Tag Archives: amazing facts

The Red Planet

This year, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was launched to discover if there is life on Mars. What will they find? In anticipation of the Oribiter’s arrival in October (and the article in Maybe’s upcoming print issue), here are some facts about the Red Planet.

As the fourth planet in the solar system, Mars has a longer year than Earth, taking 687 days to orbit the sun. Interestingly, its days are only 40 minutes longer than ours, but if humans ever get to set foot on Mars, they are unlikely to feel at home there.

Mars is a perishingly cold, dry, barren planet with a thin atmosphere that is 95% carbon dioxide, meaning that we would find the air impossible to breathe. Its distinctive reddish colour is caused by the rust that covers its surface. By day the sky is also red, while the sunsets are blue – an extraordinary sight that was captured on the camera of NASA’s Curiosity Rover.

If you stood on the dusty plains of Mars and looked into the night sky, you would see two moons: Phobos and Deimos. Scientists believe that within the next 20-40 million years, Phobos will be torn apart by gravitational forces, leaving a ring like the rings of Saturn.

Although Mars is the second smallest planet in the solar system, it is home to its tallest mountain: Olympus Mons, a volcano three times higher than Everest. The lava flows around it are so recent that scientists think it may still be active.

The elliptical orbit of Mars results in extreme seasonal change. Its dust storms are the largest in the solar system, sometimes lasting for months and engulfing the entire planet.

The average temperature of Mars is a freezing -60 degrees C, but this plunges to -125 degrees C during winter at the poles (the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was -89.2 degrees C in Antarctica 1983). Although there is plenty of water on Mars, it is frozen solid.

Clearly, Mars is not a hospitable place. Is it possible that we could settle there? So far, human colonies on Mars remain in the realm of science fiction, but missions like the one launched this year will help us understand more about this intriguing world.

Louisa Watson

The world’s oldest trees

It’s well-known that trees can last a long time. While hazels and apple trees have about the same lifespan as a human (80 years), the oak in your local park is likely to outlive you, your children and your grandchildren – with the right conditions, common oaks can endure 350 years or more.

Trees owe their longevity to several factors, not least is the fact that some species don’t experience the usual side-effects of ageing, such as ill-health and loss of vigour.

Unlike us, trees have a compartmentalised vascular system, meaning that one part of the plant can live on after the rest of it has died. They can also re-grow lost or damaged organs. Some trees even clone themselves, producing thousands of trunks all sharing one network of roots. The original trunk may be long dead, but the organism as a whole continues to thrive.

Somewhere high in the White Mountains of California is Methuselah, a bristlecone pine that began its life sometime around 2833 BCE. At almost 5,000 years old, it is considered the world’s oldest non-clonal tree (a slightly older tree, Prometheus, was felled by a scientist in 1964). Its exact location is kept secret to protect it from vandalism, but visitors can see the grove where it grows.

The Methuselah Grove photographed by Oke / Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Methuselah Grove photographed by Oke / Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is awesome to think of a single tree enduring so long, but even more impressive ages are reached by those plants that can clone themselves.

The Jurupa Oak of California is one example. It resembles a tangle of bushes, but genetic testing has revealed that it is a single organism that began life during the last ice age. Its ability to send out new, genetically identical shoots has allowed it to survive at least 13,000 years of climate change and wild-fires, making it one of the oldest living things on the planet.

Even more ancient is Pando, a quaking aspen that grows in Utah. Known as ‘The Trembling Giant’, this tree has formed a colony of over 40,000 genetically identical trunks weighing 6,000,000 kg (not only is Pando the world’s oldest known organism; it’s also the heaviest).

It is hard to know exactly how long Pando has lived. While the average age of its trunks is 130, its roots are at least 80,000 years old. Some scientists believe it may have existed a million years.

The world has changed enormously since Pando started growing. Sadly, it is now thought to be dying due to a combination of drought, insects and disease, but scientists are doing what they can to save this natural marvel.

Louisa Watson

What is the Milky Way?

Most of us have heard of the Milky Way – the galaxy of stars in which our planet resides. But what exactly is a galaxy? And how did the Milky Way get its name?

A galaxy is a collection of stars, gas and dust that is bound together by gravity. None of this was known to our distant ancestors, of course; all they saw was a band of cloudy-looking stars stretching across the night sky. The Romans named our galaxy via lacteal (‘road of milk’) because it resembled a milky patch, while to the Ancient Greeks it was the galaxias kyklos (‘milky circle’).

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle speculated that the Milky Way was created by interactions between the terrestrial and celestial spheres. About 1,800 years later, Galileo showed that it was a great group of stars, planets and other matter.

We now know that the Milky Way is vast, containing at least 100 billion stars. Imagine how many planets must be orbiting those alien suns! Light takes about 8 minutes to reach Planet Earth from the Sun, but it takes 100,000 years to cross from one end of the galaxy to the other.

The Milky Way is shaped like a whirlpool that rotates once every 200 million years. Its oldest stars are 13.4 billion years old – almost as old as the universe itself.  Our own Sun is a mere 4.5 billion years old and lies about 27,000 light-years away from the Galactic Core, which contains a super-massive black hole called Sagittarius A*.

If you find the size of our galaxy overwhelming, you’ll be astounded to learn that it’s just one of many.  The Milky Way is part of a cluster of 40 galaxies called the ‘Local Group’, which also includes Andromeda.  This itself is part of a super-cluster called Laniakea (Hawaiian for ‘immeasurable heaven’), which is 520 million light years across and contains 100 million billion stars!

There is more to the universe than our ancestors could ever have conceived. As we gaze at the night sky, we could feel daunted by our own insignificance, or we could marvel that we are part of something far greater than we can imagine.

Louisa Watson

The Slingshot Spider

Spider-Man is famous in the world of Marvel comics for his ability to shoot threads from his wrists and trap villains in sticky nets.

His arsenal has always seemed more impressive than that of regular spiders (his crime-fighting antics would not be nearly so thrilling if he had to weave a web between the skyscrapers and wait for the Green Goblin to fly past).

However, we all know that fact is often stranger than fiction.

A regular spider waiting in its web...
A regular spider waiting in its web…

While trekking through the Peruvian jungle, scientist Lary Reeves came upon an arachnid ingenious enough to replicate the effect of Spider-Man’s mechanical web-shooters without the use of any advanced, fictional technology.

Reeves was actually searching for speckled caiman (a South American relative of the alligator) when he noticed a tiny 3mm spider crouched in the middle of a cone-shaped web. Using a silken threat, the arachnid had attached the centre of its web to a nearby plant and drawn it back like a slingshot.

As Reeves and his colleagues watched, the spider released the thread and fired its web at a passing mosquito.

Reeves believes the spider’s body may be equipped with sensory hairs which are tuned to the frequency of a fly’s wing-beats. More than once, he observed the spider releasing the web when there was no prey in sight, presumably confused by the vibrations of his breath. Fortunately for it, the diminutive hunter can easily re-set its trap by drawing the anchor-line taunt again.

While Reeves is not sure that this slingshot web is any more effective than an ordinary web, he believes it is good for catching insects that have just emerged from the water.

His colleague Phil Torres is clearly impressed by the spider’s abilities. “Imagine the difference between bumping into a sticky trap and having a sticky trap flung at you,” he says.

Since the creature’s discovery in May 2013 scientists have found other, slightly bigger slingshot spiders near their research centre at Tambopata. It is now thought that the range of these extraordinary arachnids might extend all the way from Central America towards southern South America.

The spider’s swift slingshot manoeuvre was finally caught in camera by Jeff Cremer, who filmed it at 60 frames per second using a 100mm marco lens.

When Reeves initially hurried back to the Tambopata Research Centre, he believed he had found a species new to science. However, a hunt through the archives revealed that similar spiders of the obscure Theridiosomatidae family had been documented 80 years earlier. The Naatio splendida, in particular, appears almost identical to Reeve’s as-yet-unnamed slingshot spider. Further research is needed to discern whether he really has discovered a new species.

Either way, fans of Spider-Man will surely be interested to know he’s not the only web-slinger in the neighbourhood anymore.

Louisa Watson

Understanding Thunder and Lightning

From our earliest history to the present day, humans have experienced the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder as awesome natural forces.

There are countless legends explaining thunder and lightning – the Romans thought that thunder-bolts were the weapons of the god Jupiter while in Native American myth thunder is created by the thunderbird. In Medieval Europe, people believed that it was possible to avert lightning by ringing church bells.

There are also plenty of modern myths, the most famous being that ‘lightning never strikes twice’. This is clearly untrue, as the Empire State Building is hit about 20-25 times a year.

So what is lightning? The Ancient Greeks had several theories. Empedocles speculated that it was caused by sun-rays colliding with clouds. Aristotle thought that clouds emitted a ‘dry exhalation’ which burned and clashed with other clouds.

Many more ideas were put forward down the years, but it was the 18th-century scientist Benjamin Franklin who finally proved that lightning is electrical (according to the legend, he conducted a highly dangerous experiment involving a kite and an iron key).

We now know that lightning is a massive spark of static electricity which bridges the gap between the clouds and the land. Its heat expands the surrounding air, creating a compression wave which breaks the sound barrier and produces thunder.

Lightning is usually associated with rain-storms but it also occurs during blizzards, in the smoke which rises from forest fires, around volcanic clouds and nuclear fireballs, and even on other planets.

Lightning strikes the ground at 90,000 miles per second and is three times hotter than the surface of the sun. While each flash is approximately three miles long, it is only about a centimetre wide. At this very moment, about 2000 thunderstorms are occurring around the world, producing 6000 lightning-bolts a minute.

The lethal power of lightning must not be underestimated. On average, more people are killed by lightning in the USA every year than by hurricanes and tornadoes. While nine out of ten people do survive being hit, nearly 25% suffer long-term trauma. Some unfortunate people are hit more than once. The current record holder is Roy C. Sullivan, who was struck by lightning seven times.

The ‘Worst Lighting Strike Death Toll’ recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records occurred in 1963, when an airplane was hit on route from Baltimore to Philadelphia. The plane crashed, killing all 81 passengers.

When a thunder-storm approaches, the safest thing to do is take shelter in a building. As the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI) explains, if the space between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder is thirty seconds or less, ‘the threat is imminent and the next strike may be at your location’.

The idea that you should seek cover beneath the branches of a tree is a dangerous myth – 18% of lightning victims are killed while standing under trees. Most people are hit either before or after the main downpour, which is why you should not leave cover until half-an-hour has passed since the last lightning-strike.

For more information, look up the NLSI’s Personal Lightning Safety Tips at lightningsafety.com.

Louisa Watson