Never mind the atmosphere: Scientists look for oceans in search of alien life

Determining if a newly discovered planet has an ocean is vital to establishing whether it could develop and sustain life, according to research announced today.

Traditionally scientists have relied on the presence of an atmosphere as the central focus of computer simulations to determine if a planet is hospitable to life.

However, researchers from the UK’s University of East Anglia (UEA) have determined that the presence of an ocean is a better focus for computer models.

They have developed a simulation based on this information that provides far more accurate information about a planet’s life-sustaining possibilities that previous approaches, giving humanity a better idea of possible sources of life outside of Earth than we have ever had before.

“This new model will help us to understand what the climates of other planets might be like with more accurate detail than ever before,” explained Professor David Stevens, of UEA’s school of Mathematics.

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Oceans are so important because of their impact on the way heat is transported.

“Oceans have an immense capacity to control climate,” said Stevens. ”They are beneficial because they cause the surface temperature to respond very slowly to seasonal changes in solar heating.

“And they help ensure that temperature swings across a planet are kept to tolerable levels.”

The team discovered this importance by creating a computer simulation of a fictional Earth-like planet, and considering how factoring in oceans affected the results.

“We found that heat transported by oceans would have a major impact on the temperature distribution across a planet, and would potentially allow a greater area of a planet to be habitable,” explained Stevens.

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Previously research has relied on the fabled Goldilocks Zone – the pocket of distance away from the sun where life can flourish due to the ability for a planet to have liquid water.

“We know that many planets are completely uninhabitable because they are either too close or too far from their sun,” said Stevens. “But until now, most habitability models have neglected the impact of oceans on climate.”

The importance of oceans can be seen in our neighbour Mars, which is the right distance from the sun but shows no signs of life.

“Mars for example is in the sun’s habitable zone, but it has no oceans – causing air temperatures to swing over a range of 100°C,” said Stevens.

“Oceans help to make a planet’s climate more stable so factoring them into climate models is vital for knowing whether the planet could develop and sustain life.”


The revival of the airship: Cargo transport today, sky resort tomorrow?

Before the infamous Hindenburg disaster put an end to the airship era in 1937, lighter-than-air zeppelins were slated to become the future of transportation.

That vision was put to rest for the better part of a century, but today several companies are intent on reviving airships to carry incredibly heavy cargo payloads with increasing levels of success.

Airships offer advantages over other forms of cargo transport. Their value lies in their weight capacity, paired with the ability to land almost anywhere without the need of an airstrip or ground crew. This feature reduces costs and increases efficiency, allowing for quicker loading and unloading.

Airships can travel long and treacherous distances, landing in near-unreachable areas to deliver goods and supplies.

An American company called Aeros is one of the forerunners in the modern airship movement. It launched a high-tech cargo airship called the Aeroscraft last year.

Aeros’s prototype is able to carry payloads of up to 60 tonnes. The company is now developing a ship that will more than double this weight.

The airship was designed through a partnership with DARPA and NASA. It can achieve a vertical takeoff and landing with no ground support, operating through a helium tank.

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With these high-tech capabilities, airships have the potential to revolutionise transport in a number of fields.

Aeros foresees using the Aeroscraft to deliver heavy cargo to hard-to-reach locations, transporting disaster relief supplies and aiding military transportation.

UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles is another leader in airship technology. The company is currently in the process of designing two different airships.

One of the prototypes is focused on endurance. It is able to stay airborne for 5 days at a time, conducting surveys and research, providing communications outlets and acting as a surveillance platform.

The second is a heavy-lifting airship similar to the Aeroscraft that can land on nearly any surface, making it optimal for disaster relief and the gas, oil and mining industries.

Airships set themselves apart from typical cargo planes because of the ability to land almost anywhere without the need of an airstrip or ground crew. This feature reduces costs and increases efficiency, allowing for quicker loading and unloading.

In addition, airships present a more environmentally friendly alternative to plane transport because they need less fuel to operate and fly at a lower altitude, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

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As hybrid airship technology continues to develop, so will the uses for it. These companies already foresee using their ships to globalise world markets by quickly transporting products like fresh fruits and vegetables to revolutionise daily cuisine.

They also haven’t forgotten the airship-era dream of cruising the sky for pleasure, maintaining that one day airships will allow people to enjoy the amenities of a resort or a cruise in the clouds.

Of course, the airship tragedies of the past cannot be forgotten, but these companies are incorporating advanced safety features into their prototypes to ensure their reliability. One day soon, we will be able to fully realize the potential of the airship technology that was all but abandoned last century.


Featured image courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles, body images courtesy of Aeros.