The Biggest Tool

A couple of weeks ago an announcement was made by a consortium of scientists from around the world about the discovery of gravity waves.

“Big deal,” I hear you say while trying valiantly to stifle a yawn.

Well its a big deal about something very small caused by something very big.

The wave was just 0.000000000000000000001m high.

Gravity waves are minute ripples in space-time, the four dimensional fabric of the Universe in which all of nature and history is played out. They were predicted as by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1915 but took a century to actually detect.

To put things in perspective let’s say a big human is 2m tall and weighs 100kg.

The Earth is 12,000,000m in diameter and weighs  57,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000kg.

The Sun is 1,392,000,000m in diameter and weighs 1,989,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000kg.

What created the gravity wave pulse was two black holes spiraling into each other under the attraction of their colossal gravity and merging. One weighed 36 times as much as the Sun and the other 29 times. In the process 3 times the mass of the Sun was converted in an instant into the gravity wave pulse. This would have been an awesome spectacle but you would not have wanted to be too close on account of the gravity sucking you in and the gamma rays spewing out from around the collision site.

All this happened 1.3 billion years ago and it took that long at the speed of light to get here. At that time all the land on Earth was concentrated in one big continent called Rodinia. The sea was full of single celled organisms. There would be no multicellular life for another 700 million years. Rodinia would have been completely devoid of even a speck of anything alive.

The gravity wave was detected by what could be described as the biggest tool ever built. There are two sets of L-shaped tubes 4 kilometres long with lasers and mirrors that do the measuring and they are located on opposite sides of the U.S. A third site is to be built in India to add more resolving power to the setup.

For me one point of interest was that the University of Glasgow was involved in the consortium. They were trying to measure gravity waves there in 1970 when I started studying Physics (or as it was rather grandly called, Natural Philosophy). It only seems like 1.3 billion years ago.

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From Luxembourg to the asteroids

An odd duo of concepts in the same sentence caught my attention a couple of days ago.

The small country of Luxembourg (sandwiched between France, Belgium and Germany) has announced it intends to partner with just about anyone in the fledgling field of asteroid mining.

Now you can be forgiven if you are really ancient for remembering Luxembourg as nothing more than a radio station people in the UK used to listen to before BBC Radio 1 to BBC Radio 1,000,000 came along.

Delving a little deeper we find Luxembourg entered history under my old mates the Romans. What did the Romans ever do for them? Well, built some nice baths for a start.

After much to-ing and fro-ing it somehow emerged from the Middle Ages as a small and independent Grand Duchy. Now isn’t that a splendid title?

The Nazis wiped it from the map for a few years in World War 2. Now its greatest claim to fame is being home to various European Union organisations and who knows if that’s going to last?  I hope it does.

On a personal note I spent one day in Luxembourg on business in about 1978 so I feel a deep spiritual connection there.

And now the Luxembourgers want to mine the asteroids.

Well good on them! We are running out of precious minerals needed in all kinds of technologies. These being heavy metals mostly sunk down onto the molten core of the Earth over four billion years ago and are beyond our reach. It’s only the tiniest fraction in the top few kilometres of the crust we can ever mine. On the millions of asteroids they are much closer to the surface. Over the next fifty years the cost of utilising these resources will drop while the dwindling amounts left on earth will make the price rise. There’s also lots of ice out there that could make hydrogen for fuel and oxygen as well. There are a couple of American companies already making plans to get out there and do it with robotic spacecraft.

Of course the venture is highly speculative but full marks to Luxembourg for its long-sighted vision.

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Water on Mars

I mentioned Mars in my last post so this is becoming a bit of a habit.
It’s great that NASA has actually found the wet stuff on Mars even if it’s salty, frozen and covered with red dust.
With water and electricity from solar panels you can make hydrogen (use as fuel) and oxygen (breath it).
So a Mars base would be more sustainable without needing to be resupplied from Earth quite as much.
Who’s going to get there first?
NASA in the 2030s with their SLS rocket designed by senators to keep jobs in their states?
Mars One in 2025 with their reality show and completely infeasible cash and technology projections.
My money is on Elon Musk’s SpaceX. If anyone can do it on the cheap he can.
Ourselves and our ancestors have done a right royal job of stuffing up the planet all the life we know of lives on.
We are overpopulating it to death.
The future of our children’s children is out at Mars and far, far beyond where the resources are infinite.