To the Stars with Data: May 1 2022
Microbes that break down plastics, recap of Q1 space investment and launches, packaging foam from shrimp shells, and much more
I didn’t realize this until after publishing last week’s issue, but last week was my first year anniversary of To the Stars with Data! 🎉 I’d feel truly honored if you reply to this email with your favorite “congratulations” GIF or image. No pressure.
Completely unrelated, but did you know that wombats are SO FREAKING COOL?
Now, let’s go to the stars with data!
Thought-Provoking Data Viz
Quick hits. XKCD’s timeline is an oldie, but a goodie, of how the Earth’s average temperature has changed over the past 22,000 years. We begin our adventure in 20,000 BCE, where Boston is under almost a mile of ice and the glaciers reach as far south as New York City. It will take a full 11,000 years for temperatures to reach modern levels, an increase of around 4 degrees Celsius. Temperatures hover around “0”, the 1961-1990 average temperature, until global warming hits in the 1990s. Since then the global temperature has increased ~1.2 degrees Celsius and is still climbing rapidly. The same amount of warming would have taken hundreds of years in the past, not mere decades. This, my friends, is how we know humans are to blame.
Digging deeper. What we do over the next few years will determine the future of the temperature, and all life, on planet Earth. Luckily, companies and governments are starting to understand, which is why you see all those “net-zero” declarations in the news. Although strides are being made, becoming net-zero by 2050 is not soon enough; we need to take action now to stave off the worst of climate change’s effects.
Considering that a climate of 4 degrees colder meant glaciers in North America in everything above New York, imagine what a climate of 4 degrees warmer would mean. If we do not limit our emissions now, we will hit that within the next 100 years. If you want to stay abreast of where we’re headed, I recommend the Climate Action Tracker, which estimates the amount of warming we’re likely to face given policies and promises made by governments and corporations.
Quick hits. Researchers recently modified an enzyme in bacteria that allow the bacteria to quickly break down PET (a type of plastic). To create the enzyme, researchers used a machine learning model to generate mutations of an enzyme that already allows bacteria to break down plastic, PETase. Their goal was to create an enzyme that allows bacteria to break down plastic quickly at ambient temperatures. The mutated enzyme, “FAST-PETase”, allows bacteria to break down PET-based plastics in as little as 24 hours at temperatures less than 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Though PETase is not new, previous enzymes have not been scalable because they must operate at high temperatures. With FAST-PETase, we may have a scalable solution. Here’s the scientific paper.
Digging deeper. I don’t think I need to tell you that plastic pollution is a big problem. Just look at the below chart: 8 million tons of plastic per year end up in our oceans.
But wait! There’s hope. Here are some recent trends I’ve highlighted in previous weeks:
Companies like ByFusion are reusing the plastic instead of letting it go to waste. In ByFusion’s case, they make construction bricks from hard-to-recycle plastics.
Other companies (like Carbios) and researchers (like the above article) are using the power of microbes to break down plastics so they’re less toxic in the environment.
Other Earth news
✈ The world’s first flying car airport opens in the UK. Unfortunately, the airport is just a showcase of what flying car airports could be like, so it’s being dismantled within the next few weeks to be moved elsewhere.
⚛ The Large Hadron Collider comes out of a 3-year maintenance period and immediately breaks a new record, propelling photons with an energy of 6.8 trillion electronvolts (TeV). The tools powering data collection have also been upgraded, allowing for more precise measurements.
🤖 What’s next for AlphaFold and the AI protein-folding revolution; an in-depth article about AlphaFold, protein folding, and how it can help humanity.
🧠 In-depth article on Brain-Computer Interfaces and what they’re helping people do nowadays. The future is here!
Quick hits. Earlier this week, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) team released some deliciously crisp “engineering images” from the alignment of the telescope. Excitingly, JWST is operating even better than the team’s optimistic predictions. Now that the alignment of the instruments is complete, JWST can move into its final stage of preparation: science instrument commissioning. This stage, which involves operating various instruments together to ensure everything operates nominally when used in conjunction, will last about 2 months and scientific operations should begin this summer.
If you ever feel lonely and want to know what JWST is up to, I recommend Where is Webb to bring you comfort.
More space news
Though Q1 2022 ($7.2 billion) saw more investment than Q1 2021 (~$6 billion), investment substantially decreased compared to Q2 and Q4 2021, which saw over $17 billion and $14 billion in investment, respectively.
This year, 74 of the 119 investment rounds were early-stage (Seed or Series A), indicating a strong pipeline for future growth investments.
Interestingly, investment in distribution space tech (hardware and software to connect, process, and manage data from space-based assets) received almost as much funding as previous quarters, even though Q1 marked much lower investment in general compared to previous quarters.
The companies with the most launches include SpaceX (11 launches), CASC (the primary contract for China’s space program; 8), and Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency, 4).
In terms of the number of spacecraft launched, SpaceX blew all other providers out of the water, with 502 spacecraft. The next providers are CASC (38 spacecraft), and Arianespace (34). The large number of spacecraft was driven by communications satellites, including Starlink and OneWeb.
In terms of the total mass of the satellites (“upmass”), SpaceX also blew all other providers out of the water, with 115,900 kg. The second and third providers are Roscosmos with 19,130 kg and CASC with 13,982 kg.
The USA, China, and Russia had the most space launches, with 18, 8, and 4, respectively.
Air Company creates ethanol-based products ✨ from thin air ✨. They do this through a carbon conversion technology that transforms carbon dioxide from the air into impurity-free alcohols. One of their first products is vodka made from the process, which you can even buy now. They raised $30m Series A in April 2022, so it appears that investors are impressed with the promise of the technology.
Cruz Foam creates a compostable packaging foam from discarded 🦐 shrimp shells 🦐. Their foam biodegrades in as little as 3-6 months, compared to petrol-based foam which can take centuries. Cruz Foam raised $3.4m Seed in April 2022, and investors include well-known names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher.