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Other worlds: from Earth’s twin to Sun close-ups

Image credit: Alamy

Stuck in our homes, in the small space between those few walls, we find ourselves dreaming of what’s outside, beyond, and even of other worlds.

On one day last month, millions watched a spacecraft the size of a small car land on another planet hundreds of millions of miles away. Back on Earth, we cheered. The successful landing of Perseverance won’t change many people’s daily lives, but it was a welcome respite during another lockdown – something for everyone to feel good about. And it’s a triumph in particular for engineering, in the interests of science.

There’s something about space that galvanises these professionals and, since the Cold War at least, can bring nations together, often for no other reason but exploration, curiosity and the pure challenge of it. Setting ‘moon shots’ galvanises and inspires.

Nothing expands our horizons like space. The Gaia galaxy-mapping mission is sending gigabytes of data back to Earth every day about the history and workings of the Milky Way, including the mystery of what goes on inside the vast Magellanic Clouds 150,000 light years away. All that has nothing to do with your daily commute (unlike the divisive low traffic neighbourhoods) or indeed the price of fish (but our investigation does).

Yet space will be crucial for both the future of us little people down here on Earth and of the Earth itself. The Solar Orbiter is on a mission to get ‘close-up’ images a mere 42 million miles away from the Sun to help us understand how it works, but also in the hope that we can get better at predicting disastrous solar events like the solar storm that hit Earth in 1859.

Space will help us model the future of life on Earth. Data from multiple sensors in space and every part of our planet will be fed into a ‘digital twin’ of Earth, as accurate a model of all the complex processes on Earth as we can build. The digital twin is an idea that’s catching on everywhere, scaling from the smallest component (digital twin pump or motor) to systems (your digital twin car), super-systems (digital twin city) or even biological systems in health (digital twin you). Now it’s going global. Destination Earth was started last year to develop that super-model and provide a digital replica to predict the effects of policies and ideas, as well as better model what is happening to the climate and the environment.

Our space special starts with the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station. This rare example of real global cooperation has brought us important innovations: we showcase our top five. Space is becoming big business and the UK hopes its own launch site will help it to grab a bigger slice. We count down the top seven candidate locations.

Data from the observation satellites that orbit Earth is also becoming ever more important, but it could be better used. Those satellites are at rising risk of collision with the growing scrapheap of orbiting space junk. At last, there are some serious projects to clean it up; we check out the three best chances. Junk and satellites aren’t the only things up there: just for fun we take a look at the six weirdest things sent into space. Pizza, anyone?

Missions to Mars infographic

Graphic News

Image credit: Graphic News

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