Space Week: Vastness of space summed up in 4 handy articles

19 Aug 2016

Given the incomprehensible size of space, it can be difficult to sum up some of the latest discoveries and developments in one piece, so we wrote four instead.

For the past four days, has published an article each day in what we have referred to as Space Week, in an attempt to piece together some of the most out-there areas of space exploration today.

Choosing the topics wasn’t easy given the vastness of space and the multitudes of topics that could be written about, but the four chosen really sum up how we are moving into a future that once only existed in science fiction.

Mining its own business

Future Human

Firstly, we covered the rise of asteroid mining companies like Planetary Resources, which was founded by former NASA flight director Chris Lewicki.

As he explains in the article, the cosmos is full of space debris that might be the remnants of the birth of the universe, and within that could potentially be trillions of dollars of vital resources.

While one single asteroid was recently valued somewhere in the region of $5trn because of its potential platinum deposits, other asteroids could also act as ‘gas stations to the stars’, providing spacecraft with the necessary water for a long, long journey.

With US President Barack Obama also recently passing a law allowing US companies to mine the contents of space with little-to-no interference, the presumption is that a situation similar to the 19th-century Gold Rush of California is only generations away.

Shot into the dark

But while this resource mining will help us with mining the nearest reaches of our solar system, if we want to go further we have to think of some rather bold and creative ideas.

One such idea is the Starshot programme from Breakthrough Initiatives, which wants to send a series of nanocraft to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, within the space of 20 years.

To put the importance of this into context, it would have taken the former NASA Space Shuttle 165,000 years to travel the distance of 4.3 light years.

Having spoken to one of the project leads, Prof Avi Loeb, it seems that it won’t be ‘plain sailing’.

In Starshot’s case, this will be literal sailing, as the technology would power the craft through space using lasers and a sail receiver that would let it reach such high speeds.

If the project proves successful, it could be recruited to analyse a potential Earth 2.0 within the system that was revealed just recently.

Life on Mars, and elsewhere, too

Astrobiologist Prof Penelope Boston told us about her research into how life might exist in the wider universe, from our nearest neighbour Mars to distant exoplanets like the one that could exist in the Alpha Centauri system.

Thankfully, from a scientific perspective, we might not have to look too far to find examples of alien life, with our own planet hosting a number of so-called ‘extremophiles’ that can withstand the harshest of conditions.

Finally, our understanding of the universe now and in the future will not be simply limited to how far we can travel, as many discoveries could soon be made right here from Earth.

Waves of the future

In February of this year, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the discovery of gravitational waves, describing the moment as a “new era in astronomy and physics”.

The man who announced that discovery, Dr David Reitze, spoke with us about his excitement for the years to come following the success of the LISA Pathfinder satellite, designed to test the potential for an enormous space-based gravitational waves telescope.

With a planned launch in 2034, it will be the largest instrument ever built by humanity and will act as a space-based gravitational wave detector measuring the smallest of space-time distortions.

All-in-all, space is likely to get weirder in the years to come as we attempt to open up a door to a whole new scientific realm.

Starry galaxy image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic