NASA’s recent Dart mission to deflect an asteroid’s path, serves to illustrate just how precarious Earth’s existence is. We are at the mercy of what the Universe throws at us. Our atmosphere and magnetic field serve us well in protecting us from cosmic rays, eruptions of particles and energy from the Sun, and the small meteors that continually bombard us. The presence of large planets like Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System act as protective big brothers, sweeping up any wayward asteroids that happen to pass by on the way to Earth.
At the start of September in Aptos, California, an elderly man slipped peacefully away, almost unnoticed. Aged 92, Frank Drake was one of the founding fathers of SETI ( search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Through his life’s work, he pioneered a scientific approach to a topic that in the early years, was seen as fringe at best and downright crazy at worst.
The universe is a strange and wonderful place, primarily empty space with a smattering of galaxies scattered about. Each galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars and the universe itself is so vast that it has one hundred billion galaxies. The enormity and scale is impossible to get our heads around and it takes rare geniuses like Einstein, Newton and even Hawking who have the uncanny ability to visualise, scrutinise and probe the depths and workings of the universe. Even the nearest star to us is 4 light years away, which in layman’s terms is a staggering 40 trillion kilometers, that is 40 with 12 zeros after it. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 to study the solar system travels at 62,000 km/h. At this speed, It would take 73,000 years to get to the nearest star and a cool 640 million years to get to the centre of our galaxy!
Scientists have made some tremendous advances in recent years. Biologists are discovering that life is not as delicate as we once thought. No matter where on Earth we look, we seem to encounter life. Hardy bacteria that can thrive in the harshest of conditions. From the extreme heat of thermal springs and deep sea hydrothermal vents to the harsh conditions found in nuclear reactors, bacteria and other microbes find a way to prosper. We have exposed bacteria to the harshness of space on the outside of the international space station, only to discover later that the bacteria hadn’t been killed off, but had survived the exposure and were able to grow again upon return to normal conditions.
Incredible news reports last week revealed that scientists have observed two neutron stars colliding in a galaxy 130 million light years from Earth. Not only that, but the power of the collision set up gravitational ripples in space-time, which eventually made it to us here on Earth.