To the Stars with Data: August 29 2021

The true scale of the solar system, huge potatoes, sideways rocket launch, and more

Hello Datanauts!

I’m writing this in my office in my new home (a 3-bedroom house). Considering I’ve lived in 1-bedroom apartments until now, having my own office is a very exciting development!

This issue is a tad shorter than usual so I can focus on finishing unpacking, but full issues will resume next week!

Let’s go to the stars with data!

-Joe Lisle


Thought-Provoking Data Viz

Quick hits. This visualization displays how far apart everything is in our solar system. Interestingly, the author accomplished this by visualizing everything to scale, with Earth’s moon being 1 pixel large. If you get tired of scrolling (understandably), click on the icons at the top of the screen to navigate among the planets.

Digging deeper. To truly get a sense of the scale of our solar system, click on the bottom right icon (with a “c” in the middle) to experience the speed of light. Remember: light travels 299,792.458 kilometers per second. That means it takes an average of 5.5 hours for light from the sun to reach Pluto.


Earth News

Equipped with the genetic machinery to produce a human growth protein, potato plants can churn out hunkier tubers (right). The scale bar denotes 4 inches. (Qiong Yu et. al.)

🥔 Scientists made huge potatoes by adding a human growth protein

Quick hits. In a recent study, researchers increased the yields of potato and rice crops by 50% by transplanting a human protein known for promoting growth. In a greenhouse, a more controlled setting, rice yields were improved by a whopping 150%. The researchers thought this experiment to be “bold and bizarre” and were “probably expecting some catastrophic effects.“

Digging deeper. As the article’s author notes, genetic modification typically only marginally improves crop yields. An increase of 50% is astounding by comparison. The researchers attribute the success to the lack of controls present in plants for the protein (because it developed in mammals).


Space News

🛰 SpaceX's Satellites Cause 1,600 Near-Collisions Each Week

Quick hits. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, which provides internet at a global scale, experiences 1,600 close encounters each week among its satellites. Starlink satellites cause an additional 500 close encounters each week with other satellites. A close encounter is when two flying objects come within a distance of 1 km (0.6 mi) of each other.

Digging deeper. As of August 27, there are 1,640 Starlink satellites in orbit. As mentioned in the above video, collisions in space are catastrophic because spacecraft orbit at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. Unfortunately, Starlink satellites’ crash avoidance mechanism only exacerbates the problem; when the satellites come in close contact with one another, they adjust their orbit…but don’t communicate this to other satellites. Considering that SpaceX will launch 12,000 satellites during its decade-long first-generation phase, this is a true problem.

Bonus. Astra’s test flight went a little… sideways.

The rocket was supposed to launch straight up but ended up flying sideways before finally going up about 20 seconds later. Video above.


Future-Thinking Companies

🌳 Digital Humani. They provide a free service where companies can automatically buy the planting of a tree (for only $1) whenever a customer completes an action. The money goes directly to the reforestation program.

Does Digital Humani sound awesome? If you’re interested in getting in touch with the founder of Digital Humani, let me know!