Earth

  • An artistic representation of the exoplanet K2-18b. (Alex Boersma/) If you could pack a hot air balloon onto an interstellar spaceship and travel 110 light years to a certain planet orbiting a dim star in the constellation Leo, you’d have an experience not entirely unlike ballooning on Earth. The temperature, pressure, and moist air could feel quite pleasant, though you’d need an oxygen mask—and possibly an umbrella. “It could happen that you get rained upon,” says Björn Benneke, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Montreal. Telescopes hunting for flickering, wobbling stars have located more than 4,000 potential exoplanets in recent decades, some of which orbit in the not-too-cold, not-too-hot zone around their host star where water would have a shot at staying liquid. Others have even been found to harbor actual molecules of H2O. The exoplanet K2-18b, however, is the first to check both boxes, according to two studies published this week. Unfortunately, a few other decidedly unearth-like characteristics make K2018b an improbable home for life as we know it. But the discovery represents an important step toward finding planets we might actually consider hospitable. “It’s the closest we have come to detecting some kind of environment similar to the Earth,” says Benneke, who leads one of the two teams studying the planet. Everything scientists know about this alien world comes from the way it interacts with its star. The Kepler mission first spotted the star’s dimming in 2015, and follow-up observations with the Spitzer space telescope confirmed presence of a planet twice as large as Earth in 2017. A different instrument then weighed the planet by measuring the star’s wobble, finding it to be about eight times heavier than Earth. Another three years of observations with the Hubble Space Telescope managed to capture eight more flickers of light,...
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  • Humans started farming and keeping livestock hundreds of years earlier than thought before. (Andrea Kay/) Today, humans are changing the planet at an unprecedented rate. Despite the threat of climate change, we’re increasing our fossil fuel emissions. We’ve also imperiled up to one million species and altered over 70 percent of the land’s ice-free surface. While the magnitude of global change today is unmatched in history, that doesn’t mean that ancient societies didn’t leave any impacts on the environment. In fact, humans have vastly altered the land they’ve inhabited for the last 3,000 years, a study published Thursday in Science suggests. We don’t have an overabundance of archaeological data about how ancient humans lived and used their land. But the models we do have tend to underestimate the amount of land ancient civilizations used for foraging, agriculture, and grazing, the study reports. Those simulations used estimates of human populations in those times to predict land use. But, this “backcasting” is “essentially based on a lot of assumptions and a little bit of data,” says Erle Ellis, an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland and one of the study’s authors. It’s not that we don’t have any information describing human activity back then—it’s that the information is scattered about in the work of hundreds of archaeologists worldwide. No one had taken the time to step back and look at the big picture. So Ellis and his team enlisted 255 archaeologists to complete a questionnaire about land use between 10,000 years ago to 1850. Their knowledge covered 146 regions spanning all continents except Antarctica. The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed in the field. “I believe that large global patterns across space and time are the primary contribution that archaeology makes to the study of humanity,” says Robert Kelly, an archeologist at the...
  • No place like home? Not if you scope out 33 sun-like stars. (Pixabay/) Astronomers have found more than 4,000 planets circling distant stars, yet none feel quite like home. Teegarden b is the right size, but it zips around its dim dwarf star in just five (Earth) days. Kepler-452 b takes a familiar 385 days to complete an orbit around its sun-like star, but appears to be a lumbering “superterran” much more massive than the rock we call home. Where, or even whether, true Earth-twins exist remains one of astronomy’s top mysteries. While today’s space telescopes lack the ideal skillsets for spotting an Earth 2.0, astronomers are starting to get a sense of how frequently similar worlds may pop up in the cosmos. By combining the final data sets from NASA’s exoplanet spotting spacecraft Kepler with other recent surveys, a team of astronomers has calculated the strongest such estimate yet: Visit somewhere between three and three dozen solar systems, they say, and you’ll likely come across at least one Earth. They hope their results will inform the design of upcoming exoplanet hunting telescopes, as well as our understanding of the odds of life as we know it existing elsewhere. “Is there the possibility of other life out there in the universe?” asks Danley Tsu, a graduate student at Penn State and coauthor of the research. “Trying to estimate the frequency of Earth-like planets around sun-like stars is one of the ways we can answer that question.” Spotting that one in a handful, however, is another matter. NASA’s current exoplanet-seeking eye in the sky is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which searches for the tell-tale stellar dimming that indicates a planet has passed in front of its star. Its cameras sweep across a majority of the sky, prioritizing nearby solar...
  • Since the first use of electric lamps in the 19th century, society hasn’t looked back. Homes and streets are lit at all hours so that people can go about their business when they’d once have been asleep. Besides the obvious benefits to societies and the economy, there’s growing awareness of the negative impact of artificial light. Light pollution has been blamed for wasting energy, disrupting wildlife behaviour and harming mental health. One aspect has avoided the spotlight though. Namely, that light not only allows one to see, but also to be seen. This could well attract unwelcome attention – and not just from moths. The innate curiosity of humans and our growing knowledge of the universe in which we live have led us inexorably to a question. Do civilisations exist on planets other than Earth? Scientists now believe that there are many places in the universe which might harbour simple lifeforms such as bacteria. What is more speculative is the notion that such extraterrestrial life could have become technologically advanced, perhaps even well beyond our capacity. This idea has captured the imagination of the general public, giving birth to a rich collection of science fiction literature and blockbuster films. But it has also received serious attention from scientists, who have thought of ways to find and possibly contact these alien species. In 1974, radio astronomer Frank Drake used the then most powerful radio transmitter, at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, to broadcast a message into space announcing our presence. The message will now be 45 light years away from us. While there are many stars and planets closer to us than that, they won’t have been in the path of Drake’s broadcast. The radio telescope dish of Arecibo national observatory in Puerto Rico. Photo Spirit/Shutterstock But impatient as scientists tend to...
  • Men In Black: International partnered with Lexus to provide only the best vehicles for our intergalactic heroes. The stylish ride fits in with the sequel quite well and Tessa Thompson immediately wants to get behind the wheel in the latest TV spot. However, she forgets she’s not in North America and Chris Hemsworth gets to pilot the car first. Thompson and Hemsworth already have a great on-screen chemistry from their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes this year’s Avengers: Endgame and 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. To outfit a Men in Black agent, you need the best of everything, including the best car. The TV spot showcases the Lexus RC F sport coupe in a sequence matching the “white room” from Men in Black: International where Tessa Thompson’s character is outfitted with her signature Men in Black suit, tie and shades, combined with footage from the highly anticipated sequel itself. According to the voiceover, “When you’re protecting the earth from the scum of the universe, a little extra horsepower never hurts.” Lexus cars and vehicles are the official fleet of Men in Black agents globally in Men in Black: International. The 2020 Lexus RC F sport coupe stars as the agents’ vehicle of choice for their high-velocity pursuits as they hunt down villainous aliens across the universe. The latest entry from Lexus recently underwent some changes under the hood, making it faster, lighter and even more ready to transport the Men in Black as they save the universe. That last bit of information probably won’t help us here in the real world. The Lexus RC F offers the best power-to-weight ratio in its class and the most powerful Lexus V8 to date, generating 472-horsepower. Plus, in the movie it boasts some pretty amazing alien tech. The Lexus RX Hybrid and...