Category: Articles

Space bugs!

Space_bugsOn Earth, microbes get absolutely everywhere. Indeed, there seem to be very few completely sterile natural environments. But what about microbial colonization of locations beyond Earth? In this article we’ll explore the realm of space bugs. There is a great deal of interest in the microbiology of the closed artificial environments created for human exploration of the cosmos, such as the International Space Station (ISS), as well as in minimizing the risks of inadvertently transporting terrestrial contamination elsewhere, and even the possibility of a natural mechanism spraying life between worlds over the history of the solar system.

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Matrix: Simulating the world Part II: cellular automata

Matrix2In the first part of Simulating the World we saw how simple mathematical models can be built to study everything from the flocking of birds to the collision of entire galaxies. In these examples, a matrix, or a grid of numbers, was used as a convenient way of storing information on all the objects included in the simulation, so that it can be updated each time step as the simulation progresses. In this second article, we’ll take a look at another class of mathematical models; ones where the matrix or array isn’t just a way of storing information during the simulation, but actually is the simulation itself.

Many real-world situations can be simplified as a sequence of objects in a line or an arrangement across a flat space — in other words, they can be faithfully represented by either a list of numbers (a one-dimensional matrix) or a regular grid of cells (a two-dimensional matrix). During the course of the simulation, the objects interact with those near-by according to a set of predefined rules, with the identity of each discrete position on the line or plane changing over time. Such a system is called a cellular automaton model.

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A Living Mars?

GT-coverThe possibility of a living Mars is deeply ingrained in popular culture. The observations of the astronomer Percival Lowell, and his interpretation that these canals were built to channel melt-water from the polar regions down to the dying cities and farms huddled around the equator, are well known. Even into the 1960s, textbooks were being published that explained the temporal variation in surface brightness as due to the seasonal spread of vegetation. Martians are the science-fiction writer’s alien invader of choice, from the heat-ray-wielding tripods of H.G. Wells to the bulbous-headed aggressors of Tim Burton’s 1996 filmMars Attacks. With the armada of robotic probes currently orbiting and roving across the red planet, Mars has never been so fore-front in the public eye. Much of this interest is focussed on the possibility that our planetary neighbour has supported an independent genesis of life, and that in certain regions it may remain habitable even to this day. In this feature article, a selection of some of the most recent results and discoveries concerning the astrobiological potential of Mars will be discussed.

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Life’s a beach on planet Earth

Life-beachDid life on Earth begin on a radioactive beach? That’s the claim of one astrobiologist, who says that life’s ingredients could have emerged from the radioactive sand grains of a primordial beach laced with heavy metals and pounded by powerful tides.

Martian Death Rays

Crusader-1069440117_LOWRESWhen I tell people that I spend my days testing the possibility of life on Mars they usually reply in one of two ways. ‘No seriously, what do you do?’ is only slightly more common than the wittier ‘So you’re not holding out for much fieldwork, then?’ Astrobiology is a bright young discipline, aiming to answer some of the most fascinating questions within science and dinner-table conversation alike. Does life exist ‘out there’ among the pinpricks of light in the heavens, or are we alone in the cosmos? No current scientific field fires people’s fascination more than the quest for extraterrestrial life, and a large proportion of students have cited the reason for continuing science is their interest in astrobiology. For now many astrobiologists’ money is on Mars, our planetary neighbour, as it was once a lot like Earth.

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Gliese 581 C > An Astrobiologist’s Perspective

Gliese581cAfter the May 9th Q’n’A with Xavier Bonfils, one of the astronomers envolved in the discovery of Gliese 581 C, the possibility of the exoplanet gathering the conditions for the existence of life stayed floating in the air. As Bonfils referred, some of the questions were not from his field of study, in consequence of this Lewis Dartnell, from the University College London and author of ‘Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide‘, initiates his participitation as spacEurope’s resident astrobiologist by explaining the astrobiological significance of this new discovery.

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Phoenix Special > The Role of MECA, TEGA and the Robotic Arm

Phoenix_specialWe are now less than a month away from the arrival of Phoenix at the Martian arctic plains. Excitement surrounding this unique mission has been mounting steadily since its launch last August, when I last wrote on Phoenix, and at long last the wait is almost over. You can already read on spaceEurope the thoughts of many of the key players intimately involved in the design of the probe and its operation on the frosty martian surface over the coming months, and what I’d like to give here is an insight into what astrobiologists like myself are hoping for. Continue reading

Matrix: Simulating the world Part I – Particle models

Matrix1Building models forms the core of many areas of scientific and engineering research. Essentially, a model is a representation of a complex system that has been simplified in different ways to help understand its behaviour. An aeronautical engineer, for example, might build a miniaturised physical model of a fighter plane to test in a wind tunnel. In modern times, more and more modelling is being performed by computers – running mathematical models at very high rates of calculations. A computer model of the flow of air over a supersonic wing is incredibly sophisticated, but it is based on very basic principles of program design and simulation. In this article, the first half of a two-part feature on model behaviour, we’ll take a look at how simple computer models can be programmed to study some very interesting natural systems as well as focus on how a few scientists are using similar models in their own front-line research.

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