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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.


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