September 22, 2021
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    How your morning coffee can help you survive an earthquake

    October 19, 2019

    Accidentally spilling hot coffee or tea when walking is a common irritating occurrence, but if you look carefully at what happens in your mug, it can reveal something far more important.
    Walking while holding a hot drink comes with a hazard – spilling it on the floor and yourself. But this relatively everyday activity can also teach us about a far larger natural hazard too.Earthquakes occur when tectonic plate boundaries suddenly move, grinding against each other as huge amounts of tension stored in them is released.The resulting shaking can vary from simply rattling a few plates and sending ornaments spilling off shelves to the floor, to bringing entire buildings crashing to the ground.
    But in even the biggest earthquakes some buildings escape relatively unscathed. When Mexico City was hit by a magnitude eight earthquake in 1985, around 412 multi-storey buildings collapsed. Most of the destroyed structures were between eight and 18 storeys high while those higher and shorter remained largely intact.
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    • The frozen ship drifting to the North Pole
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    When scientists looked at why this bizarre pattern of damaged occurred they discovered an explanation that can be found in the way your tea or coffee behaves as you walk.

    Watch physicist Helen Czerski, a research fellow at University College London, reveal what they discovered in the video and why it might help keep you safe in an earthquake.

    This video is part of BBC Reel’s Big Questions playlist.


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    The world’s largest polar expedition has just set off for the North Pole – and BBC Future’s Martha Henriques is one of the lucky few journalists to be aboard.
    The dock’s rubber bumpers groan as the Polarstern eases its weight off them. The ship lets off three long foghorn blasts, which are answered in kind by its companion vessel, the Akademik Federov, moored 50m (164ft) away. A brass band starts up as the Polarstern begins moving out of the harbour of Tromsø, on the northern fringes of the Norwegian coast. Before we’ve moved 10m (32ft) off shore, the Arctic breeze whips the sound away.
    In the ship's gangway, one of the expedition leaders, Markus Rex of the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Germany, leans on the railing with some of the other scientists on board, looking out towards the dark fjords of the Norwegian coastline. He has just launched the largest Arctic expedition there has ever been.

    "I don't know how I feel," he says. "I honestly don't know." He may not, but he looks ecstatic.

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    Polarstern, whose name means North Star in German, is an icebreaker dedicated to scientific research. It has just begun a year-long mission to the ice cap of the central Arctic Ocean. The ship will sail to the eastern edge of the ice at around 85 degrees north and 135 degrees east – about 200km (124 miles) from the pole, although the exact location will depend on the state of the ice we find.

    Once there, the scientists will search for the perfect ice floe to anchor the vessel to. They will then build a frozen metropolis – an extensive research camp with outposts up to 50km (31 miles) away from the ship.

    Polarstern itself will remain frozen in place to drift with the camp wherever the winds and currents will carry the ice. During its ponderous, 7km-a-day drift across the Arctic, the ship and its crew will experience sub-zero temperatures with just curious polar bears for company. And for the first few weeks of this adventure, so will I.


    The icebreaker Akademik Fedorov is carrying additional supplies to the ice floe ahead of the Arctic winter when the sea will become impassable (Credit: AWI/Esther Horvath)

    As one of the few journalists taking part in the journey, I have come to observe the work they are doing and find out for myself the impact that humans are having on this frozen, little understood environment. While I’m only due to be onboard for five or six weeks, my return may depend on the changing weather and ice conditions.

    Blank patch

    There is a good reason for this extraordinary expedition.

    Despite the countless satellites blinking overhead, and numerous short sampling excursions made to the central Arctic Ocean over the years, the picture that scientists have built of the environment in the far north is still a vague sketch.

    Summertime data is easier to retrieve, when the ice extent is lowest and temperatures are most bearable. But accessing the pole in winter with vast quantities of highly delicate scientific instruments requires money, time and an extent of international collaboration difficult to achieve.

    The Arctic remains something of a blank patch in the map of the world's climate
    It has meant that the Arctic remains something of a blank patch in the map of the world's climate. Many predictions about its future have relied upon approximations, extrapolations and assumptions. On a broad scale we know the Arctic sea ice is declining. At the end of this year’s summer it hit its second lowest level since records began in the 1970s. The sea ice spanned just 4.15 million sq km (1.6 million sq miles), a level also seen in 2016 and in 2007. The sea ice extent has only been recorded lower once, in 2012, when it fell to just 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq miles).

    But exactly what this means for the ocean, the wildlife and the wider climate is still largely unclear. These missing data are one of the last great mysteries of the global climate. What we do know is that the Arctic is among the most sensitive parts of the world to climate change, warming at around twice the rate of any other region. But the impact will not be confined to the top of the world – small perturbations in the Arctic are expected to ripple outwards to lower latitudes, driving more widespread climate changes.


    Sensors are being deployed on the ice as the Polarstern makes its journey towards the North Pole (Credit: AWI/Sebastian Grote)

    There are some tangible examples already. One of the best-studied is what happens when the bright white northern ice cap melts. As it shrinks, the Sun's light and warmth that was previously reflected back into space by snow and ice is instead absorbed by the dark oceans. Those warmed oceans then lap at the ice, causing it to melt more, potentially leading to a runaway cycle of melting until it vanishes entirely in the summer months. There are already fears we are approaching this tipping point.

    This dramatic change is expected to have knock-on effects across the northern hemisphere, including altering ocean currents, rising sea levels, shifts in major fisheries and impacts on wildlife both on and off the land.

    To find out with any precision how severe these changes will be, it takes an expedition on the scale of the one I have joined.

    The Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory of the Study of Arctic Climate, or Mosaic as it is known, dwarfs previous expeditions of its kind. Its price tag comes in at well in excess of 140m euros (£124m/$153m), without even considering the value of the instrumentation on board.

    Earlier, while the ship was still being loaded, one scientist showed me an instrument that he had built over the course of 37 years – more or less his entire career. On the outside, it looked unremarkable, like a domestic freezer turned on its side.

    "It cost more than a million dollars,” he told me, resting his hand on the white metal casing. “Well, how much for a life's work?"

    We are advised not to stand close to it for too long, otherwise it will be my face appearing in the data instead of information about the cloud cover
    After nearly a decade of planning, Polarstern is packed almost to bursting point with devices of this nature. One instrument overlooking the stern looks like an old-fashioned overhead projector, with a domed mirror in place of the usual flat surface for sheets of acetate. This Total Sky Imager that will take pictures of the Arctic sky as Polarstern drifts with the ice. We are advised not to stand close to it for too long, otherwise it will be my face appearing in the data instead of the cloud cover.

    Taking stock of all the experiments like this on board, it is easier to understand expedition leader Rex's numbness as we depart.

    The facts and figures of the expedition give some idea of its scale. More than 600 scientists from 19 different nations will take part over the course of the year. Some are staying for a total of nine months. Living on a boat and floating ice camp more than 1,000km (621 miles) from the nearest solid land, they will work in vicious polar storms, temperatures as low as -45C and the long months of polar night over the winter.

    The 118m (386ft) long ship is, for the most part, a winding network of narrow corridors over six decks, from the engine room and laundry down below to the bridge high over the bow. A series of small "shops", or hatches from which the ship's crew offer beer, sweets, tobacco and toiletries, open at set times throughout the week, usually for just 15 minutes at a time. Mealtimes are equally regimented, with breakfast from 07:30 to 08:30, briskly followed by lunch at 11:30, coffee and cake at 15:00, and dinner at 17:30.


    Daily measurements will be taken on, above and below the ice to build up a better picture of how the Arctic is responding to climate change (Credit: AWI/Esther Horvath)

    Deciphering the rhythm of life on the ship is made easier for me by my cabinmate, Nicole Hildebrandt. This is her eighth year and tenth expedition on board Polarstern. A researcher at AWI, she is part of Mosaic’s ecology team, sampling zooplankton. Zooplankton, small marine organisms that carried by currents, are a crucial part of the Arctic food web – supporting life from whales to fish, and the seals and polar bears that eat the fish.

    Hildebrant’s speciality is using a series of large nets, which she casts from the side of the ship into a hole in the sea ice where they can drift for up to 2,000m (6,500ft) in the water beneath. She knows the ship backwards and forwards, describing the circuitous paths through the warren of steep stairs and cramped corridors to reach more or less anywhere I want to go. She tells me when it is a good time to get your laundry done, and when to beat the dinner queues. Among her baggage she has brought a few things to make our cabin more homely – her own pillow and bedlinen, fairy lights and a selection of snacks not available on board

    This is the first time Hildebrandt will be working on Polarstern through the Arctic winter. Among her supplies this time is a stash of vitamin D to compensate for the lack of sunlight. This first leg of the expedition is expected to end in mid-December, followed by a two-week journey back on another icebreaker, which will plough through the ice to get as close as possible to Polarstern so people, fuel and food can be transferred.

    None of the first leg participants expect to be back for Christmas. "I think it will be beginning of January. We won't make new year," says Hildebrandt.

    Drifting time

    In the first few days on board, sense of time on the ship dissolves. As we move east, through the Norwegian Sea to the Barents Sea, a muffled voice declares on the public announcement system, first in German then in English, that the clocks will go forward one hour that night. This happens every afternoon for the first week. Like many things on the ship, it happens in a strictly regulated way. Time will be lost in three 20-minute intervals spread throughout the night, so that the shortening of the shifts is spread fairly between the three night watches. Each night the minutes between 20:00 and 20:21, between midnight and 00:21, and then 04:00 and 04:21 go missing.

    Compounding this sense of slipping time is the lack of windows in the communal spaces in the ship. On C-deck is the Red Saloon, where most people spend their idle moments, lit by a soporific glow from yellow-shaded wall lamps. The ship rolls heavily in the swells, causing a pen hanging on a string on the saloon wall to swing like a pendulum. In the bar down on D-deck, a stool spins slowly by itself. It’s as if the Polarstern is rocking us to sleep, regardless of whether it is 21:00 or right after breakfast.

    The waves outside are 3-4m high on average, their tips whipped into white horses by a north-easterly wind
    But everyone's experience of the motion is different. For Hildebrandt, it is unbearable. She spends most of day three in the top bunk of our cabin with her eyes tight shut. The waves outside are 3-4m high on average, their tips whipped into white horses by a north-easterly wind. Seven-metre waves roll through every now and again. We hear a faint crash as the ship hits a trough, sending a wall of spray flying up to the windows of the bridge.

    As the short days pass, it becomes clear that I am one of the irritating few who doesn't suffer at all from seasickness. Instead I thoroughly enjoy the sensation of being magnetised to the floor one moment and floating near-weightlessly the next. As I climb the steps from deck to deck, I imagine that I am walking on the surfaces of different worlds – first struggling on a vast planet with an overbearing gravitational field, a second later skimming lightly across the surface of the moon.


    Although the Polarstern is an icebreaker, it still needs to be on the look out for large icebergs (Credit: AWI/Esther Horvath)

    By day four of the voyage, as we pass the tip of Novaya Zemlya, a pair of islands extending from northern Siberia, those who have been suffering from seasickness begin to emerge from their cabins as their bodies adjust to the unstable floor.

    They check the maps on touchscreen monitors in the Red Saloon, zooming in to see our progress and adjusting the settings to see the ice thickness data further ahead, superimposed on the map in bright purple. We are soon set to pass a handful of Siberian islands, including Severnaya Zemlya to the west and Bolshevik Island to the north. Just beyond them, a nasty tongue of ice curls out from the ice cap. "It is a question of whether we go through that ice field, which could be slower and with more icebergs, or if we take the long way around it," says Rex.

    People murmur about passing between the islands. The route is rumoured to be extraordinarily beautiful, and it would be our first up-close sight of land since leaving Norway. But it is also a tricky stretch to navigate.

    "We are now past the area where we can rely on the maps," says Rex. Another large ship passed through that stretch a few days ago, so we know it is possible. But Polarstern has a deep hull, and accurate data on the depth of the sea floor is scarce. There is also the problem that the more time we spend travelling through ice, the trickier the ride. "Polarstern can't go through icebergs," says Rex. "Ice sheets, fine, that is just a couple of metres or so. But icebergs are much, much larger. They can go way down for a hundred metres."


    Scientists on Polarstern are almost paternal about the welfare of their scientific instruments, which are crucial for the success of the expedition (Credit: AWI/Esther Horvath)

    An unwelcome image floats into my mind. Felix Lauber, a senior crew member, assures me that even if Polarstern crashed headlong into an iceberg at speed, we would not be in serious trouble. "You won't break this ship in the ice – we've tried hard already," he says.

    Lauber has worked on the bridge for 10 years (he's still "the new guy" by the crew's standards, he tells me) and appears to have a strong attachment to Polarstern, both for its scientific capacity and its physical sturdiness. "If we hit a massive iceberg straight on, the ship will shake a bit,” he says. “You will have some damage on the nose but not under the waterline. Everyone would take a step forward but we would be fine. She is an amazing build, really."

    I interpret this as professional understatement.

    Lauber's view from the bridge looks out onto the bow, where the iron grey waves turn into a white sheet that showers down on the containers stored on the deck. The rough seas have already posed challenges for some of the scientific instruments they contain. Water has been sloshing in through the inlets at the bottom of the containers, which are there to ensure that they don't trap water inside, but also allow a good quantity of sea foam to bubble in from below.


    Searching for the right ice floe to anchor the ship to is a protracted process that means looking for just the right conditions (Credit: AWI/Sebastian Grote)

    The instruments are, of course, the scientists' only way of getting their jobs done once we find ice. Without fully functional tools, they would have come to the North Pole for nothing. Some of the scientists care for them almost as if they were living creatures.

    Most of those not kept in exposed sea containers on the bow live down in labs on E-deck. The confined corridors are painted a faded shade of institutional green. I follow a blast of hot air, along with the sound of hissing and burping machines, to the lab of Katarina Abrahamsson, of Göteborgs Universitet, Sweden. I find her working at a screen showing a black-and-white trace with clusters of sharp peaks. She is measuring the levels of naturally occurring ozone-degrading compounds in the Arctic.

    The release of these compounds, produced by microorganisms and geochemical processes, can have the same degrading effect on the atmosphere as CFCs, the now-banned class of chemicals used as refrigerants and propellants since the 1930s. Abrahamsson is travelling north to find out whether the young, thin sea ice that now dominates the Arctic is a potent emitter of these compounds, as studies in the Antarctic have suggested it might be. (Read more about the detectives hunting down ozone-killing chemicals.)

    Looking around her lab I see a white unit with a glowing green hexagonal design cut into its front and in one corner a discreet label that reads "Good Boy". On the other side of the lab I see an identical instrument, only its label says "Bad Boy". One of the instruments worked perfectly well out of the box in the lab back home, Abrahamsson tells me. The other, not so much. Between the two green-glowing instruments sits a complicated steel box with a tangle of wires among dozens of gauges and dials. Its name: "Miss Sophie".

    "Oh, they all have different personalities," says Abrahamsson. "Sometimes you have the thing working fine, and then you go away for a night and you come back and it has shut down for no reason," she says, frowning fondly at Miss Sophie. "You try and try to get it working again next day and it won't do a thing. It's as if it's saying, 'Why did you leave me?'"

    Abrahamsson now has a routine to check on her instruments every night before bed, to make sure they won't be “sulking” come morning. When I visit, only half of Abrahamsson's whizzing, hissing instruments have been turned on. The others, she says, are too temperamental. The motion of the ship – particularly when we meet the sea ice – could break a delicate arm that transfers samples from one part of the machine to another. That instrument, which doesn't yet have a name, is tied down securely under a blue strap.


    The scientists and crew on board Polarstern will have to endure days of darkness at the height of the Arctic winter but it comes with some upsides (Credit: AWI/Stefan Hendricks)

    It is still four or five days before we are due to arrive at our first ice floe. The search to find the perfect floe is uppermost in people's minds after the health of their instruments. Five days are budgeted for the hunt, but it could take longer. "We want to take some time to find our home for the next year," says Rex.

    All we know so far is that we are heading for 85 degrees north and 135 degrees east. There, Rex is hoping to find a sweet spot that will set the vessel on a drifting path – carried by the wind and currents – as close to the North Pole (perhaps even over it), and then westward across the ice sheet. A year later the ship is expected to emerge, with luck, from the ice in the Fram Strait.

    A lot hinges on finding the right piece of ice. If it is too thin, it might not support the runway needed for supply planes. If we spend too long looking for it, it will cut into valuable time for setting up the camp. And if the expedition is unlucky, the floe we attach Polarstern to could break up in one of the many vicious winter storms passing through. If this happens, all the instruments out on the ice could slip irretrievably into the sea.

    The team have help from satellite images beamed down daily, detailed sea ice forecasts and on board experts with years of knowledge of the vicissitudes of the ice.
    But in the end, much of the fate of the expedition will be left to the whims of the unpredictable Arctic climate that they have come here to capture.
    As I finish writing on the morning of our fifth day at sea, there is a low rumble that seems to come from deep inside the ship. My desk begins to judder. Out of my cabin window, I see that we have just met our first ice.
    The celestial patterns we see after dark have helped humans to set calendars and navigate for millennia, but could
    By Sarah Griffiths
    Daubed on the rough walls of a cave in southwestern France are magnificent paintings of wild cattle, bison, horses and birds. They were left there by a prehistoric artist around 40,000 years ago. Above the shoulder of one bull are a series of seven dots that suggest these early human artworks hide a starry secret.

    These dots, scientists suggest, represent a bright cluster of stars that form part of constellation Taurus, which hangs in the night sky above Europe during the winter. If correct, it suggests these early human settlers in Europe understood far more about the positioning of the stars than we could have suspected.

    Thousands of years later, the ancient Romans picked out similar shapes from the pinpricks of light created by distant balls of fire. Later still the Vikings and European explorers used the same stars to help navigate their way to new lands.

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    Among the 6,000 stars potentially visible with the naked eye from Earth, there are a few easily identified markers of the night sky that have particular significance. Polaris, or the North Star, has been used by sailors for thousands of years to help them navigate because it appears to remain stationary to those in the Northern Hemisphere. The Moon, with the night time luminance providing a comforting presence in the dark, has helped us mark the passage of the months as it waxes and wanes. Telescopes have more recently provided us the opportunity to glimpse the more turbulent universe beyond our own solar system, where violent supernovae and supermassive black holes capable of swallowing entire galaxies lurk.


    SpaceX recently launched 60 of its Starlink satellites into orbit, which formed a "train" of artificial stars visible from Earth as they were deployed (Credit: SpaceX)

    The arrival of the space age has also meant our view of the heavens can be artificially altered. Thousands of satellites and the odd space station can be spotted as if the sunlight reflects in the right way off their surfaces as they orbit, causing them to resemble stars moving steadily across the sky. The International Space Station (ISS), which circles the Earth 250 miles (400km) above us every 92 minutes, is the third-brightest object in the sky.

    But for the first time in human history, the heavens are about to be deliberately altered in ways that will completely transform our view of the star-scape above us at night. Huge arrays of satellites and orbiting artworks, could create new manmade “stars” that will become night-time fixtures for future generations.

    New “stars”

    Our growing reliance upon space technology is already causing the sky to become ever more crowded as hundreds of new satellites are launched each year. While most of us might only catch a fleeting flash of one as they pass over head, they are already posing a problem for astronomers looking out across the Universe.

    “Just as we have light pollution in cities, preventing us from seeing fainter stars, they [satellites] have a similar effect and even with larger telescopes it’s still a difficult thing to combat,” says Hannah Baynard, an astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich, in London.

    While some may argue that the services provided by these satellites are worth a celestial makeover, there are plans to place new types of spacecraft into orbit that will have purely aesthetic purposes.

    Russian start-up StartRocket has revealed it wants to launch an array of up to 300 small satellites with retractable reflective sails into low earth orbit. Once there they can be arranged like pixels on a screen to depict company logos as star-like constellations as they catch the light from the sun. It would mean that for approximately six minutes a night, we could look up and gaze upon the first commercially branded constellations.


    The International Space Station can occasionally be seen streaking across the night sky when its solar arrays are angled to reflect sunlight in the right direction (Credit: Nasa)

    So far, the firm has successfully launched a “light pixel” probe into the stratosphere that has reflective film attached to it that works like a mirror, which StartRocket says could be seen from Earth. But sending a fleet of satellites into orbit to fly in formation will be far more technically challenging, while raising the money to pay for the array could also be a major stumbling block. StartRocket says it hopes to start its new service in 2021 by displaying a peace sign in the sky.

    The company has insisted its satellites will not fly over nature reserves or be visible outside major cities but the plan has met with strong opposition from those who peer into the heavens, both professionally and as a hobby.

    “Capitalism has reached stratospheric heights,” says Ghina Halabi, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. “I’m 100% against this space pollution and commodification of the night sky.”

    But StartRocket is not alone. A Chinese company announced last year its ambitious plans to create a “fake moon”,' which according to reports in China could be launched by 2020. The reports gave no details about what it would look like or how it would work, but the chairman of the neatly named Chengdu Aerospace Science Institute Microelectronics System Research Institute Co Ltd, was reported to say it would reflect sunlight across an area of between six miles (10km) and 50 miles (80km).


    Space agencies like Nasa and Esa track debris and junk that is orbiting the Earth in case it poses a hazard to operating spacecraft (Credit: Esa)

    He also told reporters that it would have a brightness "eight times" that of the real Moon. But since the initial announcement there has been no update about the project.

    They are not the first projects to attempt to install new star-like works of art in the sky. Another bid to launch a diamond-shaped reflective sculpture into orbit in 2018 failed. Nevada Museum of Art partnered with artist Trevor Paglan to launch Orbital Reflector. If successful it would have looked like a new star from Earth. The aim was to highlight the politics of space and question who has the right to use, commercialise and weaponise space.

    For now, the Orbital Reflector has merely added to the growing mass of space junk orbiting our planet
    But after launch the project was hit by a US government shutdown, preventing the team from getting permission to deploy the reflector and the team lost contact with the artwork 35 days later.

    Paglan, however, hopes the orbiting sculpture may still bloom into being if short circuits as its electronics degrade accidently trigger the inflation sequence.

    “I think of Orbital Reflector’s current state as being in a state of unknown possibility, like an unopened present circling through the night sky,” says Paglan. “And I, for one, will keep my eyes on the stars, knowing that at any moment, a new one might spring to life.”

    For now, the Orbital Reflector has merely added to the growing mass of space junk – pieces of old spacecraft, decommissioned satellites and even frozen toilet waste – orbiting our planet.


    The Orbital Reflector, seen here on display at the Seattle Art Fair, was intended to be the world's first space sculpture (Credit: Getty Images)

    “I think it’s arrogant and conceited to think a human can add art installations to ‘beautify’ something as sublime as the heavens,” says Halabi.

    But William Fox, director of the Center for Art and Environment, Nevada Museum of Art, believes there is great value in using the heavens as canvas for human works of art.

    “Space art provides a larger frame in which to regard ourselves on the planet,” he says. Indeed, prehistoric cave paintings hint that it is in our nature to try and understand our surroundings using artwork.

    Of great concern, however, is the risk projects like this will pose to other spacecraft. The space around Earth is already looking increasingly crowded.

    China has plans to build its own space station, which would also be visible periodically with the naked eye if completed. SpaceX has also been granted permission to launch nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites to provide broadband internet access in remote locations. The first 60 of the Starlink satellites were launched in May at an altitude of 273 miles (440km), something that was immediately spotted by star-gazers.

    “When SpaceX’s Starlink went up – launched in a big long line – they all looked very bright because they started out in a very low orbit,” Baynard says. However, SpaceX says the satellites will grow fainter as they move into higher orbits.


    As more satellites are launched into orbit, the space around our planet will become increasingly crowded (Credit: SpaceX)

    Eight other companies are also planning satellite internet service, including Amazon’s subsidiary Kuiper Systems, recently filed an application for permission to launch 3,236 broadband satellites. Both SpaceX and Amazon insist they are addressing concerns about the potential light pollution their satellites might cause.

    But with all these extra objects in the sky, there is a growing risk of accidents too.

    There is already around 8,400 tonnes of debris and junk currently racing around the Earth as speeds of up to 18,000mph (28,800km/h). This hail of debris can damage and even destroy satellites if they collide – in 2009, a defunct Russian satellite smashed into a functioning US commercial satellite, breaking both spacecraft into at least 2,000 pieces, dramatically increasing the amount of debris in orbit in the process.

    The International Space Station has also had to make several maneuvers to avoid debris during its 20 years in orbit
    Nasa currently tracks thousands of pieces of debris down to the size of a marble and regularly performs avoidance maneuvers to keep its satellites safe. The International Space Station has also had to make several maneuvers to avoid debris during its 20 years in orbit. (Read more about the quest to clean up space junk.)

    “These incidents will be more commonplace as the skies become a crowded debris field of surveillance, communication and spy craft,” Halabi warns.

    While there are international regulations in place to limit the increase in space debris and some have proposed clean-up to capture junk in nets, there are some who think a solution could be to turn the junk itself into art.


    Burning space junk up in the atmosphere could create meteor showers on demand that would outshine even the most spectacular fireworks display (Credit: Alamy)

    Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde is working with the European Space Agency (Esa) on a Space Waste Lab to come up with innovative ways of tackling the growing space junk problem, including turning space junk into artificial shooting stars that could light up the sky like fireworks. The plan involves guiding fragments of debris down into the Earth’s atmosphere where they would burn up at a chosen time.

    “If space junk isn’t waste, but is a resource, that changes the discussion and adds value,” says Roosegaarde. He claims the project could be realised within three years.

    If successful, it will resurface questions that humankind has wrestled with since our ancestors left their mark inside those caves in France. Are the paintings of animals and artificial stars merely aesthetic adornments or a sign of something more profound? Are they a mark of our own ingenuity? Or are they simply graffiti, desecrating of the awe-inspiring surroundings we find ourselves in.

    As ever, beauty will be in the eye of the beholder.


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    Apollo in 50 numbers: The full list

    Footsteps that changed human history


    The 25-billion-dollar gamble
    Over the last month, BBC Future brought the fascinating history of the Apollo programme to life in 50 numbers – here’s the full list.This week marked 50 years since the three Apollo 11 astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins – returned to Earth, having become the first manned mission to land on the Moon.The Apollo programme which took them there would run until 1972. In all, there were 12 manned missions, brought to life by a workforce of over 400,000. As one of the greatest industrial projects ever mounted, its legacy continues today.
    BBC Future’s space columnist Richard Hollingham told the story of the programme in 50 numbers, spread across 10 stories. Here, we’ve provided the full list.

    0: Bottles of brandy consumed in space

    0.2: Apollo 11 radiation exposure, in rads

    1: Number of women in Flight Control (Apollo 11)

    2: Maximum speed of crawler transporter, in miles per hour

    3: Cases of flatulence

    4.5: Habitable volume of Lunar module, in cubic metres

    5: Number of Saturn V stages still in Earth/Moon orbit

    5.50: Cost of the Apollo 11 flag, in US dollars and cents

    6: Packs of pineapple fruit cake

    7: Re-entry speed, in miles per second

    8: Number of Apollo astronauts who died during Apollo

    9: Number of tape players taken into orbit

    12: Number of Moonwalkers

    15: Number of microwave meals eaten

    15.28: Combined spaceflight experience of Apollo 14 crew before mission, in hours and minutes

    18: Different names for Apollo spacecraft

    21: Days Apollo 11 crew spent in quarantine

    22: Diameter of Saturn V computer

    24: Decongestants used on Apollo 7

    25: Length of duct tape rolls, in feet

    33.31: Expenses claimed by Buzz Aldrin for Apollo 11, in US dollars

    34: Percentage of US public in favour of Moon missions in 1967

    36: Weight of lunar satellite launched into orbit by Apollo, in kilograms

    38: Average age of the Apollo astronauts

    47: Years since a human walked on the Moon

    60: Miles walked or driven on the Moon

    64: Width of TV dish which received images from the Moon, in metres

    73: Hours Al Worden (Apollo 15) spent alone in space

    74: Memory in Apollo guidance computer, in kilobytes

    75: Length of Apollo broadcasts, in minutes

    80: Number of hours Apollo astronauts walked spent on EVAs

    100: Percentage of cloud cover for Apollo 12 launch

    111: Height of Saturn V rocket, in metres

    150: Neil Armstrong’s heartrate, in beats per minutes

    170: Weight of steak consumed before lift-off, in grams

    362: Weight of lunar samples gathered, in kilograms

    398: Stamped envelopes taken to the Moon (Apollo 15)

    500: Number of seeds carried into space

    1202: Apollo 11 warning alarms

    2,382: Images of Earthrise

    2,800: Calories consumed per day by Apollo astronauts

    28,000: Distance from Earth, in miles, of the Blue Marble image

    38,000: Hours on simulators before missions

    100,000: Cost of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, in US dollars

    238,855: Distance to the Moon, in miles

    400,000: Total Apollo workforce

    35m: Thrust at lift-off of Saturn V rocket, in Newtons

    388m: Cost of lunar lander programme

    600m: TV audience of Apollo 11

    25.4bn: Total cost of Apollo programme, in 1969 US dollars




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