Archive: Environment & Energy

November 22nd, 2012 | By Mallory Smith | Posted in Environment & Energy, Science & Tech | Comments Off

Did Scientists Find a Surprise on Mars?

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity drove 83 feet eastward during the 102nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission (Nov. 18, 2012), and used its left navigation camera to record this view ahead at the end of the drive. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Scientists may have found something Earth-shattering in a soil sample Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument  (SAM) dug up a few days ago.  SAM is capable of identifying organic compounds, so the discovery could have something to do with life on Mars. For now, though, scientists are being cautious about making any announcements until they have fully confirmed the sample, so we’ll have to wait until the American Geophysical Union’s meeting during the  first full week of December to see what happens.

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November 20th, 2012 | By Mallory Smith | Posted in Art & Society, Environment & Energy, Science & Tech, Space | Comments Off

Our Search for Extraterrestrial Life

With Mars hosting the Curiosity Rover for the past three months, there’s been a lot of public excitement around space exploration. One of many goals of space exploration is  to find life on another planet. There are groups like SETI that are focusing their attention and research on extraterrestrial life, “The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.” SETI’s been around since 1984, so the search for extraterrestrial life is not a new concept. Some may say that the purpose of finding life on another planet is to keep our options open for a new home when Earth is no longer habitable. Others, like SETI, hope to learn about the nature of life itself throughout the universe. Either way, the search is on. So, how’s that going for us?

SpaceX and NASA are taking steps towards putting humans on Mars. One of the problems that idea poses is that our astronauts will contaminate any potential life that could be on that foreign planet. Humans have evolved among 100 trillion microbes that could very well latch on to Martian organisms upon arrival to the planet- posing unknown risks to the planet and the organisms on it. There is a lot to consider in terms of safety not only for the sake of our astronauts, but also on behalf of the foreign planet and its environment and/or organisms.

Due to the large number of considerations space exploration forces us to ponder, space startups are struggling to provide VCs with enough comfort to overlook the numerous risks that space exploration poses to spacepreneurs. Private space ventures are the most active ones. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Paul Allen and PayPal’s Elon Musk have all spent millions in developing and enhancing space travel technology. Elon Musk is having the most luck lately, with SpaceX’s contract with NASA for 12 expensive trips to the ISS. NASA’s Curiosity Rover is also doing well, collecting enlightening samples that are (as far as I can tell) very transparently reported to the public. One of the main goals of the rover is to find some sign that life on Mars is or was possible.

How are we going about this search for extraterrestrial life anyway? How do we know what we’re looking for? Well, we’ve been searching, primarily, for a certain kind of living organism on other planets: carbon-based organisms, and those comprised of water. “The presence of water, organics, and energy represent three concurrent indicators in the search for signs of life as we presently understand,” says NASA’s 2012 Exploration Goals and Destinations Report. The report goes on to say, “The detection of water in a wide variety of solar system locations, including the Martian surface, the moons of the giant planets, Earth’s Moon, asteroids, and comets — has broadened our search for indications of life. The diversity of these locations and the known complexity of biotic and pre-biotic chemistry means that advanced instrumentation is required, and that direct examination of samples, either returned to Earth or in situ by robots and humans, is needed to produce definitive results.”

We’re spending a lot of time and energy on searching for signs of life “as we presently understand,” but can other elements be the building blocks of life for extraterrestrial creatures? Yes. It’s possible. In fact, we already know that several small life forms use arsenic to generate energy and facilitate growth. Chlorine could facilitate life, and sulfur has already proved to be a hospitable environment for some bacteria. Stephen Hawking notes that carbon seems more favorable because of its chemistry, but it’s not the only solution, “One possibility is that the formation of something like DNA, which could reproduce itself, is extremely unlikely. However, in a universe with a very large, or infinite, number of stars, one would expect it to occur in a few stellar systems, but they would be very widely separated.”

This means it would probably be beneficial to spend more time searching farther away from Earth for these commonly understood life-creating elements, if they are indeed very widely separated throughout the universe. However, the most common agreement among bioscientists focusing on carbon-based organisms seems to be that Earth is in a uniquely “sweet” spot in the universe and thus, it is more beneficial to search around our general planetary location. In any case, whatever the reason, whatever the method, the search is on for extraterrestrial life. It’s exciting, but there are several consequences to consider before we start swapping organisms with other planets, which is probably ultimately going to be a choice we will have to face in the future.

In fact, just to cover all of our bases, we should prepare ourselves for a day when we find out there is life on other planets and they are intelligent. What do we do then? Study it? Will we need to convince it to let us study it? What if it wants to come live on our planet?

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November 12th, 2012 | By Mallory Smith | Posted in Art & Society, Business & Economy, Environment & Energy | Comments Off

The U.S. is slowly changing its mind about women

Women have been front and center in the elections this year, drawing attention to issues that concern everyone like employment and energy, and issues that focus on women more exclusively, like reproductive issues. Recently there seems to be progress being made for women, in politics especially. The 113th Congress will have  20 female senators, which is the most ever in U.S. history, and you can meet them here. Though it’s not a great ratio since it’s still well below half, it does represent a certain air of change that’s taking shape as we speak.  Recently the senate has been making some  bold moves  in support of pro-choice groups. The 2012 presidential campaign had a major focus on women, and their votes made a huge impact on the election.

The 112th U.S. Congress had 17 women of 100 people in the Senate and 73 of the 435 in the House.  Now there are 20 female senators, and 78 representatives in the House. Only four states (Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont) have yet to elect a woman to Congress.

 

 

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October 22nd, 2012 | By Mallory Smith | Posted in Environment & Energy | Comments Off

From the desk of Captain Obvious: Water’s important

Not only is water important to maintain and preserve so the entire world can have drinkable water in the future, but water is important to share with those who are unable to obtain potable water right now. The Vestergaard Frandsen LifeStraw is an easy way to contribute to society. According to the LifeStraw website: “Half of the world’s poor suffer from waterborne disease, and nearly 6,000 people – mainly children – die each day by consuming unsafe drinking water.” LifeStraw filters through dirty and contaminated water, making it clean and safe to drink, minimizing the risk of waterborne diseases. Donate a LifeStraw to someone in need today!

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October 12th, 2012 | By Mallory Smith | Posted in Art & Society, Environment & Energy, Innovation, Science & Tech | Comments Off

State of the Arts 2012 update

I had previously mentioned that you would be able to watch the State of the Arts 2012 event online and here it is! I’ll include my favorite segments below, which include an introduction of Hollywood, Health & Society by Sandra de Castro Buffington, and an early look at the philanthropic video game Cyber Hero League with Dana Klisanin.

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