August 20, 2013
The saying goes that one person’s waste is another’s treasure. For those scientists who study urine the saying is quite literal–pee is a treasure-trove of scientific potential. It can now be used as a source of electric power. Urine-eating bacteria can create a strong enough current to power a cell phone. Medicines derived from urine can help treat infertility and fight symptoms of menopause. Stem cells harvested from urine have been reprogrammed into neurons and even used to grow human teeth.
For modern scientists, the golden liquid can be, well, liquid gold. But a quick look back in history shows that urine has always been important to scientific and industrial advancement, so much so that the ancient Romans not only sold pee collected from public urinals, but those who traded in urine had to pay a tax. So what about pee did preindustrial humans find so valuable? Here are a few examples:
Urine-soaked leather makes it soft: Prior to the ability to synthesize chemicals in the lab, urine was a quick and rich source of urea, a nitrogen-based organic compound. When stored for long periods of time, urea decays into ammonia. Ammonia in water acts as a caustic but weak base. Its high pH breaks down organic material, making urine the perfect substance for ancients to use in softening and tanning animal hides. Soaking animal skins in urine also made it easier for leather workers to remove hair and bits of flesh from the skin.
The cleansing power of pee: If you’ve investigated the ingredients in your household cleaners, you may have noticed a prevalent ingredient: ammonia. As a base, ammonia is a useful cleanser because dirt and grease–which are slightly acidic–get neutralized by the ammonia. Even though early Europeans knew about soap, many launderers preferred to use urine for its ammonia to get tough stains out of cloth. In fact, in ancient Rome, vessels for collecting urine were commonplace on streets–passers-by would relieve themselves into them and when the vats were full their contents were taken to a fullonica (a laundry), diluted with water and poured over dirty clothes. A worker would stand in the tub of urine and stomp on the clothes, similar to modern washing machine’s agitator.
Even after making soap became more prevalent, urine–known as chamber lye for the chamber pots it was collected in–was often used as a soaking treatment for tough stains.
Urine not only made your whites cleaner, but your colors brighter: Natural dyes from seeds, leaves, flowers, lichens, roots, bark and berries can leach out of a cloth if it or the dyebath aren’t treated with mordant, which helps to bind the dye to the cloth. It works like this: molecules of dye called chromophores get wrapped inside a more complex molecule or a group of molecules; this shell housing the dye then binds to the cloth. The central nugget of dye is then visible but is protected from bleeding away by the molecules surrounding it. Stale urine–or more precisely the ammonia in it–is a good mordant. Molecules of ammonia can form a web around chromophores, helping to develop the color of dyes as well as to bind it to cloth.
Specific chamberpots dedicated to urine helped families collect their pee for use as mordants. Urine was so important to the textile industry of 16th century England that casks of it–an estimated amount equivalent to the urine stream of 1000 people for an entire year–were shipped from across the country to Yorkshire, where it was mixed with alum to form an even stronger mordant than urine alone.
Pee makes things go boom: Had enough with cleansing, tanning, and dyeing? Then why not use your pee to make gunpowder! Gunpowder recipes call for charcoal and sulfur in small quantities, both of which for aren’t too hard to find. But the main ingredient–potassium nitrate, also called saltpeter–was only synthesized on a large-scale in the early 20th century. Prior to that, makers of gunpowder took advantage of the nitrogen naturally found in pee to make the key ingredient for ballistic firepower.
As detailed in the manual Instructions for the Manufacture of Saltpetre, written by physician and geologist Joseph LeConte in 1862, a person hoping to make gunpowder quickly would need “a good supply of thoroughly rotted manure of the richest kind” which is then mixed with ash, leaves and straw in a pit. “The heap is watered every week with the richest kinds of liquid manure, such as urine, dung-water, water of privies, cess-pools, drains, &c. The quantity of liquid should be such as to keep the heap always moist, but not wet,” he wrote. The mixture is stirred every week, and after a several months no more pee is added. Then “As the heap ripens, the nitre is brought to the surface by evaporation, and appears as a whitish efflorescence, detectible by the taste.”
Different regions of the world had their own recipes for gunpowder, but the scientific principle at work is the same: Ammonia from stagnant pee reacts with oxygen to form nitrates. These nitrates–negatively charged nitrogen-bearing ions–then search for positively charged metal ions in the pee-poo-ash slurry to bind with. Thanks to the ash, potassium ions are in abundance, and voila! After a little filtering, you’ve made potassium nitrate.
Urine gives you a whiter smile: Urine was a key ingredient in many early medicines and folk remedies of dubious effectiveness. But one use–and those who’ve tried it say it works–is as a type of mouthwash. While “urine-soaked grin” isn’t the insult of choice these days, a verse by Roman poet Catullus reads:
Egnatius, because he has snow-white teeth, smiles all the time. If you’re a defendant in court, when the counsel draws tears, he smiles: if you’re in grief at the pyre of pious sons, the lone lorn mother weeping, he smiles. Whatever it is, wherever it is, whatever he’s doing, he smiles: he’s got a disease, neither polite, I would say, nor charming. So a reminder to you, from me, good Egnatius. If you were a Sabine or Tiburtine or a fat Umbrian, or plump Etruscan, or dark toothy Lanuvian, or from north of the Po, and I’ll mention my own Veronese too, or whoever else clean their teeth religiously, I’d still not want you to smile all the time: there’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish: in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re the more full of piss.
The poem not only reveals that Catullus wasn’t a fan of Egnatius, but that Romans used urine to clean and whiten their teeth, transforming morning breath into a different smell entirely. The active ingredient? You guessed it: ammonia, which lifted stains away.
But perhaps one of the most critical uses of urine in history was its role in making the above home remedies obsolete. Urea, the nitrogen bearing compound in urine, was the first organic substance created from inorganic starting materials. In 1828, German chemist Friedrich Wöhler mixed silver cyanate with ammonium chloride and obtained a white crystalline material that his tests proved was identical to urea. His finding disproved a hypothesis of many leading scientists and thinkers of the time, which held that living organisms were made up of substances entirely different than inanimate objects like rocks or glass. In a note to a colleague, Wöhler wrote, “I can no longer, so to speak, hold my chemical water and must tell you that I can make urea without needing a kidney, whether of man or dog; the ammonium salt of cyanic acid is urea.”
Wöhler’s discovery showed that not only could organic chemicals be transformed and produced in the lab, but that humans were part of nature, rather than separate from it. In doing so, he began the field of organic chemistry. Organic chemistry has given us modern medicines, materials such as plastic and nylon, compounds including synthetic ammonia and potassium nitrate…and, of course, a way to clean our clothes or fire a gun without using our own (or someone else’s) pee.
June 14, 2013
In the past two decades, we’ve seen dramatic images of ice shelves and the floating tongues of glaciers crumble into the ocean. The summer of 2012 saw a huge chunk of ice–two times the size of Manhattan–snap off of Greenland’s Petermann Glacier. Two years earlier, a piece of ice twice as big as that one split from the glacier’s front. In early 2002, ice covering an area the greater than the size of Rhode Island sloughed into the ocean from a lobe of the Antarctic Peninsula’s Larsen Ice Shelf, releasing into the ocean three-quarters of a trillion tons of ice. Seven years before that, the northernmost sector of the same ice sheet completely collapsed and an area of ice roughly the size of Hawaii’s Oahu island dissolved into the sea.
Scientists have long thought that sudden and dramatic ice calving events like these, along with more moderate episodes of calving that occur daily, were the main mechanisms for how polar ice gets lost to the sea. New research, however, shows that calving icebergs is only the tip of the iceberg–seawater bathing the undersides of ice shelves contributes most to ice loss even before calving begins, at least in Antarctica.
The discovery, published in the journal Science, shows that interactions with the ocean underneath floating ice account for 55 percent ice lost from Antarctic ice shelves between 2003 and 2008. The researchers arrived at their findings by studying airborne measurements of ice thicknesses from radar sounders and the rates of change in ice thickness based off of satellite data. Combining these data allowed them to calculate the rates of bottom melting.
Given that thick platforms of floating ice surround nearly 75 percent of Earth’s southernmost continent, covering nearly 580 million square miles, ice melted in this fashion may well be the main contributor to sea level rise. “This has profound implications for our understanding of interactions between Antarctica and climate change.” said lead author Eric Rignot a researcher at UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “It basically puts the Southern Ocean up front as the most significant control on the evolution of the polar ice sheet.”
Interestingly, the big ice shelves–Ross, Ronne and Filchner, which cover about 61 of Antarctica’s total ice shelf area–only contribute a small fraction meltwater through their bases. Instead, less than a dozen small ice shelves, particularly those on the Antarctic Peninsula, are responsible for most–nearly 85 percent–of the basal melting observed by the authors during their study period. These shelves not only float in warmer water, relatively, but their small sizes may mean that their interiors are less sheltered from already warmer ocean waters that creep underneath the ice.
The findings reveal a lot about the vulnerability of polar ice in a warming world. Ice sheets ooze through glaciers to the sea, where they interlace and form ice shelves. These shelves are akin to a cork that keeps the contents inside from spewing out–when ice sheets collapse, the glaciers that feed them thin and accelerate, helping to drain the interior ice sheet. Polar ice sheets already are losing at least three times as much ice each year as they were in the 1990s, and the findings released today may give a mechanism for this frantic pace.
In fact, the major ice calving events of the last two decades on the Petermann Glacier and Larsen Ice Shelf may have started with the fact that melting from underneath was weakening the ability of ice to coalesce into a solid mass.
“Ice shelf melt can be compensated by ice flow from the continent,” Rignot added. “But in a number of places around Antarctica, they are melting too fast, and as a consequence, glaciers and the entire continent are changing.”
May 22, 2013
Concepts from science and nature pervade our language’s common phrases, idioms and colloquialisms. The incredulous expression”Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” stems from sarcastic disbelief over Darwin’s writings on evolution. To be “in the limelight”—at the center of attention—harks back to how theater stages used to be lit by heating lime (calcium oxide) until it glowed a brilliant white, then focusing the light emitted into a spotlight.
Someone as “mad as a hatter” exhibits behavior similar to 18th and 19th century hat makers who stiffened felt cloth with mercury—an ingredient that after continued exposure causes dementia. “Tuning in” to someone’s message has its origins in the slight turns of a dial needed to focus on a radio signal.
These colorful expressions bring spice to our language. Yet certain well-used phrases from science are misrepresentations of what they’re trying to express. Others are just plain wrong!
Some are obvious, yet we use them anyhow. A person who sagaciously shakes her head and says “A watched pot never boils” while you are waiting second after agonizing second for test results to arrive or job offers to come in knows that if she sat down and watched a vessel containing water on a stove over high heat for long enough, the water will eventually boil. Or the person who utters the placating phrase that “the darkest hour is just before dawn,” meant to give hope to people during troubled times, probably knows that well before the Sun rises, the sky gets progressively lighter, just as how well after the Sun sets, light lingers until the Earth rotates beyond the reach of the Sun’s rays. Thus, the darkest hour of the night (in the absence of the Moon) is midway between sunset and sunrise.
A few phrases, however, have less obvious scientific inaccuracies. Here are a few for you to consider:
1. Once in a blue moon: This poetic phrase refers to something extremely rare in occurrence. A blue moon is the term commonly used for a second full moon that occasionally appears in a single month of our solar-based calendars. The problem with the phrase, however, is that blue moons are not so rare—they happen every few years at least, and can even happen within months of each other when the 29.5-day lunar cycle puts the full moon at the beginning of any month but February.
The usage of “blue moon” as the second full moon in a month dates back to a 1937 Marine Farmer’s Almanac. But prior to that, blue moons meant something slightly different. Typically, 12 full moons occur from winter solstice to the next winter solstice (roughly three per season), but occasionally a fourth full moon in a season could be observed. In such a case, one of the four full moons in that season was labeled “blue.”
Readers may recall that baby Smurfs are delivered to the Smurf village during blue moons. If this were to occur every blue moon, we’d soon be awash in blue creatures three apples high!
2. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: The phrase means that if something looks wrong, it likely is wrong. But let’s step back—do you always have to have fire if you see smoke?
Answering that first requires defining “fire.” Merriam-Webster’s first definition of fire is “the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat.” Combustion is the chemical reaction that occurs when fuel is burned in the presence of oxygen. So for a fire to ignite and be sustained, it needs heat, fuel and oxygen—denying a fire any of these three things will extinguish the fire; attempting to start a fire without one of three things will be futile.
In complete combustion—what occurs when you light a gas stove—the fire produces no smoke. However, when most materials are burned, they undergo incomplete combustion, which means that the fire isn’t able to completely burn all of the fuel. Smoke is an airborne collection of little particles of these unburned materials.
The reason why these materials didn’t burn is because of pyrolysis—the breakdown of of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence, or under a shortage, of oxygen. Think of it this way: a wood fire’s quick consumption of oxygen depletes the gas’s presence around a burning log, and this localized lack of oxygen while the log is at high temperatures causes log to char, breaking the log down into a substance much richer in carbon content. The resulting charcoal, if still under high heat, can then smolder—a flameless form of combustion—until all the fuel is consumed.
Smoke, then, can be considered to be a product of pyrolysis rather than of fire itself. You’re probably thinking—so what? To get the smoke, a fire needed to be present at some point, right?
Not always. Let’s consider pyrolysis to the extreme. For example, tobacco leaves heated to 800 degrees Celsius in a pure nitrogen atmosphere undergo pyrolysis and release smoke without actually being on fire.
Pyrolysis without fire can also occur in more familiar circumstances. Imagine blackening a piece of fish on a pan using an electric range, where electricity heats metal coils on the cooktop until they are incandescent, but not on fire. Leave the fish unattended for too long and it will start to char and smoke. But why bother with putting fish in the pan? Those looking for fireless smoke need to go no further than melting a slab of butter in a sauté pan. All oils and fats used in cooking have smoke points—the temperature at which they start to degrade into a charred goo of glycerol and fatty acids—as seen in this video.
Sure, leaving these smoking substances on the range for too long will cause them to eventually combust (oils and fats, after all, do have flash points), but before that, you have a whole lot of smoke with no fire!
3. The fish rots from the head down: The phrase seems to pop up more frequently when political scandals or accusations of malfeasance make headlines. The origin of the phrase is murky, likely stemming from folk proverbs of Europe and Asia Minor. But the meaning is simple–if a system is corrupt, its leaders instigated the corruption.
The authoritative ring to this phrase belies its accuracy. Fish, in fact, start to rot from the gut. According to David Groman, an expert on fish pathology at the University of Prince Edward Island, the proverb is a “poor metaphor. And, I must say, it’s biologically incorrect,” he told Anna Muoio of the business magazine Fast Company. “When a fish rots, the organs in the gut go first. If you can’t tell that a fish is rotting by the smell of it, you’ll sure know when you cut it open and everything pours out–when all the internal tissue loses its integrity and turns into liquid.”
The reporter then got hold of Richard Yokoyama, manager of Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, who said “Before I buy a fish from one of our dealers, I always look at the belly. On a fish, that’s the first thing to go. That’s where all the action is–in the gut. If the belly is brown and the bones are breaking through the skin, I toss the fish out. It’s rotten.”
Unfortunately for scientific accuracy, saying “The fish rots from the belly outward” lacks gravitas and is unlikely to be picked up by the punditsphere.
4. Hard as nails: The saying is often used to describe a person who is stern, unyeilding, unsympathetic, bordering on ruthless. An early appearance of the phrase can be found in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, when the Artful Dodger and the other street urchins describe their pickpocketing work ethic.
But let’s take a step back–are nails really that hard? The hardness of a material can be estimated relative to other substances according to where it falls on Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This scale, which ranges from one through 10, was developed by the German geologist in 1812 to help him classify the minerals he encountered in his excursions. Talc, a soft mineral easily powdered, is a one on the scale. The malleable element copper sits at a three. Quartz—the clear crystal common in sand or the spiny lining on the inside of a geode—is a seven. Diamond, the hardest natural substance on the planet, is a 10.
Mohs’ scale is an ordinal scale, which means that it doesn’t estimate the degree to which one substance is harder than another. Rather, it is based on the idea that materials that fall at higher values on this scale can scratch anything with lower numbers, and that materials with low hardness numbers cannot scratch anything with a higher hardness value. On this scale, a steel nail used to fasten wood together would hit at about 5.5. Feldspars, such as the pink minerals of granite, are harder than those nails, as are topaz, quartz, sapphires and of course diamonds. Even unglazed porcelain, which is about a seven on the scale, is harder than an average nail.
But not all nails are created equally. The nails used in wood are are made of low-carbon or “mild” steel, meaning that the chemical composition of their alloys are only between 0.05 to 0.6 percent carbon. Nails used to fasten concrete together, for example, have higher percentages of carbon–approaching one percent–which can push the hardness up to as high as a nine on Mohs scale.
So the more correct version of this phrase would be, “Hard as high-carbon steel nails,” but somehow that just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
5. Diamonds are forever: Thanks to the DeBeers slogan, adorning your honey’s neck, wrists and fingers with bits of pressurized carbon has somehow become a metaphor for true and timeless love. Of course, no object that you can hold in your hand can last forever. But diamonds have a special reason for being incapable of eternity–without the extreme pressures of the deep Earth where they formed, a diamond will slowly revert back into graphite–which is why the older a diamond is, the more inclusions it’s likely to have.
Although it usually will take millions of years for the rock on your finger to become ready for use in pencils, some mineral forms of carbon seem to quickly flash between diamond and graphite depending on the pressures that they are exposed to in the lab. For those mutable sometimes-gems, diamonds are in fact transient.
What common phrases push your buttons when viewed under the microscope of science? Or perhaps you have the inside scoop on whether wet hens really get angry? Let us know!
May 16, 2013
They creep through a garden, lubricated by their own secretions, leaving a trail of mucus behind. In their wake is destruction–their rapacious appetites can require them to consume several times their own body weight each day, chomping roots and leaves with guillotine-like jaws and thousands of backward-pointing teeth. Hermaphroditic as adults, they lay tiny pearls of eggs easily mistaken for fertilizer beads in potting soil, allowing them to rampantly proliferate in gardens and nurseries.
They’re slugs, and their fleshy, squishy bodies are basically one huge stomach on a foot, driven by one overarching goal: to consume. Although some native slugs help decompose dead organic matter, returning nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, the voracious hunger of several invasive species can destroy gardens and farms in the damp regions of the globe that slugs prefer to roam. Slugs are known to devour ornamentals, leafy shrubs and–because they enjoy slithering underground–bulbs, tubers and plant roots. If you see large, irregular holes in your hostas, you know who to thank.
New research, however, suggests that there might be simple ways to ward off slug damage. A study published this week in the journal BMC Ecology by scientists at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna shows that earthworms burrowing in the soil can protect plants overhead from being a slug’s next meal. Further, higher plant diversity also decreases the destruction slugs can wreak on individual plants.
To come to these findings, the researchers used large incubators to create mini grassland ecosystems in a laboratory setting. Different incubators contained different levels of plant diversity–between three to 12 species of either grasses, forbs, or legumes. After four weeks of plant growth, researchers introduced to the soil of some of the incubators a healthy amount earthworms (about 333 per square meter) who were free to burrow, convert organic matter into richer and more fertile soil, aerate soil, excrete nutrients in a more accessible form for plants and do the myriad of other things that earthworms do.
Five weeks later, two Spanish slugs (Arion vulgaris)–a critter in the top 100 worst alien species of Europe according to projects funded by the European Commission–were added to select micro-ecosystems and left there for one week. Throughout this week, plants were monitored periodically for slug damage.
If you’re hoping for an epic battle between slugs and earthworms, think again. Instead, the mere presence of earthworms reduced the number of leaves damaged due to slugs by 60 percent. Additionally, the researchers found that slugs ate 40 percent less in bins with high plant diversity than in those with low.
“Our results suggest that two processes might be going on,” explained lead author Johann Zaller in a statement. “Firstly, earthworms improved the plant’s ability to protect itself against slugs perhaps through the build-up of nitrogen-containing toxic compounds. Secondly, even though these slugs are generalists, they prefer widely available food.” As a result, in highly diverse ecosystems “slugs eat less in total because they have to switch their diets more often since plants of the same species are less available,” he added.
Gardeners are familiar with the idea that varying up their plant beds helps preserve the plants most tasty to invasive slugs. But the tenacity of these slugs and their insatiable appetites cause many horticulturalists hover over their plants like helicopter parents, employing all sorts of methods to curb slug infestation.
Approaches vary in their effectiveness and efficiency. For example, those with the time and inclination to coddle their plants can tent cardboard overnight on the ground around prize plants to create a moist shelter for the nocturnal gastropods. Removing the newspaper in the morning often yields a writhing clutch of slugs, which can then be removed and killed. Quicker methods can be found with slug bait, but many can increase the toxicity of surrounding soil and can be harmful to wildlife and pets if ingested. Salting slugs–death by dessication–also can be harmful to nearby plants, as salt can interfere with the plant’s ability to uptake water.
Some gardeners place copper strips around the perimeter of flower beds–the copper supposedly reacts with slug slime to produce a kind of electric shock, repelling the creatures. Others use cans of stale beer, buried around a garden, as traps–the slugs, lured by beer’s fermented smell, get caught in the can, can’t escape and then drown. But the new results suggest that earthworms–already the gardener’s best friend because of their ability to improve soil fertility–may be even more effective than all these methods, highlighting the idea that organisms in soil can affect the health of organisms above ground.
Such interactions are largely ignored in ecological research, according to Zaller. “What we know from other studies is that earthworms change the nutrition of plants, thus enabling them to better respond to herbivores,” he told Surprising Science in an email. “As a response against herbivores, plants usually change their chemistry and they build up (costly) secondary chemicals in their leaves. If the nutrition of the plant is improved by the activity of earthworms, more of these defense compounds can be build up and the plant is better protected against herbivores.”
Of course, “one has always be very cautious in translating results from a specific experiment into the natural world,” Zaller continued. “In ecology many results are context specific, species-specific etc. Whether our results can be applied to other invasive slug species (or herbivores in general) would of course demand specific experiments. However, I would guess the mechanisms we suggest happening in our setting should be similar in settings involving different species.”
April 9, 2013
Ever since the collective “YOU” became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006, campaigns to get our attention have increasingly sought out our digital selves. You can name a Budweiser Clydesdale. You can pick Lays’ new potato chip flavor. And it’s not just retail that wants your online opinions: You can vote for who will win photography contests. You can play the futures market on who will win elected offices. And with enough signatures, you can get the White House to read your petitions.
Many science endeavors rely on such crowdsourcing. With a simple app, you can let researchers know the exact date that your lilacs or dogwoods bloom, helping them to track how seasonal cycles are shifting as a result of climate change. You can join the search for ever-larger prime numbers. You can even help scientists scan radio waves in space to search for intelligent life outside of Earth. These more traditional crowdsourcing efforts allow users to brainstorm ideas and process data from computers at home.
But now, a few projects are allowing us to put our virtual selves beyond Earth’s atmosphere through recently launched space missions. Who said that rovers, space probes, a handful of astronauts and pigs were the only ones in space? No longer are we just bystanders watching spacecraft launch and cooing over images returned of other planets and stars. Now, we can direct cameras, help run experiments, even send our avatars–of sorts–to inhabit nearby planetary bodies or return to us in a time capsule.
Here are a few examples:
Asteroid Chimney Rock: On April 10 (tomorrow), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will open up a campaign that allows visitors to their site the opportunity of sending their names and brief messages to the near-Earth asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3. Called the “Let’s meet with Le Petit Prince! Million Campaign 2,” the effort aims to get people’s names onto the Hayabusa2 mission, which will likely launch in 2014 to study the asteroid. When Hayabusa 2 lands on the asteroid, the names submitted–embedded in a plaque of sorts on the spacecraft–will stand as a testament to the idea that humans (or at least their robotic representatives) were there.
The campaign is reminiscent of how NASA got more than 1.2 million people to submit their names and signatures, which were then etched on two dime-sized microchips and affixed to the Mars Curiosity rover. Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky–what useful function is brought by having people’s names out in space? But the idea of “tagging” a planet or an asteroid–preserving a bit of yourself on what will over decades become space junk–has powerful pull. It is why Chimney Rock, with its etchings from early explorers and pioneers, is the historical marker it is today, and why gladiators scored their names into the Colosseum before they fought to the death. For mission leaders hoping to get the public enthusiastic about space, nothing’s more exciting than a bit of digital graffiti.
Interplanetary time capsules: A key goal of Hayabusa2 is to return return a sample from the asteroid in 2020. Mission creators saw this as a perfect way to get the public to fill a time capsule. Those seeking to participate are encouraged to send to mission coordinators their thoughts and dreams for the future along with their hopes and expectations for recovery from natural disasters, the latter likely a way to get people to express their feelings on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s east coast. Names, messages, and illustrations will loaded onto a microchip that will not only touch down on the asteroid’s surface, but will also be a part of the probe sent back to Earth with asteroid dust.
But why stop at a mere 6-year time capsule? The European Space Agency, UNESCO, and other partners are blending crowd sourcing with space technology to create the KEO mission–so named because the letters represent common sounds across all of Earth’s languages–which will bundle thoughts and images of anyone who seeks to participate and will launch this bundle in a probe that will only return to Earth in 50,000 years.
Project operators write on KEO’s website: “Each one of us have 4 uncensored pages at our disposal: an identical space of equality and freedom of expression where we can voice our aspirations and our revolts, where we can reveal our deepest fears and our strongest beliefs, where we can relate our lives to our faraway great grandchildren, thus allowing them to witness our times.” That’s 4 pages for every person who chooses to participate.
On board will be photographs detailing Earth’s cultural richness, human blood encased in a diamond, and a durable DVD of humanity’s crowdsourced thoughts. The idea is to launch the time capsule from an Ariane 5 rocket into an orbit more than 2,000 kilometers above Earth, hopefully sometime in 2014. “50,000 years ago, Man created art thus showing his capacity for symbolic abstraction.” the website notes. And in another 50,000 years, “Will Earth still give life? Will human beings still be recognizable as such?”Another logical question: Will whatever’s left on Earth know what’s coming back to them and will be able to retrieve it?
Hayabusa2 and KEO will join capsules already launched into space on Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2. But the contents of these earlier capsules were picked by a handful of people; here, we get to choose what represents us in space, and will get to reflect (in theory) on the thoughts bound in time upon their return.
You, the mission controller and scientist: Short of going to Mars yourself, you can do the next best thing–tell an instrument currently observing Mars where to look. On NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a camera designed to image Mars in great detail. Dubbed “the people’s camera,” HiRISE allows you–yes, you!– to pick its next targets by filling out a form specifying your “HiWishes.”
A recently launched nanosatellite is allowing the crowdsourced winners of a crowdsourced screaming contest the chance to test whether screams can be heard in space. Launched in February, the nanosatellite’s smartphone-powered brain will broadcast the screams–no word yet on results. But you may find just listening to the yelling therapeutic! This guy’s roar got the most votes: