The Importance of the Moon

Earth's natural satellite - the moonThe Moon is something many of us take for granted. It doesn’t really do that much, it just sits up their in space.

When someone talks about the Moon what springs to mind? Werewolves? Cheese? Wallace and Gromit?

Maybe you think of Apollo 11 in 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon.

I watched a very interesting BBC documentary recently called Do We Really Need the Moon? It explored how important the Moon has been to the development of life on Earth, and how important it may become in the future of space travel.

The Moon is likely to have been critical to the creation of life on Earth. It is believed that the Moon was formed when another planet crashed into Earth. At this point, the Earth was an uninhabitable, unstable lava wasteland. The collision created millions of pieces of molten rock which were sent into orbit. The biggest of these chunks of liquid rock grouped together (thanks to our old friend gravity) to form a new structure. Eventually all the pieces either became a part of the Moon, joined onto the Earth, or were flung off into space.

This massive collision reset Earth’s chemistry. Over the next 7 million years, it is thought that the Earth cooled, and water vapour condensed to form oceans. Oceans which the Moon controlled. The water nearest the Moon is affected by its gravitational pull more. This means that water recedes in other areas, amassing in the part of the ocean that is closest to the Moon. This is what creates the tides we know today, the same tides that are thought to have helped to create life – around 4 billion years ago.

Moon's gravity pulling the Earth

A picture from the BBC documentary Do We Really Need the Moon? showing how the Moon’s gravity pulls the oceans of the world towards it – creating tides.

So the Moon helped to create life, but that’s not all, it also helps to maintain it. The distance the Moon is away from the Earth, means that the tides are not too extreme. If the Moon were 20 times close than it is today then the Moon’s gravity would be 400 times stronger than it is today. This would create a huge tidal surge that would completely submerge all major cities around the world. At night, London would be underwater, and then a few hours later the waters would recede and flood New York. Evolution would not be able to adapt to changes that happened this quickly, and life on Earth would not exist.

The Moon also protects us in another way. Here is an image of the nearside of the Moon – the side we always see.

The nearside of the MoonNow here is an image of the farside, also known as the dark side of the Moon.

The farside of the MoonNotice a difference?

The farside is covered in a mass of craters, whilst the nearside is largely unscathed. Every crater on the farside of the Moon is a potential impact that the Moon has prevented for the Earth. Imagine that all meteoroids in space are chunks of iron, and the Moon is a giant magnet. The Moon pulls a lot of this space debris towards it.

Inevitably some meteoroids will collide with Earth, however the Moon does a pretty good job of shielding our planet from a lot of dangerous impacts.

We are pretty lucky really, if the Moon were much closer, or bigger, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Likewise, if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

So next time you see the Moon, spare a thought for how integral it is to life on Earth.

That’s Not It!

Enjoyed this article? Feeling like you want a bit more Moon stuff? Next week I continue to look at the Moon, this time from the perspective of space travel!

The Rosetta Space Mission

rosetta

This week I am muscling in on Christopher’s space series with a guest post about comet exploration.

In a couple of weeks (on November 12th to be precise), scientists will try to put a lander on a comet for the first time ever. The mission blasted off 10 years ago, made its rendezvous and began orbiting in August of this year, and is currently being prepared to touch down.

The mission is called Rosetta, and it is operated by the European Space Agency. It is a risky mission though and there are no guarantees that the lander will be able to plant itself safely on the comet. But if all goes well, the lander will stay operational as the comet flies closer and closer to the sun in its elliptical orbit, so that it can study how proximity to the sun changes the elements that make up the comet. The orbiter will follow, and should stay with comet until the end of next year, while the lander will operate until the spring when it will then get too hot to function.

Comets are some of the oldest structures in the solar system, so learning what they are made of and how they undergo change is seen as the closest thing to going back to the formation of the system currently possible. Scientists hope to gather evidence about water and carbon content, to see if the Earth could have got its first water and elements that are needed for the development of life from such bodies.

The Europeans Space agency has an interactive graphic so you can see how Rosetta arrived at its destination, and it is well worth a look. You really get an idea of the task of getting to something that is just a few KM across and traveling at 55 000 Kilometres per hour.

This article in the online journal Science gives lots more information, and there are some great photos here.

The European Space Agency are also running a competition to name the area where the craft is due to touch down. They want the public to propose names and reasons to use them, so that someone has the chance to enter the history books as their name will be immortalized. Why not give it a go, read more here.

The Size of Space

I’m starting with a fact today; two actually.

FACT

According to astronomer Dr Peter Edwards, if our solar system was a grain of sand, then The Milky Way (our Galaxy) would be 1,000 times the size of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral from the South

Durham Cathedral

FACT

According to NASA there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.

Need a more visual representation of that? Well luckily for you, the American Museum of Natural History have spent quite a long time developing a digital universe.

Somewhat mind boggling, isn’t it. Dr Edwards doesn’t think the human mind is really built to understand the enormity of the universe. I think I probably agree with him.

In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on a seemingly empty area of space. This area of space could be covered up with just a single grain of sand if you were looking at it from Earth. Astronomers didn’t think they would discover much, but if you have a super duper space telescope, why not see what it can find?

This is what that seemingly empty bit of space actually looked like when Hubble zoomed in.

A Hubble Space Telescope picture of millions of galaxy clustersEvery single speck of light you can see is a galaxy. Yes the 100 or so huge ones in the foreground, but also the millions in the background.

Each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Yes many of them look insignificantly small, but they are very very far away. So the well used fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth is actually true. In fact there are many billions more stars in space than their are grains of sand on the Earth.

The title of this article suggests that I will try to qualification the size of space. This isn’t really possible, so all we can currently do is describe its size, relative to other things. If I had to use one word to describe space, I think it would have to be enormous.

A key question surrounding space is: is it infinite?

That is an existential question which I doubt we will ever know the answer to, but never the less it is still an interesting question, which is worth considering.

The theory that the universe is a sphere – like the Earth – is a popular one, and I can understand the logic in this, if you keep going, eventually the universe will loop you back around to where you started. But then my problem with this theory is we can go beyond the Earth. We can travel around the Earth, but space travel prove that we can move in 3 dimensions, straight and sideways on Earth and then upwards into space. If you got to the very edge of the universe, what would happen if you went upwards? If there isn’t an upwards, what is there?

New Scientist states that from all current data, it seems that the known universe has a diameter of about 93 billion light years. That’s pretty big, but by no means infinite. So if this estimate is correct – which is ridiculously unlikely – what comes after that? A big wall with a no entry sign? Just empty space? Another universe? Who knows…

That’s Your Lot

See you next week for the next in the series.

Space – A Series

Space. It’s a big old space.

Insert awesome picture of space to keep people interested. Check.

The Carina Nebula - Space

The Carina Nebula – Picture taken by The European Southern Observatory (ESO).

What happens here on Earth is insignificant in the universe. That doesn’t mean things that happen here are unimportant – far from it – but in reality, we are tiny. Nothing we have done or can do has much of an impact on the universe. Nothing that happens here on Earth affects the marvellous enormity, complexity and vastness of space.

Our lives, this entire planet, our solar system and even galaxy are tiny. Nobody really knows how tiny – relatively – because nobody knows how big the universe is. Or at least how big it is it a specific point in time – given its changing and expanding nature.

I really enjoy learning about space, so I have decided to write a series about space.

In this series I plan to cover some of space’s big topics; including:

  • How big (or indeed small) are we really?
  • Information on the International Space Station
  • Will humans ever live on other planets?
  • Black holes
  • The future of space exploration
  • How has our knowledge of space changed things on Earth?

Key Terms

There are a few terms I will be using a lot during the course of this series. To help keep us all on the same page, here is how I am going to define them.

Space
Everything everywhere! Anything that exists, exists in space. Space can be a completely empty vacuum or it can be full of matter, or waves such as light and sound. If there is something, or the potential for something to be there, it is space.

Matter
Stuff. Things made of atoms. Tangible objects. Not including electromagnetic waves; like light.

The Universe
The zone of activity in space which contains all known matter.

A Galaxy
A collection of billions of solar systems.

A Solar System
A collection of matter, orbiting a star. That matter includes planets and smaller structures like asteroids.

A Planet
A large body which orbits a star.

Next Week

I have already written next weeks post, so I can tell you with all certainty that I will be exploring the size of the universe. See you then.

Food, Wrapped Up

This week I would like to wrap up my series on food, and leave you with a little light reading and a film to watch.

Wrapped up Food

Wrapped up Food

My first post Technology in Food Production contained a general overview of how modern farming techniques are effecting our lives. Most of the comments made expressed surprise at the levels of GM organisms that are currently being farmed and the profits generated by the industry.

The following are taken from comments posted, from various different contributors:

“The statistics you cite are shocking. I had no idea GM was so widespread”.

“It is also scary to see the profits made by processed food companies matched with those made by agricultural businesses”.

“With so many farms producing GM foods and so much money behind it I really doubt anyone’s chances of keeping the products contained”.

The second post in the series was entitled What Actually is GM Food? In it I suggest that much of the population is unclear about what modification actually implies, and describe some of the most widespread techniques. Once more issues of money, safety and acceptance appeared throughout the comments.

The following is from Neil seems to sum up the debate quite beautifully:

“I can see the socio economic benefits of developing fast growing disease, herbicide and insect resistant crops. While on the other hand I worry about the potential long term effects on humans when we ingest the GM foods”.

And Christopher offered some thoughts on the pros versus cons debate that Neil touched upon above:

“I do however think that the reduction in pesticide, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide use is a good thing – as they all have proven negative externalities”.

The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem was the third post, and it addresses changes in our bodies caused my the consumption of processed foods and other changes in food consumption patterns.

Comments once more raised the issue of profits from processing and improved food security and opposing sides of the same debate:

“Processing has always being a big part of the packaged food. That is why the packaging services and suppliers make such big fortunes from their services. On the other end, processing is necessary for food items as it improves security and safety. Most of the packaged food is bacteria free and safe to use”.

Experts, Regulation and Food described the close ties between regulating bodies and the industries they regulate in the USA, and also referred to similar problems that may be arising in Europe. The focus is on seed companies and the regulation of GM products, but the argument is much broader than this in reality.

The perspective is that when an industry looks for experts to form a regulating body, they inevitably look within the industries, raising the question of conflicts of interests.

Once more Neil summarizes in the comments:

“It’s a tricky one as in most industries the people who know the most about the industry will always be the experts who are working within the industry. In an area like GM foods I would guess that it would be very difficult for an outsider to have the same degree of understanding”.

I am not sure that I agree with him though that there is such a need for experts. If we take the GM issue the result of non public participation in the debate and regulation surrounding their introduction lead to physical and destructive confrontation. This is not a good result for either side in the debate, but maybe if the public had been consulted during the process (and not just the so-called experts) the result might have been less violent.

The fifth post in the series is a book review and description of Alternative Food Provisioning Networks. These networks offer an alternative to mainstream participation in the global agricultural market, favouring local organic production and co-production.

It is written from experience as I am a member of one of these groups described in the book in Italy and now a similar group in the USA. Once more Neil commented on the ammount of money these groups move into the alternative economy:

“80 million Euro’s is no small amount. I guess it is a bit like reverting back to a village type structure without the village”.

GM, Blowing in the Wind is the sixth post in the series. It addresses various legal issues that have grown out of the fact that GM organisms become airborne and blow onto other people’s land and grow there. There are two different problems addressed, farmers whose land is “contaminated” who lose money, and farmers who risk legal action for patent infringement because GM seeds are found on their land. Once again issues of regulation come to the fore as I raise the question of how they effect the development of the field.

Last week’s post was Wasted Food, and it is about the amount of food that the current system produces that is not consumed. It is a harsh analysis, but I take my data from respected sources.

The post addresses ideas such as freeganism and other ways of using waste food products, and concludes with some questions about the real reason for hunger in the world. Once more Neil offers a closing comment:

“It would be interesting to see the wastage levels before and after the introduction of use by dates. Given that the producers need to have a reasonable margin for error it must have been one of the biggest contributors to the wastage.

Also, in the US you appear to have a dining culture where it is expected that you get more food than you can finish (hence the invention of the doggy bag) and people are disappointed by smaller portions. This must create a lot of waste at the catering level as well as all of the doggy bags thrown away a week or so later.

It is a shame that there is no way of redistributing that food to poorer nations”.

As a final thought I would like to recommend a film and an article, both of which add flesh to the argument that I hope to have introduced over the last couple of months.

Food.Inc is a documentary made in 2008 about the US food industry. It is available here. It goes into further depth on many of the topics I have raised through interviews and investigation. It is a great film but I warn you, it is not a comedy!

This article in New Yorker magazine tells the story of how a herbicide producer spent years trying to discredit a University of California Berkeley Professor who seemed to find side effects linked to the use of the herbicide. It is a disturbing story of how the agricultural industry (and the regulators to some degree) maintain control of information and findings published to the public. I was going to write a post about it but I wanted to finish on a more positive note.

I would like to thank everyone who read and/or commented upon the series. I hope it was informative and even maybe will go some way to doing some good in the world. A quote from the greatest of all:

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”.