Welcome to the Era of Orbital Publicity Stunts

Space Graffiti

. Objects placed in orbit for the sole purpose of being seen from Earth.

In January a company called Rocket Lab secretly added an extra point of light to the night sky. Dubbed the Humanity Star, it was a faceted carbon-fiber sphere parked in low Earth orbit, designed to twinkle as it caught the sun’s rays, thus creating a “shared experience for everyone on the planet.”

Astronomers were not amused. Some saw it as a publicity stunt, confirming their worst fears about private spaceflight. What’s next, they fumed, billboards in space? (Two weeks later, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit.) Others called it vandalism. The epithet that stuck was space graffiti.

In truth, the Humanity Star posed no real threat to astronomy, and it soon fell out of orbit, as planned. But the image of a giant disco ball hung in the firmament—that icon of humanity at its silliest and most joyful—raised questions that won’t go away: Why are we indignant over read more

Turns Out Cities Can’t Sue Oil Companies for Climate Change

You can’t sue your way to a solution for global warming. So says the judge.

On Thursday, Judge John Keenan of New York’s Southern District dismissed the City of New York’s lawsuit against the international oil and gas companies BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell. Facing billions of dollars in climate change-related damage in the coming years, New York was hoping to extract some money from the transnational companies that extract the oil that people burn for energy—raising the planet’s temperature, exacerbating storms, melting polar ice and elevating sea levels, worsening wildfires, extending droughts, and allowing diseases to spread farther and faster.

But no. The problem isn’t the science; it’s settled. The problem is the law. Even though attorneys for the city tried to argue that their complaint was covered by federal common law and the courts, Judge Keenan found otherwise—that in the end they were suing over emissions, read more

How a Team of Experts Quelled Colorado’s Enormous Spring Fire

I first heard about Colorado’s Spring Fire on July 1, when I was driving back from a camping trip. My mom texted me from her home in Florida: “How close are these fires?” I pulled over to a rest stop, called up the federal disaster website Inciweb, and sent her back a screenshot of the wildfire’s perimeter. It seemed far away from my house on the Huerfano County line, like it would have to cross impossible acres to even come close. “Looks like we’re good,” I wrote back.

The Spring Fire is the third largest in the state’s history. By the time I learned about it, the fire had already burned through more than 40,000 acres. A plume of smoke unfurled into a constantly replenished mushroom cloud. It was 0 percent “contained,” meaning that no human-made or natural barrier was stopping the fire’s edge from expanding. Costilla and Huerfano counties had evacuated around 2,000 households by July 2.

The fire had, by then, grown to more than 56,000 acres, just 5 percent contained.

I arrived at my cabin on the 3rd, hose in hand, knowing I couldn’t really help the house but not knowing what else to do. The Spring Fire had bloomed to nearly 80,000 acres. The Department of Transportation closed the highway right at the turnoff to my place. Big-bellied planes full of retardant crossed the sky overhead, their flight path traversing part of the bullishly-named Wet Valley.

That night, the sunset, reflecting off the smoke particles, was spectacular. The mountains read more

Dive Under the Ice With the Brave Robots of Antarctica

The lava fields of Hawaii. The peaks of the Himalayas. The crowds of a Justin Bieber concert. These are among the most perilous of environments on planet Earth, places where few humans dare tread. They ain’t got nothin’, though, on waters of our planet’s polar regions, where frigid temperatures and considerable pressures would snuff a puny human like you in a heartbeat.

Robots, though? This is the stuff their tough-as-hell bodies were made for. This is the domain of Seabed, the sensor-packed machine that dives over a mile deep into the polar seas—autonomously—collecting invaluable data. But it comes at a price: Getting the bot back to its icebreaking boat alive can be more challenging than communicating with a Mars rover millions of miles away.

Seabed doesn’t swim like your typical autonomous underwater vehicle. Most are shaped like torpedoes, which allows them to efficiently cut read more

A Comprehensive Guide to the Physics of Running on the Moon

One day humans will have a permanent presence on the moon. Right? One day it’s going to happen. So, how are we going to live on the moon? And maybe a more important question—how are we going to move around there? In preparation for our lunar colony, let me look at three motions that we could do on the moon: jumping, running, and turning.

Let me note that this analysis is inspired by Andy Weir’s recent novel Artemis. I’m not going to spoil the plot except to say there is a girl that moves around on the moon. Weir does a pretty nice job describing what would be different about moving on the moon as compared to the Earth.

What is different about the moon compared to the Earth? The biggest difference is the gravitational field on the surface. On the Earth, the field has a strength of 9.8 Newtons per kilogram (we use the symbol g for this). This means that a free falling object (no air resistance) would have a downward acceleration of 9.8 m/s2. read more

Rising Seas Could Cause Your Next Internet Outage

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

You probably didn’t give much thought to how exactly you loaded this webpage. Maybe you clicked a link from Twitter or Facebook and presto, this article popped up on your screen. The internet seems magical and intangible sometimes. But the reality is, you rely on physical, concrete objects—like giant data centers and miles of underground cables—to stay connected.

All that infrastructure is at risk of being submerged. In just 15 years, roughly 4,000 miles of fiber-optic cables in US coastal cities could go underwater, potentially causing internet outages.

That’s the big finding from a new, peer-reviewed study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon. To figure out how rising seas could affect the internet’s physical structures, researchers compared read more

How a Flock of Drones Developed Collective Intelligence

The drones rise all at once, 30 strong, the domes of light on their undercarriages glowing 30 different hues—like luminescent candy sprinkles against the gray, dusky sky. Then they pause, suspended in the air. And after a couple seconds of hovering, they begin to move as one.

As the newly-formed flock migrates, its members’ luminous underbellies all change to the same color: green. They’ve decided to head east. The drones at the front approach a barrier, and their tummies turn teal as they veer south. Soon, the trailing members’ lights change in suit.

Zsolt Bézsenyi

Zsolt Bézsenyi

It beautiful. It’s also kind of amazing: These drones have self-organized into a coherent swarm, flying in synchrony without colliding, and—this is the impressive bit—without a central control unit telling them what to do.

That makes them utterly different from the drone-hordes you’ve seen deployed at places like the Super read more