The PLATO observatory is operational
PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) was selected as the third medium-sized (M) mission in the European Space Agency's Cosmic Vision programme (the others being "Solar Orbiter" launched in 2017 and the Euclid Space Telescope launched in 2020). This observatory would include a payload of 34 separate telescopes and cameras, each comprised of four CCDs at 4500 x 4500 pixels resolution. It would scan up to a million stars, looking for truly Earth-like planets in sufficient detail to examine their atmospheres for signs of life.* In operation from 2024 until 2030,* at Earth-Sun Lagrangian point L2, the mission has the following objectives:
• Discover and characterise a large number of close-by exoplanetary systems, with a precision in the determination of the planet mass up to 10%, of planet radius of up to 2%, and of stellar age up to 10%.
• Detect Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone around solar-type stars
• Detect super-Earths in the habitable zone around solar-type stars
• Measure solar oscillations in the host stars of exoplanets
• Measure oscillations of classical pulsators
PLATO is aided by data from the Gaia mission launched in 2013, which provides many useful targets for subsequent follow-up observations.
biggest refugee crisis in world history
flooding in southeast Asia – produced by a combination of rising sea
levels, melting glaciers and extreme weather events – is creating the
biggest refugee crisis in world history. Bangladesh and neighbouring regions are seeing literally tens of millions of men, women and
children displaced from their homes.*
horror is the worst environmental crisis of the 21st century so far. Although
various different countries are affected, the disaster is centred
on Bangladesh with its high density and population (150 million),
situated in the low-lying Ganges River delta. With most of the country
just a few metres above sea level, combined with a flat topography, storm
surges are flooding huge areas of land with almost no hope of recovery.
As well as the physical damage to infrastructure, salt in the ground
means that fields up to 40 km from the new coastline are rendered useless
for growing crops.*
drown, while others die in the subsequent looting and chaos
that sweeps the nation. With so many refugees attempting to flee the region, conflicts begin to erupt
along the borders with India and Burma. The sheer
scale of this catastrophe makes it difficult to coordinate relief efforts, and relatively speaking, only token assistance can be offered by the UN.
elephants are going extinct in the wild
efforts to curtail the ivory trade, vast numbers of elephants continued
to be poached throughout Africa. Their population – which stood at 600,000
in 2009 – declined by nearly 40,000 each year.* They are now on the verge of extinction, with few reported sightings in the wild. Zoos and parks are working to maintain a viable population for future rewilding.
Hampton | Dreamstime.com
Open-source, 3D printed clothes at near-zero cost
3D printing – having emerged as a mainstream consumer technology – is now so cheap, fast and easy to use that it can produce items of clothing for just a few cents.* A milestone was passed in 2014 when 3D printing became faster than injection moulding.* The speed of printing continued to increase, doubling every two years in a trend similar to Moore's Law. By 2024, it is over 30 times faster, so an item which took four hours to print in 2014 now takes just seven and a half minutes.* Millions of open-source designs are available to download. Sweatshops in the developing world are declining as a side effect, with low-paid factory jobs made increasingly obsolete.
of the Square Kilometre Array
view of the universe is greatly expanded with the completion of a major
new observatory.* This radio telescope
has a combined collecting area of approximately one kilometre. It operates
over a wide range of frequencies and its size makes it 50 times more
sensitive than any other radio instrument. By utilising
advanced processing technology, it can survey the sky more than 10,000
times faster than ever before. With stations extending to a distance
of 3,000 km from a concentrated central core, it continues radio astronomy's
tradition of providing the highest resolution images in all of astronomy.
Image used with permission from Jo Bowler, SKA Program
Development Office, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.
99% of near-Earth asteroids have been catalogued
Sentinel is a mission developed by Ball Aerospace for the non-profit B612 Foundation which aims to identify the vast majority of asteroids near Earth. Launched by 2018 and with 6.5 years of operation, it becomes the first privately-funded mission to the inner Solar System. A spacecraft with a 0.5-metre infrared telescope is placed in a Venus-like orbit, facing away from the Sun. This allows it to view the night half of the sky every 20 days – picking up objects that were previously difficult, if not impossible, to see from Earth.** In its first month alone, Sentinel discovers over 20,000 objects, more than double the 10,000* found in the past 30 years. Given the telescopic accuracy, its data also proves useful in future asteroid mining.
The Sentinel Space Telescope in orbit around the Sun. Image courtesy of Ball Aerospace.
first probe to fly into the Sun's outer atmosphere
Probe Plus is a historic mission flying into the Sun's outer atmosphere
(corona) for the first time. The probe travels to within 5.9 million
km (3.6 million miles) of the Sun's surface – just four times the length
of its diameter.
close range, a shield is needed at the front of the spacecraft. This
is made of reinforced carbon-carbon composite, able to withstand temperatures
of 2000°C. At closest approach, Solar Probe Plus hurtles
around the Sun at approximately 450,000 miles per hour; fast enough
to get from Philadelphia to Washington in one second.
primary scientific goals are:
• To determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields at the
sources of solar wind.
• To trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the
• To determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles.
• To explore dusty plasma near the sun and its influence on solar wind
and energetic particle formation.
closer to the Sun than any previous craft, Solar Probe Plus uses a combination of in situ measurements and 3D imaging to revolutionise
our knowledge of the physics, origin and evolution of the solar wind.*
Lunar Mission One drills into the Moon's south pole
Lunar Mission One is a British-led, unmanned Moon probe launched in 2024.* It attempts to land on the lunar south pole – a region largely unexplored until now – before drilling down at least 20m (65 ft) and trying to reach as deep as 100m (328 ft). This provides fresh new insights into the Moon's composition and geologic history, revealing new clues about the early Solar System. The mission gains crowdfunding through Kickstarter.* Backers are able to contribute photos, text and even their DNA in a time capsule, leaving a digital record of civilisation. Detailed analysis of the surface environment helps to gauge the suitability of the lunar south pole as a location for a permanent human base in future decades.*
Bio-electronics for treating arthritis are in common use
Arthritis is a form of joint disorder caused by trauma or infection of a joint, or old age. As of the 2010s, it was the single most common type of disability in the United States, predominantly affecting the elderly and resulting in over 20 million individuals having severe limitations in function on a daily basis. Total costs of arthritis cases were close to $100 billion annually, a figure expected to increase dramatically in the future with an aging population. Treatments for arthritis usually involved a combination of medication, exercise and lifestyle modification, but a cure remained elusive.
In 2014, a breakthrough involving the use of bio-electronics was unveiled by researchers. This took the form of a pacemaker-style device embedded in the necks of patients, firing bursts of electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve – a crucial link between the brain and major organs. The impulses were shown to reduce activity in the spleen, in turn producing fewer chemicals and immune cells that would normally cause inflammation in the joints of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Over half of people saw a dramatic improvement, even for severe symptoms, with up to 30% achieving remission.
After successful clinical trials, another decade of progress led to next-generation implants miniaturised to the size of rice grains, as well as improvements in cost and efficacy. By 2024, it is a routine form of treatment in many countries.* Bio-electronics are showing promise in other areas too. For example, they can prevent the airway spasms of asthma, control appetite in obesity, and help restore normal insulin production in diabetes.
Wind turbine drone inspection is a multi-billion dollar industry
As the world shifts towards clean energy, the number of wind turbines is growing exponentially. With so many installations, there is now enormous demand for inspection and maintenance of these structures. This is occurring alongside rapid uptake of drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which can provide a faster and cheaper alternative to traditional inspections. Until now, most of these jobs involved either simple ground-based visual assessments, or complicated and risky rope or platform access (sometimes at heights of 600 feet). By contrast, drones are essentially risk-free, extremely quick in their operations and offer much higher resolution than human eyes, while automating much of the image processing, data analysis and other tasks. By 2024, global revenue for wind turbine UAV sales and inspection services has reached almost $6 billion.**
The Aibotix drone. Credit: Aibotix/YouTube