In December, as the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to create a precise 3-D map of a billion objects in the Milky Way releases its next tranche of data, we take an in-depth look at what we know – and what we don’t – about our home galaxy. We speak to astrophysicist Prof. Ralf Klessen about why it might enhance our understanding of the Milky Way to consider it as a constantly evolving ecosystem rather than studying different parts in an isolated way. We speak to scientists who are trying to image the centre of the galaxy, which is hidden from view behind giant dust and gas clouds, and we explore the latest research into how stars are formed. And finally, we find out what the galaxies surrounding the Milky Way can tell us about our home system.
Our Milky Way is thought to be home to as many as 400 billion stars, one of which is, of course, our own sun. But how and when did these stars form, and where did they come from?
Our Milky Way is not alone in the universe. Surrounding us are numerous satellite galaxies, taking part in a continuous grand dance. But how do these neighbouring galaxies behave, how do they interact with our galaxy, and what does the future hold for them?
The Milky Way might be right on our cosmic doorstep, but a group of astronomers suspect that the way we currently study it is stunting our understanding. Professor Ralf Klessen at Heidelberg University in Germany is one of four researchers who have recently begun a six-year project, ECOGAL, to try something new: imagine our home galaxy as one huge galactic ecosystem. Prof. Klessen believes that using this lens could answer fundamental questions about how stars and planets form, and how they shape the Milky Way’s future.
The asteroids in our solar system are the remnants of planetary formation. They hold clues about how the Milky Way formed, but they also hold promise and peril for humans as the source of both rich materials and potentially dangerous cratering events. This month we look at the latest in asteroid research. We speak to Dr Naomi Murdoch, a planetary scientist, about her work investigating asteroids, how to land on them and how to defend Earth from a dangerous event. We look in depth at how scientists in the field of planetary defence are developing rapid response techniques to detect an Earth-bound ‘imminent impactor’, determine within days whether it’s dangerous, and evacuate people from the danger zone. We speak to scientists studying exactly what asteroids are composed of so that we can categorise them from Earth, and we look at work studying asteroid dust to see what it can tell us about the early days of our solar system and the origins of life on our planet.
With around half a million species of insects reported to be at risk of extinction and studies already showing a large decline in abundance, this month Horizon looks at what reduced insect biodiversity means for us – and what we can do about it. We speak to rove beetle expert Dr Alexey Solodovnikov about the services insects provide, from waste disposal and pollination to monitoring climate change and providing information about a new pandemic. We find out how scientists hope to cut the use of pesticides – one of the big culprits for reducing insect diversity – with new ways of pest control. We look at how efforts to boost urban green space in Europe’s cities is impacting insect life and we ask whether people’s attitudes to insects affect conservation efforts.
Picture yourself speeding down the highway with no hands on the wheel, checking your emails while your car takes care of responding to what’s happening on the road. Would you trust your car to make the right decisions? If you have doubts, you’re not alone.
Asteroids can pose a threat to life on Earth but are also a valuable source of resources to make fuel or water to aid deep space exploration. Devoid of geological and atmospheric processes, these space rocks provide a window onto the evolution of the solar system. But to really understand their secrets, scientists must know what’s inside them.
Car manufacturers are rolling out higher levels of automation but public acceptance is lagging behind.
Topography can reveal asteroid types – crucial to know for mining or deflecting Earth-bound rocks.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.