Out of This World Data, Literally - Data Week

By Gabriela Kalter

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Considering the decent grades I got in the science classes of my past, I was pretty disappointed with my score on this New York Time’s astronomy/Earth Day quiz. I didn’t even pass. I got a 6/14, which comes out to roughly a 43 percent. So, I tanked it- sinking past refrigerator-worthy right into crumpling-the-test-and-hiding-it-from-my-parents-forever-status.

In my defense, however, there’s a massive amount of data to keep track of from month to month, let alone year to year. Having completed my last science course a little over three years ago, I’d say my bank of knowledge about the universe, astronomy, and all things that scientists discover while heating concoctions in flasks is severely out of date and rather limited. There’s just so much changing every minute of every day, all the time. It’s impossible to keep up with it all.

So, in light of April having been Earth Month and in honor of the spring, which is teasing us with its arrival- let’s talk about how crazy this planet is that we live on: this spherical phenomenon orbiting within the colossal space of the mysterious universe. We live in the Milky Way, only one galaxy amongst hundreds of billions; and if the sheer devastating vastness of our own home galaxies itself isn’t enough to impress you, there’s just no way to wrap your head around the existence of so many others — it’s that crazy.

Before going into existential shock, let’s catch up with some of our world’s more recent galactic jaw droppers.

For years, scientists and astronomers believed the earth to be 13.7 billion years old. But, after careful examination of measurements made by NASA’s Planck mission, it seems we have some catching up to do. The Planck spacecraft has been meticulously charting temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) since 2009. The first 15.5 months of date has been observed, offering a detailed map of the oldest light in the universe.

According to the new sky map, scientists are now deeming the earth to be 100 million years older than they initially concluded. With our aging earth of about 13.82 billion years, and a slower expansion rate of space and time, astronomers are tweaking earlier conclusions and perhaps suggesting a whole slew of data that may need reevaluation.

With the development of increasingly thorough telescope technology, and elaborate space cameras, it’s inevitable that scientists will see things that may have previously slipped under their radar. It was after a lengthy 24 centuries of defining the atom as the universe’s smallest, indivisible particle that scientists finally discovered the presence of subatomic particles, opening up a whole new can of particle physics for the lab coat-wearers to geek out over during their lunch break. So, I may have failed my New York Times astronomy quiz, but science is all about making mistakes as a way of more accurately updating the status quo.

Let’s look at the growing urgency of Earth’s imminent climate change, for instance. With a planet that’s older than originally speculated, meteorological studies could be in need of some timely readjusting. The gradual warming of our globe, which was formerly expected to take place over the span of hundreds- even thousands- of years, has accelerated over the past decade, leading to an abrupt change in climate that continues to bring drastic weather patterns from one year to the next.

Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast consecutively, separated by a little over a year. Both of these extreme weather events were considered to be uncommon floods that hit every hundred years or so.

But August of 2011 to October of 2012 is hardly one hundred years; it’s just over one year, and that’s not even delving into the Halloween Nor’easter or Tropical Storm Lee, both of which closely followed Irene. These catastrophic consequences of abrupt climate change speak to the constant progression of scientific observation and the need to stay on top of new developments.

Seventy-one–year-old astrophysicist and recipient of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, Stephen Hawking, is adamant about encouraging mankind to take note of these threatening developments and seek viable options for colonization in space. Considered one of the great geniuses of our time, Hawking says, “Mankind will not be able to live a thousand years, if it doesn’t find other planets as a new place of residence.”

But even a thousand years may be too optimistic. Australian science experts predict that in just 300 years, earth’s conditions will be unsuitable for human life. With the rapidly increasing global temperature, scientists predict more than 40 percent of the land on earth to eventually be flooded, consequentially complicating the function of the water cycle and other natural resources that are integral to human survival.

Thankfully in 300 years’ time, we’ll be dead and exempt from worrying about this too much. Our great grandchildren and their great grandchildren, however, will be more immediately concerned about their fate of survival.

Relocation plans have been simmering with the NASA’s Kepler Mission, a project designed to locate and study habitable, Earth-like exoplanets. These exoplanets, or planets that exist outside of our solar system, each orbit around a parent star and largely don’t resemble Earth, but are rather similar to gas giants like Jupiter and Neptune.

While many exoplanets have been discovered, the Kepler Mission continues with the goal of finding a potentially habitable planet for mankind to colonize in refuge of the declining conditions on Earth. For the planet to be considered as an alternative host for human life, it has to lie within its star’s habitable zone. This zone is defined by the particular distance needed for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface, a vital element for human survival.

The term “Goldilocks Planet” has been coined in reference to planets that fall within this habitable zone and lie at the appropriate point in relation to the star for the sustenance of liquid water, neither too close nor too far, but just right.

NASA announced the discovery of three Goldilocks planets on April 18, a development that may further the feasibility of putting humankind’s planetary relocation plan into action. The idea of actually uprooting people from earth and transporting them to colonize a supposedly habitable foreign planet may sound crazy, but the big guys are taking it seriously and they seem to have no intentions of slowing it down.

In a speech addressing new policies for the U.S. space agency, President Barack Obama announced designs for an extended-journey spacecraft that is scheduled to launch in 2025. With an extra six billion dollars in funding being allotted to NASA over the next five years, President Obama clarifies his goals for deep space exploration beyond the Moon, sending astronauts to an asteroid and out to orbit Mars for the first time. He’s hopeful that by 2030, there will be commercial trips for humans to travel into outer space, toying with the notion of colonization on Mars.

The non-profit organization, Mars One, is at the forefront of the colonization movement. The company’s CEO, Bas Lansdorp, is developing a program for a group of four volunteers (between the ages of 18 and 40) to travel to Mars in the year 2023 and begin the process of habitation of an alternative planet. He hopes to have an additional two people join the group every two years. At that rate, full colonization of Mars is looking pretty slow, leaving most of us earth-dwellers to fry up with the sun or get smushed by a giant asteroid.

In speaking of giant asteroids, the scientific community has been buzzing with instituting an international asteroid warning system after the doozie that hit Russia in February. The Chelyabinsk meteor exploded in the Russian mountain city at an altitude of about 12 miles, and jarred the people with its flash of a bright white light and a crushing shock wave.

Addressing asteroid threats, warnings, and planning initiatives has since moved up on the list of international priorities. The UN committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is meeting this June in Vienna, where discussion on asteroid policy and awareness programs will be a large focus.

With far more dangerous asteroids lurking in our universe, the diligence and haste with which the meteorological community has acted isn’t surprising. NASA saw a recent increase in funding for tracking near-earth objects, totaling a $20 million budget. Additionally, there’s a $25 million dollar satellite (known as NEOSS) that was launched in Canada as a means of detecting asteroids orbiting earth in a threatening zone.

Groups like IAWN (Internationals Asteroid Warning Network) and SMPAG (Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group) are going to have to buckle down in preparation for the anticipated Apophis asteroid expected to brush Earth’s surface in 2029 and, if it passes through what scientists refer to as the “key hole,” potentially strike the Earth in 2036. In fact, there’s a mission launching in 2016 to study the deep interior of Mars that may include an asteroid deflection probe, smashing potentially hazardous asteroids before they reach earth’s surface.

But, our planet isn’t the only one suffering from unexpected natural disaster. At the mercy of the great universe, new images have been captured of a monster hurricane hitting the surface of Saturn. The storm hit the north pole of the ringed planet, and the pictures taken by a NASA spacecraft in Saturn’s orbit are saturated in mind-blowing detail.

Photo courtesy of NASA

The continued development and research of newly efficient software and panorama devices has also led to some amazing images of the NASA Mars rover, Curiosity, on the Red Planet. It’s stunningly beautiful what we can discover in the mystical universe, perhaps overwhelming and scary, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.

Whether we end up piling into a spaceship and reinventing our lives on Mars, or we simply sizzle in the ultra violet rays from the sun, we are all children of this strange universe just trying to keep up with the rapidly changing data and scientific developments. So, I guess the results of my New York Times Earth Day quiz aren’t worth dwelling upon, I just hope the score isn’t used as some type of criterion in qualifying for escaping Earth upon imminent destruction.