While most people associate summer with beaches, presents and cricket, we should also associate it with science. Here’s a handful of science stories – some good, some bad – that happened over the summer break.
Philae/Rosetta comet landing
In possibly the scientific highlight of 2014, scientists landed a robot on the comet 67P (catchy name) after a decade-long mission.
The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004, cruised around doing various science-y things and lined itself up with 67P. It hibernated for three years to conserve power, waking up in May 2014 and entering orbit around 67P in September. Then in November the main event happened: the Philae lander landed on the comet. It was the first time we’d ever made physical contact with a comet in our solar system. All we knew before was attained from just looking at comets (and we all know that looking is never as good as touching).
The mission has already yielded interesting results. For example, Earth is covered with water but we aren’t sure where that water originated. In the past the planet was so hot that all water would have evaporated into space so our water must have come from somewhere else. One idea is that it may have come from comets crashing into Earth. But chemical analysis of comet 67P has shown that the water it is made of is different to water on Earth, so this type of comet can’t be the source of our water.
In the 1980s, humanity successfully eradicated smallpox from the face of the Earth; a feat that has not been achieved with any other disease.
But a second disease is set to follow smallpox into oblivion: Guinea worm disease. This disease is a horrific parasitic infection. People drink water contaminated with worm larvae, which then spend a year growing in their intestines. After they are fully grown (up to 80cm in length), the worms then spend up to 30 days literally burrowing out of the body. Yikes!
Fortunately the disease is easy to fight. By distributing cheap plastic water filters and informational flyers, the number of people infected has dropped from over 3.5 million in 1986 to just 126 at last count. All the remaining cases are located in four specific villages in Africa. So watch this space for some awesome news.
Bill Gates drinks … sewage water?
Water is vital for human life. But did you know that only about 1% of the water on Earth is drinkable and accessible?
This means that a skyrocketing human population is placing pressure on our water systems. We need to use water efficiently to ensure that everyone has enough. Currently, over two billion people around the world have insufficient access to potable water.
This is why news from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in January was so important. They announced that they were funding the construction of an ‘Omni Processor’ plant: a water processing plant that recycles sewage into clean water and electricity.
Sewage sludge enters the plant and is boiled to separate the solid waste from the water. The solid waste is burnt to produce heat energy, which is used to turn the liquid water into steam. This powers a steam engine, which produces energy to boil more sewage sludge and thus continue the cycle. Afterwards the steam returns to its liquid state: drinking water.
One Omni Processor can convert 100,000 people’s waste into drinking water for 43,000 people and enough electricity to power both the plant and over 100 homes. As the technology develops these processing plants could play a critical role in the developing world for both sewage treatment and potable water supply.
And if you look online you can see Bill Gates drinking some of the water.
2014: another hottest year on record
To the surprise of nobody (except maybe the new federal science minister), results released from the American agencies NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) showed that 2014 was the hottest year on record. 2014 was also the 38th year in a row that was hotter than average.
Yet more evidence that climate change is happening and we should really do something about it #surprisenotasurprise.