One Scientist Has a Plan to Send the Building Blocks of Life to Distant Exoplanets

Egocentric Enterprise

For the past 30 years, popular opinion about where in space humans should go next has swayed between a new mission to the Red Planet and a return to the Moon. Considering the smorgasbord of problems we’ve made for ourselves on planet Earth, from ecological to economic, such goals of exploration and colonization can have a egoistic, even selfish, root — we may need to find a new home due to the aforementioned problems and a litany of unmentioned ones.

However, even the most optimistic colonization estimates are measured in decades, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll survive the rest of this century, let alone long enough to effectively expand humanity throughout the galaxy. But what if, right now, we could start the process of seeding life on other worlds? Humanity may not survive, but some form of life could.

Claudius Gros, theoretical physicist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, thinks we should consider it. He believes seeding life throughout the cosmos takes precedence over human colonization, and he also believes this process of intentionally seeding other planets in the universe with life, more succinctly known as deliberate panspermia, is within our technological capability.

These Theoretical Propulsion Systems Might Make Interstellar Travel a Reality
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Breakthrough Starshot is an ambitious plan to send the first probe ever to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star after the Sun, using a laser propulsion system.

That trip is expected to take about 20 years and will require that a probe weighing just one gram be accelerated to a speed of 160 million kmh (100 million mph), or one-fifth the speed of light. The probe won’t have a braking system and is expected to whiz by the star hours after reaching it, just enough time to take pictures to transmit back to Earth.

In a recent study published in Journal of Physics Communications, Gros proposes that we use the same laser propulsion system to send a 1.5-ton spacecraft at slower speeds so we can do more than just take pictures. He wants to achieve a stable exoplanet orbit and seed other worlds with life via onboard “mini labs” that would grow genes and cells. The stated objective is TRAPPIST-1, but other exoplanets, such as the recently discovered Ross 128b, are also under consideration.

The Long Haul

Gros’ hypothetical 1.5-ton spacecraft for seeding life would launch from Earth, and huge, Earth-based lasers directed at the probe’s 50-kilometer-wide (31-mile-wide) light sail would propel it to roughly 30 percent of the speed of light for part of its journey.

Unlike the tiny probe used for the Alpha Centauri mission, Gros’ spacecraft would need to be able to stop once it reached its destination, though, so he devised a way to do so using a magnetic sail that would generate friction with protons. This will allow the craft to decelerate en route, much like letting a car coast to full stop on the highway.

“The reason for the magnetic sail is to create a magnetic field without loss of energy,” Gros told Futurism. “You don’t want to expend energy, so you generate the field once, and then with a superconducting loop, the current stays forever, and the magnetic field stays forever.”

seeding life
The above depicts an ionized proton (blue) undergoing deflection via magnetic field (magenta). Image credit: Journal of Physics Communications

According to Gros, the magnetic sail would have a radius of roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles), and each of its loops would generate a magnetic field. These fields would shift the momentum of the probe to whatever particles it encountered. Essentially, the protons between the Earth and the probe’s destination would create the friction it needed to decelerate.

It may seem strange to imagine a giant probe being slowed down by something as small and insignificant as protons. Further complicating the situation is the fact that scientists suspect that remnants of ancient supernovae may have swept gasses out of the space surrounding our solar system and those near it, thereby lowering the density of matter.

However, Gros explained that even with that lower concentration of matter, his design could provide the necessary friction to slow the hypothetical spacecraft enough to orbit, and not flyby, an exoplanet. “You can brake via friction from the interstellar medium,” he said.

The catch is that the added mass needed to provide deceleration puts a 12,000-year timeframe on his proposed journey to TRAPPIST-1. On a cosmic scale, that isn’t even a blink of an eye, but since humans rarely live past 100, no one alive now would survive to see our probe for seeding life reach its destimation.

A New Kind of Earth

Recently, scientists have begun to theorize that the growing number of exoplanets discovered orbiting red dwarfs could have water and oxygen. These planets had much longer periods of atmospheric cooling than the Earth had, which could have prevented life from forming on them back when it first emerged on Earth.

“It took the Sun 10 million years to cool to about today’s temperature, but small stars, like TRAPPIST-1, remained hot for hundreds of millions of years,” Gros said.

Can We Make Planets Habitable?
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Consequently, he explained, the water vapor within the stratosphere of the TRAPPIST-1 planets was dissociated by the ultraviolet radiation of the host star into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen escapes into space, as it is too light to be retained by an Earth-like planet, and the oxygen left behind accumulates.

“If some of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets still have an ocean, they would also have a massive oxygen atmosphere. Earth’s oxygen pressure is 0.2 bars, but on TRAPPIST-1-like planets, it could be 100 bar or more,” said Gros.

This excess oxygen “eats up” biotic life, preventing protocell formation. Complex eukaryotes, which form the basis for present-day multi-cellular life, would never have had a chance to develop on an “oxygen planet.”

“We could have millions or billions of habitable exoplanets, but sterilized by oxygen from the beginning,” said Gros. Consequently, the common objection that we should avoid interfering with the natural evolution of alien life would fall away — we wouldn’t be interfering with anything.

The cosmic garden may await us, but the long transit time proposed by Gros may dissuade some from taking his seeding life project seriously. Even after the probe reached its destination, any life would take many billions of years to mature, Gros said.

seeding life
An artist rendering that conveys rapid-flyby of exoplanets. Image credit: Hubble ESA

Gros’ initiative for seeding life throughout the cosmos, dubbed the Genesis Project, forces us to step back and take a look at what we’re doing on Earth.

“If you are rational, you cannot argue a longterm project will have use on Earth, because no one will be around,” Gros said.

To Gros, his hypothetical mission ultimately forces humanity to consider a metaethical question. The most natural ethical system for our species is one that places us in the center, and that’s largely how we live. But do we need to follow this imperative 100 percent of the time? Gros doesn’t think so.

“An ethical system which is 99 percent humanity-centered is enough to build a thriving civilization, with the remaining 1 percent allowing us to pursue ‘non-rational’ projects like the Genesis project,” he told Futurism.

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This App Helps You Identify Harmful Mosquitoes Nearby

Mosquitoes Look the Same

Due to their size, most might not notice that not every mosquito you might see buzzing around is the same. As a matter of fact, there are some 3,500 species of mosquitoes currently identified. Of these, only 40 species bite humans and only three are considered to be primary carriers of viruses that cause human diseases such as malaria, dengue, and Zika.

Malaria alone causes 2.7 million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most of these deaths occur in Africa, but malaria is said to be endemic in 91 countries, putting 40 percent of the world’s population at risk from disease-carrying mosquitoes.

This is why research teams from the University of Oxford and Stanford University have each developed apps that might be just what we need to distinguish between mosquitoes that bite animals and those that prefer humans, and potentially construct a map of where these mosquitoes are more common. Both apps are built to identify mosquitoes using the distinct buzzing —sound signature— that each species make with their wings.

Low-Cost, High Value

The Oxford app, dubbed MozzWear, can record a mosquito’s buzz from up to 10 centimeters away. Designed for smartphones running on an Android OS, the app runs a specially made machine learning algorithm to compare the acoustic profile of the recorded mosquito noise. In pilot trials, MozzWear was able to correctly identify the buzz of some seven mosquito species with a 68 to 92 percent accuracy.

Meanwhile, using Stanford’s app Abuzz, people can record mosquito sounds and then upload them to a website that uses an algorithm to match and profile them. At present, the team at Stanford is working on an SMS version where users can send the sound as a voice memo, and then receive a text message identifying what type of mosquito it belonged to. Manu Prakash told New Scientist that Abuzz can so far identify 20 species with a 70 to 90 percent accuracy, depending on other data like time and location sent from the smartphone.

Both the Oxford and Stanford teams didn’t really need to invent anything special to make their apps work. Instead, they simply utilized the sensitive microphones found in most modern mobile phones. Indeed, smartphones have the potential to revolutionize medical research and treatment and virtually every person now has access to one, which makes it easier to implement such apps, including one that turns a smartphone into an ultrasound device.

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Energy-Saving LED Light Bulbs Are Contributing to Light Pollution

Light Pollution

In the last few years, LED light bulbs that signify energy-conservation have skyrocketed in popularity. They have clear benefits over both the incandescent bulb (much less efficient) and the fluorescent bulb (contains toxic mercury) that came before it. But, sadly, a product that was meant to be a part of the energy revolution has been linked to increasing light pollution, according to a new study.

Researchers recently published an analysis of satellite data in the journal Science Advances that shows that more artificial light is brightening Earth’s night sky. Between 2012 to 2016, outdoor surfaces that are lit by light bulbs grew at a pace of 2.2 percent annually, which the researchers described as an “unsustainable” rate.

Changes in artificially lit surface of Earth at night. Image Credit: Carla Schaffer / AAAS

LED light bulbs are causing a global problem, researchers concluded, reporting that light pollution was increasing in 79 countries compared to only 16 countries in which it was decreasing. In 39 countries, light pollution remained stable during the study.

Damaging Light

LED light bulbs are increasing light pollution because, since they require less electricity to create the same amount of light, people are installing more and more of them. “We’ll light something that we didn’t light before, like a bicycle path though a park or a section of highway leading outside of town that in the past wasn’t lit,” lead author Chris Kyba, a physicist at the German Research Center for Geosciences, said to “And so all of those new uses of light offset, to some extent, the savings that you had.”

Calgary, Alberta, Canada, as viewed from the International Space Station on Nov. 27, 2015. Many neighborhoods have switched from orange sodium lamps to white LED lamps. Image Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory / Kyba, GFZ

The unintended behavioral effect of increasingly efficient technology has been dubbed the “rebound effect,” and it’s been seen with fuel-efficient cars as well. If someone chooses to buy a more efficient car, they may drive it more, negating their original intentions.

This isn’t simply an energy-usage issue, either. Light pollution can have severe and lasting effects on human and animal populations. Light pollution has been linked to disruptions in circadian rhythm, depression, diabetes, and even cancer. And for animals, lights can interfere with migration, attract insects, and be potentially deadly.

To address this issue, countries should switch to low-intensity lights that are amber instead of violet or blue and turn off lights when no one is using them.

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Study Predicts That After 2030, Every Other Year Will Bring Record-Hot Summers

Record-Hot Summers Ahead

Remember those historically hot months we’ve had recently? Well, those might soon be the norm in the United States, Canada, the Mediterranean, and pretty much all of Asia. In the next couple of decades, it will become almost impossible to enjoy summers in the in these parts, according to a study published in October in the journal Earth’s Future.

By using a particular environmental “fingerprint” analysis called Wet bulb Globe Temperature, which measures “the effect of environmental temperature and humidity on thermal comfort,” researchers found that these record-hot summers are likely to occur 70 times more in the future than they did in the past 40 years.

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Concretely, this translates to some 50 percent of summers occurring in the 2030s to be warmer than record-hot summers in the past 40 years. It doesn’t stop there. Almost summer from 2050 onward will be hotter than what we’ve currently been experiencing — and we’ve had some pretty warm ones recently.

“In the last 10 years, summers have become noticeably warmer,” co-author Francis Zwiers, director of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria in Canada, told Motherboard in an interview. In fact, Zweirs added, “[p]arts of China and East Asia are already experiencing record warm summers.”

Indeed, in this summer alone, a catastrophic heat wave dubbed “Lucifer” has plagued Europe, causing devastating forest fires in Portugal. Then, California also had its prolonged hottest summer ever, hitting triple-digit temperatures similar to those experienced last February in Oklahoma. Perhaps not suprizingly, 2017 has been predicted to be the warmest ever, and that says a lot considering that temperatures were record-high in 2016.

A Human Problem

The new study contributes to previous research that establishes a clear connection between recent warming temperatures and our use of fossil fuels. A still-to-be-published U.S. government report found global average temperature increase since 1951 is influenced by human activity. The record-hot summers, in short, have been caused by so-called “anthropogenic influence” on environmental conditions.

“We’re more than 95 percent certain human emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gases are the primary cause,” Zwiers said. “The evidence is extremely strong.”

Commenting on the study, Camilo Mora, an ecologist from the University of Hawaii at Manoa confirmed the findings to Motherboard. “This paper shows how fast this rise in deadly heat is happening,” he said in an email. Nothing can explain this rise in deadly heat other than anthropogenic influence of the climate.”

And humankind could end up reaping what it has sown. Warmer climate, while harmful for the environment in general, would cause more than just extreme discomfort for us humans. Zwiers told Motherboard that this would lead to more heat alerts in the cities, causing them to resort to aggressive cooling strategies most summers.

The warmer temperatures could also potentially upset our supply of electricity, as people resort to using cooling systems (electric fans and air conditioning units) more often when it is hot, leading to a larger energy demand. It doesn’t stop there, however. In many places in Asia, Zwiers added, the heat would be to much to bear, making it dangerous to work outside.

In a separate study published in June in the journal Nature Climate Change, Mora and his colleagues pointed out that some 30 percent of the world’s population already suffer from potentially deadly heat for 20 days or more annually. The numbers would only go higher if carbon emissions aren’t dramatically decreased. Possibly three in four people could be exposed every year to deadly heatwaves by 2100. The temperatures could become so bad that one would long for the words of House Stark — “Winter is coming” — to actually happen.

Theses studies should serve as eye openers for many on the realities of a warming planet, but hope is definitely not lost. Efforts to combat human-induced CO2 emissions continue on both the national and local levels, as well as in the business sector, in a number of countries. We should encourage more to join this work so that carbon emissions targets, such as those set by the Paris Climate Agreement, are met before things become even more difficult to manage.

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Magnetically-Controlled Organic Microbots Could Change Medicine in the Next Decade

Tiny Doctors

Google’s chief engineer and notable futurist Ray Kurzweil has said that nanobots or microbots will flow through our bodies by 2030. While the technology could be life-changing, the prospects for these nanobots are still limited by challenges in powering the micro devices and guiding them through the body.

A team of researchers led by Li Zhang, a materials scientist from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin, may have found a solution to both problems. In a study published in the journal Science Robotics, Zhang and his colleagues turned to a type of miniature alga called Spirulina platensis, commonly used as a dietary supplement.

The key is coating the Spirulina with iron oxide nanoparticles. The helical or spring-like shape of the magnetized alga provides maximum mobility when propelled by magnetic fields that harmlessly pass through the body. Best of all, these synthetic microbots are completely biocompatible. They degrade in days or hours, depending on how much magnetic coating they have, without harming cells — except for cancer cells. The magnetized alga destroyed about 90% of tumor cells exposed to it for 48 hours in a lab dish, an unexpected side-effect discovered by the researchers.

Microbots — The Future of Treatments

Miniature technologies, like these synthetic algae microbots, show potential for delivering medical treatments to every corner of the the human body. The microbots could also provide more efficient treatment; they can be easily controlled and monitored by either observing their fluorescence or through a medical imaging tool called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) when the algae travels deeper into the body.

The ability of the algae microbots to carry cargo like drugs inside the body still needs to be tested, however. “It’s still not ready for a doctor to use,” Joseph Wang, a nanoengineer who’s developing a different type of medical microbots, told Science. He thinks the technology might be available in the next ten years, a timetable that nearly aligns with Kurzweil’s prediction.

Nanotechnology presents better chances of treating diseases in the future, although we do have to iron out more details than just mobility and control. Nevertheless, the technology is one of many advances in medical research — together with developments in the use of gene editing toolsstem cells, 3D-printed organs, and improved prostheses — that’s worth keeping an eye out for.

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The Future of Cybersecurity Is in High-Speed Quantum Encryption

A New Level of Cryptography

The advent of functioning quantum computers has been considered to present a threat to today’s encryption methods. On the other hand, these quantum systems might hold the key to keeping computers and the internet secure, thanks to quantum cryptography. A team of researchers from Duke University, Ohio State University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have tackled quantum encryption on a whole new scale.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers demonstrated a system that uses quantum key distribution (QKD), creating and distributing encryption codes at megabit-per-second rates. The secret lies in putting more information on the photons — light particles used in QKD and in most of today’s quantum networks — and combining it with high-speed detectors.

Quantum communication device that can stream encrypted video
Illustration of a high-dimensional quantum communication device that can stream encrypted video. Image Credit: Agheal Abedzahdeh/Duke University

The feat was achieved by adjusting the moment when photons are released, making it possible to encode two bits of information on a photon instead of just one. As a result, their system can transmit keys five to ten times faster than current methods, which only allow for between tens to hundreds of kilobits per second. Running several systems that use their new method in parallel  creates current internet speeds.

This is important, because most of today’s existing “quantum-secure encryption systems cannot support some basic daily tasks, such as hosting an encrypted telephone call or video streaming,” Nurul Taimur Islam from Duke said in a press release.

Securing a Quantum Future

QKD requires a set of encryption keys sent separately from the encrypted message. In principle, the information becomes “hack-proof,” because tampering with the message or the encryption key would alert both the receiver and the sender. However, QKD cannot work flawlessly, because it requires equipment that is still imperfect. This makes QKD vulnerable to hacking.

Meet The Most Powerful Computers in the World
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“We wanted to identify every experimental flaw in the system, and include these flaws in the theory so that we could ensure our system is secure and there is no potential side-channel attack,” said Islam, explaining how they had to identify and incorporate the limitations of the equipment they used.

In any case, QKD is still currently the best chance we have for improving today’s cybersecurity measures, which have been proven — time and again — to be inadequate to deal with hacks and breaches. And because this new system used equipment that’s mostly commercially available, it would be easy to integrate into the current framework of the internet.

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