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.
The Thirty Metre Telescope is fully operational
The Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) is a huge new observatory built on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, USA.* It is funded through an international collaboration between governments and scientific institutions in Canada, China, India, Japan and the United States.
The TMT operates in the near-ultraviolet to mid-infrared (0.31 to 28 μm wavelengths) part of the spectrum* and is designed as a general-purpose observatory for investigating a broad range of astronomical phenomena. The centrepiece of the building is a Ritchey-Chrétien telescope with a 30-metre (98 feet) diameter primary mirror, which is segmented and consists of 492 smaller (1.4 m) hexagonal mirrors. The shape of each segment– as well as its position relative to neighbouring segments – can be controlled actively. The mirror is housed in a dome with a diameter of 66 metres (217 feet) and height of 55 metres (180 feet), comparable to an 18-storey building.
Among the existing and planned telescopes of 20 metres or larger, the TMT is located at the highest altitude, sitting 4,050 metres (13,290 feet) above sea level, which provides exceptional clarity of night sky objects. Even greater sharpness is achieved by its adaptive optics system, which helps correct image blur caused by the Earth's atmosphere.* Extremely high contrast exoplanet imaging is therefore possible. It can detect Earthlike planets around distant stars and take spectroscopy of those worlds to analyse the potential for life in greater detail than ever before.
The TMT's other capabilities include revealing the structure of hidden dark matter, which is believed to account for 27% of the total mass-energy content of the known universe. The nature of "first-light" objects can also be determined by peering far back into the young universe. The early formation and evolution of the large-scale structures that dominate the present day universe can also be observed. In addition, supermassive black holes can be analysed at very high resolution. This allows scientists to measure the general relativistic effects and to spatially resolve the accretion disks for active black holes in the centres of galaxies to the distance of the Virgo cluster, around 55 million light years away.*
The TMT mirror has a collecting area nine times greater than the neighbouring Keck Telescope, with a spatial resolution over 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.*
By Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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.
Carsharing has exploded in popularity
Carsharing is a model of car rental where people rent cars for short periods of time, often by the hour. It is attractive to customers who make only occasional use of a vehicle, as well as others who need access to a vehicle of a different type than they use day-to-day. While some firms had experimented with the concept in the late 20th century, it only became well established in the early 21st. From the 2000s onwards, a growing trend of flexible, multi-modal, on-demand mobility led to rapid expansion of carsharing services. By 2015, carshare programs were available on five continents, over 30 countries and in hundreds of cities worldwide. Rising urbanisation, increasing problems of congestion and pollution, and the social and personal costs of private car ownership continued to drive demand for alternatives such as carsharing.
New innovations included one-way carsharing services for shorter, spur-of-the-moment trips; automakers partnering with garage chains to give users free parking in city centres;* ride-hailing mobile apps; the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles; and a small but growing number of self-driving vehicles. While the industry continued to expand in Europe and North America, most of the new growth was occurring in the Asia Pacific region, particularly China. In 2014, membership of carsharing programs stood at 2.4 million. By 2024, this has increased nearly ten-fold to reach 23.4 million while global revenue has risen six-fold, increasing from $1.1 billion to $6.5 billion.*
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