Monday, 26 September 2016

Mapping the Galaxy, The Planet Next Door, Glass solar panels - Science with Sam @SMRolfe

Mapping the Galaxy
GAIA is a mission that has been mapping the galaxy since July 2014. It rotates around with two cameras on opposites sides taking images of all points of light.
It has mapped over a billion stars, where about 400 million of those are thought to be new discoveries. This is only the beginning as there is so much data that scientists will be exploring the data for years to come.
Other than mapping the stars, it will chart the positions of approximately a quarter of a million asteroids and comets in the solar system, a million galaxies and potentially 10,000 undiscovered planets orbiting stars.
One of the overall aims is to create a 3D map of the galaxy, which will help further understand our place in it and further the understanding of the evolution of stars and the galaxy and the distribution of dark matter.


The Planet Next Door
Proxima Centauri is the nearest star (other than the Sun!) to the Earth. It is approximately 4.2 light years away. With current technology we could reach there in about 80,000 to 90,000 years… which doesn’t sound too promising. However, if even fraction of the speed of light travel could be achieved, we could reach there in a few hundred years or less.
Why do we want to go there? A recent discovery found a potentially habitable planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbour. Good news right? We need to find out a lot more about the planet than we already know, but here is what we know: It orbits its star in 11.2 days and is at least 1.3 times the mass of the Earth. Due to the type of star that it orbits, smaller and cooler than our Sun, a red dwarf, this means it orbits in the “habitable zone”, where, depending on the type of planet, liquid water can theoretically exist at the surface, like it does on Earth.
Great, so we could inhabit it!
Let’s think about what we don’t know. We don’t know if it is a rocky planet, we don’t know its radius and we don’t know its exact mass, it could be much greater than 1.3 Earth masses and therefore more like Neptune than Earth.  If it is  rocky planet, being that close to its star poses the following problem: it is likely to be tidally locked, like the Moon is with the Earth – one half of the planet will constantly face the star causing extreme heating and never ending daylight on one side and freezing temperatures and perpetual night on the other.  A haven for life may exist around the terminator, the line between day and night, where temperature could allow for liquid water to exist.


Glass solar panels
Imagine if all the glass around us could generate electricity, we would be well on the way to helping solve the energy crisis.
Several companies and research teams are working on using see-through solar panels to create electricity, so they could replace current windows, phones could use their screens to keep their charge topped up and skyscrapers could be powerhouses.
These panels work by allowing visible light through while trapping the energy from infrared and UV radiation directing the energy towards the edges of the panels where a photovoltaic material transforms it to electricity (similar to the technology used in classic solar panels).
This is a fairly new technology, with talk of it having occurred for a few years now, with ideas ranging from films that would stick onto existing glass windows to panes that would replace current windows. But with promise of it being commercially available within the next 2 to 5 years.

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