Tuesday, 7 August 2012

I'm Going to Mars!!

It is virtually undisputed that outer space is supremely cool. It is creepy and mysterious and captures the imagination of people across the world. People devote their lives to the study of it, whether in the more abstract and often less accurate joy of science-fiction writing or in the pursuit of answers through hard study and research. It has warranted the creation of NASA, which is one of the most amazing things ever to have come out of America. Outer space is where the secrets of the universe lie; pretty much everything we can learn about Earth has been learned and all the mysteries left to solve are somewhat further afield. The only people who disagree tend to be unimaginative and drab, rather like this idiot, who can’t even structure a sentence properly:

Some dickhead's ignorant opinion, courtesy of Facebook

(I considered ranting for a bit about precisely why this is ignorant and about how beneficial ALL scientific research is, even when it's an accident, but I already did it, here, so I figured I didn't need to do it again.)

Very recently, NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed safely on Mars and has started sending back pictures already. They are amazing. They aren’t the best quality photographs in the world, but they did come from Mars. Obviously, this made me very excited and I enlisted Google and Twitter to take me on a big old nerd binge.

Bas Lansdorp
In doing so, I stumbled across the Mars One Project. It is a private enterprise run by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and its aim is to set up a colony of human beings on Mars over the space of the next few decades. The mission objective is to “establish the first human settlement on Mars by April 2023”. The Mars One team has been working on the plan for it since early 2011 and have the support of a number of “ambassadors”, including the Chairman of the Netherlands Space Society, the co-creator of Big Brother and CERN physicist Prof. Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft, who was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999 for his work on the quantum structure of electroweak interactions.

The first forty astronauts to be sent to Mars will be selected in 2013. They will all have to train for ten years so that they are prepared for their trip. A replica of the Mars One settlement will be built in the desert on Earth to serve as a place for the astronauts to prepare and train as well as to test the equipment. In January 2016, the “supply mission” will be launched, sending 2500 kilograms of food and other supplies in a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. In 2018, a rover will land on Mars to explore the selected area to find the best spot for habitation. In 2021, two living units, two life supports units, another supply unit and another rover will have arrived on Mars, prepared for the arrival of the astronauts. All “water, oxygen and atmosphere” production will be ready by the beginning of 2022 and the first group of astronauts are due to be launched towards Mars on September 14th 2022.

The first astronauts will be due to land on Mars in 2023 after an estimated 7-month journey, where the rovers will take them to their new home. More astronauts will be launched in groups of four every two years so that the colony will have reached 20 settlers by 2033. The Mars One team plan to send more hardware up with each additional group so that more and better exploration can take place as well as providing them with updated technology and providing better quality of life.

The plans for the 'settlement' to be built on Mars

Getting back from Mars is a hell of a lot harder than getting to Mars – look at how long it took for us to develop rockets on Earth. The astronauts will not be visiting, but emigrating to Mars, where they will be expected to stay, possibly for the rest of their lives. They will have to leave everything on Earth behind in the attempt to learn more about the red planet. Training for the astronauts before they leave will include staying in simulation bases to see how they cope with being secluded, away from everything they have ever known and loved, and being left with only the other astronauts. They must be extremely intelligent and able to cope in unfamiliar environments, as well as being able to solve any problems that may occur by themselves, especially those in the first team of four who will be alone for two years on a different planet. They must also have a knowledge of engineering, in case anything goes wrong with the technology, as well as the ability to cultivate crops and see to any medical problems. The team at the moment predict that they may well stay there for the rest of their lives, but it does not exclude the possibility that the technology necessary for a return rocket can be sent to Mars after a few years so that astronauts can return if they wish. Considering the state of technology now, and given the amount of time for proliferation between now and when the return rocket will be required, this is not an unreasonable estimate.

The settlement on Mars will include “inflatable components which contain bedrooms, working areas, a living room and a ‘plant production unit’, where they will grow greenery”. Within the settlement, the Mars One website predicts that the astronauts will “lead typical day-to-day lives”. There, their task will be building and researching. They will have to prepare for when the other groups land as well learning about Mars. Their research will include how people and plants respond to life of Mars as well as things like Mars’s geology and biology. Essentially, imagine everything the scientists throughout history have learned about Earth - forty people are going to be sent to do all of that on another planet.

Reading the information offered by the website does seem like they have thought of everything. It does not go into great detail, but it does offer an FAQ page as well as a contact address for anyone with further questions. The page explaining why and how the astronauts will emigrate to Mars is quite cool. They claim to have found a place where there is water ice beneath the surface that can be cultivated to provide hydration for the astronauts. They describe how everything will be powered by solar panels so that they do not need to go to the hassle of building a nuclear reactor for energy. They go to a lot of effort to ensure that people know that they understand what they are undertaking.

The Mars One website has a Sponsorship page, inviting businesses and companies of all sizes to sponsor the project and “play a significant role in creating World History” and “make the next giant leap for mankind”. However, the project will mainly be funded by having the whole thing being as a reality TV show. Suddenly it makes sense that the Big Brother guy is involved; otherwise, he really stuck out as a bit of a loser in amongst all those people with physics doctorates…

From the selection and preparation of the first astronauts, right through the launch of the first rover to the point at which a colony has formed on Mars, everything will be broadcast on television and be made available online for the public to view. The Mars One team insists that there will be no gimmicky bullshit like in most reality TV shows, that the integrity of the mission itself should be more than enough to attract people to watch. I know I would watch, but I’m a nerd, and generally I hate reality TV, so I don’t really know if I’m a good example.

I actually think this is brilliant. I don’t know if it will work. I don’t think that there have been enough critical analyses of the plans by people who have a lot of in-depth knowledge about all the necessary science for me to draw any proper conclusions. I have had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Mars One as well as the one for Prof. Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft, the most advertised of the team’s “ambassadors”. I have had a very long look at the website and I, with my nerdy but nonetheless layman’s knowledge, think it is pretty awesome, but it only makes sense to remain sceptical before I have a bit more information. They seem very determined that everything go right and well and that all the science be absolutely fool-proof, so that they are taken seriously and so that they don’t end up stranding forty well-meaning astronauts somewhere between Earth and Mars without food or oxygen. It does feel a little bit like that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer went to space, but science is not about feelings – it is about doing research and getting results and using the information gleaned from crazy ventures just like this to make a better world for generations to come.

Now I know I’m not exactly astronaut material right now – but if Homer Simpson can do it, anyone can. Besides, there is another year before the selection begins and I will be thirty when the first team is launched, so I've got time to prepare. I won’t lie, I have already signed up for some free online study groups beginning in January of next year that focus on biology and other things that may come in handy with my application, but I was already signed up for one about astrobiology and I don’t have much going on during the time of course, so my nerdism probably would have led me to do them anyway.

I would like a bit more information about it, maybe some objective opinions about it from more than a handful of people. I would like to see the specifics of the plans – more details, for instance, about exactly how they expect me not to die. If this project really is as good as the website makes it out be (which it probably won’t be; nothing ever us, but we may as well be hopefully), I would happily sign up. Never mind that my nan doesn’t like me living as far away as London and is such a technophobe that there is no way she will trust the video messaging system, even though I know for a fact that they guys at CERN currently use Skype (Brian Cox did it at Uncaged Monkeys in December 2011; I was there, it was awesome).  Never mind that the minimum age limit is 25. Never mind that it may mean spending most of my life on Mars and much of the time beforehand training and studying to be competent enough to go to Mars. Never mind that if I do spend a lot of time studying and training and then end up not making the final cut that I would have wasted as much as ten years of my life (provided I start working for it now, or at least in the next six months or so) for something I never will do. None of that matters.

This is Mars. The planet. This is a chance to go down in history. This is dangerous and exciting and amazing and unbelievably nerdy. Space exploration is one of the coolest and most incredible things that mankind has achieved and it is all done by amazing nerds, which Hollywood will have you believe are all also total babes. This is not always untrue.

The fact is that Mars is the next thing that mankind has to explore. Maybe we haven’t learned everything there is to learn about the moon or even the Earth, but we will, and why shouldn’t we be heading off to Mars too, so we're there ready to start working when everything else is done? We all know it is going to be awesome, but you don’t have to believe me, because my opinion is only mine and I am obviously not the best spokesperson for this sort of thing.

Rather, believe Carl Sagan:

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Creepy Sex-Death of the Male Anglerfish

The term 'anglerfish' can be applied to over 300 different kinds of animal, spanning almost twenty species, named for their method of hunting prey with a fleshy lure dangling off its head which can be wriggled in such a way that prey believe it is food. This development of the anglerfish is an ingenious twist of nature; it is not only practical, but has made it somewhat famous in the animal kingdom, not only for its scarily accurate portrayal in Finding Nemo.

The first thing you notice about the anglerfish is that it is fuck ugly. In every species. It is hideous. It has protruding teeth and bulging eyes and some species are covered in spiny hairs and others look like they are already decaying so that they fit in with the scum on the ocean floor. Most of them live at the bottom of the sea where it is so dark that everything is ugly, but the ones that glow have no excuse. The bioluminescence has evolved to attract prey, but it would seem only sensible to avoid something with a face like this...

And that's the female.

Actually, all of the big, scary ones are female. The males are rather more puny and not half as repulsive. They aren't as worried about feeding, so they don't have to be as predatory as the females. They don't need the big teeth, distending jaw, expanding stomach or light-proof gut lining (so they don't get caught having eaten something luminescent). They are a hell of a lot smaller than the females and their eyes and teeth aren't half as daunting. The male Photocorynus spiniceps is only a quarter of an inch long, one of the smallest vertebrate in the animal kingdom; it is near enough half a million times smaller than its female counterpart.

Some of them are even quite cute.

Sort of.

All that matters with the males is their testicles and their primary concern is mating.

They have very sensitive eyes to seek out their mates in the gloom of the ocean. They also have an amazing sense of smell with which they can sniff out the pheromones of females through the water. Once they have sought out a mate, they latch onto her with their sharp little teeth. He bites into her skin and releases an enzyme that digests the skin of his mouth and her side so that they fuse together. Over the next couple of weeks, his whole body is absorbed into her until all that remains of him is a pair of testicles attached to her side.

In response to the to hormones in the female's bloodstream, the testicles release sperm into her system so that she has an available mate whenever she is ready to breed. Many males can latch onto any given female. A female was once discovered with eight pairs of testicles hanging off her.

In most species, if the male does not find a female with which to mate, he dies. In some species, however, the males are able to swim away into a dark and private part of the ocean where they grow massively and turn into a female in place of their missing mate.

It really puts it into perspective how great it is to be a creature that doesn't die just because it can't get laid...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A Failing of Human Evolution; One of Many

Animals generally have cool things that a lot of people wish had stuck around a bit longer in the evolutionary path. Take, for instance, Batman and Spiderman, who may have taken their desire for animal abilities a bit too far. But I would bet that most people would gladly take wings if they were offered them, or gills, or the ability to leap between trees like squirrels and other cool stuff that just feels like it would be nice. We put far too much importance on things like sporting events for it not to be an obvious remnant of the physical prowess necessary for summoning mates in the animal kingdom.

Generally, we can live without these things. We have the intelligence to design transport so we don't need to be as proficient and travelling long distances, for example, and we've invented shoes so we don't need to have the protection animals get from paws. In fact, we have the intelligence to design machines to deal with pretty much everything that our increasingly lazy species can't be bothered to do with our own bodies, so these advantages that animals have over us aren't all that important.

And then this spider comes along and says, "Fuck you, mankind, bet you wish you had THIS..."

This is a giant wood spider called Nephila pilipes and in this species many tiny males compete for the attention of huge females, which can grow to between seven and ten times the size of the males. During copulation, males are known to sever their own genitals in order to plug the female stop other males breeding with their chosen mate. This is common, particularly among insects, and biologists with far too much time on their hands have documented it extensively.

This is a crafty technique - and the girls have caught on.

A team of researchers found that, when many males were converging on one female, the female can produce an amorphous plug to fill her genitals for the period during which she is laying eggs to prevent being impregnated again. The researchers came to the conclusion that this mechanism is a way of preventing "unwanted or excessive copulation".

Essentially, these spiders have developed a way to avoid being raped when they're busy doing other things.

Now, people may not always be busy doing other things, but no one wants to get raped. Even people who fantasise about getting raped, don't really want to be raped. By definition, rape is sex without consent.

Of all the things that evolution has kept in the human body - take, say, the appendix, which has lost all of its function in the evolutionary process aside from one day exploding and killing you from within - why not this one? This seems pretty damn useful, especially considering the closest we, as a species, have come to preventing "unwanted copulation" is this nasty-looking bastard: