Isaac Newton had similar thoughts 100 years later.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the existence of the first extra-solar planet (exoplanet) was definitively confirmed – although unconfirmed discoveries had been staggering in since 1988. 

Since then, exoplanet discoveries have rolled in thick and fast and the total of confirmed discoveries now stands at almost 850 (with thousands more awaiting confirmation). 

Voyager finds more surprises at the final frontier

Companionless in the dark vacuum of space and billions of kilometers from home, it was a lonely way to celebrate a birthday, but this is exactly how one pair of space-faring twins recently passed their 35th birthday.

When the Voyager probes were launched in 1977 no one could have suspected that 35 years later these rickety old probes would still be pushing forward the boundaries of science.

Initially designed to study the planetary systems of the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, Voyagers 1 have been traveling ever since – making new discoveries at every step of their epic journey.

Now, 35 years and 18.4 billion kilometers later, Voyager 1 is leaving our solar system behind it and passing into the dark, unexplored expanse of interstellar space.

For two years now, data beamed back from Voyager 1 (data that takes more than 16 hours to reach Earth) has hinted that the venerable machine might finally be passing the outer limits of our solar system. But things aren’t quite what scientists expected them to be.

Meet the microbial superheroes

We don’t like microbes. We associate them with disease and death and spend a lot of time and money trying to eradicate them from our lives (and in doing so create super-strains that are many times more deadly).

But many types of microbe can be helpful (your body is more bacteria than human and couldn’t survive without them) and some may actually hold the key to fighting global warming, cleaning up pollution and even help cure cancer.

The snappily-named Geobacter sulfurreducens, for example, has an exciting double party trick. 

Under certain conditions, this handy little bug can grow special hairs, called pili, that can zap uranium from polluted water supplies and, if attached to an electrode, can be used to generate electricity. In fact Nasa plan to employ the energy generating talents of this particular bug to help power their next generation of miniature robotic rovers.

Another strain of pollution-busting bacteria, called Alcanivorax, can break down the hydrocarbons in crude oil and is hard at work right now at the Deepwater Horizon spill, helping to mop up the mess. 

Here are three ‘helpful’ microbes with the potential to change our lives for the better.

The Universe: Just how big is big?

At Cosm, we often discuss big things (planets, stars, galaxies etc) and we get lots of Emails asking ‘just how big is big?’

Well, it’s really a simple question of scale...

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