Our generation is poised to witness the greatest discoveries in science

Human history is punctuated with great moments of “aha!” that we might call scientific discoveries.  Ancient astronomers determined that the planets move relative to one another, and a man named Isaac Newton theorized that a universal force was responsible for an apple falling on his head (which may or may not be a true story, though Newton certainly deserves credit for the Universal Law of Gravitation).  Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter and Rutherford’s discovery of the proton were revolutionary in their time period and are still quite relevant, but the current discoveries in science are a step above.  Today we have the technology and the knowledge to crack into nature and figure out how it works.  It is beyond the scope of any blog post to explain in detail all of the relevant contemporary discoveries in science, but here are a quick three to tide you over.

1. New, potentially habitable planets outside the Solar System

The first confirmed discovery of a planet orbiting another star, or “exoplanet” for short, was made in 1988 by two Canadian astronomers from the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia.  There was a trickle of similar exoplanet confirmations through the 1990s and the early 2000s, but improvements in ground-based “planet-hunter” observatories and the launch of NASA’s Kepler space telescope turned the trickle into a tidal wave in only 10 years. 

There are several methods of exoplanetary discovery, but they’re all very technical.  In the simplest sense, most exoplanets are discovered because of how they interact with the star around which they orbit.  Ground-based telescopes typically aim towards a point on the sky and look for periodic “dimming” of certain stars.  Often, this dimming is caused by a planet’s transit in front of a star.   This “transit method” can be difficult with ground-based telescopes because Earth’s atmosphere easily obscures the field of view and can affect the light from a star.

On the other hand, the Kepler space telescope doesn’t need to worry about the atmosphere at all.  Although the Kepler space telescope is no longer operational, its use of the same method is largely responsible for finding the now 1,822 confirmed exoplanets, many of which are similar in size to the Earth.  As if that number wasn’t surprising enough, NASA space scientists now theorize that there may be more than 400 billion exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy!

Also, the University of Montana now owns its own ground-based planet hunting telescope!  Along with a few other schools, UM is a part of the MINERVA project that seeks to discover exoplanets with high precision.




2. Existence of life on other planets in our Solar System

The idea that life may exist elsewhere in our Solar System isn’t a terribly new idea, but we’re finally able to act on it.  Two particular bodies in the solar system show great potential for once or currently harboring life: Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. 

Mars orbiters have been observing the dry, desolate surface of the Red Planet for decades, but only recently have they turned up promising observations.  There is an abundance of what look like stream beds in certain regions of Mars, many of which lead to vast deltas containing deposited sediment.  This leads many planetary scientists to believe that Mars had rivers, lakes, and maybe oceans for a very long time.  Perhaps long enough for life to evolve into simple organisms.  The question now is whether or not subsurface water exists on Mars and if those organisms have adapted.  NASA’s Curiosity rover may be able to answer that question in the coming years.

Europa is a much different story.  It is so far away from the Sun that its surface is completely frozen, but its surface appears to be mostly water ice.  Scientists theorize that there is a vast subsurface ocean over 100 km thick underneath the frozen crust.  What does this mean for life?  Well, it is also suspected that Europa is still internally active, much like the Earth.  This “europological” activity as one might call it may cause the ocean to warm up from the bottom.  As with Earth’s evolutionary history, Europa’s ocean may be the perfect origin for life.





3. The energy of the future is nuclear

Nuclear power plants have become somewhat unpopular as of late, but natural disasters shouldn’t deter us from seeking out new ways of using atoms to produce usable, clean energy.  I’m sure this sounds a bit dubious, because don’t current nuclear power plants produce tons of nuclear waste and irradiated water? Well, yes.  But the future of nuclear power doesn’t lie in the relatively unsophisticated nuclear fission that we’re used to, but rather with nuclear fusion.

                  Nuclear fusion is a process by which small atomic nuclei fuse together to form a single larger nucleus.  The Sun fuses hydrogen in its 16 million Kelvin core to Helium and extracts a lot of energy from the process.  But how can we realize this type of energy production on Earth?

                  There are many nuances to achieving nuclear fusion on Earth.  Earth is only 4% the size of the Sun’s core and is nowhere near 16 million K.  Also, the Sun’s core is immensely dense and under a lot of pressure, two conditions that are essential for fusion.  To achieve fusion on Earth, we can’t achieve the pressures of the solar core, so we need to superheat plasma to 100 million K to surmount the repulsion between atoms.  With these considerations in mind, it may sound like fusion is a dead end because of these hurdles, but don’t despair. 

                  There are many theoretical and experimental approaches to fusion, a few of which involve giant magnets and a few that involve high-powered lasers.  Just last year, scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California used powerful lasers to create an “x-ray vacuum” in which fusion of light hydrogen occurred.  More importantly, the reaction produced significantly more energy than was required to start the reaction.  The key to using fusion power is to sustain this reaction.  Another project in the works is ITER, which is a joint project between the US and the EU to develop a Tokamak-type fusion reactor.  Early predictions have the ITER facility producing sustained fusion reactions within the next 15 years.





Written by Montana Phi Delta Theta Brother and University of Montana Physics and Mathematics (Statistics Option) Double Major Dan Molgaard 


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