Scientific News (February 2018)

The future is too bright

The technology used in space exploration has dramatically advanced in recent years, and astronomers are able to look deeper into space more than they have ever been. However, these technological advances have the potential to cause mass pollution in our skies, meaning that astronomers could be denied a clear view into space, and have limited sensitivity in terms of remote sensing, leading to inaccurate measurements.

Space debris, radio interference and light have already been highlighted as major causes of pollution within our skies, and the situation is set to deteriorate over the next 20 years following the launch of a further 20,000 satellites that would be inserted into Earth’s lower orbit, according to speakers at the Annual Astronomical Society meeting.

It has been reported that LEDs form the main source of artificial light, and radio frequencies will be filled by the fifth generation of mobile networks. The debris in space has been dubbed the worst of all pollution across the globe, and the problem seems to be growing. 60 years ago, Sputnik was launched into a clear sky; since the launch, Earth orbit has been filled with approximately 18,000 objects that range in size – some as small as a centimetre, to some the size of a bus. The objects, all of which are tracked by the United States Strategic Command could cause potential damage to existing space telescopes and confuse terrestrial telescopes with reflecting light beams.

Light pollution on Earth itself has increased since the introduction of LEDs and light-emitting diodes, and is set to deteriorate further. In 2010, LED lights counted for just 1% of the American lighting market. Today, LED lights have increased in use by more that 50% and this figure continues to grow.

LED’s are known to benefit the environment as well as being more economic due to their energy efficiency and longevity. However, LED’s also emit a large rich blue light that is known to be bad for astronomers – the lights generate longer wavelengths, causing a yellow glow in the sky, making it harder for astronomers to see stars in the night sky.

Astronomers who make observations of space through radio waves have also reported difficulties with their readings and conclusions, due to the mass of interference caused by a source based on the Earth. Radio interference is caused by frequencies that are too close in proximity. As new technologies emerge and evolve, the problems increase as seen with the use of 5G mobile networks, as well as the introduction of radars built into driverless cars. Because of this, astronomers will continue to struggle to obtain clear readings.

Late astronomer Jean Heidmann, foresaw the problem, and in 1998 proposed the introduction of a designated area for an observatory to be placed on the far side of the moon, that could safely observe without the interference and effects from space debris, including ambient light and radio pollution. Although this seems to be an extreme solution, the government have been urged to continue regulating radio frequencies. Without regulations being put in place radio astronomers could eventually lose the ability to make accurate and credible observations.

Astronomers could find themselves having to expand and secure radio quiet zones to help maintain the future of radio astronomy based on Earth, like the facilities at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.


The iEyes have it

i-eyes, the development of smart contact lenses that are able to monitor your health have successfully been tested on animals. The lenses that are made from pliable material, contain transparent electronics that can measure glucose levels sampled from the production of tears in the eye and are able to warn wearers when their levels rise. Although current tests have been on animals, should the lenses work in a human eye, it could pave the way forward for diabetics to have access to a pain free monitoring device.

It was 4 years when Google spin-off company Verily Life Sciences based in San Francisco showcased the future of smart contact lenses that could trace glucose and detect cancers. These early examples were produced using rigid materials with embedded dense electronics, which made the lenses uncomfortable to wear, and the measurements of glucose in early trials were found to be unreliable.

Tackling these issues, researchers from the South Korean based Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, led by Materials Scientist Jihun Park, introduced a new design with components produced from soft, flexible materials that were largely transparent. The devices included components such an antenna and a rectifier that would catch the radio frequency signals from a transmitter, that would then convert them into small amounts of electricity. The charge produced would power up the glucose sensor within the lens, and transmit a signal to a small green light emitting diode (LED), emitting outwards, so not to cause any interruption to the wearers eyesight.  This light can be seen when looking in a mirror. Should the glucose sensor register high levels, the LED would turn off, alerting the wearer to adjust their insulin levels.

Unfortunately, the researchers were unable to ensure that all the components used were flexible. The glucose sensor relies on two rigid silicon pads, with a view of ensuring that the lens is flexible. The scientists have been able to place the pads onto thin “islands” that would offer support, and these have been fixed together using a flexible ultrathin wire. Once attached, these islands are able to move and stretch on their own, making the lens more comfortable for the wearer.

This is still yet to be confirmed by a human wearer however. The original tests on rabbits, showed no detrimental effects, in addition to this, the glucose sensors proved to be accurate throughout the tests.

It is believed that many companies are investigating and planning to exploit the advancements that smart lenses could bring. Sensimed, EPGLMed, Samsung, Sony and Apple have all been linked with the possible launch of smart contact lenses. Before humans are able to wear these ground-breaking contact lenses, tweaks will need to be made. With continuing advancements, and the outcomes of the South Korean trials, people that could benefit from diagnostic contact lenses could see these benefits sooner rather than later.


Solar storm fear prompt calls for orbital watchdog

Many UK scientists and engineers have been selected to be part of the team that is working on a new satellite, able to provide information that could potentially stop the Earth from being hit by a massive solar storm. The satellite will be named Lagrange, and will be developed to protect the Earth from the damaging storms that may otherwise go undetected.

Any massive explosion from the sun could have massive implications on Earth. There could be a loss of power and disruption to communication systems. The development and then success of the project would help provide scientists with the ability to prepare for any such storms.

The mission is named Lagrange due to the position that the satellite would occupy in the solar system. The satellite would be positioned just behind the Earth, in a position known as “Lagrangian point 5”. Placing the satellite here will mean that it requires less fuel in order to maintain its orbital position, while also focusing on the area of the sun that the Earth is about to rotate around. British Solar Professor Richard Harrison explains. “So, not only do you get a preview of the active regions and how complicated they are, but if the Sun throws something out you also get to track it from the side,” He describes the effect of a solar storm as, “a punch being thrown at your face, never knowing how far away it really is, but viewing it sideways will make it easier to be able to judge the distance”

Unusual activity on the sun has always had a direct impact upon the Earth. The process of starting this mission began in earnest in Darmstadt in Germany earlier this month when the ESA signed off the design contracts. The contracts included two industrial studies that will run parallel to the space mission. One will be run by Airbus UK, and the other by OHB systems of Germany. These two companies will be responsible for the provision of the spacecraft, more specially its chassis, as well as fitting the satellite with its instruments.

The most important role for these two will be to manage the mission, from the launch, right the way through to the end of its service life and return to Earth. The design of the satellite’s on board instruments has been awarded to two other contractors, the responsibility of British-led teams.

The missions Remote Sensing Package (RSP) will be assessed at the Ruth Appleton Laboratories. These instruments will need to be delicately fine-tuned to provide the correct information about what the sun is doing. The Mullard Space Science Laboratory will provide the instruments for the transitional phase from the ground to the docking point, as well as providing sensory equipment to pick up particles that are being directly emitted by the Sun. Although these tasks will be directed from British bases, they will draw on the talents of many specialists from across the globe.

During the onset of a solar storm, our star transmits radiation in shortwave, or large bursts of radiation, generating large volumes of gas more commonly known as plasma and superfast particles, all of which are potentially sent in our direction. This discharge produces strong magnetic fields. When this happens there is an impact upon Earth with radio interference. There have been many warnings issued about a possible major solar storm. In the last year, a report issued by the UK government predicts that the UK would lose £1 billion a day, for each day that the GPS satellite-navigation service was down. Dr Ralph Cordey, who is part of the Airbus UK team said, “What we need is a ‘solar sentinel’, watching the Sun to tell us what is going to happen in advance.”

Cordey feels that the UK has well established expertise in this area and that the UK regards space weather and its impacts on Earth as a priority. The issue of the weather in space has been acknowledged to be as big a deal scientifically alongside events such as pandemic flu, severe flooding and volcanic eruptions.

The concept of the Lagrange mission is being overseen by the Space Situational Awareness Programme (SSAP). The UK has committed funding of £22 million to the programme over a four-year period. This happened the last time the space ministers of Europe met in December 2016. The ministers are next due to meet in December 2019, when they hope to have completed all the required research necessary to give the mission the final seal of approval.

It is expected that American scientists will also look to launch a mission of their own like that of the European team. It is expected that this satellite will be positioned directly in front of the Earth. The two missions combined will give two perspectives of the sun, and will allow analysts the best view of any potential storm.



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Scientific News (January 2017)

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