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Ultimate solar power: A step closer to creating a 'star on Earth'


SINCE THE 1950s there have only two ways we could exploit the power of the atom. We could harness the fusion power of the Sun by using solar panels to capture the radiation it emits (and convert it into electricity) – this had the advantage of being clean and safe, but the disadvantage of only being able to convert six per cent of the sunlight striking the panel into energy.  

Or we could harness the power of nuclear fission by sealing a quantity of enriched uranium within a confined space and using a series of carefully focused explosions to trigger a chain reaction – this had the advantage of unleashing the energy equivalent of many kilotonnes of TNT in just a fraction of a second, but the disadvantage of being the most destructive weapon ever conceived by mankind.

Scientists needed a middle-ground – something that exploited the process that powers the Sun more directly than solar panels, but which didn’t destroy everything with a ten kilometre radius.

The madness of King Titan

WE ARE USED TO associating the term ‘moon’ with images of barren spheres of rock, devoid of dynamic atmospheres and geological processes; and, for the most part, this isn’t far from the truth. But, there are always exceptions to any rule and Titan is one such example.

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest moon in the solar system. It is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere and is the only body, other than Earth, to have a nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and, like Earth, Titan can also boast lakes and rivers, which are fed by rain deposited by active weather systems. Titan even has deserts complete with shifting dunes.

But that’s where the similarities with Earth end. Titan’s atmosphere might be nitrogen rich, but its next major component is methane. This hydrocarbon forms thick impenetrable clouds that, when battered by solar radiation in the high atmosphere, are broken apart and reassembled into volatile compounds like ethane and propane. It is these hydrocarbons that fall as rain to fill Titan’s methane lakes and rivers of liquid methane.

If that isn’t weird enough, scientists have now detected the molecular building-blocks of some of the plastics we used to make drinks bottles and Tupperware here on Earth: propylene.

The star that redrew the cosmos

[Above: It looks unimpressive, but this image (taken 90 years ago this week) proved for the first time that there was something outside the confines of what was then to believed to be the full extent of the Universe – the Milky Way. Edwin Hubble (pictured) excitedly crossed out his previous annotation of ‘N’, for nova, and replaced it with a triumphant ‘VAR!’, for variable.]

AT THE START OF THE 20TH CENTURY, astronomers thought they knew what the Universe was all about. It was an island of light, afloat alone in the dark, infinite sea of existence. Measuring about 100,000 light years across, it contained about 100 million stars – a fixed, unchanging and eternal raft of stars sometimes called the Milky Way.

Then, on October 4, 1923, from a dark mountainside in California, a discovery was made that would redraw the map of the cosmos – starting astronomy down a path that no one could have imagined or predicted, and that would eventually lead the way back 13.8 billion years to the birth of the Universe itself.

Welcome to type-1a supernova school...


Some more t-shirt geekery....

I've knocked up some more physics and science-based t-shirtery... Is Schrödinger's cat alive or dead? You decide!

Check them out (or don't) here 

Will micro black holes point to extra dimensions?

BLACK HOLES ARE AMONG the most evocative and fascinating phenomena in the cosmos. Born from the collapsing cores of massive stars, they are the ultimate expression of gravity’s power – bending the fabric of space and time so absolutely that not even light can escape their clutches. In their most massive incarnations, they lurk at centre of every galaxy – able to dictate the movements of stars and, if they stray too close, strip away their gaseous flesh. Black holes are awesome and terrifying objects.

It’s fortunate then that they can only be found in deep recesses of outer space... but imagine if, during some sort of perverse science experiment, we were to make one here on planet Earth.

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