When we look at the night sky, we may see junk instead of stars.
- New research has found that the entire planet is covered by light pollution from space objects.
- Companies like SpaceX and Amazon plan to launch thousands of satellites into orbit this decade.
- Scientists fear this space traffic will impede their ability to stare into deep space.
In December, we reported on the imminent clean-up of space junk. With an estimated 129 million pieces of debris currently orbiting our atmosphere, one lucrative contract awarded by the European Space Agency will commence in 2025.
Four years is a long time, however, given the amount of junk we've allowed to float into space. It's not the only issue affecting the crowded ether. New research, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, has found that astronomers can no longer find anywhere on Earth to view the night sky free of space junk and satellite pollution.
Although the first satellite was only launched in 1957, as of the beginning of this year, 3,372 are now in orbit, alongside the aforementioned debris—what the research team from Slovakia, Spain, and the United States term "space objects" for sake of brevity. These objects range in altitude from a few hundred to over 35,000 kilometers.
These objects pose an immediate threat to researchers by compromising astronomical data. Space debris and satellites often appear as streaks of varying lengths and brightness in ground-based telescopes. And the problem is going to get worse, says John Barentine of the International Dark-Sky Association.
"It's a bit of an eye-opener. As space gets more crowded, the magnitude of this effect will only be more, not less."
This handout image supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA), shows a view of The Palms, Dubai as the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft passes below, in an image taken by ESA astronaut Tim Peake from the International Space Station on April 10, 2016.Photo by Tim Peake / ESA/NASA via Getty Images
Plenty more is coming as the race for consumer travel heats up. SpaceX has already launched over 1,000 Starlink communication satellites as it builds a new global internet infrastructure. Last year, the FCC approved 3,236 Amazon satellites that will all be in orbit as part of the mega-constellation "Project Kuiper" by 2029. While these aren't the only companies in the race to a global internet, SpaceX alone aspires to launch 42,000 satellites into space.
On Earth, we might enjoy faster internet speeds, but in observatories, researchers are concerned. Currently, scientists plan their observations around the orbit schedule of known objects. In a few years, the researchers of this letter write, that might prove impossible. An exponential increase in satellites will likely guarantee streaks in every telescope across the globe.
Slovakian astronomer Miroslav Kocifaj, part of the team behind this new research, believes this logjam in space could create such an intense background glow that we'll no longer be able to gaze out into the farthest reaches of space.
His team points to the 1979 resolution of the International Astronomical Union, which stated observatories should only be built in regions where light pollution adds less than 10 percent more light than normal skyglow. While they point out that "natural skyglow" is a debatable term, they're also concerned that the ambitious plans of private companies will ensure that nowhere will come in under that number. As the team writes:
"These results imply that diffuse night sky brightness produced by artificial space objects directly illuminated by the Sun may well have reached nowadays, and perhaps exceeded, what is considered a sustainability 'red line' for ground based astronomical observatory sites."
Just at the moment when we're reaching further into the cosmos, we seem to be boxing ourselves in. For millennia, we've started into the night sky and dreamed about the stars. Soon, it seems those dreams will be aimed at the junk we've placed there.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
How many hurdles stand in the way of hyperloops becoming a commercial reality?
- Hyperloops are a new type of transportation technology that involves vacuum tubes and passenger pods traveling at ultra-fast speeds.
- Although no commercial hyperloops exist yet, a handful of companies around the world are building test tracks, some in partnerships with national governments.
- Hyperloops could prove to be a faster and more environmentally sustainable form of transportation than flying and high-speed rail, though many obstacles remain.
Virgin Hyperloop has successfully completed the world's first passenger test of hyperloop technology, a new form of high-speed transportation.
The test was conducted Sunday in a desert outside of Las Vegas, where the company built a 500-meter vacuum tube as a test track. Inside the tube, a pod carrying two passengers used electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation to whisk above the track, reaching 107 mph in about six seconds before coming to a stop.
Virgin's test was designed to prove the safety of hyperloop technology for humans. The company, founded in 2014, hopes to build long-distance hyperloops that travel up to 600 mph, meaning a trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. would take about 30 minutes.
"With today's successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, in a statement.
It's a big milestone for the technology, which Elon Musk first proposed in 2012. Still, Virgin and other hyperloop companies have many hurdles to overcome before hyperloops become a viable form of transportation.
In addition to proving hyperloops are safe for humans at faster speeds, two major obstacles include:
- Cost: Building and maintaining miles of hyperloop tubes would be incredibly expensive, with leaked documents from 2016 suggesting that each mile of track could cost between $84 million and $121 million. It's unclear whether hyperloops could sell enough tickets at high enough prices to turn a profit, while competing with airlines and railways.
- Land: Due to the high speeds, hyperloop tracks would need to be constructed in near-straight lines. Turns would have to be wide: A Virgin Hyperloop engineer told the New York Times that a hyperloop pod would need about six miles of track to complete a 90-degree turn at 600 mph. It's unclear how or whether Virgin (or other hyperloop companies) would be able to buy or gain rights for all the necessary land to build the tracks.
Artist rendering of Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod
Hyperloop companies, which would be overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, would also have to sort out issues related to headway, maintaining a vacuum in the tubes, emergency exits, government regulations, passenger capacity and the simple possibility that people might not want to shoot through a vacuum tube at 600 mph.
(On that note: It's unlikely that hyperloops would reach average speeds of 600 mph because the pods would need to accelerate and decelerate at slower speeds for safety and comfort reasons.)
But hyperloop technology is moving forward. In July, the U.S. government published a policy document intended to serve as a regulatory "roadmap" for hyperloop companies seeking to test their technology in the country. Virgin recently announced plans to build a $500 million "certification center" in West Virginia, where the company will test future versions of its hyperloops, aiming to get government approval.
Virgin plans to build its first operational hyperloop in India, whose government has been in talks with the company since 2017. While still in the planning stages, the company hopes to have a commercial hyperloop up and running in India by around 2030.
Underground tunnel built by the Boring Company
Virgin isn't alone in the hyperloop space. For example, there's Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is working on test projects in the United Arab Emirates, France, and Germany, where the company aims to move cargo through hyperloops. The company said it hopes to open its first commercial operation by 2022.
Hardt Global Mobility, a Dutch hyperloop startup, hopes to build a 10,000-kilometer network of hyperloops throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Elon Musk's Boring Company is building underground tunnels designed for cars traveling short distances. But the company says its tunnels "are designed and built in preparation for their eventual transition to Hyperloop."Some critics of hyperloop technology say it's a "utopian vision" that's unlikely to pan out, while others note that hyperloops would essentially be maglev trains, but more expensive and faster (because the vacuum tube reduces drag). But if successful, hyperloops could not only decrease travel times, but also become a more sustainable form of transportation, potentially magnitudes more efficient than high-speed rail and flying.
The electric car manufacturer says updates to its battery design and manufacturing process will help lower production costs.
- The high cost of batteries is the main reason why electric vehicles cost more than gas-powered cars.
- At the company's 'Battery Day' event on Tuesday, Tesla announced a new battery design that will give its cars more power and a longer range.
- The success of Tesla's plan depends on its ability to scale up production.
Cheaper, more efficient batteries. That's what Tesla says will allow it to offer a $25,000 electric car within the next three years. The announcements came at the company's "Battery Day" event on Tuesday afternoon in Palo Alto, California.
"One of the things that troubles me the most is that we don't yet have a truly affordable car, and that is something that we will make in the future," Tesla CEO Elon Musk told a socially distanced audience, who were sitting in cars in a parking lot. "But in order to do that, we've got to get the cost of batteries down."
How to cut costs? Tesla is working on a design update for its batteries, and the company plans to begin manufacturing them in-house. (Panasonic currently produces Tesla batteries.) A key design update is removing a tab within the battery that connects the cell to what it powers.
"You actually have a shorter path length [for the electron to travel] in a large tabless cell than you have in the smaller cell with tabs," Musk said. "So even though the cell is bigger, it actually has more power."
Tesla also plans to lower costs by using nickel instead of cobalt in its cathodes. The company said its new cathode design would reduce costs by about 75 percent, and also remove waste water from the manufacturing process.
What's more, the international cobalt supply is limited, and most of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where adult and child miners are known to be exploited.
Screenshot of Tesla's 'Battery Day' presentation
It's unclear when Tesla will stop using cobalt, or when it will stop sourcing its batteries from Panasonic. But Tesla claims that its new battery design and manufacturing changes will allow it to cut the cost per kilowatt-hour in half. If Tesla can successfully scale up production, the company could hit its goal of $100 per kilowatt-hour sooner than expected.
Hitting that mark could usher in the electric-car revolution, considering $100 per kilowatt-hour is generally regarded as the threshold the industry needs to reach in order to make electric vehicles cost competitive with gas-powered cars.
A $25,000 electric car would also be Tesla's cheapest offering by far. The company had previously promised a $35,000 car, but only offered one at that price for a limited time. Tesla's website says its Model 3, its cheapest car, starts at about $39,000.
Photo of Tesla's new battery design
To be sure, Musk is known for promising big on his projects, but not always following through on the promised timetable. But despite having an "insanely hard" 2020, as Musk said, Tesla's had a good past couple years.
"In 2019, we had 50% growth," Musk said at the event. "And I think we'll do really pretty well in 2020, probably somewhere between 30 to 40 percent growth, despite a lot of very difficult circumstances."
"It's kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires," Musk said.
- Neuralink is Elon Musk's company that's building brain-machine interfaces.
- The company's ultimate goal is to build an interface that connects human brains directly to computers.
- At a demonstration, Musk unveiled the company's latest progress, including that it had successfully installed its interface in the skulls of multiple pigs.
Elon Musk's Neuralink is getting closer to its wildly ambitious goal of building a machine that links our brains to computers. This "brain-machine interface" would first be used for medical purposes, like helping paraplegics walk or treating degenerative diseases.
But the endgame is for humans to achieve "good AI symbiosis." Why? To Musk, the future of AI poses a serious existential threat to humanity, even more so than nuclear weapons. So, "if you can't beat em, join em," as the tech mogul said in 2017.
Neuralink's demonstration on Friday showed it's making progress on its brain-machine interface, but still has a ways to go. Here are three highlights from the event.
Neuralink implanted a chip inside the skull of pig
At the demonstration were three pigs in pens. One pig, named Gertrude, has been living healthily for two months with the implant in its skull, according to Musk. As Gertrude snuffled around the pen, a screen displayed real-time spikes in neural activity coming from the pig's brain.
"We have a healthy and happy pig, initially shy but obviously high energy and, you know, kind of loving life, and she's had the implant for two months," Musk said.
The coin-sized implant was read-only, meaning Gertrude wasn't using it to control any device. But the demo showed that the implant was capable of wirelessly relaying neural data to external computers. What's more, a pre-recorded video unveiled at the event showed that Neuralink was able to predict the pig's limb movements with "high accuracy" during a treadmill experiment.
Musk also said Neuralink had implanted a chip into another pig, Dorothy, and then removed it without health complications.
"What Dorothy illustrates is that you can put in the Neuralink, remove it, and be healthy, happy and indistinguishable from a normal pig," Musk said.
Illustration of Neuralink implant.
Neuralink could enable people to replay memories
"The future is going to be weird," Musk said. "In the future you will be able to save and replay memories [...] You could basically store your memories as a backup and restore the memories. You could potentially download them into a new body or into a robot body."
Sound unnerving? Musk sort of agreed:
"This is increasingly sounding like a Black Mirror episode," Musk said, referring to the dystopian TV show.
Neuralink wants robots to install the interface on humans
The location of a Neuralink implant in a human skull.
Credit: Neuralink / Big Think
Musk said Neuralink eventually wants to use a surgical robot to install the interfaces into human skulls. Neuralink has so far used robots to implant all of its chips, but these experiments have been limited to rodents, monkeys and pigs, according to Musk.
Neuralink hasn't revealed how much the procedure might cost for humans in the future. Musk said it'll be "quite expensive" at first, but hopes the price will eventually drop to a few thousand dollars.
"I think it should be possible to get it similar to Lasik," he said.
Of course, Neuralink still faces many safety concerns and regulatory hurdles. But in July, the company received FDA Breakthrough Device designation, which expedites approval for technologies "that provide for more effective treatment or diagnosis of life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating diseases or conditions."
The next major step for the company will be demonstrating that its technology works safely and effectively in humans. In 2019, Musk said he hopes to begin human testing by the end of 2020, though it's unclear whether that'll happen.
Just how close are we to setting up camp on another planet? It's complicated.
- We are closer than ever to actually putting human beings on Mars, but exactly how close is very much still up for debate. Getting there is one thing, and we eventually may not have a choice, but there are a number of problems that need to be solved before our species can call the Red Planet home.
- In this video, former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, educator Bill Nye, science journalist Stephen Petranek, astronomer Michelle Thaller, and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku consider mankind's fascination with Mars and explain why the planet may be the most viable option for colonization. They also share difficult truths about what it will take for this expensive dream to become a reality.
- From finding a way to protect against radiation and adjusting to the difference in atmospheric pressure, to mining for ice and transporting food, to significantly lowering the cost of space travel, it certainly won't be easy. But that doesn't mean that it's not worth doing. As Leland Melvin says, the spirit of exploration and curiosity is in our DNA.