Archive for the ‘Environment & Science’ Category

When my brother was down from Brisbane recently we visited my parents and took the opportunity to go through the stuff in the shed. Both of us have, over the years, salvaged most of our treasured childhood loot but we still have many boxes stashed away. From among the school books, stamp collections and “licky-down books” we unearthed a 1979 Rigby Usborne publication entitled: The World of the Future: Future Cities by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis. The front page boasts of “Colonies in Space”, “Solar heated houses”, “Amazing sports” and “Wristwatch TV,” while the salient image is of a sizeable city on the moon, housed in three glass domes. This rather optimistic publication proved to be a time capsule in its own right and was great grist to the mill of one of my favourite subjects – past visions of the future.


This very idea of imagining how things will look in the future is a relatively recent concept. Most medieval Europeans looked more to the past and sighed at their small stature before the glories of Rome, while in East Asia at the same time, despite advanced technical innovation, societies looked inward, more interested in maintaining traditions than imagining a vastly different future. People certainly dreamed of greater prosperity, but this vision was likely just a wealthier version of the present society, without wholly new technologies and innovations.

It is only really since the late Renaissance and the industrial revolution that we have more broadly imagined the idea of a future in which societies were far more advanced technologically. There have long been people who thought up and, in some cases, implemented, radical social shifts, alongside more fantastical, idealistic utopias, but in recent times these ideas have become more wedded to technologies not yet invented or those in a nascent form which promised immense change. Our rate of technical advancement reached such an extreme in the 20th century that, in 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term “Futureshock” in his book of the same title, which basically posited that humanity was experiencing a psychological condition of culture shock caused by “too much change in too short a period of time.” So accustomed did we become to the whirlwind of advancement and the expectation of radical societal shifts that we were able to imagine an entirely different world emerging within a single generation.


These past visions of the future are fascinating in the way they reveal our inevitable naivety as much as our impressive ambition. They show us not only the overzealous hopes of our imagination, but also its limitations. How quaint and pathetic seems the idea of wrist-watch TV, compared to the miraculous multifunctionality of contemporary smart devices. Yet, how utterly ludicrous the idea of a city of ten thousand people orbiting the Earth is in contrast to the three astronauts presently occupying the International Space Station. As for solar-heated houses, at least they were right on this score. Though we may not yet live in a world where we all have solar panels on our roofs, it is a well-established technology with increasingly rapid uptake.

This last prediction sits with several other sensible and well-considered ideas, which are probably best illustrated in the double-spread “A House of the Future.”


This suggests that future houses will rely increasingly on renewables, such as wind and solar; that our communications will increasingly take place via satellite; that we will be driving electric cars and that many home functions might be controlled by a central computer. While electric cars might be slowly arriving, what we now call “the internet of things” – the interconnection of practical electronic devices like fridges, washing machines, dryers, air conditioning – hasn’t really taken off, despite years of talk.

Over the page, the arrival of flat-screen, wall-mounted televisions is rightly predicted, though their date of the late 1980s is now recognisably far-fetched. The clunky “TV telephone,” the enormous home computer unit with its antiquated buttons and the drink-dispensing robot reveal, once again, the limitations of our imagination, most obvious in the total absence of anything like the internet.


Whereas the “Risto” – a digital watch with unattractive antennae poking out on four sides – is promoted as a “wrist-watch, radio-telephone” that could be used for electronic voting, secure police communication and as a panic-button in emergencies. They also suggest that by “punching out an enquiry number” a lost person could “ask for guidance back to the nearest town.” While the idea that the Risto would rely on something similar to the GPS satellite array is certainly on the money, the inability to conceive of anything as all-encompassing as the internet, makes this all seem rather dull.


Perhaps inevitably, the most glaring over-optimism in this book lies in our imagined future in space. Just as Bladerunner, made in 1983, expected much of humanity to be living in off-world colonies by 2019, so this book suggests that the 2020 Olympics might take place on the moon. Unfortunately for the dreamers of the past, the Tokyo games will be all too sublunary.


The authors also posit a skyscraper that stretches all the way into space, with vast tubes up which people might travel in shuttles fired along see-through vacuum tubes; a city of 10, 000 people orbiting Earth in one of the gravitationally neutral Lagrange points; space-shuttle refuelling stations; a huge city on the moon with an already well-established industrial sector firing materials into space to build further orbital cities. It goes without saying that none of this has happened, not even remotely.


I’ve written elsewhere about how long I expect it will be before any significant human presence is established outside of the Earth – more likely hundreds of years than decades. Sure, a long-desired observatory on the far side of the moon might be possible, and maybe we’ll see five or six people on Mars, but none of this is likely to happen before the second half of the 21st century and, even then, at a stretch. It must be noted however that my projections are based on current levels of investment and the rate of realisation of necessary technologies, whereas, coming off the crest of the Moonshot and Space Race, had the levels of funding that went into the Apollo program been sustained, I suspect we’d at least have several larger space stations orbiting the Earth by now and some sort of minor, token presence on the moon. None of these, however, would be even remotely on the scale proposed in this book.

Probably the most silly idea of all, despite coming initially from Carl Sagan, is that of seeding Venus with bacteria and algae to feed on the carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases that blanket the planet, eventually producing enough oxygen to cause water-rain to fall. “It will not get as far as the surface, boiling to steam before it gets there,” say the authors. “But each time it rains, surface temperatures drop a little.” Eventually, they suggest, increasingly heavy rain will scrub the noxious gases from the atmosphere and allow a more Earth-like climate to develop there. I love this idea, but it seems little more than a pipe-dream, as is evident when taking into account all the other problems we would face in making Venus even remotely habitable. Carl Sagan himself later shot down his own plan, in the wake of a more sophisticated understanding of Venus’ atmosphere.

Finally, though it appears relatively early in the book, there is a double spread which posits two possible futures for the inhabitants of Earth – the “Garden city on a cared-for planet” or the “polluted city of a dying world.”


I’d like to think that, in the developed world at least, we are moving increasingly towards the garden city idea, but the stubborn persistence in burning fossil fuels, the scale of the human population, the stupidity of post-truth polities who repeatedly elect neo-conservative capitalists intent on burning up the entire planet in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe, makes that future very uncertain indeed. The authors were indeed right about one thing – that it is advancements in technology and increasingly clean and efficient practices which will ensure a better future for us all. I salute their positive vision of a cleaner, greener Earth, which is, in many ways, coming true at a grass-roots level if not at the all-important level of government. Fingers-crossed, the worst-case scenarios of our present visions of the future won’t come to pass, and several decades from now, we’ll be able to chuckle at those pictures of a stifling, suffering world of hunger, conflict and inequality.

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Stunning Pluto, colour enhanced to highlight different terrain and composition.

Like so many people I’ve been completely gripped by the New Horizons mission to Pluto – a gift to humanity that, for the moment, keeps on giving. The exploration of the Pluto system completes the initial reconnaissance of our classical solar system, for we have now visited all the planets (putting aside disputes about Pluto’s status) with probes. Though this process really began in 1961 with the Soviet Venera 1 mission to Venus, the probe lost contact before it made its flyby and thus the first successful visit to another planet came the following year, with Nasa’s Mariner 2, which also went to Venus. From that time forward, a quite staggering number of probes have been sent to explore our  immediate neighbourhood.

Questions are frequently raised about the cost and purpose of space exploration, with a variety of arguments put forward that it is a waste of money. Yet, when we consider the returns from investment in space, scientifically, philosophically and economically, it is clear that such ventures are not only vital to understanding our place in the universe, but also offer many positive outcomes and benefits.

Exploration of the solar system not only fills people with a sense of wonder and excitement, it also reminds us just how unique our own planet is and how utterly inhospitable the rest of the planets are – for Homo Sapiens. Ideally this should inspire us to protect our planet – just as the first photographs of the Earth from space were a huge inspiration to green and global peace movements back in the 1960s. Seen from space, it is completely clear that the Earth is one planet we all must share, not some disparate mosaic of places so different that conflict between us must be inevitable.

The famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the solar system, in which our home is a mere one pixel against the immensity of space, showed us once again what a tiny oasis we live on. One pixel, that’s all we have, and we really need to stop trashing the joint.


Pale Blue Dot – Earth captured by Voyager I – lower middle right of frame

The exploration of space may be carried out by national space agencies, and their flag waving may seem parochial, but that is just a reflection of the immense pride in this huge and noble achievement. Space exploration is for everyone – for all humankind. As the International Space Station has shown, when it comes to space, the scientists and astronauts of different nations cooperate with a warmth and eagerness that is admirable, because they know that their work goes far beyond petty nationalisms. Obviously the space program was born of a kind of international competition, but even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia were working together in space to their mutual benefit, and, arguably, for all our benefits. When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon in 1969, the whole world rejoiced. This was not merely an American achievement, it was arguably the most colossal achievement of the human race’s entire history. A life-form descended from an ape had somehow managed to leave its home-world and travel to another world. Wow.

Solar system

Where we live

Our exploration of our solar system and the vastness of space beyond has not only allowed us to throw off mistaken ideas about the place of the Earth in the solar system, it has taught us our address in the universe. We are, at present, mapping the entire sky in an attempt to put together a map of the visible universe.  We now know precisely where we are in the Milky Way Galaxy and where our galaxy lies in relation to other galaxies in our local group. We now know that at the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole – Sagittarius A*, around which our unremarkable but life-giving star orbits, along with anything between 100 and 400 billion other stars.


Sagittarius A-Star

We know that our own galaxy is but one galaxy among billions of other galaxies whirling, and it seems, accelerating through space. We know that the universe is not some permanent, static thing, but something that was born and has the potential to die, and is, indeed, expanding. We now know the age of the universe (c. 13.82 billion years); we know the age of the sun (c.4.57 billion years) and the planets (Earth, c. 4.54 billion years). Previously our ignorance of these things meant that we were dominated by superstition, with all the calamities and oppression that religion has brought to humanity throughout its long history. I accept that religion has played an important role in the origins of organised human society, yet its rigid, inflexible and wrong-headed ideas which justify intolerance, autocracy, homophobia, misogyny and genocide have no place in the modern world. Understanding the origins of the universe and of our own sun and planets, understanding how the planets and stars move in space and understanding how all this can be attributed purely to the laws of physics is helping us to throw off the shackles of these restrictive and punitive beliefs. Further exploration can only push superstitions about our origins and those of the Earth itself to the margins, and, in the context of the recent barbarism in the name of religion and widespread ignorance that denies the reality of climate change, this can’t happen soon enough.

By no means has all of this been done through space-based probes, but exploration of the universe began, of course, with the human eye and telescopes. In recent decades, however, the ability to deploy telescopes to space has greatly improved our knowledge and vision of the universe. Indeed, since the 1970s, more than eighty probes have been sent into Earth’s orbit and beyond measuring our planet, the solar system, galaxy and wider universe in gamma rays, x-rays, visible and infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.


Square Kilometre Array – Artist’s impression

The James Webb Space Telescope

The new telescopes being developed for deployment on both Earth and in space, the Square Kilometre Array, the James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the “imaginatively” named Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope to name a few, will allow us, for example, to find planets in neighbouring star systems with an accuracy of which we have only dreamed. This is key information not just for refining our understanding our origins and how unique or typical our planet and planetary system is in space, but also for developing maps of our neighbourhood which may one day be necessary should we ever need to look beyond our solar system for a new home, or indeed, be driven to colonise the other planets in our solar system.

Potentially habitable exoplanets

We can only guess what they look like, but we know they are there

Such distant outcomes seem almost pointlessly farfetched, yet the knowledge and wisdom we gain from this – the insights into questions as fundamental as the prevalence of life in the universe, whether or not we are alone, and whether or not we can one day expand our horizons, come at such a relatively cheap price that it would be foolish not to gain this knowledge. Humans have, after all, always looked beyond the horizon. It’s how we colonised our own world in the first place.

Such high minded motivations aside, there are also huge economic and environmental benefits which derive from space exploration and the space program. Consider all the technological spin-offs that have come from the space industry in the past – it’s a very long list, but here are a few highlights – solar cells, chemical detection devices, scratch resistant plastic, anti-icing systems for aircraft, light-emitting diodes, fire-fighting equipment, water purification, cordless tools, powdered lubricants, air-pollution extraction, freeze-drying, improved heart pumps, robotic artificial limbs, invisible braces, improved insulation materials… Many other technologies which already existed have been refined and improved by scientists working on space programs. Take for example the chemical detection devices used to sniff out gases on other worlds or deep space – these “artificial noses” have a huge range of actual and potential applications on Earth.

Our knowledge of our own planet, particularly with regard to our understanding of the climate, atmosphere, and surface and ocean temperatures has expanded enormously thanks to an ever-growing list of Earth-observation satellites. Such programs as the ESA’s Copernicus Program, which has already launched two of six planned satellites to observe weather, vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas, atmospheric temperatures, will allow us to foresee and predict changes on our own planet and help us to act accordingly. Arguably, such satellites might be considered more vital and practical than those visiting other parts of the solar system, yet even these programs attract similar questions about the value of the investment.


Serving society indeed. Hear hear!

Rather than raising questions about spending money on science such as this, people should really turn their attention to the million and one other things humanity wastes its money on and question those priorities first. Consider, for example, the billions of dollars given in subsidies to the fossil fuel industries; the tax breaks dolled out to the hugely wealthy and to religious institutions, the opulent waste of our overconsumption, the recent bail-out of banks and the horrifically expensive and destructive wars we fight. Investing just a fraction of this waste in cutting-edge research would advance humanity’s interests enormously and move us into a cleaner, greener future.

As someone who believes in a strong state system where wealth is taxed sufficiently to provide high quality services to the entire population and fund intellectual, artistic and humanitarian endeavours, it goes without saying that the first priority of a government should be bread and butter portfolios such as health and education. Yet, with adequate taxation there should be plenty of money to fund space exploration and space-based research, along with all other viable fields of enquiry. Space exploration is, at the end of the day, not that expensive. The Curiosity rover is a ground-breaking, prestige mission that has put a plutonium-powered, multi-functioning, mobile robotic laboratory on Mars which could potentially continue to explore the red planet for the next fifteen years – and it cost only 2.5 billion dollars. As a lump sum, this may seem a lot of money, but then, consider the fact that stealth bombers cost two billion dollars each and the US has, to our knowledge, built 21 of them. Unlike the Curiosity rover, they are not helping us to consider fundamental questions such as whether or not life may have first originated on Mars.


Curiosity rover selfie

It must be said that investment in military technological development has also produced a long range of admirably useful and important spin-off technologies. Yet such research could just as easily be conducted with peaceful, civilian purposes as its primary goal, and the cost of military hardware is outrageous to the point of scandalous, when we consider the destructive application of these machines.

Not only does such research benefit us, it makes a net profit. At present, defence spending in the US accounts for 24.5% of total spending, whereas NASA’s budget equates to 0.5%. Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo program cost one twentieth of the 2.4 trillion dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Apollo program employed roughly 409,000 people, many of whom gained ground-breaking experience in the development of new skills and technologies, the two wars led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people and practically bankrupted the United States. It may not be an equitable comparison, but it gives a pretty clear sense of where money might be better spent. And consider this – because of the high-end, high-value tech spin-offs that come from NASA and associates, it is estimated that for every $1 invested, between $7 and $14 are generated, which is a pretty neat profit however you look at it.


Many start-up companies are now working towards developing asteroid mining industries. As difficult as the task might prove to be, the benefits could be incalculable. Asteroids in our neighbourhood contain enormous, untapped deposits of rare and important minerals of which we have but a finite amount on our own planet. Potentially, these minerals can be extracted in space and transported to Earth without destroying our own vital ecosystems. If the industry ever manages to get off the ground, we could one day see an end to mining on Earth and instead gain all our mineral needs from space. What a relief this would be for our fragile environment. Knowing what is out there in the first place allows us to imagine such alternatives.

These are just some of the practical benefits of space exploration, put in harder, economic terms. Yet in truth, the real benefits we gain from this exercise go far beyond anything as tawdry as money. Space exploration is a source of great wonder and inspiration and it is a important way for us to contextualise ourselves and our existence, in the vastly wider and utterly indifferent cosmos. The Cassini probe has been studying and photographing Saturn and its moons since 2004, and has provided us with some of the most breath-taking images of the solar system’s beauty – the tiger stripes of Enceladus, the hydrocarbon lakes on the surface of Titan, the strange blue hexagon at Saturn’s north pole. Space exploration offers immense pleasure through the discovery of beautiful things.


Beautiful Enceladus could harbour life in its tidally-heated subsurface ocean.

Saturn’s Blue Hexagon was well worth a look


Hydrocarbon lakes seen in a rare glimpse through the haze of Titan.


Little Rhea before the immensity of Saturn and its rings in profile

No one expected Pluto to look as beautiful as it does. Even the most enthusiastic planetary scientists would have thought you were smoking crack if you told them they’d find tall mountains of water ice and flowing glaciers of frozen gases on a geologically active world, or a hazy, blue nitrogen sky. The sheer beauty of this distant world has made our lives richer and we can only see these images because we made the effort to go there. I say to anyone who doubts whether or not the small price paid for this mission was worth it to take a really good look at the picture below, in high resolution, on a very wide screen. Science fiction, eat your heart out.


Pluto, a fantasy wonderland of gloriously active geology.

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Rosetta, woot!

On the 12th of November 2014, if all goes according to plan, the European Space Agency will land a probe named Philae on the surface of a comet. This is the first such attempt to do so and will not only be a gigantic milestone in our understanding of these heavenly bodies in particular, and the origins of the solar system, but it also marks one of the most daring and brilliant engineering efforts of the modern era. Philae will be dispatched from the Rosetta space probe which went into orbit around comet  67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (hereafter 67P/C-G) in August this year. What it has taken even to reach this point and achieve these initial goals is truly extraordinary.

Rosetta was launched on March 2, 2004 and finally reached the comet with which it was designed to rendez-vous on August 6, 2014.


Powered only by its solar panels, Rosetta has been forced to make a number of complex manoeuvres in order to save energy and accelerate sufficiently to chase a speeding comet. Thus, after launch, Rosetta has relied on gravity assists from a number of planet flybys – first swinging around Earth in March 2005, then Mars in February 2007, Earth again in November 2007, before flying by an asteroid – 2867 Steins – in September 2008, back around the Earth in November 2009, then out past another asteroid, 21 Lutetia, in July 2010. Having finally picked up sufficient momentum and been set on the right trajectory, in mid 2011, as it swung out toward the orbit of Jupiter, Rosetta was shut down and entered a 31-month period of hibernation.

Rosetta trajectory 2

For almost three years Rosetta floated in space, waiting patiently for the comet to swing past so that it might begin its final chase. Then, earlier this year, on January 20, 2014, Rosetta was woken by her internal alarm. The probe fired its thrusters to slow its rotation, faced its solar panels towards the sun, rotated its antenna towards the Earth and finally, after an anxious wait, sent a signal to indicate that its systems were operational. It was the first communication heard from the craft during those 31 months and mission controllers (along with fans and supporters the world over) were understandably ecstatic.

She's alive!

Rosetta was alive and well and the mission to pursue comet 67P/C-G was back on.

Since waking, Rosetta spent nearly eight months chasing the comet and finally caught up in August, at which point it executed a series of burns to manoeuvre into orbit around the comet by September 10. On arriving at the comet, scientists were surprised to discover that it was curiously misshapen, appearing almost to be two comets stuck together and joined by a narrow bridge.



On account of its shape, it was likened to a rubber duck and presented mission controllers with significant problems in identifying a suitable landing site for the Philae lander. A decision was finally made in October and the landing site name “Agilkia” was selected, along with the date of November 12. The name of the site carries on the Egyptian theme of the mission – Agilkia being an island in the River Nile.


Come the 12th, Philae will detach itself from Rosetta and fall slowly towards the comet, a process which will take around 7 hours to complete. The landing will be hazardous, largely as it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly where Philae will touch down within the chosen site and there is a risk that it will land on a boulder or ridge and flip over. Also, on account of the incredibly low gravity of the comet, a consequence of its negligible mass, there is some concern that even if Philae lands on a flat surface, it may rebound from the comet. Thus, Philae is equipped with harpoons which will fire into the surface, as well as feet designed to screw into the ground upon landing.


The scientific understanding that has come from this mission so far is very valuable indeed and, even if Philae fails, roughly 80% of the mission’s objectives will have been met. Rosetta will continue to orbit comet 67P/C-G until August 2015, as it swings around the sun, thus giving us an opportunity to study the material make-up of the comet and its behaviour in unprecedented detail. The images that have already been released show an inspiring and magnificently barren landscape with robust and jagged features, stark in the high contrast of the unfiltered sun.


For a mission first conceived in 1993, after rejecting plans for a sample-return mission, this data has been a long time coming. Irrespective of the scientific understanding that comes from Rosetta’s remarkable journey, its very conception, the skill and precision which has gone into its execution, and the beautiful images that have come to us already constitute a wonderful and inspiring achievement. Fingers crossed, come Wednesday, we shall be looking at the first ever images taken from the surface of a comet. That is truly something worth celebrating in a jaded world in which humanity has little to be proud of right now.












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The ability to throw accurately and at high velocity is a uniquely human trait. Other primates don’t even come close to our range, speed and aim. The chimpanzee, despite being immensely strong physically, can only throw at around 20 miles per hour and is not especially accurate. A twelve-year-old human child, on the other hand, can achieve more than three times that speed and a far sharper aim.


Deadly ranged attack – Bushman throwing a spear

The ability to kill from a distance wrought changes in the lifestyle and diet of early humans by revolutionising their capacity to hunt and to defend themselves. This not only had significant physical and developmental impacts, it also had social, psychological and moral implications as well. The capacity for a weaker individual to slay a stronger one without engaging in physical contact must have transformed early human social relations.

To be able to kill at a distance in the first place, early humans had to learn how to throw effectively, and this is something they did to a quite astonishing degree. The adaptations that enabled such fast and accurate throwing began to develop around two million years ago in Homo Erectus. The key changes, as identified recently in a study by Dr Neil Roach of George Washington University, were a wider waist, the lower position of the shoulders on the torso, and the capacity to twist the upper arm bone.

Humans vs chimps, throwing

Competitive advantage – Rotating arm, low shoulder, wide waist

Studies tracking the movement of American baseball players clearly illustrate how the human shoulder works like a slingshot by storing and releasing energy in its tendons and ligaments, allowing humans to hurl projectiles with incredible and deadly speed.


Slingshot action – Baseball Pitcher

The action of throwing begins by first rotating the arm backwards, during which movement elastic energy is stored in the shoulder. When the arm rotates forward, that energy is released in a lightning motion and transferred through the arm to the missile.

Throwing diagram

The Art of Javelin Throwing

It is hardly surprising that this throwing action became so greatly refined and specialised, considering the enormous advantages that it offered. Indeed, one could argue that learning to throw quickly and accurately drove human evolution more powerfully than any single factor outside of upright walking and language. The morphology of organisms is determined by a number of environmental factors, and one of the most key is how they acquire their food and defend themselves. Hence long beaks and tongues for dipping into flowers; huge teeth for grinding bone; incredible speed for chasing or fleeing; sharp claws for climbing or rending flesh, venomous bites for attack or defence – the diet and the nature of external threats drives the design.

chimpanzee with machine gun

This never happened…

If you studied the morphology of hominids over the last two million years and asked, how do these creatures acquire food and how do they defend themselves? – the most obvious answers would be by running, climbing and throwing. Focussing on diet, we then might ask – which of these techniques provide the most protein? – and throwing is the obvious answer. Those more capable of throwing not only made considerably better hunters and had a wider variety of meat available to them, they were also better adapted to seeing off rivals in a dispute. Once humans began to rely on throwing as a key hunting technique, natural selection ensured that those better adapted to throwing passed on their genes.

Consider how natural the inclination is for people to practise throwing and to gain pleasure from it. Just as other animals chase, spar and wrestle in play as a kind of innate training program for skills they will need in adulthood, so almost all human children practise throwing from a young age and derive immense pleasure and satisfaction from their accuracy and skill. We are designed to throw – it is the only explanation as to why we are so good at it. Once early humans began to hurl rocks and spears, there was no looking back – it was, quite simply, the best means by which to acquire rich sources of protein.

Grass Silhouette

Designed to Throw – It’s a human thing

Being able to take down prey at longer range meant access to a great deal more meat, providing more fuel for growing brains and supporting larger social groups. The skill itself must have driven brain development through the complex calculations required to judge a throw – distance, angle, height, wind-speed, tracking the prey’s movement and knowing exactly when to release. The ability to make aerodynamic spears, or choose the most effective stones must also have called upon significant brain power and encouraged manual dexterity.

The range and variety of habitats available to early humans would also have changed dramatically. No longer required to stay near rich sources of fruit and vegetables, or to use the cover of the woods to surround and ambush prey, early humans were free to enter new habitats, acquiring their food through long-ranged attacks on the herds grazing the savannahs.

The point at which early humans first began to rely on missile weapons has long been debated by archaeologists. Whereas the evolutionary adaptations begin to appear almost two million years ago, archaeology can only provide much more recent evidence for the use of throwing spears, with dates ranging from less than 100,000 years ago, to half a million years. Indirect evidence derived from impact fractures on spear tips suggest people were throwing spears at least as far as 500,000 years ago, but this interpretation is widely disputed and it is difficult to determine conclusively whether spears were thrust or thrown. The failure of wood to preserve well means we lack sufficient evidence and, as the dictum goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Chimpanzees are well known for using a variety of simple tools. Poking sticks into ant and termite nests to collect insects, breaking nuts with rocks, and, it seems, even attempting to spear smaller primates with sharp sticks.


Chimpanzee fishing for termites

This latter behaviour is, evidentially, rare, and chimpanzees are not known for throwing spears or using them in combat or hunting. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to consider that if an ancestor with whom we parted ways some seven and a half million years ago uses such technology, then early humans might have taken the sharp stick a few steps further and started throwing them at creatures. On these grounds some anthropologists have suggested that hominids may have been using spears as weapons as early as five million years ago.

Whatever questions may hang over the archaeological evidence, it seems the only place we need look to determine when early humans began to use throwing as a principal means of hunting is the biology. If the adaptations were there two million years ago, then surely this is because early humans were increasingly throwing things two million years ago – it’s the only logical explanation. It is hardly likely to have just been for play, or courtship – the most logical driver is the benefits it offered in food acquisition and self-defence. As to what those early humans were throwing, it is hard to be sure. They likely began with rocks, possibly for dislodging things from trees, before graduating to more refined and aerodynamic missiles.

chimp with rock tool

Chimp with simple stone tool

The huge competitive advantage offered by this skill ensured that humans were able to dominate their environment. It may also have played a significant role in developing the codes of ethics and morality which kept inter and intra-clan strife to a minimum. Dominant males could no longer rely on brute strength and intimidation alone to see off rivals. The knowledge that a weaker, less dominant individual – male or female – could, through a carefully aimed spear, assassinate them, would have transformed the social landscape. More tact, more consideration, more rigid rules might well have emerged in the wake of developing such deadly capability.

chimp with stick

I wonder what will happen if I throw this…

From the humble rock and primitive throwing spear, humans later took their ranged attacks to new heights through the development of better spears, then spear-throwers – Atlatls and Woomeras – and ultimately, bows and arrows, for which the earliest archaeological evidence dates to roughly 13,000 years ago. Some have suggested that these technological advances might in part explain how Homo sapiens outcompeted Neanderthals, but, like so many theories on that front, it is based on a number of assumptions and guesses. Even without the use of spear-throwing implements, which have been shown in tests to have an effective, accurate range of between 45-55 metres, with a maximum range considerably longer, it is possible to hurl a spear a significant distance.

aboriginal spear

The Woomera and Atlatl (spear throwers) dramatically increase velocity

The Olympic javelin record is just under a hundred metres, and whilst no one would suggest such ranges were achievable or desirable with prehistoric weapons, light, wooden spears can be deadly at tens of metres, allowing the hunter to keep a very significant gap between prey – or predator for that matter – especially when the prey failed to perceive that such a distant human could be a threat.

Whatever the case, the development of throwing is one of the main reasons we are here today. It is one of our most refined skills, and for millennia, likely for millions of years, it remained our species’ preferred means of hunting and acquiring food. That we are so good at throwing is no accident – it is simply natural selection favouring the genes of the better hunters. The preying mantis uses lightning speed, the snake has deadly venom, the honeybee favours a suicidal sting and we humans have missiles – that’s just how we roll.

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Dwarf Planets

The demotion of Pluto as a planet back in August 2006 caused a great stir and left many people feeling disappointed.

Minus Pluto -

Since its discovery in 1930, several generations have been taught that there are 9 planets in the Solar System, no more, no less. Considering how sophisticated our knowledge of space and our own planetary system has become, it must have seemed as though this were a fixed figure, unlikely to change. After all, could there really be other planets out there that we had somehow missed?

10th Planet Dr Who

Science fiction has made much of the idea of “the 10th planet,” yet with no other planets apparently introduced to the ledger since 1930, was it likely that any further planets were going to be discovered? And, perhaps more pertinently, what could possibly cause a planet to lose its status as a planet? What actually is a planet?

The answers to all this should excite anyone who has an interest in astronomy and offer more than mere solace to people mourning the demotion of Pluto. For, in recent years, many more planets have been discovered in our solar system – or, rather, many more “dwarf planets” have been discovered, and it was the discovery of another distant planet that is, in effect, larger and heavier than Pluto, that led to Pluto’s demise. Of course, Pluto isn’t going anywhere, not in a hurry, anyway, considering it takes 247.68 years to orbit the sun, but it now bears the status of “dwarf planet”, precisely because, if we were to accept it as a planet, we would have no choice but to welcome many more planets to the roster.


This in itself might not be such a bad thing, considering how little known most of the newly discovered planetoids / dwarf planets are, but the lengthy debates about what constitutes a planet did set out some sensible ground rules for planetary status, even if these rules remain hotly disputed.

Here’s how the International Astronomical Union defines a planet in our Solar System:

It is a celestial body which:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,

  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and

  3. has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.

The first rule is clear enough – and, of course, we are talking about our own star, the Sun, or rather, Sol. The second rule is mostly obvious – in simple terms, a planet should be round. A fuller definition of hydrostatic equilibrium is as follows:

the object is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape, where any irregular surface features are due to a relatively thin solid crust.

In other words, the product of things like tectonic forces, rather than simply being wildly out of shape. Earth is round (well, slightly ovoid) Mars is round and even Pluto is round.  If it doesn’t look like a deformed potato – such as Mars’ moon Phobos – then it has passed the second hurdle of planet-hood.

phobos, the potato

Otherwise, we would simply designate it an asteroid or minor planet (explained below).

Not listed above, but best mentioned now because it marks the other boundary of planetary size and mass, is a further necessary rule of planethood – that it not be massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion.

This simply means that a planet not be massive enough to ignite and form another star. Jupiter, for example, is a star that might have been – a failed star. With rather a lot of extra gas and mass, it may just have got there, but it didn’t. It’s a gas giant, not a star, precisely because it was “not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion. ”


Fair enough. Yet it is the third definition – having “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit” that has proven the most contentious and, ultimately, made all the difference. The idea works like this:

In the end stages of planet formation, a planet will have “cleared the neighbourhood” of its own orbital zone, meaning it has become gravitationally dominant, and there are no other bodies of comparable size other than its own satellites or those otherwise under its gravitational influence.

In other words, if a planet is a planet, it must be the only object, apart from its moons, to follow the same orbital path – a lone car on an otherwise empty highway. Mercury does this, Venus does this, Earth does this, but Pluto does not do this.

Surface of Pluto, impression, with Charon

If we think of the asteroid belt, the very name “belt” says it all. It is a space in which many objects share the same orbital path and no one object dominates with its gravity. Indeed, if one object did do this, then what would have to happen is that the objects in the same orbital path would have to be drawn together, colliding to form a new planet, or fall into orbit and become moons of the new planetary body which formed from the rest of the material.

The rules differentiating planets from dwarf planets are thus based on the following:

A large body which meets the other criteria for a planet but has not cleared its neighbourhood is classified as a dwarf planet. This includes Pluto, which shares its orbital neighbourhood with Kuiper belt objects such as the plutinos.

planets, including KB

The Kuiper belt, incidentally, is a region of the Solar System beyond the planets which begins at the extremities of Neptune’s orbit. Neptune orbits at roughly 30 AU (1 Astronomical Unit = the distance of the Earth from the Sun) whilst the Kuiper belt extends as far as 50 AU from the sun. It is not unlike the asteroid belt, but it is much larger – 20 times as wide and roughly 20 to 200 times as massive. It consists of remnants from the Solar System’s formation – in other words, pieces of rock and ice of varying size which did not come together to form planets, or which did come together to form dwarf planets or minor planets – planets which then failed to achieve sufficient size and mass to clear their orbital path.

Kuiper belt and Pluto

No doubt you’re also wondering what a plutino is. In effect, they are objects which are caught in a 2:3 mean motion resonance with Neptune. In other words, for every two orbits that a plutino makes, Neptune makes three. They share the same orbital resonance as Pluto and follow a similar path. Indeed, it was the discovery of the plutinos as much as anything else that led to Pluto’s demise. Pluto has not cleared these from its orbital path.

The Plutinos - Size, Albedo

So where does all this leave us? The truly exciting answer is that we are left with a surprisingly large number of dwarf planets in our Solar System. Those which orbit beyond Neptune, in the outer Solar System, are included under the rubric of trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs). To our knowledge, there are no less than 620,000 TNOs, but before we get too excited about this figure, it must be said that this number is not for dwarf planets, but rather another categorisation: Minor Planets. Minor planets include dwarf planets, asteroids, trojans, centaurs, Kuiper belt objects, and other trans-Neptunian objects. Ignoring the other categories, let’s focus instead on how many dwarf planets have so far been identified in total, not just in trans-Neptunian orbits, though this is where most of them reside.

Neptune, does it get more beautiful

At this stage the IAU has definitively named five dwarf planets: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. A further six, which in all likelihood are dwarf planets, have been discovered and await official recognition: Orcus, Sedna, Quaoar, Salaci and the less charmingly named 2002 MS4 and 2007 OR10.  Another twenty-two objects have been identified which need further observation to determine whether or not they achieve dwarf planet status.

Largest known TNOs

So, rather than a mere 8 or 9 planets in our Solar System, we may potentially include as many as 30 dwarf planets roaming around out there. I am deliberately ignoring the 19 moons in our Solar System, including our own, which are large or massive enough to achieve dwarf planet status (7, in fact, are more massive than Pluto: the Earth’s Moon, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan & Triton) yet which clearly fall short on account of their orbiting other planets and not orbiting the sun.

Moons of the solar system

Incidentally, Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit – in other words, it orbits in the opposite direction to the planet’s rotation – and is almost certainly a Kuiper belt dwarf planet that was captured by Neptune’s gravity.

Triton moon mosaic Voyager 2

It is also worth noting that, as impressive as the number of dwarf planets discovered so far may be, the IAU estimates that there might be as many as 200 dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt alone, and, wait for it, anything up to 10,000 in the region beyond.

So what is beyond the Kuiper Belt? Well, remember how big space is, and here I am inclined to quote Douglas Adams: “Space is big, really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…” Well, the solar system itself is also really big. The sun, an otherwise unremarkable star amongst billions, exerts an influence across a region that likely extends as far as 50,000 AU – roughly one light-year from the sun itself, though some are even willing to speculate that its influence extends loosely as far as 200,000 AU. The Kuiper belt is but a tiny narrow region by comparison to the Oort Cloud which surrounds and embraces the entire Solar System, as the image below makes clear. We shall talk about Sedna later.

Oort cloud size comparisons

Exactly what lies in the Oort cloud is anyone’s guess, though we needn’t assume it is anything alarmingly different from what we find in the Kuiper belt or asteroid belt for that matter. It is just another vast sea of rock and ice, and the likely point of origin for most comets which enter our inner Solar System.

Oort cloud diagram

Yet, I don’t wish to digress too far into the lesser known outer regions of the Solar System, which it is not feasible to explore adequately in the immediate future. Instead, let’s turn our attention to some of the exciting new (and not so new) dwarf planets that have been identified.

Five dwarf planets

KB objects, nice one

Trans-Neptunians, size, albedo


We must begin with Eris, which is, in effect, the key player in the drama surrounding Pluto’s demotion. It was with the discovery of Eris in January 2005 that astronomers decided they needed new rules for determining exactly what constitutes a planet. Eris is actually larger and heavier than Pluto. At roughly 2336 km in diameter and just over a quarter the mass of the Earth, it is by no means an insignificant little rock. On account of its size, Eris briefly earned the title of the 10th planet, yet it was precisely because astronomers expected to find further objects of similar mass and size that they decided new rules needed to be established before the number of official planets got out of hand.

Eris, artist impression

Eris actually resides in a region called the scattered disc. This region covers much the same space as the Kuiper belt, yet scattered disc objects are characterised by their less stable orbits.

The Transneptunians

The distinction is not, however, clear cut and many astronomers include the scattered disc as part of the further reaches of the Kuiper belt. The orbit of Eris is typical of scattered disc objects in that it is highly elliptical.

Orbit of Eris

During an orbital period of 557 years, its distance from the sun varies between a maximum (aphelion) of 97.5 AU, to as low as 37.9 AU (perihelion). In 2011, Eris was close to its aphelion at 96.6 AU, and will not return to its perihelion until around AD 2256. This eccentric orbit naturally affects the planet’s temperature significantly, though its distance from the sun is so great at the best of times that its range of temperature is estimated at somewhere between 30 and 56 Kelvin – ie. -243 to -217 degrees. Not very hospitable. Infrared light from Eris indicates the presence of methane ice on the surface, suggesting it is similar in some ways to Pluto. Eris appears to be grey in colour, though, like Pluto, it is far too distant to determine any surface features at this range, with our current technology. The artists’ impressions, detailed as they may appear, are merely approximations based on information gleaned from our knowledge of its mass, density, albedo (reflectivity) and the colour of light it emits. 

Eris artist impression

It is unlikely that we shall get a close look at it in the near future, so holding your breath is not recommended. But we most certainly will, sometime in the next few centuries, if we don’ t destroy ourselves. Eris also has one known moon, called Dysomia, the name of the goddess Eris’ daughter, and also the ancient Greek word for “lawlessness.”


Our next stop on the New Solar System tour is Ceres – a dwarf planet whose presence has been known since 1801. Despite its not being a new discovery, Ceres has only recently been re-categorised as a dwarf planet and is unique in being the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System. Being the largest body in the asteroid belt, it was the first object to be identified in that region and was originally designated planetary status, along with the asteroids 2 Pallas, 3 Juno and 4 Vesta – a status it retained for roughly 50 years.

Dear Pluto, sincerely, Ceres

The classification of Ceres is still somewhat unclear, with Nasa and various astronomy manuals continuing to refer to it as an asteroid, but then, the term asteroid has never been defined adequately and in many cases “minor planet” is used as a sort of umbrella rubric. So much for semantics. To all intents and purposes, however, Ceres is a dwarf planet. It certainly has a neat, round shape because its mass is sufficient to round it – rule 2 of dwarf planet status as outlined above.

Ceres Rotation

Ceres may be the largest object in the asteroid belt – around 950km in diameter – and consists of roughly one third of the belt’s total mass, yet it is still rather small, consisting of roughly 4% of the Moon’s mass. That sounds pretty puny, but then, this equates to a surface area of 2,850,000 sq km – roughly the size of India or Argentina, which is actually pretty large.

Ceres Earth Moon Comparison

Ceres is especially exciting to us on account of its proximity, composition and its relative warmth. Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, its maximum surface temperature has been measured at around -38 degrees Celsius, a little warmer than parts of Canada in winter : ) The surface of the planet is likely a mixture of water ice and carbonates and clay minerals and the planet may have a tenuous atmosphere, along with water frost on its surface.

Ceres Cutaway

Because of its low mass and escape velocity, Ceres has been proposed as a possible destination for manned missions. Unlike Mars, where it would be extremely difficult to take off again, Ceres offers a much easier option for a crewed ship. Ceres has even been proposed as a possible destination for human colonisation – and also as a possible way-station for further exploration of the inner and outer solar system.

Ceres amongst the big planets

At this stage our knowledge of Ceres is fairly limited, but fortunately this is all about to change in March or April 2015 when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres. Dawn will initially orbit Ceres at an altitude of roughly 5,900 km and gradually reduce its orbit over a five month period to around 1300km. After another five months it will further reduce its orbit to a distance of only 700km. Equipped with cameras, spectrometers, gamma-ray and neutron detectors, Dawn is set to radically transform our understanding not only of Ceres itself, but of dwarf planets in general.

Dawn, NASA

Launched in September 2007, Dawn has already spent more than a year in orbit around the asteroid 4-Vesta, which was, along with Ceres, initially recognised as a planet in the 19th century.

Vesta full mosaic

It is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system with a mean diameter of 525 kilometres and comprises roughly 9% of the mass of the asteroid belt. At 800,000 square kilometres, its surface area is roughly the size of Pakistan. Sadly for Vesta, however, it didn’t quite make the dwarf planet grade and remains an asteroid, terminologically.

Vesta comparison


Next on our list is Makemake, a dwarf planet named after the eponymous creator of humanity and god of fertility in the mythos of the Rapanui, the native people of Easter Island. It is roughly two thirds the size of Pluto and has no known moons, making it very difficult to correctly estimate its mass. Makemake is considered another Kuiper belt object with an eccentric 310-year orbital period which varies in distance from roughly 38.5 AU to a maximum of 52.3 AU.

Makemake from Hubble

Makemake was another recent discovery – March 31, 2005 – and was officially recognised as a dwarf planet by the IAU in July 2008. Makemake is too distant to obtain detailed information or images and our best observations come from April 2011 when it passed in front of an 18th magnitude star. Makemake appears to lack a substantial atmosphere and its surface is likely covered with methane, ethane and possibly nitrogen ices. On account of its surface gases, Makemake might have a transient atmosphere much like Pluto when it nears its perihelion – ie, is closest to the sun. Like Pluto, Makemake also appears red in the visible light spectrum on account of the presence of tholins on its surface – molecules formed by irradiation of organic compounds such as ethane and methane, which have a reddish brown appearance.

Makemake - artist impression

The colour and albedo of the surface varies in places, giving the planet a somewhat patchy, spotty appearance.


Named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, Haumea was discovered in 2004 and recognised as a dwarf planet on September 17, 2008. It has two moons by the name of Hi’iaka and Namaka. Haumea is distinguished not only by its shape, but by its unusually rapid rotation, high density and high albedo – caused by a surface of crystalline water ice.

Haumea, artist's impression

The surface colour and composition is considered peculiar – for its location the solar system, it should not have crystalline ice, but what is known as amorphous ice. This has led astronomers to assume that some relatively recent resurfacing has occurred, though no adequate mechanism has yet been proposed for this. A large dark red area on Haumea’s otherwise bright white surface was identified in September 2009, possibly the result of an impact. This suggests an area rich in minerals and organic (carbon-rich) compounds, or possibly a higher proportion of crystalline ice. Consequently, Haumea may have a mottled surface similar to that of Pluto, if not as diversified.

Haumea strikes me as an odd designation on account of its ellipsoid shape, as illustrated here.

Haumea, shape

Haumea’s shape has not been directly observed, yet it is inferred from its light curve, which suggests that its major axis is double the length of its minor. This may seem to challenge the definition of what constitutes a dwarf planet, yet it is considered to be in hydrostatic equilibrium – which, just to remind you, means : the object is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape, where any irregular surface features are due to a relatively thin solid crust. Confusing, I know, but such is the nature of planetary classification. The shape and spin of the planet are thought to be the result of a giant collision.


Haumea’s orbit is not dissimilar to that of Makemake, following a similarly elliptical path ranging from 34.7 AU to 51.5 AU. Like so many of the dwarf planets, it is a frozen and forbidding place, though at least the presence of water ice offers some refreshment.


And last, but not least, let’s take a look at good old Pluto, a dwarf planet almost as mysterious as the others. Pluto is the second most massive dwarf planet after Eris and the tenth most massive body orbiting the sun. Composed primarily of rock and ice, it too has an eccentric and highly inclined orbit which, like many of the other TNOs, takes it from roughly 30 to 49 AU during its 248 year orbit. Pluto is exceptional among the other outer Solar System dwarf planets in that its orbit periodically brings it closer to the sun than Neptune. As of this year, 2014, Pluto sits at a distance of roughly 32.6 AU.

Pluto surface images from Hubble

We have already discussed Pluto’s demise as a planet, yet the questions surrounding its status began as early as 1977 with the discovery of a minor planet designated 2060 Chiron, an early candidate for the much coveted title of 10th planet. Chiron was the first of numerous icy objects to be found in the region of Pluto, suggesting that Pluto might merely be one of a cluster of minor planets in the outer Solar System. The ultimate result of course, after the discovery of Eris, was Pluto’s demotion, yet still many astronomers argue that it should remain a planet and the other dwarf planets be added to the planet count.

Pluto, however, has a further major peculiarity – it has five moons by the names of Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx – and rather than these neatly orbiting around Pluto, it exists in a kind of binary dance with its largest moon.


The barycenter of their orbits does not lie at Pluto’s centre, but between Pluto and Charon, rather like two dancers holding hands and swinging each other round, though Pluto remains very much at the centre of the dance.

Pluto Charon dance

The IAU has yet to distinguish between such binary dwarf planet systems and others, and for the moment, there is simply no distinction.

Our observations of Pluto have been very limited and only very unclear images exist of its surface. This, however, is about to change dramatically when, in 2015 (a great year for planetary exploration, woot!) NASA’s New Horizon probe will finally arrive at Pluto and perform a flyby. New Horizons will attempt to take detailed measurements and images of Pluto and its moons. When it has passed Pluto, New Horizons will attempt to explore the Kuiper belt, and astronomers have spent the last few years trying to find suitable targets within its flight path. Stay tuned.


What we do know about Pluto is that it has one of the most contrastive appearances of any body in the Solar System, with distinct polar regions and areas of charcoal black, dark orange and bright white. It has a thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide gases, which are derived from the sublimation of the ices on its surface. Like some of the dwarf planets already discussed, Pluto’s elliptical orbit has an effect on its atmosphere and surface pressure. Indeed, as it moves further away from the sun, its atmosphere is likely to freeze and collapse.

Like so many of the dwarf planets, which are extremely difficult to study directly, the size and mass of Pluto is based on best estimates. It is tiny compared even to the Earth, with a diameter of roughly 2306 km – around two thirds that of the Moon. It’s surface area is 16,647,940 km2 only 3.3% the size of Earth, and yet, when you consider that is roughly the size of Russia, it doesn’t seem all that small after all. Its mass, however, is significantly smaller proportionally at an estimated 0.24 % that of the Earth and, volume wise, around 18 Plutos could be squeezed inside the Earth. As mentioned above, Pluto is actually less massive than seven of the moons throughout the Solar System.


So there we have it, a rough and ready tour of the new Solar System. There are other as yet unclassified dwarf planets that could be discussed here: little pale-red Quaoar – about half the size of Pluto with one pill-shaped moon with the enticing name of Weywot;

Quaoar and Weywot

tiny Orcus, another Plutinoid about half the size of Pluto, with a similar orbital time and range, also sporting a single moon called Vanth


– and finally, perhaps the oddest of them all – bright red Sedna, whose extraordinary orbit ranges from c. 76 AU to 937 AU and takes roughly 11,400 years to make a single circuit.

Sedna impression

sedna orbit

It is the largest of these last three, though still just over two-thirds the size of Pluto.

Despite their almost certain classification as dwarf planets in the future, no doubt along with many others, until such a time I shall refrain from taking the liberty. As to their future exploration, I certainly hope I shall live to see more light shed on them. Considering the time and cost of preparing missions, the distance of the outer planets and the lengthy travel times, it might be decades if not centuries before these planets are better revealed or even visited. Fingers crossed it will happen sooner rather than later, if only to satisfy my  vain curiosity.

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Pariah Dogs

India is full of dogs. Full of gorgeous, terrifying, menacing, cute, mad, hungry, desperate, rabid, emaciated, sleek, playful and murderous dogs. They are everywhere, in the way that Rome is full of cats, and then some.


According to Wikipedia (I struggled to find any useful figures elsewhere)

“India has a population of feral dogs numbering in the tens of millions.”

This huge population is largely made up of so-called Indian Pariah dogs, a breed which is estimated to have existed for roughly 14,000 years, and mixed-breed mongrels descended from pure-bred dogs that have mated with the pariahs. The abundance of exposed garbage and the tendency to keep dogs as free-roaming pets has created conditions very favourable to sustaining a large dog population. As India’s urban population continues to grow, so does the urban dog population. That’s not only a potential hazard, but a lot of extra mouths to feed.


Dogs in India are considered a growing menace. Take this for a statistic – India has the highest number of rabies deaths per year – estimated at between 20,000 and 35,000 – and 99% of those cases of rabies come from dog bites. Indeed, the number of dog attacks each year is staggering. In 2011, in Mumbai alone, an estimated 80,000 dog bites were reported. The actual number of unreported bites is open to speculation, but the real figure could be considerably higher. In one attack alone in Nizamabad this year “a stray dog suddenly went berserk and started attacking people.” No less than twenty people were injured and had to be treated for bites. In truth, it’s a tragedy for everyone involved, dog included.


It’s worth pointing out that my purpose here is not to malign dogs, or India in anyway, but rather to highlight something that has come to fascinate me during the three and a half months I’ve spent in India on two different trips in recent years. I’ve always been a real lover of dogs, having grown up with them, and was, at times, just as moved by the living conditions of the dogs as the people in India. They too are just doing their bit to get by, as they have done for millennia. Some of the dogs seem to be very healthy and robust, whilst others are in dire states of sickness and physical deterioration. One thing I noticed – purely anecdotal evidence though it is – was that the least healthy dogs were in towns that were strictly vegetarian, such as Varanasi. Dogs are omnivores and certainly eat their fair share of vegetables, yet I wondered if there might be a connection here – the lack of any meat to supplement their diet caused them to suffer physically.


The dogs I saw in Darjeeling, on the other hand, a town where a lot of meat is sold and consumed, seemed in very good health. Indeed Darjeeling had the largest concentrated population of dogs of any of the places I visited, something I noted in particular during my last visit there, in January of this year. During the day they tend to lounge around in the sunshine, where possible, curled up into tight, lazy bundles. They are mostly docile and friendly during the daylight hours, and very pattable. When given the chance they are sweet and affectionate, and it was difficult to resist approaching these dogs and stroking their ears.

Dogs aplenty

Darjeeling is a town which shuts down very early, and is quite dark at night, with relatively low-levels of street lighting. Once the night sets in, the dogs set off to scavenge and hunt, roaming the streets either as individuals or in packs. Much of the time they simply plunder the ample garbage piles for scraps and leftovers, but they have also been known to attack people and certainly fight amongst themselves. From our lovely room up the top of the Dekeling Hotel in the centre of town, we were kept awake until late each night by the constant barking and yelping of dogs down in the square below. It is little wonder that they sleep all day, having exerted themselves so much in their nocturnal prowling.

Two days after leaving Darjeeling, we read of a savage attack on a local man by a pack of dogs. It was another in a string of such incidents. The victim, 22-year-old Sahdev Lepcha, said: “It was around eleven at the night when I was returning from a friend’s place… I was attacked by some dogs… I tried to get out of the situation but the dogs more then eight in numbers were unyielding and forced me on to the ground and started biting me from all sides.”


Despite the apparent daytime harmony between the people and dogs of Darjeeling, this is, in effect, a story of competition and conflict between two integrated populations for space and resources, and this story is repeated right across India. In practical terms, the dogs constitute a minority group, scattered throughout Indian society. Loved and hated in equal measure, they are hounded and harassed, as well as being treated with deference and kindness.

Darjeeling Dogs

There are, of course, organisations working to stem the spread of street dogs in India such as the Vishaka Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (VSPCA), which vaccinates stray dogs against rabies as well as neutering them. There are ways to contribute to this charity from abroad, either directly or through third parties, such as The Animal Rescue Site. Their website paints a dramatic picture: With each litter born on the streets, canine overpopulation worsens, leading to malnutrition, untreated injuries, and the spread of disease, especially rabies. They also offer an important reminder of India’s ancient laws and traditions of respect for and protection of animals – Ahimsa – and it is worthwhile remembering that whilst many see the dogs as a menace and treat them cruelly, there is a great deal of acceptance and love for dogs in India as well. Indeed, the laws prevent them from being euthanized, acknowledging that dogs too have a right to exist.

monkey etc

In the meantime, however, the problem seems to be worsening with the dog population growing and more and more people being bitten. Without denying dogs access to the litter that feeds them, or having a more comprehensive program of neutering and vaccination, Indians will have to continue living alongside them, for better or for worse.

Varkala Beach

As a dog-lover it is easy to feel sorry for these poor mutts. There is even a Facebook page called I Love Indian Stray Dogs, and I guess I love them too. This, however, is from the relatively comfortable and naïve position of not having been attacked or threatened by them. Either way, I hope a solution can be found that works for both humans and dogs. Ever since humans first allowed dogs into their lives thousands of years ago, we have been co-existing and co-evolving towards a kind of mutual dependency. When dependency changes into competition, it is a sorry situation for both parties.

Jaisalmer Tired puppy, Palolem Beach, Goa

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After the high times of the Cold War, the space race has gradually slowed to a crawl. The vast cuts to NASA’s budget – from an extraordinary peak at 4.41% of the Federal budget in 1965 to an estimated 0.48% in 2012 – and the cancelling of the shuttle program before the completion of a replacement reusable launch vehicle, have left them dependent on Russian rockets or the nascent private space industry to ferry personnel to the International Space Station. While China and India might be making bold strides with their own space programs, those grandiose, twentieth-century visions of the future, outlined in such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, seem quaintly naïve in retrospect. Without the budgets or political will of the initial Space Race, human exploration, or indeed, colonisation of the solar system remains a far-fetched and distant possibility.

Science fiction has long provided examples of human exploration and colonisation of other planets and moons and, indeed, other planetary systems and galaxies. This idea has been around since before the origins of space-flight. More often than not, the time frame for these ventures has seemed utterly implausible. Consider the glittering visions of the Atomic Age, with vast space-liners and freighters ploughing the atmosphere over towering futuristic skylines – a future expected to arrive as soon as the 1980s.

Even when our visions were darker and dystopian, apocalyptic futures were predicted – Orwell’s 1984, Harry Harrison’s More Room, More Room, or the film Escape from New York – the future was always too close.

The 1983 film Bladerunner,which presented a world of flying cars and sophisticated androids, suggested that humans were leaving in droves for the off-world colonies. It was set in 2019, a date which will come and go without even a hint of an established human presence on another planet.

More recently, the 2010 film Avatar posited a mining operation on the habitable moon Pandora in the year 2154. Even this still distant date seems preposterously optimistic. We might, by then, see humans active on other planets, moons, dwarf planets or asteroids in this solar system, but travelling beyond even the heliopause, let alone to bodies orbiting another star seems highly implausible.

The journey times and our lack of a near light-speed propulsion system, nor craft designs that can withstand such stresses, is likely to ensure such ventures remain in the realms of science fiction. Currently the fastest speed achieved in space for a crewed vehicle is 39,896 km/h, and 252,792 km/h for an un-crewed vehicle. The VASIMR plasma propulsion system, which has been in development now for four decades, is touted to be capable of achieving speeds of up to 600,000 km/h, which would significantly reduce journey times – reaching Mars might be a matter of weeks instead of the standard six to ten months.

Yet, considering that even the nearest star is 4.2 light-years away, the fastest possible journey time would be 4.2 years – and then only if we could achieve light speed – ie. 1,079,252,848.8 km/h. As much as I admire human ingenuity, this seems a nigh impossible prospect. Braking alone would be one hell of a job.

Some will say it is short-sighted to dismiss the possibilities of the incredible technologies that will no doubt be available in the coming centuries. Yet until we overcome the very significant problems of cost, distance, radiation exposure, physical deterioration in zero or low gravity, delayed communication, psychological stress and a whole host of other issues, there seems little chance of humans prioritising efforts to leave our own solar system in the next couple of centuries.

Looking closer to home, these very same problems are sufficient to make the colonisation and exploitation of our own solar system significantly difficult, if not unsustainably impossible in the long run. The first question that needs to be asked when considering the possibility of a human presence on other worlds is why go? There are, of course, many reasons why humans might choose to do so. The restrictions and limitations of Earth-based observatories, for example, have already led to the positioning of telescopes in space for better observations of the universe. Astronomers have long suggested that the moon would be an even better place to locate far larger and more sophisticated observational instruments, and this is certainly a viable long-term option. Whether or not such a facility would be crewed is another question altogether, though this would likely be an unnecessarily expensive extravagance.

The sheer cost of simple space exploration is already too great a disincentive to justify sending people for scientific purposes alone. The long-proposed crewed trip to Mars is now off the books at NASA and most experts think at best a time-frame of thirty to forty years is plausible for such a venture. The 2.5 billion dollar budget of the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity rover, is, for now, the last grand project NASA has planned for the solar system. The money simply is not there any longer.

A more economically viable reason for expanding human activity in space is tourism. Humans have already proven that they are willing to pay as much as twenty million dollars to go briefly into space on a Russian rocket, and already a ticket has been bought at a cost of 150 million dollars for a proposed circuit of the moon four years from now.

The incredible sights of the solar system – the mountains and canyons of Mars, the ice fountains of Enceladus, the volcanoes of Io, the turbulent storms of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the ethane and methane lakes of Titan, the curious dance of the binary dwarf planets, Pluto and Charon, the towering ice cliffs of Dione to name a few, could one day make a very tempting grand tour for the mega, or perhaps, the meta rich.

Yet even journeys to destinations in the inner solar system, Venus, Mercury and Mars, would still require very great improvements in our spaceship building and life-support capability.

There is also the consideration of the long-term destiny of the human species. We know that in roughly five billion years our star, Sol, will swell to a vastly greater size and engulf the inner planets in its flatulent death, burning away what remains of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and ultimately, the planet itself. If we hope to continue to exist indefinitely, then irrespective of how unimaginably distant this date with planetary death might be, we have no choice but to find a new home. This, however, is hardly a priority at the moment.

If human colonisation is ever to take place, it will likely happen on a very, very long and slow timescale. Consider even the easiest option – a colony on the moon. It would take years just to establish the first structures on the surface, which would no doubt have to be very utilitarian. The moon has a cycle of 14 days of sunlight and 14 days of night, making solar power an unlikely prospect for energy. It is lacking in water and important volatiles such as argon, helium and compounds of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, leaving humans at the mercy of Earth resources for life-support and construction purposes. Structures might be pre-fabbed in space and somehow landed on the surface, yet even this would challenge our current engineering capacity. Perhaps our best parallels are the scientific bases in Antarctica, though even building something as sophisticated as these would require incredible engineering and vast sums of money to get the materials and labour to the moon. And some bloody huge rockets.

Having established even a tiny presence on the moon, we must then ask, how long before these colonies grew into anything beyond a scientific or industrial outpost? If there were to be any sort of recreational facilities, then this would require staffing and all manner of supplies that would need to be replenished on a regular basis. What would it cost to establish a cocktail bar on the moon, a hotel, a sauna and spa, a beauty salon? Who would go to work these jobs, and how would the facilities ensure safety, psychological stability, provide medical services and so on? Would there be much satisfaction in living in what would initially be a very small, claustrophobic community with limited recreational possibilities? There would no doubt be many customers wishing to get married on the moon, spend a honeymoon there, experience the incredible sight of the Earth-rise, yet one can see from this brief discussion that the business of providing the facilities and services would likely be expensive beyond all imaginings and take years to establish.

It is by no means impossible that space-tourist dollars will be sufficient to drive such developments, and I wouldn’t rule out a permanent human presence on the moon by the end of this century. NASA, of course, is not the only player in the game and increasingly the space programs of other nations are making impressive leaps forward. In 2008, India sent a space-craft around the moon and plans to send a satellite to orbit Mars in the coming year. China has made its ambitions clear with its vigorous and successful efforts to put people, Taikonauts, into space. Their incredible and centralised industrial capacity might reach such heights in the next few decades that building interplanetary craft will become simply another production-line process. Yet such a program would require an incentive far greater than mere prestige.

Japan, Russia, Iran and the European Space Agency also have sophisticated space programs and long-term ambitions for either scientific exploration, satellite deployment, industrial exploitation and, potentially, human colonisation, yet it is unlikely that any of these national programs will be building space bases on other planets, asteroids or moons any time soon. Unless they can justify the costs, and, indeed, find the capital in the first place, it seems the only types of enterprises that can sustain themselves in the long term are those that are capable of generating profit – and those profits will need to be as colossal as the venture itself.

Despite the apparent caution of the above, I believe that humans are, at last, on the cusp of expanding their activity and presence in the solar system. On May 22nd this year, SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal and the Tesla Roadster, successfully launched its Falcon 9 heavy payload rocket carrying another SpaceX vehicle, the Dragon Capsule, to the International Space Station.

It is difficult to downplay the significance of this achievement. Private operators have finally proven that they too can not only design and launch space vehicles, once the preserve of national governments, but they can build and design the entire craft themselves. NASA, on the other hand, has always relied on contractors to make some of its components. That private enterprise has the wherewithal to equal and potentially better even NASA’s achievements is evident. Exactly where that leads is another question.

A quick search of private space companies on the web will throw up an ever-lengthening list of businesses: Orbital Sciences Corp, Scorpius Space Launch Company, Interorbital Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, Blast Off! Corp, MirCorp, Space Adventures, ARCA and Galaxy Express, are a few hastily chosen examples in no particular order. Some companies have less ambitious plans – focussing solely on the design of rovers or propulsion systems, but others have grander designs of providing entire space-craft capable of fulfilling a variety of different roles. A company such as SpaceX, now firmly established as a contractor to NASA, has clear potential to develop and provide further bespoke craft for a variety of different purposes. It is likely just a question of time and money before we see more sophisticated vehicles being designed according to demand, be they in the service of tourism or heavy industry.

As things stand, it is this first category, tourism, which is behind much of the new enthusiasm for private space ventures. Virgin Galactic is now firmly focussed on its program of providing short, sub-orbital space-flights in its Spaceship 2 vehicle, for roughly $200,000 a ticket.

Should the venture prove to be as successful and profitable as is predicted, then no doubt Virgin Galactic will look to expand and upscale its operations.

Other companies will almost certainly join this race into low Earth orbit to cater for wealthy joy-riders who wish to experience zero gravity and see the Earth from space- albeit, very briefly.

Space tourism has, in fact, been with us for some time already. Between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures offered flights to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a price of between $20 and $35 million US dollars.

With the increase of the crew size on the ISS in 2010, the program was halted, but is expected to resume in 2013. As mentioned above, plans are afoot to offer two space tourists and a pilot the chance to do a 10-21 day moon flyby for roughly $100 million per passenger; the longer trip would include a visit to the ISS.

Tourism certainly has the potential to drive the space industry forward in future years, yet whether or not this will lead to the development of tourist resorts and facilities is another question. Will we see a hotel built in Earth orbit sometime in the coming decades? Perhaps one might be placed in orbit around the moon, or indeed, on it. Yet again, the many difficulties of building, staffing, supplying, maintaining and funding such a venture safely will be prohibitive, though by no means impossible.

One reason space ventures are so expensive is the cost of putting people there safely. The capacity to carry even a single person on a craft radically changes both the design and scale of the vehicle. Robots and probes do not require food, oxygen, hydration, sleeping quarters and waste disposal for example, and nor do they need to come home when their mission is completed. One of the biggest obstacles to a crewed mission to Mars is designing a ship that can not only reach the planet safely with a human crew, but still have sufficient thrust to leave the surface once done there. Mars may only have one third the Earth’s gravity, but on account of its mass, it has roughly 45% of Earth’s escape velocity. This means that to leave the surface of Mars, we need a rocket almost half the size of the rockets required to blast off from Earth, and the rocket that blasts off from Earth needs to carry such a rocket in the first place, meaning it would have to be a very, very large rocket indeed. The Curiosity rover, of course, only needs a one-way ticket.

All of this is, however, academic. Until we come up with a real incentive beyond mere prestige for sending humans instead of machines into space, the costs are too difficult to justify. Tourism might just be that killer app, as it were, yet, as it stands, the only other truly affordable incentive for going is the profit-driven pursuit of resources.

The idea of exploiting the vast mineral resources of the solar system is nothing new. Science fiction has offered countless examples of mining operations on distant planets and asteroids. The 2009 movie Moon, for example, posited a largely automated strip-mining facility on the moon, staffed by a single clone, which collected Helium 3 from the surface and shipped it back to Earth, allegedly accounting for almost 70% of the planet’s energy needs. Helium 3 is very rare on Earth but is more common on the moon – embedded in the upper layer of regolith – and has long been proposed as an energy source for new generation nuclear power plants. Whilst the potential of Helium 3 is largely speculatory, the idea of mining the moon is less so; it also contains commercially valuable deposits of iron, titanium, silicon and aluminium, for example. Yet there are other, perhaps easier and more profitable targets.

Consider these figures. In his book Mining the Sky, John S. Lewis suggests that an asteroid with a diameter of one kilometre, with a mass of around two billion tonnes, of which there are roughly one million within our system, would contain something in the realm of 30 million tonnes of nickel, 1.5 million tonnes of cobalt and 7500 tonnes of platinum.

The value of the platinum alone would, at current market value, be more than $150 billion USD. A NASA report estimated that the mineral wealth of all the asteroids in the asteroid belt would exceed $100 billion for each person on the planet (based on a population of 6 billion). The asteroid 16 Psyche is estimated to 1.7×1019 kg of nickel–iron, which, at current rates of consumption, would meet the world’s demands for several million years. Such an abundance could, ultimately, sink any such ventures. If the market was suddenly flooded with platinum, for example, the value of the metal might be significantly reduced. This would be just one of many significant economic risks involved in asteroid mining.

There has been a lot of talk about reaching peak oil on Earth, but other elements essential to modern industry might one day be in short supply. Worst case scenarios suggest shortages of important resources such as zinc, silver, tin, lead, gold, indium, antimony and copper within 50-60 years. Through methods such as spectroscopy and the study of meteorites, asteroids are also known to contain other very valuable elements such as cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, osmium, palladium, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten. Considering that all these elements originally arrived on Earth from asteroids and comets during the planet’s formation and the period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, it seems appropriate that we should again look to asteroids for these important resources. Just how we will achieve such a feat, however, remains the pivotal question.

To begin with, we would need to build and design equipment capable of mining an asteroid and shipping the material back to Earth. Then we would need to get it to the asteroid. The actual method of mining might vary according to the asteroid’s composition; they might be strip-mined, shaft-mined or perhaps material could be collected magnetically from the surface. Due to their relatively low mass, asteroids have almost zero gravity, meaning that any equipment would need to be somehow tethered to the surface. Depending on the mining methods used, debris would likely float off into space, for better or for worse. The process of mining would need to be almost entirely automated as a human presence would require a whole new level of commitment and industrial engineering. Yet, without a human presence, any mechanical failure would be extremely difficult to fix, even by remote and robotic means, on account of the distance and delay in communication.

There is also the problem of collecting, refining, packaging and transporting the material back to Earth. How this would be done is anyone’s guess. Would we need an endless store of rockets to shoot the minerals back to Earth? Could they be somehow bundled and flung into Earth orbit, or to the moon for that matter, then collected and transported to the surface, perhaps by the long-dreamed of space-elevators? Would it be possible to transport asteroids into orbit around the Earth or moon where they might be more easily mined by both humans and machines?

When we begin to ask all these questions, the problems seem almost insurmountable. Yet, the lure of such vast profits has already seen the formation of three companies with serious proposals to mine asteroids. In November 2010, for example, the company Planetary Resources was founded, with the very serious intention of mining asteroids. The company, whose backers include director James Cameron and Google’s chief executive Larry Page, has already deployed its first bar-fridge sized ARKYD 100 “Leo” space telescope for prospecting purposes, and intends to deploy as many as ten to fifteen over the next few years.

As they say on their website “There are no roads where we’re headed. But we have a map.” This map will significantly improve as their telescope deployments increase and the company is able to identify their optimum targets for mineral exploitation.

Despite the apparent boldness of the venture, the idea of moving asteroids closer to the Earth might ultimately be the best means of gaining access to their wealth. Indeed, in a recent interview with the New Scientist, a Planetary Resources spokesman stated that:

One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 per cent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

With the asteroid in orbit around the Earth or moon, journey times would become a matter of hours or days and allow much easier access for personnel. It would also make it far easier to make this a permanently crewed operation, and reduce to a manageable minimum any lag in communications.

The water content of the asteroids could not only be used to enable their propulsion, but used to produce rocket fuel to refuel craft in space. Indeed, the company aims to construct a fuel depot in Earth orbit by 2020 which could refuel commercial satellites or spacecraft. How soon they will be able to begin the process of creating the fuel from an asteroid is another matter altogether, but for now it’s a case of full steam ahead.

Whether or not asteroid mining proves to be cost-efficient could, to a very great degree, determine the future of human exploration and, potentially, colonisation of the solar system. Our ability to extract and refine material from other planetary bodies will be absolutely central to any attempts to establish a human presence elsewhere than Earth. The solar system is littered with asteroids, moons and dwarf planets that are rich enough in resources to sustain a permanent human settlement. Indeed, the long list of candidates for possible future outposts includes the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, the Jovian moons  Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, the Saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus, and even the moons of Uranus, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon and Triton. Perhaps the most suitable option might prove to be the dwarf planet Ceres, which is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and the largest body in the asteroid belt. With a diameter of roughly 950km and a surface area of just under three million square kilometres, it is almost exactly the same size as Argentina. The surface of Ceres is likely a mixture of water ice and hydrated minerals such as carbonates and clays. It appears to have a rocky core and icy mantle and may also have a subsurface ocean of liquid water. The highest measured surface temperature is roughly -38 celsius, making it relatively warm for such a distant body. The planet is also believed to have a very thin atmosphere.

One of the great advantages of Ceres is that, despite being further from the Earth than Mars, it is, in effect, easier to reach on account of its slower orbit and thus shorter synodic period – roughly 1 year and three months compared to Mars’ 2 years and 1 month. In other words, the Earth catches up to Ceres every fifteen months or so, whilst Mars is harder to catch, and the two planets are in opposition only once every two years. With more frequent launch windows and the far lower gravity of Ceres, it would be considerably easier not only for traffic back and forth, but require far less energy to launch from its surface than from the surface of Mars. Ceres has long been proposed as the best location for a human pit-stop and refuelling station from which to explore the outer solar system, and, indeed, to mine asteroids in the surrounding belt. In 2015, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive at Ceres for a much closer look and many interested parties are waiting keenly for the wealth of detailed information we expect to receive about the composition of this dwarf planet.

So it would seem that we might be at last on the brink of the long-expected expansion of human activity in the solar system. I suspect things will develop very slowly and no doubt there will be many set-backs and delays, yet the momentum is at last gathering not only for human exploration of the solar system, but potentially for the exploitation of its vast wealth of resources and, possibly, in the very long term, its colonisation. If humans can get all the resources they need to sustain their industrial capacity from space, and, possibly, their fuel and energy into the bargain, then this would very significantly reduce stresses on our own planet and potentially enable a far greener future. I’ll believe it when I see it, but I do feel at last somewhat confident that I will eventually see it.

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The two greatest heroes of my adult life are not people, but machines: the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. This apparent idolatry might seem almost fundamentally misanthropic or oddly fetishist, yet rather it is born of a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise everything. David Attenborough remains firmly in place as my favourite human, alongside several mentors and acquaintances from whom I’ve had the good fortune to draw inspiration and wisdom. Yet no one, nor anything for that matter, in recent memory, has achieved the level of admiration I have developed for the two Mars rovers.

The rovers were of identical design and carried a range of instruments with which to carry out geological exploration: Panoramic cameras, a Thermal Emission Spectrometer for identifying and closely examining rock types and profiling the temperature of the Martian atmosphere, a so-calledMössbauer Spectrometer for closer investigation of rock mineralogy, an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer for analysis of the elements that make up rocks and soils, magnets for collecting dust particles, a microscopic imager for high-resolution imaging of rocks and soils, and a Rock Abrasion Tool for exposing fresh material beneath the rock and dust. Despite their six-wheeled design, the rovers were, in effect, made to mimic a human geologist, with the panoramic camera mounted on a 1.5 metre-high mast and a robotic arm which replicated the movement of a human elbow and wrist. The microscopic camera and rock abrasion tool in the rovers’ “fist” were designed to replicate the work of the geologist’s magnifying glass and hammer. With these sophisticated tools, it was hoped that the two rovers would be able to provide sufficient evidence to support the wet-Mars theory.

The two missions were launched on June 10 and July 7, 2003 and successfully landed on Mars on January 3 and January 24, 2004. The principal goal of both missions was to search for evidence of water, or a history thereof, and the rovers were sent to two different locations on opposite sides of Mars: Spirit to the Gusev Crater – a possible ancient lake-bed, roughly 14 degrees south of the Martian equator, into which the Ma’adim Vallis channel system drains, and Opportunity to the Meridiani Planum – a plain just two degrees south of the equator in the westernmost portion of Terra Meridiani, which hosts a rare occurrence of gray crystalline hematite. Hematite is usually found in hot springs or pools of water on Earth, whilst the apparent channels at Gusev closely resemble natural water courses on Earth. Hence both sites held promise of answering the question as to whether or not the surface of Mars was once partly covered with liquid water, which was strongly believed to be the case.

It is a difficult enough job landing a probe successfully on Mars – as several expensive failures have proven – let alone communicating with and driving a rover on the surface. The first successful landings on Mars were the two Viking missions of 1975, which arrived in 1976.

Both missions consisted of orbiting probes and landers, which were highly successful in providing detailed images and information about the surface of Mars, paving the way for future missions. Both landers were not mobile; they were designed to act, in effect, as stationary laboratories, testing soil samples for evidence of microbial life or organic compounds. The Viking 1 and 2 landers operated for six years and three months, and three years and seven months respectively, an extraordinary achievement in itself.

Despite this lengthy operation time, neither lander was able to discover any biosignatures that might suggest life was present or had previously existed on Mars.

Ultimately the missions only ended when the landers and orbiters failed in various ways, one by one. Whilst Viking 2’s battery failed in 1980, the tragic death of Viking 2 on November 13, 1982, was due to human error – during a software upgrade the antenna was accidentally retracted, permanently shutting off communication and terminating the mission.

It was not until 1997 that another probe successfully landed on the surface of Mars: the Pathfinder mission, which also consisted of an orbiter and lander. The major difference with the Pathfinder mission was the introduction of a mobile, roving lander -Mars Sojourner. Sojourner was just a little guy – a mere 65cm by 48cm, with a height of 30cm – it weighed in at just over ten kilograms. Operating in the Ares Vallis “flood plain”, one of the rockiest places on Mars, roughly nineteen degrees north of the equator, Sojourner’s rock analysis was able to confirm a history of volcanic activity on Mars, along with identifying erosion patterns consistent with wind and water erosion.

The mission was designed in large part as a proof of concept – that rover missions could be sent to Mars successfully for a fraction of the cost of the vastly expensive Viking missions, and to test new technologies, particularly the means by which craft were landed on other planets. Pathfinder used an innovative airbag system and effectively bounced along the surface like a giant ball.

The Pathfinder mission was considered a resounding success on all fronts – in cost-effectiveness, research significance and mission duration, which was extended two months beyond its initial target of just one month. During a mission of 83 sols (1 sol = 1 Martian day, approximately 24 hours, 39 minutes) Sojourner travelled a total of roughly 100 metres, never venturing more than 12 metres from its base-station. We thus have many lovely images of Sojourner at work on Mars photographed from its base station, a rare treat for a rover mission.

Without Pathfinder’s pioneering efforts, the successful landing of Nasa’s Spirit and Opportunity probes might not have been so easily achieved. Not to suggest for a second that it is ever easy to land a probe on another planet.

There is much more that could be said about human exploration of Mars by proxy – the Mars Voyager missions, the failed Soviet attempts to land a rover in the 1970s, the Mars Global Surveyor, the more recent Phoenix mission which landed in the northern polar region and after a successful operation, froze to death during the bitter winter, but that would be to stray too far from the base-station, as it were, and require far too many words.

Returning to the topic at hand, I’d first like to mention the dedicated teams of men and women behind Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover Missions. From the mission designers to the people who control and monitor the activity of the rovers, to the scientists who examine the data returned by the probes, many thousands of hours of hard graft have gone into this project. Not only have the teams at Nasa worked long and gruelling hours, those controlling and monitoring the rovers have been forced to operate on Martian time – a 24 hour, 39 minute and 35 second day, sometimes for months on end. Team members were issued with special watches and expected to adjust their schedule to stay in alignment with Martian time – meaning roughly forty minutes of jet-lag every day! The watches were also fitted with accelerometers as part of a study into the effects of such a time-cycle on the human body and mind. This is no mean feat, especially when we consider that initially the mission was due to run for three months in total and yet, it is still going – eight years (!) after the rovers first landed on Mars.

It is for this reason that I have become so deeply attached to these brave little rovers, and, it must be said, to those who have kept them running through all this time. Just recently, in June 2012, Opportunity, after waking from a semi-sleep during the Martian winter, provided us with a stunning panorama of the location at which it stopped to rest back in January.

Opportunity is not only still alive, but it is doing very well in a cold world of rock, sand and fine dust. With temperatures ranging from between -5 to -87 degrees Celsius, Opportunity has survived not only freezing conditions, but also dust storms and getting bogged in a sand dune.

During the last eight years, Opportunity, which was designed to travel up to forty metres a day for a total odometry of roughly 1 kilometre, has travelled a distance of just over thirty-five kilometres. Opportunity landed, by chance, in an impact crater dubbed “Eagle” in an otherwise flat plain. On account of its airbag-aided bouncy landing, the mission controllers could hardly predict exactly where either probe would land, and the landing in Eagle was referred to humourously as a  hole-in-one. It also proved to be of immense scientific interest, particularly a sedimentary outcropping dubbed El Capitan. Despite being unable to determine whether or not the layers of sediment were deposited by volcanic ash, wind or water, the discovery of the mineral Jarosite, containing an abundance of hydroxide ions, indicated it had formed in water. When Opportunity dug a trench and exposed more of the rock, it uncovered small hematite spheres, nicknamed blueberries, which are strongly believed to have formed in water. Already the mission was proving a resounding success.

Leaving the Eagle Crater, Opportunity travelled to another crater, Endurance, which it investigated between June and December 2004, methodically working its way into and around the crater.

When it moved on, Opportunity passed the some of the debris from its own heatshield, and, in an unexpectedly fortunate discovery, an intact meteorite, now known as Heat Shield Rock, was discovered nearby. This proved to be the first meteorite identified on another planet.

Shortly afterwards, as it drove towards the so-called Erebus Crater, Opportunity became perilously stuck in the sand – a problem that took six weeks to solve via Earth-based simulations, which were then successfully implemented.

Erebus Crater was a large shallow, partially buried crater, with a significant number of rocky outcrops to explore. Of course, the mission of the rovers was not merely to study the geology of the planet, but whilst at Erebus, Opportunity also photographed a transit of Mars’ moon Phobos across the face of the sun.

In September 2006, Opportunity arrived at the even more spectacular Victoria Crater. It explored the rim of the crater in detail, before returning to its original arrival point, Duck Bay. The wonderful panoramic views of the crater are some of the most evocative ever to come from the surface of another planet.

The rippled sand at the centre of the crater also makes a very alluring photographic subject.

In June of that year, Opportunity entered the crater where it remained until August 2008, conducting various analyses of the rocks and soil.

Without wishing to go into too much further detail about Opportunity’s journey across the surface of Mars, it will suffice to say that over the following years Opportunity made several stops at various other craters, including Conception, Intrepid and Santa Maria.

Ultimately, Opportunity’s destination was the much larger Endeavour Crater – no less than 23 kilometres wide – which it reached in August 2011. After spending another freezing winter sitting on the crater’s rim, Opportunity is now back in operation, doing what it does best – sophisticated geological investigation.

Of course, Opportunity has not merely been cruising about the surface taking photographs of the Martian landscape. During its travels the roverhas made many important observations and discoveries which have greatly expanded our understanding of the red planet. Principal among these were the identification of spherules – concretions which form in water, vugs – voids in rocks left by water erosion, and sulfates, which on Earth generally form when standing water evaporates. Whilst the data has been rigorously subjected to all alternative hypotheses, the nature and context of the evidence convincingly suggests the prior presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. So much so, that this is no longer in dispute. We cannot as yet prove that there was once life on Mars, or that it may indeed continue to exist there in some form, yet we can now confidently say that Mars was once wet, and consequently, would have provided almost ideal conditions for life to emerge.

Opportunity has so far performed well beyond all expectations and provided vast amounts of data about the nature of Mars. The sheer length of the mission, and the incredible utility of having a working, mobile rover on the surface of Mars, means that more discoveries are inevitable. The Nasa website for the missions contains archives of the raw photographic images taken by both Opportunity and Spirit, along with logs of the rovers’ progress for each day of the mission, should anyone wish for more detail about the progress of the rovers. Sadly, however, whilst Opportunity continues to provide valuable data and sustain a proxy human presence on Mars, the same cannot be said of its twin, Spirit.

The Spirit rover had a rather more difficult life on Mars from the very beginning. On January 21, a mere eighteen days after its arrival, Spirit suffered a crippling problem with its flash memory that threatened to end the rover’s mission prematurely. The rover seemed to be stuck in an endless reboot loop and was not responding as it should. It was not until the 3rd of February that mission controllers identified the problem as a file-system error and remotely reformatted the entire flash memory system, allowing Spirit to resume its mission.

To make matters more difficult, the Gusev crater site where Spirit landed, turned out not to be a sedimentary lakebed after all, but rather a plain of volcanic material. Spirit was sent as fast as possible across the plains to the so-called Columbia Hills, which were believed to be geologically more ancient.

Spirit made numerous pitstops en route, perhaps most notably at the so-called Humphrey Rock, a volcanic rock which appeared to show evidence of liquid water flow in its formation.

Little of interest was found at various other craters which Spirit passed, and eventually, after 129 Sols, Spirit finally clambered up the slopes of the Columbia Hills. Over the following two years, Spirit explored these hills– places with names such as Husband Hill, Cumberland Ridge, Larry’s Lookout, Tennessee Valley, Home Plate, McCool Hill, Low Ridge Haven and so on.

In 2006, Spirit finally came down from the hills to explore an area known as Home Plate, where it was to remain for the rest of its working life. Home Plate turned out to be a large “explosive” volanic deposit, surrounded by basalt which is believed to have exploded upon contact with water. The presence of salty water seemed confirmed by the high concentration of chloride ions in the surrounding rocks.

Throughout this time, Spirit encountered more difficult conditions and mechanical problems than Opportunity. One of Spirit’s front wheels had long been playing up, and on March 16, 2006, the wheel stopped working altogether. Spirit attempted to crawl backwards, dragging its wheel, to the north face of McCool Hill, where it was to spend the Martian winter, yet was unable to manage the ascent and was instead sent to winter in Low Ridge Haven.

The broken wheel on Spirit laterturned out to be a blessing of sorts, when its dragging through the soil uncovered a subsurface layer of silica rich dust in December 2007.

The resulting analysis suggested the silica was likely produced in a hot-spring environment, again suggestive of a water-rich history.

The site near the Gusev Crater was especially dusty and throughout its mission, Spirit’s solar arrays faced increasingly reduced capacity on account of the dust coating.

In 2007 dust storms threatened to shut Spirit down altogether, reducing the production capacity of its solar panels from 700 watt-hours per day to a mere 128, below the minimum threshold for sustaining battery charge to power the rover’s heaters.

To avoid risk of the rover shutting down completely, Spirit was kept in temporary hibernation on its lowest possible power setting. For two weeks between November 29 and December 13, 2008, on account of the so-called Solar Conjunction – when the sun is between Earth and Mars –no communication was possible with either rover.

Even when Spirit revived from its troubled hibernation, its solar arrays still struggled to produce sufficient power. It was not until February 2009, when a fortunate wind cleaned some of the dust off Spirit’s panels, increasing its energy production to roughly 240 watts per day, that the rover seemed ready to reach full exploration capacity once again. Unfortunately, however, on the first of May 2009, Spirit became stuck in soft soil and proved unable to free itself. With the failure of another wheel, the engineers and controllers were unable to extract Spirit from its location after numerous attempts to do so, via various simulations and manoeuvres. Eventually the rover’s purpose had to be redefined as a stationary research platform, but in truth, Spirit’s run had come to an end. The last communication was on March 22, 2010, the 2210th day of the mission. The cold, it appears, was the ultimate culprit. In previous winters, Spirit had been able to park itself on a sun-facing slope, allowing it to winter in temperatures averaging -40. Stuck out on the plains, however, Spirit endured temperatures of closer to -55 Celsius – more than its reduced energy production could cope with.

Many attempts were made to regain contact with Spirit, and it was not until May 2011 that the mission was officially declared over. The final entry for Spirit’s log on the Nasa website reads as follows:

SPIRIT UPDATE:  Spirit Remains Silent at Troy – sols 2621-2627, May 18-24, 2011:

More than 1,300 commands were radiated to Spirit as part of the recovery effort in an attempt to elicit a response from the rover. No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). The project concluded the Spirit recovery efforts on May 25, 2011. The remaining, pre-sequenced ultra-high frequency (UHF) relay passes scheduled for Spirit on board the Odyssey orbiter will complete on June 8, 2011. Total odometry is unchanged at 7,730.50 meters (4.80 miles).

Despite its incredible successes and the unimaginable extension of its mission, the loss of Spirit was a great disappointment for the mission controllers. Once it had become clear how well the rovers were performing on Mars, Nasa had made the decision to drive them until they broke down, and this was certainly the fate of Spirit. When the mission was finally abandoned, Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, sent a letter to his team, both celebrating and farewelling the great success of the tough little rover. An abridged version follows:

Dear Team,

Last night, just after midnight, the last recovery command was sent to Spirit. It would be an understatement to say that this was a significant moment. Since the last communication from Spirit on March 22, 2010 (Sol 2210), as she entered her fourth Martian winter, nothing has been heard from her. There is a continued silence from the Gusev site on Mars.

Importantly, it is not how long the rover lasted, but how much exploration and discovery Spirit has done.

Each winter was hard for Spirit. But with ever-accumulating dust and the failed wheel that limited the maximum achievable slope, Spirit had no options for surviving the looming fourth winter. So we made a hard push toward some high-value science to the south. But the first path there, up onto Home Plate, was not passable. So we went for Plan B, around to the northeast of Home Plate. That too was not passable and the clock was ticking. We were left with our last choice, the longest and most risky, to head around Home Plate to the west.

It was along this path that Spirit, with her degraded 5-wheel driving, broke through an unseen hazard and became embedded in unconsolidated fine material that trapped the rover. Even this unfortunate event turned into another exciting scientific discovery. We conducted a very ambitious extrication effort, but the extrication on Mars ran out of time with the fourth winter and was further complicated by another wheel failure.

With no favorable tilt and more dust on the arrays, Spirit likely ran out of energy and succumbed to the cold temperatures during the fourth winter. There was a plausible expectation that the rover might survive the cold and wake up in the spring, but a lack of response from the rover after more than 1,200 recovery commands were sent to rouse her indicates that Spirit will sleep forever.

But let’s remember the adventure we have had. Spirit has climbed mountains, survived rover-killing dust storms, rode out three cold, dark winters and made some of the most spectacular discoveries on Mars. She has told us that Mars was once like Earth. There was water and hot springs, the conditions that could have supported life. She has given us a foundation to further explore the Red Planet and to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

But in addition to all the scientific discoveries Spirit has given us in her long, productive rover life, she has also given us a great intangible. Mars is no longer a strange, distant and unknown place. Mars is now our neighborhood. And we all go to work on Mars every day. Thank you, Spirit. Well done, little rover.

And to all of you, well done, too.


Indeed, to all of those people who made this possible, well done. I rank this among the greatest of human achievements. Not merely landing a robotic vehicle on an inhospitable planet thousands of kilometers from the Earth, but successfully exploring the surface of said planet for eights years ongoing, is truly incredible.

People may well wonder what the point of all this is and whether or not we can justify the cost of extra-planetary exploration. I would argue that the question of whether or not life exists on other planets, whether or not its genesis has occurred independently on other worlds and is, perhaps, endemic to the universe, is worth answering. If not merely for the reassurance that the universe might be teeming with life, then also as a means of addressing long-standing religious and philosophical understandings of the origins of life and its uniqueness. This a fundamental question that lies at the heart of human enquiry, and yet such exploration is by no means merely for philosophical purposes. There are also many practical reasons for exploring other planets, particularly one which has had a water-rich past, and yet appears now to be as dry as a bone. Where did Mars’ water go, and was it the result of catastrophic climate change, or the result of the solar wind’s stripping away the atmosphere once Mars’ magnetic field had weakened?

The cost of these missions is negligible when cast against the vast spending on military budgets the world over, and, it must be said, when compared to the cost of putting people in space. There have long been advocates of abandoning attempts to maintain the international space station, or put people back into orbit or on the moon. Do we really need to go ourselves when we can send probes there for a fraction of the cost and risk? Even were it only for the sake of satisfying our insatiable curiosity to know what is out there, the exploration of our solar system and the attempts to answer fundamental questions about our own origins and future via planetary geological survey are worth conducting. Ultimately, it will become a target of economic exploration – indeed, recently, several start-ups have begun to raise capital for near-earth asteroid mining. If we can pull the resources we need from space efficiently, where they exist in an unimaginable abundance, then it would greatly relax pressures on our own planet to dig up and destroy valuable ecosystems.

If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend logging into Google Earth and, using the drop down menu at the top, switching from Earth to Mars. Google Mars is a fantastic tool for exploring the surface of the red planet and learning more about its geology and geography. Mars might be just over half the size of Earth, yet it holds the largest mountain in the known solar system – Olympos Mons, which rises to a height of just under 22,000 metres – Everest clocks 8853. It also has one of the largest known canyon systems – Valles Marineris – which is 4,000 km long, 200 km wide and up to 7 km deep. The Grand Canyon, by comparison, would be a mere tributary. Simply searching for Spirit or Opportunity will take you to their landing sites, from which their journeys might be followed. The panoramic photographs are well worth delving into.

There are further missions planned to Mars, though recent budget constraints have also seen various mission abandoned. This year, on August 5,  in what may prove to be the last touchdown for a while, Nasa will attempt to land its latest rover dubbed Curiosity or the Mars Science Laboratory. This will be the largest rover ever sent to Mars – weighing in one tonne and roughly the size of an SUV – and it is hoped that it too might perform far beyond its initial mission plan.

I will be keeping my fingers crossed that all goes well and hoping for an early birthday present of some magnificent new images from the surface of the planet.

So, enough said! Long live Spirit and Opportunity! –  Two of the most incredible machines ever built and a testament to the brilliance of humans when they work tirelessly in pursuit of answers to the eternal questions of life, the universe and everything. Hear hear!

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Much of the focus of the debate on global warming has been on the level of carbon dioxide emissions. There is very good reason for this, considering how much C02 we are pumping into the atmosphere and its proven relationship with average global temperature. Yet, of course, carbon dioxide is by no means the only culprit, only the most abundant and significant contributor. Another, far more potent greenhouse gas is methane (CH4), which, depending who you listen to, is between twenty and thirty times more potent than C02. Its presence in the atmosphere is rapidly growing. Indeed, according to recent research headed by Natalia Shakhova, we might be on the brink of a tipping point, the result of a massive environmental feedback in the Arctic.

Firstly, I’d like to say something about climate change prediction models. Most climate models have focussed on the shorter term, namely, the 21st century, with few daring to venture into the 22nd or 23rd centuries and beyond to predict global atmospheric and climatic conditions. It goes without saying that such modelling is fraught with uncertainty, especially considering our relatively limited understanding of environmental feedback mechanisms. This inclines most climate models to be overly conservative in their predictions, especially in the case of sea-level rise. The IPCC’s calculations in its fourth assessment of sea-level rise, based largely on melting ice and thermal expansion of water, did not factor in dynamic processes such as calving ice-sheets and the observed acceleration of ice-loss and melting, effects which are less easy to predict and model. Their most recent figure of an 18-59cm rise in sea-level by 2100 falls short when we use a different measuring stick – average global temperature relative to sea-level.

With the planet currently trending at the highest end of greenhouse gas emission scenarios, bearing in mind the strong relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global temperature, a more likely outcome is a sea-level rise of between 75 to 190cm. It is worth noting that a sea-level rise of one metre would be devastating for low-lying coastal regions, such as The Netherlands, Florida, Bangladesh and Shanghai to name a few. It’s all very well to argue over the numbers, which, at this stage, seem so abstract, yet their manifestation in reality would be akin to a vast global crisis, potentially making some of the most populous regions of the planet effectively uninhabitable. Humans will no doubt battle it very effectively initially, but if major cities are subjected to consistent flooding, it will be very difficult to sustain year-round economic activity and industrial output will decline, as might coastal infrastructure. It is by no means impossible that major metropolises will eventually have to be abandoned.

There is another fundamental problem with our shorter-term climate modelling. Scientists may talk of a potential sea-level rise by the end of the 21st century, but where will that leave us at the end of the 22nd century? In a warmer planet, ice-melt is not about to stop at some arbitrary date that humans see as a convenient cap for current predictions. If, as has so far been observed, the rate of melt increases as the temperature increases and sea-level rise accelerates towards a worst-case outcome by the year 2100, then what of the subsequent century? Can we expect to add a further two metres, or three perhaps? And what of the very long term?

Of course, the idea is to achieve a zero carbon global economy by the end of the 21st century. I don’t mean to be overly cynical, but the idea seems, at this stage, so utterly fanciful that it’s quite difficult to accept. Humans will, in all likelihood, continue to use fossil fuels as long as they can dig them up. Fears of peak oil have been pushed significantly back as the vast reserves trapped in tar sands have been factored in. As is discussed below, there are vast methane reserves in the Arctic. I expect this planet will be very much a going concern in the middle of the next century. When food hits the roof, we’ll clear out the remaining 82% of the Amazon and plant it all with crops. I hate to say it, but that’s a hell of a lot of good agricultural land. When Chinese capital completes its quasi-colonial infrastructural investment in Africa, the vast forested lands of the Congo basin will be developed and exploited. When the aquifers fail in China and India, they’ll desalinate the overlapping sea. Human industrial society is just beginning; it will, in all likelihood, get a great deal bigger. Inequalities will be vast, but both human and industrial resources will be fully shackled to the task with the eternal bribe of hope.

In the short term, the failure of Europe marks the beginning of a decline in European leadership. They will likely become, ultimately, an effete satellite of East Asia. Wealth and power will shift back to India and China, where it resided for the first sixteen centuries of the last two millennia. One thing is for certain, there are going to be a lot of serious hiccups along the way, for, throughout all this, we’ll be pumping out shitloads of carbon.

Presently the level of atmospheric C02 is roughly 392 parts per million (ppm), up from roughly 315 ppm in 1960. Atmospheric levels are now estimated to be at their highest for twenty million years. There is little likelihood of another ice-age occurring any time soon, put it that way.

Carbon dioxide is now increasing in the atmosphere at roughly 2ppm each year, a rate which has picked up considerably since forty years ago, when it was measured at 0.9 ppm / year. We know that during the Eocene period, a mere thirty-eight million years ago, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide sat at around 2000 parts per million and the average global temperature was roughly ten degrees warmer than today. Indeed, the Earth currently sits in a temperature trough, likely the terminal end of an extended cool period that began at the end of the Eocene, after a lengthy hot period that spanned most of the Cretaceous. The hot period peaked in the Eocene, when there was no ice at the poles and both the Arctic region and the continent of Antarctica were forested with tropical plant species and populated by dinosaurs. As Antarctica drifted south it gradually lost the warming benefits of tropical ocean currents and began to cool. Its isolation at the bottom of the planet from tropical currents might be sufficient to see it retain its ice, even during a significant rise in average global temperatures, but such is by no means clear. One thing is certain, that the poles are warming significantly faster than the tropics and the eventual loss of Antarctic ice is, if not inevitable, certainly plausible in the long term. It is worth noting that during the Eocene, sea-level was, take note, 170 METRES higher than it is today. Have a look at this map:

This is clearly a worst case-scenario, yet even should it take two thousand years to melt all the planet’s ice, it’s difficult to imagine anything equally catastrophic having occurred in the previous two thousand years of human history. The fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, Black Plague, genocide in South America, Depression and World War 2 look very mild by comparison. Simply put, we really do not want to return atmospheric conditions to those of the Cretaceous or Eocene, yet if humans continue to burn fossil fuels far into the future, and in the last year, our rate of output was the highest ever recorded, despite depressed global economic conditions, it is by no means impossible that we could push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels towards those seen during those epochs in the very long term. Of course, such a situation is unlikely, especially considering the disruption to industrial and economic activity that would occur should we see even one fifth of the above 170 metre rise in sea-level.

I came here to talk about methane, and the above is clearly off-topic. Yet it serves to demonstrate the degree to which climate models often limit their predictions to currently observable and measurable factors, ignoring many feedbacks that are less easy to measure accurately, sticking to methods that are sufficiently robust to make solid predictions, such as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. They also tend to tell us about the next hundred years, and not the next thousand, which is equally relevant to the future of humanity and our ability to survive and thrive in a comfortable and stable environment. Such caution is good scientific practice, yet it leaves us with predictions that are almost certainly considerably below the likely more serious consequences of global warming.

One such unpredictable feedback is methane, and methane is a hell of a problem. Pound for pound methane is roughly twenty-two times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. When we think of methane’s role in global warming, we usually consider the flatulence of cattle. Meat production generally produces roughly 80% of all agricultural emissions globally – a figure which is bound to get worse as the rapidly expanding middle class across Asia in particular demands more protein. Livestock currently contribute roughly 20% of methane output, with the rest coming from rice production, landfill sites, coal mining, and as a bi-product of decomposition, particularly from methane-producing bacteria in places such as the Amazon and Congo basins. These are the measureable outputs included in most climate models, yet what the models do not include is the steady and rapid increase in methane release across the Arctic circle.

The Arctic circle is full of methane. Most of it is locked up in permafrost soils and seabed, though the gas has long been escaping through taliks, areas of unfrozen ground surrounded by permafrost. Global warming, however, has seen the most pronounced temperature increases at the poles, with a measured 2.5 degree average increase across the Arctic. As the region warms (current rates suggest a 10 degree temperature spike by the end of the century), as less ice forms, and as ocean temperatures in the region also rise, the until recently frozen seabed, more than 750 million square miles across this vast region, has slowly, but surely, begun to melt. An area of permafrost roughly one third this size, with equally intense concentrations of methane, also exists on land, mostly in far eastern Russia. This too has, in places, begun to thaw.

Lower-end estimates suggest that there is roughly 1400 gigatons of carbon locked up in the Arctic seabed. A release of merely 50 gigatons of methane would increase atmospheric methane levels twelve-fold. Presently, as Natalia Shakhova of the International Arctic Research Center, states,

“The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans. Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap.”

Much of the methane released is being absorbed by the ocean. In the area studied, more than 80% of deep water and more than half of the surface water had methane concentrations eight times higher than normal seawater. In some areas concentrations were considerably higher, reaching up to 250 times greater than background levels in summer, and 1400 times higher in winter. In shallower water, the methane has little time to oxidise and hence more of it escapes into the atmosphere.

Offshore drilling has revealed that the seabed in the region is dangerously close to thawing. The temperature of the seafloor was measured at between -1 and -1.5 degrees celsius within three to twelve miles of the coastline. Paul Overduin, a geophysicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), speaking to Der Spiegal, stated that:

“If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer.”

More research is needed into the process and its possible long-term consequences. A sustained and intense release of methane would indeed have a significant impact on global warming, but at this stage it is difficult to be certain whether or not such will occur.

Natalia Shakhova remains cautious as to whether warming in the region will result in increased gradual emissions, or sudden, large-scale and potentially catastrophic releases of methane.

“No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years.”

The threat, however, is very real. Previous studies showed that just 2% of global methane came from Arctic latitudes, yet with the recent rise in output, by 2007, the global methane contribution had risen to 7%. Atmospheric methane tends to linger in the atmosphere for ten years before reacting with hydroxyl radicals and breaking down into carbon dioxide. Yet in the case of ongoing large releases, the available hydroxyl might be swamped, allowing the methane to hang around for up to fifteen years. This would be an even more significant problem should rapid methane release be ongoing. Not only would the atmosphere’s ability to break down methane be significantly compromised, but the warming effect of the lasting methane presence would trigger further warming and thus further methane release. This is a classic case of a potentially dire environmental feedback, and it might be a very long time before we see the end of such a cycle should it commence. It is especially concerning when we take into account that the pre-requisites for triggering such an event might already be in place. Irrespective of how much humans cut emissions output, which, quite simply put, in real terms, they are not doing in the slightest, the trajectory of global temperature increase based on current greenhouse gas emissions is already sufficient to thaw the Arctic seabed eventually.

Still, there are too many variables and too much uncertainty about the scale and pace of this phenomenon and, for this reason, scientists are right to be cautious. Yet, when we consider that something as potent as this is not being included in climate models on account of its unpredictability, it reminds us how conservative and cautious those models really are and how dangerous our flirtation with heating the planet really is.

It would almost be fitting for humans, as decadent, indulgent and superfluous as they are, to drown in flatulence. It would make for an amusingly sarcastic take on history, written at the consequence end of the great and unfunny fart joke that is the Anthropocene epoch. Perhaps a thousand years from now, when humans, with their cockroach-like ability to adapt and survive in almost any environment, outdone for durability only by the bacteria they seem determined to hand the planet back to, have reconstructed their societies in a more sustainable manner on higher ground, they will look back and wonder why they had their priorities so utterly wrong for so long.

ps. Again, I apologise for lack of references. If you made it this far, no doubt you can do your own research into the matter. The purpose of this article is to be thought-provoking, not comprehensively informative.  Good luck out there!

– P. Rollmops

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It never ceases to amaze me which species get picked for special attention. The reasons are easy enough to understand; either they are magnificent, attractive, cuddly, intelligent, or perhaps have some form of cultural significance as a national symbol. The giant Panda and Polar Bear are classic examples of this phenomenon of bias towards saving species that seem ready-made for conservation campaigns on account of their being so photogenic.

In these two cases, however, it is hardly surprising that they have become endangered; both are bears and bears are essentially omnivorous opportunists, yet these particular bears have taken a dangerously narrow evolutionary path into high-risk specialisation. Their sacrifice of flexibility has made them vulnerable. Perhaps, in the end, it’s really just too bad. Enjoy it while you can, adapt or die, has always been the Earth’s motto.

Of course, with the exception of occasional freak events causing rapid transformation of climactic conditions and immediate destruction of habitat – an asteroid impact, snowball Earth, or large-scale volcanic upheaval – most species have had plenty of time to adapt to changing conditions, and those who could not adapt lie frozen in stone; the dead ends of evolution; the leafless twigs that fell from the tree.

The wild populations of giant Panda might be at serious risk from habitat loss, and indeed, a great deal of bamboo forest remains threatened by development, but the campaign to save them has become almost embarrassingly successful, so far as captive breeding programs are concerned. They are not hunted and harvested for food, at least not on an industrial scale, and as a potent national symbol of China and, indeed, as an accepted symbol of international efforts to save species and habitat, they are at relatively little risk of going extinct either in the wild or in captivity.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Polar Bears, whose habitat is shrinking rapidly and whose lifestyle is not readily adaptable to different conditions. Given more time, they would likely adapt or evolve, though there is no guarantee of that. With the retreat of the last ice-age, the woolly mammoth was driven further and further north, until the last populations were restricted to arctic islands in northern Russia where their isolation led to that common evolutionary phenomenon of dwarfism – they shed most of their bulk and shrank to the size of hippos. Polar bears, one suspects, will not have time on their side, yet in all likelihood, if given sufficient territory and left unmolested, small populations will cling on in far northern Canada or Alaska. They may shrink and be forced to significantly adjust their hunting range and habits, but they seem sufficiently clever and resourceful to pull through.

Other species will not be so fortunate, even when their plight garners public attention and attracts conservation dollars. Pity the northern white rhino, a magnificent odd-toed ungulate. There are now five males and two females left on the planet. That number again: five males and two females ON EARTH, all in captivity. It’s enough to make you cry. Pity the primates. More than half of the Earth’s primate species are threatened with extinction. However much we love them, however good they look on posters, television advertisements and campaign leaflets, their vulnerability to the consequences of war, poverty, hunger and greed is all too real. If peace and prosperity came to the jungles of Congo, things might pan out a lot better for the Gorilla and chimpanzee, but as things stand, their situation is extremely tenuous.

As one reader joked in a letter to the New Scientist, the best way for creatures to ensure survival is to evolve as rapidly as possible into a more lovable, cuddly form; big eyes and soft fur can do wonders for a species on the conservation wheel of fortune. Yet, if we can’t even manage to save the cuddly ones, then what hope is there for all the frog, flower, amphibian, bush, beetle, tree, fish and reptile species, many of which have gone extinct in recent times due to habitat destruction and climate change?

There are many and varied estimates of the background extinction rates, and indeed, similarly varied estimates as to how many species there actually are on the planet. Judging from the fossil record, the background extinction rate is estimated to be roughly one species per million every year. Very rough estimates suggest a current total of around ten million different species on the planet, and a current extinction rate of somewhere between 27000 and 30000 plant and animal species per year. Just as geologists have recently agreed that human warming of the planet justifies acknowledging the end of the geologically short and wonderfully mild Holocene epoch, and the commencement, beginning with the industrial revolution, of the Anthropocene, so biologists, among others, agree that we are now in the midst of a mass extinction, the likes of which have occurred several times already in Earth’s history, though not, so far as we are aware, through the agency of one dominant species. Though, having said that, we cannot ignore the climatic impact of, for example, oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, who for millions of years, beginning somewhere between 3.4 and 2.7 billion years ago, exhaled this waste-product on such a scale that the planet could no longer absorb it, until, roughly 2.4 billion years ago, the Great Oxygenation Event occurred, wiping out much of the planet’s anaerobic inhabitants and ultimately triggering the first and longest snowball Earth event.

Still, just because we are in good company does not make being responsible for the sixth great extinction in the planet’s history something to be proud of. As things stand, an estimated fifth of the world’s mammals, a third of its amphibians, more than 25% of its reptiles and up to 70% of its plants face the threat of extinction. That is, to say the least, seriously fucked up, and the only way to arrest the situation is to, quite literally, stop doing everything, switch off the nuclear power stations, disarm the warheads, sit down wherever you are, and quietly die.

More realistic, of course, is the promotion of peace, sustainable development, recycling and efficiency and the end of overconsumption. Yet, sadly, despite the world having become considerably more peaceful on the grand timescale, prosperity is growing at such a pace, irrespective of hiccups, financial crises and what have you, that consumption and atmospheric pollution are increasing very rapidly indeed. With the exception of the species we farm and harvest, and those who are well adapted to our artificial environments, such as rats, cats, dogs, pigeons, squirrels, possums etc, almost everything is under threat, and in recent years, I have become seriously alarmed by the plight of the Tuna.

The tuna is a truly magnificent creature, of which there are over fifty different varieties. The Atlantic Bluefin tuna can grow to a size of four and a half metres long, can weigh as much as 650kg, and can swim at speeds of up to 70kph. Tuna do not have white flesh like most fish, but their muscle tissue ranges from pink to dark red. This coloration derives from myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule, which tuna produce in significantly higher quantities than most other fish. Some of the larger tuna species, such as bluefin tuna, have warm-blooded adaptations, and can raise their body temperature above water temperature, thus enabling them to survive in cooler waters and to exploit and inhabit a far wider range of ocean environments.

Tuna not only look magnificent, but they are magnificent. The sad reality, however, is that tuna, the world over, are on the brink of a terrible catastrophe. As Greenpeace’s 2008 report entitled Tinned Tuna’s Hidden Catch states:

“Of the 23 commercially exploited tuna stocks identified: At least nine are classified as fully fished, a further four are classified as overexploited or depleted, three are classified as critically endangered, three are endangered and three are classified as vulnerable to extinction.”

Worldwide, Greenpeace estimates that 90% of large predatory fish have already been wiped out. Catches are down dramatically in all fisheries. In the Mediterranean, the World Wildlife Fund has estimated that tuna stocks will reach complete collapse as early as 2012. In 2007 the breeding population of tuna was only a quarter that of fifty years ago and the size and weight of mature tuna has more than halved since the early 1990s. Attempts by scientists, marine biologists and fisheries experts to dramatically reduce quotas have brought only tokenistic, inadequate responses and led to an explosion of illegal fishing that goes largely unpoliced.

It’s not merely the scale of the industry causing problems, but also the fishing techniques used. The common use of Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs), wherein fish are lured to a particular zone and then scooped up en masse, not only results in the catching of juvenile tuna, but also lures many other species, juvenile or otherwise, which make up an estimate ten percent of the catch. Not only do FADs act as death-traps for young tuna, but they draw tuna away from migratory routes, resulting in loss of optimal feeding opportunities, seriously effecting the life-cycle of tuna which are not caught, and thus having broader impacts on the entire marine ecosystem. Similarly, long-line fishing, where lines of up to 100km are used, are also responsible for significant bycatch.

Big Tuna likes to make a special point of their tuna being “dolphin friendly.” Yet, as Greenpeace states:

“Many fishing practices that are labelled dolphin friendly still result in the catch of a host of non-target species, known as bycatch, including turtles, sharks, rays, juvenile tuna and a huge range of other marine life.”

Some companies have gone a step further and changed their practices. Around the corner from my house is a huge billboard advertising the environmental credentials of Greenseas tinned Tuna. There are, in fact, two advertisements side by side, each with the large happy face of a marine species, pleased to have avoided being caught unnecessarily. Greenseas can claim some credibility on this front, as they have made the important commitment to stop buying tuna caught using FADs. Yet, when we consider the rate at which the tuna themselves are being exterminated, this feels like a diversion; more of the green-washing bullshit we’ve come to expect from big business in the last decades.

The simple fact is that Big Tuna may claim to be dolphin friendly. They may claim to be dugong friendly. They may claim to be turtle friendly, but they are definitely not Tuna friendly. The Tuna, in all its glorious varieties, is, quite literally, being fished to death. In the vastness of the oceans, it would be difficult to hunt down and kill every single tuna available, it would be a hell of a job to drive them to extinction, yet humans are currently giving it their absolute best shot.

The rising popularity of sushi, along with tuna’s longstanding popularity in salads, pasta dishes and all manner of culinary creations, has dramatically increased the scale of the market in recent years. This commercial success guarantees that the industry will pursue tuna for as long as possible, and there seems relatively little effort within the industry itself to harvest tuna in a sustainable fashion. Governments must co-operate internationally to put a stop to current quotas and practices, and actively police illegal fishing.

Greenpeace advises that in order to save tuna populations the world over, the fishing industry must stop using FADs and switch to line and pole fishing, which are highly targeted towards adult tuna; governments must impose and enforce marine reserves to safeguard ecosystems from destructive fishing practices; supermarkets should stop buying tuna products caught using FADs, only support sustainably caught tuna, and help to promote the creation of and awareness about marine reserves.

The issue of bycatch is bad enough, but the scale of tuna fishing must be severely restricted in order to avoid a potential environmental disaster. We cannot even begin to imagine the devastating impact on an ecosystem of removing 90% of its predatory species, but the resulting imbalances are bound to be hugely disruptive.

Sure, it sucks not being able to eat tuna, because I admit, like so many people, I have always enjoyed the taste of it. Yet, for the last three or four years, I have not been able to buy it out of a colossal sense of guilt. I recently swore off eating cephalopods (squids, octopi) after reading a New Scientist feature on their extraordinary intelligence. When, two weeks ago, I broke my pact and ate squid, then, the following day, found myself with food poisoning, I felt a rare case of instant karma. At least I learned my lesson, and I won’t be eating those guys again.

Of course, as someone who eats dairy, I leave myself open to accusations of hypocrisy, for the dairy industry is not an industry known for its sustainability. Of course, it’s not the cows that are threatened – though they are often mistreated – but the environment, on account of industrial scale farming practices.

It would be nice to think that humans will wise up to their destructive habits and avert a major catastrophe, both on land and at sea, but I’m not especially confident. Either way, don’t be surprised if the price of tuna skyrockets in coming years. Some time soon, this already critical situation is going to hit the wall.

ps. apologies for lazy referencing. After doing a PhD, I never want to footnote again…

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