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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Massive hydrogen-filled zeppelins could be the cargo ships of the future, space agencies are scrambling to get to the moon (again) and researchers in Florida have taken a big step toward restoring North America’s ailing barrier reef. From outer space to the depths of the ocean, we’re covering all the bases in this week’s coolest scientific discoveries.

 

Zeppelin Reunion World Tour!

The jet stream hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, but zeppelin technology has — scientists say airships made of materials like carbon fibers could be a greener alternative to maritime cargo shipping. Above image credit: Shutterstock. Top image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A new paper in the journal Energy Conversion and Management: X proposes a new-old method for cargo shipping: hydrogen-filled airships.

Why does it matter? Maritime shipping is a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, and this is one way the world could green up some of its routine business. Lead author Julian Hunt, a postdoctoral fellow at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, said the airships could travel on global jet streams — the bands of strong winds that flow through the upper atmosphere. “The Hindenburg used to do it,” Hunt told NBC. “They had this path which would go from New York to Tokyo and then come back. The jet stream hasn’t changed much in 100 years.” What has changed is that new technologies and materials could help avoid a repeat of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, which pretty much doomed the zeppelin industry. “They used to use cow intestines to build the gas bags,” Hunt says; today materials like carbon fibers are available.

How does it work? Hydrogen, 14 times lighter than air, can be extracted from water, and produced more cheaply and easily than the helium that fills today’s blimps. Hunt and his co-authors think the next wave of hydrogen zeppelins could be truly massive: They performed their calculations based on a theoretical airship that’s more than 2 kilometers from nose to tail — 10 times longer than the Hindenburg and more than five times longer than the Empire State Building is tall. They could also speed cargo shipping as compared to ocean-bound methods: Carried along by a jet stream whose average wind speed is 165 kilometers per hour, the airships could travel around the world in 16 days in the northern hemisphere, and 14 days in the south.

 

On-Demand Steaming Service

A satellite’s-eye view. Satellites can get a head-start on their voyage into orbit if they’re launched from high off the Earth’s surface — for instance, from a steam-filled balloon 18 kilometers off the ground. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Steam balloons could help get satellites into space, according to researchers at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. They designed a simulation in which a balloon floats a booster rocket 18 kilometers off the earth’s surface — where it ignites and carries the satellite the rest of the way.

Why does it matter? Getting some satellites into orbit is easier from high in the air than on the ground; the air is thinner, for instance, so there’s less drag on the ascending craft. (That’s why Virgin Orbit has been testing a rocket dropped from the wing of a Boeing 747, powered by GE engines, to send satellites into orbit.) The Finnish scientists are building off other methods that use hydrogen or helium balloons to get the rockets closer to space, but those have their drawbacks, being either dangerous or expensive. Steam, by contrast, is neither.

How does it work? “The balloon is filled by hot steam on [the] ground and released. As the balloon ascends, part of the water vapour condenses. The condensation releases a lot of latent heat, which slows down the cooling and helps maintain the remaining vapour in gaseous state,” said Pekka Janhunen, lead author of a new paper accepted in The Aeronautical Journal. “After reaching sufficiently high altitude, the rocket is released, it ignites and flies into space. The balloon is emptied of vapour, it descends and may be collected for reuse.”

 

Everyone’s Gone To The Moon

Among other things, the moon could be a staging ground as humans plan longer voyages — for instance, to Mars. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? What do we want? To go to the moon! What do we do when we get there? To explore the subterranean lunar tunnels and see if they’re fit for long-term habitation by humans!

Why does it matter? This has been a big week for moon news. Two companies announced that they’re sending the first American craft to land on the moon since the Apollo program. The mission, scheduled to launch in 2021 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, will “ferry technology and experiments to the moon under a NASA program that will lay the groundwork for astronaut trips by 2024 under the optimistic schedule laid out by the Trump administration,” according to Reuters. Separately, the European Space Agency (ESA) said it’s seeking proposals for how to map and study the many tunnels beneath the moon’s surface — called lunar lava tubes — in hopes of figuring out how to eventually build moon bases.

How does it work? ESA rep Francesco Sauro said the caves — thought to be the result of lava eruptions on the moon billions of years ago — could “shield astronauts from cosmic radiation and micrometeorites and possibly provide access to icy water and other resources trapped underground.” Like American plans to return to the moon, the project reflects a global desire for a more intimate relationship with the Earth’s only satellite. China, India and Israel have all recently sent probes to the moon, and NASA has plans for long-term lunar exploration under its Artemis program.

 

Pinky And The Brain

What is it? In Nature, researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science published a study providing a “parts list” of the brain and exploring how human brains do and do not differ from mouse brains.

Why does it matter? A lot of contemporary neurological research involves mouse brains, stemming from the fact that they’re similar in structure to human brains; the majority of cells in our brains have counterparts in mice brains. But scientists also need to understand what differentiates our brains. “The bottom line is there are great similarities and differences between our brain and that of the mouse,” said Allen Institute president and chief scientist Christof Koch. “One of these tells us that there is great evolutionary continuity, and the other tells us that we are unique. If you want to cure human brain diseases, you have to understand the uniqueness of the human brain.”

How does it work? The researchers focused on the medial temporal gyrus, a part of the temporal lobe, studying mouse brains as well as postmortem tissue from human donors; they categorized brain cell types and studied how “genes switched on in one region of the human brain, cell by single cell, to home in on our similarities and our differences as compared to mice,” according to the institute. “Many people would assume that the human brain is more complex than the mouse brain,” said Ed Lein, the study’s senior author. “It’s somewhat of a surprise that at least in terms of cellular diversity, that doesn’t seem to be the case. But now that we have a way to make a true apples-to-apples comparison, we start to see many differences in how the genes are used, what the cells look like and the proportions of different cell types in the brain.”

 

Coral Curriculum

Ailing pillar coral in the coast off Florida might get a little help: For the first time, the Florida Aquarium has gotten this species of coral to spawn in the lab. Image credit: Shutterstock.

What is it? Just like zoologists trying to get shy giant pandas to breed in captivity, scientists at the Florida Aquarium announced this week that they’d succeeded, for the first time, in inducing the spawning of endangered Atlantic pillar coral inside a research lab.

Why does it matter? Lab-induced coral spawning gives hope to efforts to restore the Florida Reef, the third-largest barrier reef in the world and the only living barrier reef in North America; the tract is composed largely of pillar coral that’s been devastated by disease. The project to induce spawning was undertaken by the Florida Aquarium in partnership with London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens. Aquarium president and CEO Roger Germann said, “When history is made, there is hope, and today’s scientific breakthrough by the Florida Aquarium’s team of coral experts gives us real hope that we can save the Florida Reef Tract from extinction.”

How does it work? The conservation team induced spawning by making sure conditions were just right — a little candlelight, some soft music. Actually, that’s not much of an exaggeration. According to the Florida Aquarium, the team “spent months mimicking the natural environment of corals using advanced technology to reproduce the timing of sunrises, sunsets, moonrises and moonsets to trigger the animals to spawn.” Senior scientist Keri O’Neil said, “When you have great husbandry, great water quality, and all of the right environmental cues, this is what you can do.” Learn more about the project here.

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