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17 Dec

Space Matters: The James Webb Space Telescope

Welcome back to the blog!

For this entry of Space Matters, we're taking a look at an incredible project years in the making, the James Webb Space Telescope. Scheduled for launch in late 2018, Webb will reveal a universe we have never seen before and is poised to answer questions that have intrigued us for thousands of years: How did the universe begin? Where did we come from? Are we alone?

In development since 1996, the project represents an international collaboration of the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and teamwork from members of other countries although led by NASA in the U.S.A. The telescope is named after James E. Webb, the second administrator of NASA, who played an integral role in the Apollo program. The James Webb Space Telescope was originally called the "Next Generation Space Telescope," or NGST. It was called "Next Generation" because Webb will build on and continue the science exploration started by the on-orbit work of the Hubble Space Telescope. Discoveries by Hubble and other telescopes have caused a revolution in astronomy and have raised new questions that require a new, improved, and more powerful orbital space telescope.

JWST will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity into the infrared wavelengths of light. While the Hubble Space Telescope has a 2.4-meter (7.9 ft) diameter mirror, the JWST features a larger segmented gold 6.5-meter-diameter (21 ft 4 in) primary mirror and will be located near the Earth–Sun L2 point. To see deeply into the infrared a large multi-layer sunshield will keep its mirror and four science instruments below 50 K (-220 °C; -370 °F). JWST's capabilities will enable a broad range of investigations across the fields of astronomy. One particular goal involves observing some of the most distant events and objects in the universe, such as the formation of the first galaxies. In the deep dark of outer space these types of targets are beyond the reach of current ground and space-based instruments. Ground telescopes and unshielded orbital telescopes glow themselves, from the internal heat within the instruments. Another goal is furthering our understanding of the formation of stars and planets. This will include direct imaging of supernovas, extra-solar objects, such as exoplanets - the worlds around other stars, that could be brought to life with vivid detail through the imagery provided by The James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA has described JWST as the scientific successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, but not a replacement, because the capabilities are not identical and the Hubble will not be taken offline. JWST has an objective lens large enough to see high-redshift objects, typically both older and farther away than previous instruments could assess. This radical design for JWST will put it beyond the capabilities of all other telescopes currently in operation.

We'll be keeping an eye on the development and launching of this monumental project and you should too, as we seek to expand our knowledge of the cosmos collectively as a species. We'll have more to come, thanks for reading!

07 Jun

Space Matters: Mars, Part One

Welcome to the Blogs in Motion series: Space Matters!

For this entry, we’ll be taking a look at one of our close planetary neighbors: Mars. This planet has held a place in our collective consciousnesses ever since it was first noted by Christian Huygens in 1659. From science fiction to practical research, Mars has been a consistent point of interest for many people and organizations. In recent years, Mars has become a hot topic of discussion, ranging from the various forms of water both on and under the planet’s surface to the various organizations and countries planning to send manned missions in the coming decade. We’ll be taking a look at Mars and humanity’s relationship with it. Let’s begin by taking a look at a few facts about the red planet.

Mars, named after the Roman God of War, is the fourth planet in our Solar System. It orbits around the Sun every 687 days at a distance of 227 million kilometers. Nearly 95% of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide, with the rest consisting of small amounts of other elements such as oxygen, argon and nitrogen. Commonly referred to as the “red planet”, Mars’ iconic hue is the result of iron oxide dust on the planet’s surface, which is also dispersed in the air by intense dust storms. Two small moons orbit the planet, Demios and Phobos. These moons have long suspected to be not typical moons, but in fact asteroids that were caught in Mars’ gravity during the formation of the Solar System. Mars is also home to a few notable landmarks, including Olympus Mons (the largest known mountain in the Solar System, standing nearly three times higher than Mount Everest) and the region of Cydonia, which contains the infamous “Face on Mars”. In spite of the many interesting observations made about Mars over the years, perhaps the most significant is the presence of both frozen and liquid water.

Water in its various forms on Mars has been reported on several times in the last 15 years.  Thanks to the Martian probe missions, we know that ice exists on the surface in the north polar cap and under the surface at the south cap. Despite the success of the missions, the presence of liquid water was yet to be confirmed and only hypothesized on. However, on September 28, 2015, NASA scientists announced that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had collected sufficient evidence to support the theory that liquid water flows on Mars. Announcements like this are sometimes met with skepticism or dismissal by some. Many are often left asking why they should care about such things. First, it is important to remember just how vital water is to the formation and sustaining of organic life. All living things on Earth require water for survival and as we’ve seen in our own system, it’s not always easy or convenient to find. By locating water elsewhere; we begin to overcome one of the biggest hurdles of humanity’s journey into space: the dependence on Earth for a life-sustaining resource. The colonization of Mars allows us to expand our reach in the Solar System by becoming a secondary source of food, water and breathable air. Studying water where we find it strengthens the on-going effort to discovering and understanding new forms of life, as well as the development of life itself. Since we know water sustains organic life, observing it on other planetary bodies can lead to discovering new microscopic organisms in different stages of development and evolution. Reflecting on this, we encourage you to keep an eye on the developments on Mars in the years to come. The existence of life elsewhere in space is one of humanity’s great unanswered questions and Mars presents an ideal stepping stone for discovery.

21 Mar

Blogs in Motion: Space Matters

Welcome back to Blogs in Motion!

A few months ago, our multi-part series on differing forms of alternative energy came to a conclusion. Since then, we’ve been pondering on what kind of topic we could tackle next. We wanted something that could allow us to learn and talk about other matters relevant to humanity at large. In light of the recent string of astronomical discoveries and developments, the choice became increasingly clear.

Our new Blogs in Motion series, Space Matters, will cover any and all topics related to astronomy, ranging from our closest planetary neighbours to the far reaches of the cosmos. To say that space is large is one of the biggest understatements that could be made. The observable universe has an estimated diameter of 92 billion light-years and is estimated to be 14 billion years old. There are stars that dwarf our Sun in size, such as VY Canis Majoris (the largest known star) which is 1,400 times bigger and would extend beyond Jupiter’s orbit if placed in the Sun’s location. Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own, is 25 trillion miles away and would take an incredibly long time to reach with our current propulsion technology. The scale of our universe is indeed vast and can seem daunting. However, as Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

One of our goals with this on-going series is to help put astronomical news and information into context and to show you how water on Mars or the discovery of gravitational waves is relevant to humanity. We also intend to feature articles on phenomena we find particularly interesting, such as Titan (the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere) and Kepler 452-b (the most Earth-like exoplanet discovered so far). We’ll also take a look at organizations ranging from the CSA and NASA to SpaceX and Mars One, who have been taking steps forward on humanity’s journey into outer space, from putting human feet on Mars to observing all manner of stellar phenomena.

Our first entry will be about Mars, specifically the liquid water that’s been found there and what impact this has on colonization projects. We’re very excited to share out takes on this vast subject matter with you and we’ll have more for you in the days in come. If you have any suggestions for future topics, reach out to us in the comments below and/or on our social media channels.


25 Sep

Blogs in Motion: A Future Matter (Geothermal Energy)

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in our alternative energy series, A Future Matter

For our final article, we’re looking at another form of energy creation that dates back thousands of years: geothermal power. The first practical use of the heat generated by the Earth’s core occurred over 10,000 years ago by ancient Paleo-Indians in North America. They would use the nearby hot springs as a source of warmth, as well as to cook their food and to bathe and clean. Centuries later, Italy would be the site of the world’s first geothermal power plant, utilizing steam power to create electricity. Today, geothermal power represents one of the potential methods by which we can supplement the world’s growing energy needs and reduce our dependency on conventional fossil fuels. Before we get into the benefits and drawbacks of geothermal, let’s first take a look at how it works.

Geothermal energy involves utilizing the heat generated by the Earth’s core to harvest usable electricity. The Earth’s molten core is incredibly hot, reaching a potential temperature as high as 6,000 degrees Celsius (10,832 Fahrenheit). This immense heat generated by the core melts down the surrounding rock into liquid magma. The magma then heats up pockets of subterranean water to very high temperatures, creating a large amount of steam. The steam from these pockets of water, or “geothermal reservoirs”, is tapped and collected by the geothermal plant above ground and used to spin turbines within the power plant to generate electrical energy. The process of steam/turbine interaction means geothermal plants generate their power in a manner very similar to nuclear plants.

Now that we have an understanding of how geothermal energy is created and harvested, let’s first ask ourselves: What are the potential benefits of supporting global energy demand with geothermal power?

One advantage geothermal has over conventional fossil fuels is its inherent renewability. Heat from the core will be consistently emanated so long as the Earth exists, making it practically infinite for this application. Geothermal energy is also more stable in its electricity generation, as the heat being applied to geothermal reservoirs is a consistent source and isn’t dependant on environmental factors, like solar or wind energy. Geothermal is also considered an environmentally friendly alternative for energy, as any greenhouse emissions generated are minimal compared to average power plants. In fact, geothermal is often considered to have the lowest environmental impact and the smallest carbon footprint of all commercially available energy methods in both the impact of power plant construction and generating of power.

Another point to consider with geothermal is that although some locations are better than others, it is an energy source that is widely available across the planet. Tapping into reservoirs is also a convenient method of providing cheap heating to homes and office buildings alike. In fact, some home owners have reported a significant drop in their overall energy costs within the first few years of switching over. This is a worthwhile consideration for the use of geothermal power.

*From the Renewable Energy Handbook, William Peden, 1976

As we’ve seen throughout this series, no alternative energy source is perfect. Let’s now ask ourselves: What are the drawbacks of increasing our dependence on geothermal power?

While the greenhouse emissions from geothermal plants are smaller than other alternative energy sources, they are still an important consideration. Specifically, sulfur dioxide and silica emissions are possible and certain reservoirs have been known to contain trace amounts of toxic heavy metals like arsenic or mercury. Additionally the use of hydraulic fracturing can affect the structure of the local land, leading to possible minor earthquakes. The most notable occasion of this was in January 1997 in Switzerland when a 3.4 Richter scale earthquake hit, triggered by the construction of a new plant. Though these events are rare, it’s still an important consideration.

Establishing geothermal plants can also be a practical challenge. Like some other alternative energy methods, the startup costs for power plants can be quite high with a potential starting capacity of only 1 megawatt. Additionally, location can be a key factor as well. Even though geothermal sites are all across the planet, some are far better than others and productive reservoirs can be hard to come by in some areas. Countries such as Iceland and the Philippines have rich reservoirs that allow them to cover one third of their total energy demand. However, some other areas are less than ideal and it’s important to consider location with future projects.

What are your thoughts on the use of geothermal power as an alternative energy source on a larger scale? It is a resource that is readily available and easy to access. However the startup costs and environmental factors are important to consider in new projects. Let us know your thoughts on the matter in the comments below or on our social media channels.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our five-part series on the benefits and drawbacks of alternative energy sources.


17 Aug

Blogs in Motion: A Future Matter (Hydroelectric Power)

Welcome to the fourth entry in our alternative energy series: A Future Matter

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the form of alternative energy that first inspired this whole series: hydroelectric. Last year, in the cold north of Quebec, we first took in the sight of the awe-inspiring Robert Bourassa Dam and our time there drove us to investigate how alternative energy impacts the world. Hydroelectric is one of the more ancient forms of harnessing power, first conceived of by some of the earliest civilizations, such as the ancient Greeks using water wheels for grinding wheat into flour over 2,000 years ago. Since that time, electrical energy generated by flowing water has been harvested in larger quantities and in much larger facilities. Before we get into the potential of hydroelectric power as a long-term energy source, we’ll start with the basics of how it works.

How is hydroelectric energy generated? The process involves the harnessing of the inherent kinetic energy in flowing and falling water. A dam is built in place to raise the water levels of a body of water and to control the now-redirected flow. Hydroelectric dams vary greatly in their size, from “micro-dams” that can provide enough power for a small, local community to giant dams, such as the Hoover Dam, that can provide partial power for entire cities. The redirected water enters the dam’s reservoirs and falls against a series of turbines. The turbines operate in a manner very similar to wind turbines; the falling water hits the turbines and causes them to spin, the kinetic motion generating harvestable energy. The hydroelectric energy is then distributed through transmissions lines from the dam to local homes, businesses etc.

Now that we have a basic understanding of how hydroelectric power is harvested, let’s ask ourselves: What are the potential benefits of supporting global energy demand with hydroelectric power?

One of the biggest benefits of hydroelectric energy is its renewable potential. This energy relies on the motion of water, one of the most abundant resources on Earth, and because it is generated through falling water and spinning turbines, there are little to no fluctuations in the process of providing electricity. The energy produced by hydroelectric plants/dams also does not produce any of the contaminants or greenhouse gases typically associated with fossil fuels, making it a viable “green” option for alternative power. Additionally, hydroelectric plants/dams have lower operating costs and maintenance requirements. Some of the largest hydro dams can require a staff of as little as 50 people to operate and once a dam is in place, there are so few parts that usually require fixing or replacing, it’s seen as very cost effective once the dam is in place.

The impact on local communities near hydroelectric plants can also have some positive side-effects. Due to the non-intermittent nature of hydroelectric power, it offers a more permanent option for stable energy for nearby communities, as opposed to solar or wind which can fluctuate depending on local factors. Also, by creating calmer bodies of water for the dams, opportunities for recreational activities such as fishing, boating or swimming become available to locals.

The Daniel-Johnson Dam in northern Quebec, Canada

No method of generating energy is perfect, so let’s ask ourselves now: What are the drawbacks of increasing our dependence on hydroelectric power?

The most common issue brought up with hydroelectric dams is the potential environmental impact of the damming process and how changing water flows and installation of new power lines and roads impacts the local wildlife and terrain. Construction of hydroelectric dams is no small order, taking up a large area of space and altering water flows. This could potentially disrupt the nearby wildlife, fish in particular. Fish habitats and migration patterns can be greatly impacted by the changing of water levels and/or velocity of running currents. Specialists are still researching the specifics, but there is a strong debate already for the environmental impact of a dam’s existence.

Droughts can also be a major factor to hydro dams, with lower water levels potentially causing a shortage of electrical production, which could be a particular annoyance if the dam services a local community. Also, while the day-to-day operating costs of hydro dams is reportedly low, the initial costs to build the dam can be quite high and zoning/construction issues can quickly become a factor. However the low costs of maintenance and staffing afterwards are often see as an appropriate balance, so it’s worth taking both sides into account.

What are your thoughts on the use of hydroelectric energy? Should we increase or decrease our dependence on the power of hydroelectric dams? How far do the environmental considerations go against the considerations of stable, long-term energy? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels. We hope you've found these articles informative and we’ll have our final entry on geothermal power up soon!

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