Eyes on the skies: Upcoming innovations in 2019

2018 proved to be breakthrough year for the scientific community. From finding the first traces of liquid water on Mars to unearthing the largest land animal to have ever lived, humanity continued on its quest to better understand the universe around us. Now, as scientists turn their attention to 2019, their plans are only becoming more awe-inspiring. Here are some of the many upcoming events and projects of the next year.

SCoPEx

In a new approach to solving Earth’s increasingly dire climate dilemma, a Harvard University geoengineering team led by scientists Frank Keutsch and David Keith will begin the first of their experiments to curb the effects of Earth’s polluted atmosphere. The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) is a weather balloon-like apparatus that will rise approximately 20 km over the Arizona desert and disperse aerosolschiefly calcium carbonatein an attempt to predict the large-scale effects of chemical particles releasing into the atmosphere. The technology will capture the initial interactions between the particles and surrounding atmospheric gases such as ozone. Pending the results, the team plans to look further into solar geoengineering, large-scale projects which attempt to reflect solar rays and offset global warming. SCoPEx estimates an initial launch date sometime early in 2019.

MOSAiC

This coming September, a team of over 600 researchers will board the Polarstern, a massive icebreaker ship that will take them to the Arctic Circle. The expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, is called MOSAiC: Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. Seeing how recent increases in global temperature have greatly affected the Arctic climate system, the climate scientists, hailing from 17 nations, hope to improve climate models worldwide by finding a better way to simulate the changing environment. To do so, they plan to set up a large network of research stations with the Polarstern acting as a hub for compiling data over the long Arctic winter, a period of time in the Arctic when study has rarely taken place. Over the course of a year, MOSAiC plans to amass a significant amount of information pertaining to climate change and changes in sea ice distribution which will serve to enhance climate models for years to come.  

Drones for Climate Change

Tropical rainforests are essential to the world’s carbon cycle stability. Acting as ‘carbon sinks,’ rainforests across the globe account for 40 per cent of trees, working as a final natural barrier between humanity and a carbon disaster by accumulating and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Unexpectedly, a significant threat to the carbon-sequestering ability of rainforests are plants, in particular liana vines, which are abundant in rainforest canopies but whose populations have doubled in recent decades. These vines tend to shade and choke larger trees, threatening the forest productivity by limiting intake of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the process of studying liana infestations is tedious, labour-intensive work. Liana are difficult to spot from below the tree canopy and it is impossible to  manually catalogue the distribution of the plant due to the sheer number of trees. To overcome these obstacles, drones present an unparalleled opportunity in this area of forestry research. The unmanned aerial vehicles can snap pictures of the forest high above the canopy, allowing researchers to see the extent of the liana cover in a reasonable amount of time. Not only is the number of drones used in scientific research increasing, so is the variety of methods in which they are employed.

NASA’s TESS

Just last week NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) discovered three new exoplanets, adding to a growing list of newly-discovered planets that is estimated to reach a peak of 20,000. An exoplanet is any planet that, similarly to Earth, orbits around a central star. At the time of launch in April 2018, only 3,800 identified exoplanets had been catalogued. As of 2019, TESS has already identified more than 250 exoplanets as it hurtles through space in the last year of its two-year journey. The novelty of the satellite comes from its many field cameras, which are able to study the mass, size, density, and orbit of a large cohort of small planets. TESS’s most interesting discoveries to date are planets which lie within the habitable zone of sun-like stars. These have surface conditions similar to that of Earth and are likely to possess liquid water and have oxygen-rich atmospheres. The identification and exploration of exoplanets could provide humanity with a first glimpse into extraterrestrial life. NASA keeps a running tally of all of TESS’s discoveries, which are sure to increase in 2019.

The Eta Aquariids and The Orionids

1986 was the last time Halley’s Comet came close enough to Earth to be seen with the naked eye, and, while it will be another 42 years before the comet itself lights up the night’s sky, two of its annual meteor showers will continue to amaze onlookers worldwide. Meteor showers come about in a multitude of ways, but The Eta Aquariids and The Orionids showers are a direct result of Halley’s Comet’s passage by Earth over 30 years ago. As a comet passes through space, the sun slowly breaks down it’s thick outer layers of ice, releasing the rock trapped underneath. The resulting meteors can be seen on Earth today, rushing toward our planet at 238,000 kph in a spectacle of light and colour. The Eta Aquariids begin on Apr. 19 and last until May 28, followed by their successor, The Orionids, which will occur from Oct. 2 to early November.

CAESAR vs. Dragonfly

This July, NASA will expand its New Frontiers program by picking a winning project to send into space. In 2017, NASA announced two finalists from a group of 12 proposals: CAESAR, a sample-return mission to search the comet 67P for organic life, and Dragonfly, which proposes sending robotic landing crafts to Saturn’s largest moon Titan. In the months following their selection, both projects received $4 million dollars to expand their proposal to NASA. If chosen, CAESAR will follow two earlier spacecrafts which have visited the comet for data collection. Meanwhile, Dragonfly seeks to uncover the origin of life in the galaxy, further exploring Titan after another spacecraft, NASA’s Cassini, initially discovered liquid hydrocarbons, the building blocks of life, on the planet’s surface in 2016. Whichever project is chosen this year will be funded in full by NASA, providing researchers with $150 million to get their spacecraft ready for take-off in 2025.

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