Vol. 1 / No. 32 — 30% by 2030, “Mega” Earths, and Polariton “Lasers”

Photo: Flickr user otodo, CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo: Flickr user otodo, CC BY-SA 2.0

30% By 2030?

This week US President Barack Obama announced that, by his executive order, the Environmental Protection Agency would be imposing some fairly stringent carbon dioxide emission regulations, with the ultimate goal being a 30% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan proposal takes a flexible, state-by-state approach to cutting emissions, taking into account what’s realistic for each state. While some conservative groups have leveled outlandish claims about job losses and incurred costs, these are largely based on faulty numbers. The EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis suggests that electricity costs are likely to increase, but not by very much: they’re predicting an additional $45 per household per year by 2020, up to $65 by 2030. There’s still a year of consultation between the plan is finalized, and we can expect to see some states challenging the regulations in court (because: America), but overall it’s nice to see a step in the right direction. For more on the proposed changes, check out the EPA’s blog.

Move Over, Super Earth

Image: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar
Image: “Mega” Earth Kepler 10c, (artist’s rendering) Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar

In a blow to the egos of super-Earths everywhere, astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced this week the discovery of a “mega” Earth. At seventeen times Earth’s mass, the unimaginitvely named Kepler 10c is, according to current models of planetary formation, impossible — or at least very unlikely. With a mass greater than the planet Uranus, scientists are presently searching for explanations as to why it isn’t a gas giant. Still, seventeen times the mass doesn’t mean seventeen times the surface gravity, so if you could stand the estimated 211°C/413°f surface temperature, you’d “only” weigh about three times as much as you do on Earth. The real implication of the find is the existence of rocky planets in a system as old as Kepler 10: it’s 11 billion years old, meaning that rocky planets could have formed much earlier in the universe’s history than we did, which is good news for the search for life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Low-Power Polariton “Laser”

Nothing calls up the image of Dr. Evil like putting quotation marks around the word “laser,” but because of the way this new one is designed, it might just be the most accurate description. This week, scientists at the University of Michigan announced the creation of a focused light-emitting device that uses about one thousandth of the power of a traditional laser. There’s no quick way to explain how it works, but thankfully Phys.Org has a great explainer out in advance of the official publication of the paper — “Room Temperature Electrically Injected Polariton Laser” — in Tuesday’s Physical Review Letters. Check it out!


On May 21st, a scrappy bunch of citizen scientists got the go-ahead to do something that’s never been done before: rescue one of NASA’s old probes. ISEE-3 (the third of a trio of International Sun/Earth Explorer satellites) was diverted to study a comet in the 1980s. Now it’s back after a very long trip, and NASA doesn’t have the funds to recapture it. Jason Davis over at The Planetary Society blog has a great post about the whole thing.

Could ISEE be contacted? The initial response from NASA was no—the original hardware required to communicate with the spacecraft was long gone, and it would be too expensive to rebuild the components from scratch. Keith Cowing, the editor of NASAWatch.com and SpaceRef.com, decided to look for cheaper ways to regain control of ISEE. He spoke with Robert Farquhar, the designer of the spacecraft’s original orbit. He pitched some ideas to John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. More conversations with the space agency followed. “They kept not saying no,” Cowing said. “I said to NASA, ‘I’m going to start a crowdfunding project on April 14.’ Suddenly we had a telecon and they did not say no again.”

But there’s still a lot to be done: by June 17th they need to fire its rockets to adjust its trajectory, and if that goes well, they’ll need to get it past the moon on August 10, when it will pass within 50km of the lunar surface. Even so, it’s a fantastic project and one well worth following.

The Ansible is Ringing

In the science fiction classic Ender’s Game, the ships communicate at interstellar distances instantaneously via an invention called the ansible. Scientists have announced this week that they may be one step closer to building one. The team at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at the Delft University of Technology reported the successful transmission of data between entangled particles. It was only across a room, but if their findings hold true, this could have profound implications. Why? Because it would mean that the data was traveling faster than light could carry the same data. That may not sound important now, but for probes on their way to Pluto there’s a four hour communication lag. Even to Mars delays between three and twenty-two minutes can occur, making real-time control of a lander a challenge. So: does it travel faster than light? At ten feet it’s hard to tell, that’s why the next step is to test it over a kilometre. We’ll wait with baited breath.

Google’s World Internet

Everyone’s favourite “not evil” corporation is at it again. Just like that time when they brought gigabit ethernet to cites across America, or that time they floated balloons around the world offering free-wifi, they’re bringing more internet to more people. The reason is simple: more internet users using the internet more often means more people for Google ads to advertise to, more users for Google products, more people in need of cheap chromebooks — you name it. So that’s why it’s no real surprise that this week Google made plans to launch 180 small satellites as part of another attempt to get the internet into “underserved” markets. So long as more people on the internet is profitable, you can rely on Google to try to achieve it.

The Best of the Rest

There was so much more to see this week! An independent review panel has recommended that the US build a new hydrocarbon-fueled rocket; Pirate Bay founder Peter Sunde has been arrested; a genetic on switch for blonde hair has been found; Lockheed-Martin has won a lucrative contract to build a system to track all the space junk flying above our heads; a robot truck convoy has been tested in Nevada, leading to great fuel efficiency; fasting has turned out to be good for your immune system; and scientists may have found physical evidence of Theia, the planetesimal that collided with the early Earth to produce the moon.

That’s all for now. Have a great week.