A healthy dose of science: From constellations to quakes

[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]

Working out what science stories matter and which ones are just a flash in the pan can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a science background. UniVerse is here to help with our regular roundup of the biggest news in science, environment and health.

 

Space: The Final Frontier

Hubble, the world’s favourite space telescope, recently celebrated its 25th birthday. It was launched in 1990, older than some of us, and it’s still working (which is more than can be said for most students).

Because Hubble is outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, it can capture images far clearer than ground-based telescopes, and it has taken some of the most stunning and iconic images of space ever seen. Although Hubble is old for a scientific instrument – most telescopes and satellites need constant updates and often become obsolete inside a decade – Hubble is still going strong, and expected to keep working until 2020, when it can be replaced by the newer Webb Telescope.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, NASA have released some breath-taking images of the Westerlund 2 cluster, in the Gum 29 stellar nursery in the constellation Carina. The Westerlund 2 cluster is approximately 20,000 light years away from Earth – which is 180,000 trillion kilometres. Which is a lot. A light-year, by the way, is a unit of distance – the distance which light can travel in a vacuum in one year, and it’s 9 trillion kilometres, or 9×10^12 – that’s 9000000000000km, or 6 trillion miles. Just in case you were feeling significant today. In astronomy, we usually use parsecs, which are more complicated – it’s the distance from the sun to an astronomical object which has a parallax angle of 1 arcsecond, and you need diagrams to explain it.

Gum 29 is a stellar nursery, which means that it is an area of space especially rich in young stars. Stars are formed when clouds of dust and gas coalesce in space, gradually making a more compact ball, until the core temp reaches 2000 Kelvin and hydrogen and helium atoms are ionised. Deuterium fusion will start at this point, followed by hydrogen fusion, at which point the star enters the main phase of its life.

Shake the Earth

Last week, news broke of a devastating earthquake in Nepal. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake has claimed more than 2000 lives and levelled sections of the capital, Kathmandu.

Nepal_Earthquake_2015_01This isn’t the first time that Nepal has been hit by a quake of this magnitude. In 1934, a quake destroyed a quarter of Kathmandu and killed nearly 17000 people. Nepal lies on a fault line – a place where two tectonic plates meet. Tectonic plates are the giant slabs of Earth’s crust that form the ground and the seabeds, and they move around a lot. In places where they meet, the friction of the two plates shifting in different directions is great enough to make the ground around it shake.

Scientists who were working in the area barely a month before the latest tragedy say that the pattern of quakes in the area might have been predictable.

According to Laurent Bollinger, from the CEA research agency, the way that the plates move in this area means that stress tends to build along the fault and result in double quakes, in what the BBC describes as a “domino effect”. A quake in 1255 was followed 89 years later by another, in 1344, in a westwards section of the same fault – in exactly the same way as the 1934 quake preceded the one on Saturday.

The tremor caused avalanches on Mt Everest, killing at least 17 people and trapping many more on the mountain. Most of the citizens of Kathmandu have fled to refugee camps and search-and-rescue missions are continuing, but it might not be over yet; there have been aftershocks, and further damage was done in Nepal and in neighbouring India and Bangladesh.

The UK has promised £5m in aid. You can donate via various organisations:

CAFOD: http://www.cafod.org.uk/Give/Donate-to-Emergencies/Nepal-Earthquake-Appeal

The Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.uk/en/About-us/News/2015/April/Donate-to-the-Nepal-Earthquake-Appeal

UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org.uk/landing-pages/Donate-Nepal-Earthquake/

 

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A healthy dose of science: From constellations to quakes