Astrobiology, The Future.

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Space Travel

I am still trying to decide whether my admiration for Elon Musk is because of his electric vehicles (S-3-X-Y) or his passion for space exploration. The topic of space exploration leads me to a scientific field I would like to talk about briefly, Astrobiology. Wikipedia defines Astrobiology as “an interdisciplinary scientific field concerned with the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.” I am not an Astrobiologist but I do know that what is keeping professionals in the field awake at night is the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it. To do this, Astrobiologists make use of molecular biology, biophysics, biochemistry, chemistry, astronomy, physical cosmology, exoplanetology and geology to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds. They also try to recognize biospheres that might be different from that on Earth.

Thanks to the use of high level automated systems for space missions, space exploration has become easier. According to Wikipedia, these high level automated systems “yield benefits such as lower cost, less human oversight, and ability to explore deeper in space which is usually restricted by long communications with human controllers.” How much progress have we made in determining whether extraterrestrial life exists? Ever since landing on the moon, Mars has been a focal point of modern space exploration. According to Aerospace.com, “Mars exploration is a long-term goal of the United States. NASA is on a journey to Mars, with a goal of sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.” NASA and its partners have sent landers, orbiters, and rovers to help it increase its knowledge about the planet.

It is worth mentioning that only three countries have human space programs (China, Russia and the US). It costs a lot to have such a program! Additionally, there is more competition between these countries than is healthy. Even though the International Space Station (ISS) is a massive collaboration between five space agencies (Nasa, Roscosmos, Japan’s Jaxa, the pan-European agency ESA and the Canadian Space Agency), we have a powerful and resourceful country like China trying to ride solo. As a matter of fact, it is reported that “in 2006, Beijing reportedly tested lasers against US imaging satellites in what appeared to be an attempt to blind or damage them, and US lawmakers later banned cooperation between Nasa and China’s state agency.” But I am hopeful that the ISS is strong and resourceful enough to embark on many more groundbreaking missions.

Extremophiles 101

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Extremophiles produce some of the color at the Grand Prismatic Spring

Wikipedia defines “an extremophile as an organism that thrives in physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth.” This means that if extremophiles were your classmates, they will totally be the cool kids in the class. Not only are extremophiles able to survive in extreme conditions; actually, many of them wouldn’t survive in supposedly “normal, moderate environments.”

What are some of these extreme conditions? Examples are highly acidic systems, highly alkaline systems, low temperatures, high temperatures, extreme UV radiation and high salinity, among others. What piques my interest as well as that of many Astrobiologists, is the fact that some of these environments that these extremophiles survive on are similar to those known to exist on other planets. This means we could have a good idea of how to prepare for some of the planets that we may someday explore, or to even decide if visiting the planet is a reasonable expedition in the first place.

Of all the extremophiles, Thermophiles are my favorite. As a matter of fact, I  am planning a trip to the Yellowstone National Park because of this organism. These organisms produce some of the color at the Grand Prismatic Spring in the park! Wikipedia defines a Thermophile as “an organism that thrives at relatively high temperatures, between 41 and 122 °C (106 and 252 °F).” Many thermophiles are archaea. “Archaea” refers to microbes that have no cell nucleus, and the first observed archaea were extremophiles, living in harsh environments such as hot springs and salt lakes.

Can we travel at the speed of light?

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Light’s speed

How fast is light? Nothing on earth is known to move faster, and in my opinion, we are actually very fortunate to be able to measure it. Aside the fact that light enables us to see, I am appreciative of it even more because if it were to get any faster by any stretch, astronomers would have to build new technology to measure its speed. This speed of light is known as the cosmic speed limit and even at the age of twenty-two, I am yet to experience anything more rightfully named. Why is It so hard for us to travel at the speed of light? The reason is that as you propel an object faster and faster, its relative mass compared to when the object is at rest, increases. This means that not only do we increase the speed object; we end up increasing the object’s mass as well, eventually resulting in an infinite mass which requires an infinite amount of energy to move it.