We’re halfway through April and Notch’s weekly collection of science, space, tech and the environment’s talking points is celebrating its one-month anniversary. So, after the champagne and sparklers, lets delve into the pressing questions and talking points.



Discovery in its prime

Dusk is setting on the space-shuttle era and we at Notch bid a heavy-hearted goodbye to the last of its kind, Discovery. A true icon of space exploration Discovery deployed the Hubble telescope, was the first shuttle to travel to Mir and the first to dock with the International Space Station. Where can we go from here, what is the practical future for space-faring technology? One answer, one that seems to be a vocal answer to almost every question involving the future, is “use robots”.

A less publicized but still notable loss in space technology is the ESA’s Envisat. The most complex earth-surveying satellite, about the size of a school bus, has stopped making contact with its Earth-based operatorsWhat is the future of Envisat, can it be fixed, will it be superceded?

Other, more responsive, satellites have been keeping watchful eyes on Mars and beyond and have led to the startling discovery of huge glass regions on the red planetand a lake on Saturn’s moon Titan that is strikingly similar to the mud flats of Namibia. This lets me ask, quite excitedly, as our universe gets more alive and intriguing every time we look, what could we be seeing next?


As a news topic North Korea’s rocket didn’t make it into our “Space” section because the rocket itself didn’t make it into actual space. Not even close. It may be for the best as one expert observer noted the rocket was not a weapon but “98% a weapon” and that the satellite it was carrying almost certainly couldn’t do what Pyongyang was claimingSo what exactly was it meant to do, or was it all just a huge propaganda trick? As one youtube user amusingly stated “Operation Bomb the Ocean was a success!”.

Click here for Reuter’s news report on the whole debacle. Japan was ready to shoot the rocket out of the sky, if it looked like it might stray, but the rocket obligingly disintegrated after only a minute without Japan, South Korea or any other of the countries globally condemning North Korean missile testing, having to lift a finger. One upside for North Korea is it makes the $15 website they’ve created to represent the nation, to mild guffaws from all corners of the internet, look like a roaring success in comparison.

Now North Korea have ruled themselves out for a few more years we can ask which developing nation is most likely to be a successful player in space exploration, or is it increasingly becoming a sector for private, not state, investment?


Solar flare

A solar flare that headed towards Earth. There’s likely bigger soon to be on their way.

Another reason to be looking out to space with a mixture of fear and curiosity is the revelation that the Earth is not equipped to react to a large solar storm. Mayans everywhere will rejoice in recognition but for everyone else this article is going to make bleak and pretty scary reading. Perhaps we’ll find relief in that it may not happen in our lifetimes but that’s exactly the attitude researcher Hapgood is arguing against; but what can we do to protect ourselves from solar storm, are we totally at the mercy of the cosmos?

Fracking has been prominent in the news lately and its opposition is getting increasingly vocal. Angry, but not quite enraged enough to ignore a pun, opposition group “Frack Off” have been scaling drilling rigs in Lancashire and even Matt Damon is going to star in an anti-fracking film. In response the government has adopted an “It’s OK so long as you don’t cause earthquakes” policy (because it has caused earthquakes). How much is our relatively short-term need for gas going to outweigh worries about dangers in the process of fracking?

Nature though has offered up a couple of feel-good stories. The often presumed extinct black honeybee seems to be making a comeback in the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder, as it seems to fare better than its South European counterparts. Another animal happily departing the endangered list is the sea lion, surely challenging kittens’ dominance as the cutest animal on the internet. What’s next to come off the endangered list, are there any more chances of us rediscovering species we’ve written off as extinct?

sea lionName

Throughout all the devastation his species has faced this sea lion has remained upbeat, resolute and defiant.


Cute or not, all animals may have a surprising event to thank for their evolutionary development. When the alkali level of the sea greatly increased 800 million years ago the simple celled organisms may have been forced to pump calcium out of their bodies. Those became shells. They became bones. It’s a fascinating concept and one that conveniently explains the lack of any rocks from a 300 million year window. In evolutionary terms what could result from the acidification of the oceans we see today?

They say “save the best for the last” and if you’re willing to accept the shattering of your concept of dimensions as “the best” my last question is fulfilling that mantra.Put simply, is time the 4th dimension of space? These researchers say it exists independently, that in fact time is best represented as the quantity used to measure change in 3D space.


For this weeks video we are treated to an explanation of the process of turning the Hubble telescopes black and white images into the beauitful, colourful ones we see today. Being from the Hubble telescope that leaves us with an opportunity to say again - thanks, Discovery.


This is what you end up with. Stunning.

And that, as they say, is that. I’m off to spend all weekend pondering if my watch is not measuring time but instead measuring the quantity that indicates the change in 3D space. Pity anyone who asks me what the time is.

Get in touch with me @mattatnotch, or @notchcom.

Until next time.

images – kenwelch.com. mysticaquarium.org, csmonitor, hubblesite.org