The Countdown, a collaboration between Scientific American and YouTube's Spacelab, is a biweekly video show highlighting the best stuff happening in space, astronomy and physics. The companion Countdown blog features links to all of the stories mentioned in the show and more. Science journalist Sophie Bushwick is the show's host.
Contact Eric R. Olson via email. Follow Eric R. Olson on Twitter as @EricROlson.
The Countdown, Episode 13 – Asteroid Flyby, Couch Potatoes on Mars, Amateur Discovery, a Moon for the Moon, 100 Billion Exoplanets
[The text below is a modified transcript of this video.]
5) Couch Potatoes on Mars
When you’re sending a manned mission to Mars, you need to plan for every aspect of the trip; including how to get a good night’s rest. A simulated Mars mission has shown the importance of balancing activity with sleep to stay on top of your game.
As the mission progressed, the crew slowly transformed into couch potatoes. They moved less during waking hours and spent more time lying still and sleeping. And most crew members slept poorly, which affected the quality of their work.
In order for the members of a Mars mission to perform their best, the researchers suggest habitats and work schedules that mimic conditions back on Earth — not the conditions where you sink into the sofa with a bag of chips.
They figured this out by training the Kepler space telescope on one particular star system, Kepler-32. This system features a star classified as an M dwarf, which is cooler and smaller than our own sun, but much more common. About 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way are M dwarfs.
The astronomers were hoping to find out how Kepler-32’s planets formed. But the orientation of the system also let them calculate the probability that other stars house planets. They estimate that each M dwarf star in the Milky Way has at least one and possibly two planets in close orbit, which means our galaxy is filled with 100 to 200 billion planets.
3) Amateur Discovery
Sure, 100 billion is a big number. But it’s only an estimate, not a definite discovery. Amateur volunteers have found the signatures of 43 actual planets. And15 of them sit in habitable zones, the regions around stars where the temperature is just right for life-enabling liquid water.
This discovery comes courtesy of the Planet Hunters project, where amateur astronomers comb through public data from the Kepler telescope. This is the same telescope that gave us that estimate of 100 billion planets.
And as amateurs and scientists keep hunting planets, this list will just keep growing.
2) Asteroid Flyby
Did you hear the Earth was buzzed by an asteroid yesterday? The asteroid Apophis flew by at a distance of 14.5 million kilometers. That’s roughly 30 times the distance from the Earth to the moon. Good thing, because it’s a huge asteroid, with a diameter close to the height of the Eiffel Tower.
Disaster averted! We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief…right?
Fortunately, astronomers predict the asteroid, named 2012 DA14, won’t hit Earth. Let me repeat: There’s no chance it will hit the Earth! But assuming it did, we’d be in for some serious mayhem. An impact would generate 120 times the energy of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
But in all likelihood 2012 DA14 will pass quietly by Earth, just like Apophis, and continue its orbit around the sun.
The scientists say this project would move us one step closer to a manned asteroid mission in 2025 and a Mars mission by 2030. The astronauts wouldn’t have to travel very far to visit an asteroid or expose themselves to the harmful space radiation that exists outside of Earth’s magnetic field. It would also make asteroid samples readily available for study and extraction of precious metals.
Does the moon deserve a moon of its very own or are there better ways NASA could spend its money?
- Portions of the script above written by Sophie Bushwick, Eric R. Olson & Isha Soni
About the Author: Eric Olson is the resident video editor and producer for Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @EricROlson.