To the Stars with Data: November 14 2021
Launching stuff into orbit by spinning it REALLY fast, ending deforestation, and much more
With the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (AKA COP26) ending Saturday, my mind has been on the climate recently, so I’m going to focus a bit on climate change-related news in this issue. Though I recognize that COP26 was not as productive as some wanted it to be (myself included), the primary article I chose is a more positive headline from the conference.
Let’s go to the stars with data!
Thought-Provoking Data Viz
Quick hits. This animated visualization explores the worldwide sources of energy from 1954 to 2020 and marks periods of economic depressions for context. Coal is the primary energy source until about 1964 when it is surpassed by oil. Notably, hydropower starts growing in popularity around 1950, nuclear in the 80s, and renewables like wind, solar, and biofuels over the last decade.
Digging deeper. Though I personally find the 2020 drop in oil and coal exciting due to their substantial greenhouse gas emissions, the drops were likely more due to the COVID-19 recession/pandemic than policies related to climate change. As the world recovers from the COVID-19 recession/pandemic and embarks on bringing greenhouse gas emissions down, it will be interesting to see how the energy mix changes.
🌳 Global leaders pledge to end deforestation by 2030 (possible paywall)
Quick hits. Leaders from more than 100 countries that represent around 85% of the world's forests vowed at COP26 to end deforestation by 2030. To support their pledge, 12 of these countries and a number of private companies donated a total of around $20B. More than 30 financial institutions also vowed to stop investing in companies responsible for deforestation and a new set of guidelines was drafted to eliminate deforestation from supply chains.
Digging deeper. Critics say that this pledge is not enough, as it allows deforestation to continue for 9 more years. Additionally, critics argue that similar projects have failed in the past. As this agreement is not legally binding, I tend to agree with them. However, it’s an important step in recognizing and addressing the massive problem of deforestation. (If deforestation were a country, it would be the third-highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, after the US and China.)
🧠 Alphabet creates an AI company named Isomorphic Labs to “reimagine the entire drug discovery process”
Quick hits. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is creating a company called Isomorphic Labs to bring the power of AI to the drug discovery process. The company will build on research from DeepMind, Alphabet’s current leading AI company that has delved into medical issues in the past. Though the companies will be separate, the current CEO of DeepMind is also the founder and CEO of Isomorphic Labs.
Digging deeper. To call the drug discovery process time- and money-intensive would be an understatement. Various estimates say it takes ~13 years and ~$1 billion to bring a new drug to market in the United States. This is because there is a near-limitless array of atom combinations, all of which have different properties and effects that may not have been heretofore documented. Labs such as Isomorphic Labs and others like Atomwise and Benevolent AI aim to equip researchers with the ability to identify better drug candidates earlier in the process, thereby reducing the number of tests needed to find effective drugs.
Quick hits. SpinLaunch launches craft by spinning it at several times the speed of sound in a vacuum-sealed centrifuge before releasing. (You know how you can spin something in a circle super fast and it goes flying when you let go? It’s basically that.) In late October, they successfully conducted their first test flight with a centrifuge accelerator about a third its final size. (Though, impressively, it was still taller than the Statue of Liberty!) They plan to conduct ~30 more test flights over the next 6-8 months from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Digging deeper. Compared to many types of rocket fuel, using kinetic energy (and renewably-sourced electricity to power the generation of that kinetic energy) to launch to suborbit is much more sustainable and cost-effective. As noted on SpinLaunch’s website, their launch method reduces the amount of fuel required by 4 times and is 10 times more cost-effective. Additionally, they claim to be able to launch multiple times per day and operate with reusable craft.
Bonus. Ever since I read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, I've been intrigued with the idea of alternate forms of propulsion. So, admittedly, I’m a bit biased in finding SpinLaunch’s test exciting. (In the book, Moon colonists declare independence from Earth and launch projectiles from electromagnetic catapults.)
Quick hits. Unfortunately, yet understandably, NASA has said they need to delay a human lunar landing to at least 2025 instead of 2024. This is primarily due to Blue Origin's lawsuit against SpaceX, which delayed their communications with SpaceX for seven entire months. An additional cause for the delay is a lack of funds allocated to the project from the US government. NASA’s official timeframe for a human lunar landing is not yet confirmed, as many other details need to be finalized—but I’ll be sure to keep you updated! If you’re interested in reading more, here’s NASA’s official statement.
Digging deeper. Although many knew the delay would be inevitable (especially due to the delay of new spacesuits for the Artemis mission), it’s still sad to officially hear the news. The human lunar landing is part of the Artemis mission, which also plans to establish a base camp on the Moon and a “gateway” orbiting the Moon.
🌿 Hexas. Instead of using unsalable crops as biomass for energy production, Hexas produces seeds for plants that can be converted to biomass much more efficiently than trees/corn/other crops, thereby using land for more productive farming.