To the Stars with Data: September 19 2021

Wildfire smoke, the solar power revolution, space elevators, and more!

Hello Datanauts!

This week’s issue is going to be a bit more “down-to-Earth” (pun intended) than previous issues. I discuss two trends in energy (the rise of solar and the movement toward electric vehicles), civilians in space, and what the future of Earth-to-space travel might look like. I also throw in some cool companies and a great viz. No need to thank me!

Cheers to Svyatoslav for the great feedback.

Let’s go to the stars with data!

-Joe Lisle


Thought-Provoking Data Viz

🔥 Smoke from Siberia’s wildfires cross the Arctic Circle

Quick hits. In this visualization, viewers can see smoke from wildfires in Russia’s Sakha province crossing the Arctic Circle into North America from earlier this year (August). As noted in its accompanying article (heads up: potential paywall), these fires contributed to the highest levels of August wildfire emissions since records began in 2003. Low soil humidity and higher-than-average temperatures led to these intense wildfires.

Digging deeper. Some consider wildfire emissions to be carbon-neutral because trees grow back and consume carbon dioxide. But when forest fires happen too often, the trees don’t have a chance to grow back and end up emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb.


Earth News

🌿 US’s Department of Energy lays out a plan for reaching a zero-carbon grid by 2050

Quick hits. “The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. The Department of Energy additionally posits that solar could provide 1,600 GW on a zero-carbon grid by 2050, which is more power than the US currently consumes in all commercial and residential buildings.

Digging deeper. In recent years in the US, solar has been growing faster than expected and now comprises 4% of the US’s energy. Solar- and wind-based electricity are now the cheapest sources of energy in the US, according to the US’s Energy Information Administration, and solar power is projected to drop in cost even more. If there’s ever a sign to install solar panels on your roof - this is it! Let me know if you need help getting started.

🔋 New York joins California in banning the sale of non-electric vehicles by 2035

Quick hits. New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a new law into effect which states that any sales of passenger cars and trucks will have zero emissions by 2035. Additionally, off-road vehicles and equipment should be zero-emissions by 2035 and medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by 2045. New York joins California, whose Governor Gavin Newsom signed similar legislation into law in 2020.

Digging deeper. Conveniently, there is a Wikipedia page for the phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles. To date, more than 14 countries and over 20 cities (and a number of US states) have proposed banning the sale of non-zero-emissions passenger vehicles. Considering that many carmakers within Europe and the US have announced plans to phase out non-electric models within the next decade or two, the market seems to be anticipating the switch to electric.


Space News

🚀 Inspiration4, the world’s first civilian-crewed mission to space, safely returns to Earth

Quick hits. The world’s first civilian-crewed space mission, Inspiration4, returned safely to Earth on September 18 after spending 3 days in space. Their goal (which they achieved!) was to fundraise $200m for St. Jude for childhood cancer research. The crew was made of Jared Isaacman (the billionaire who funded the venture), Hayley Arceneaux (a physician assistant and childhood cancer survivor from St. Jude), Chris Sembroski (a data engineer), and Sian Proctor (a geoscientist and community college professor).

Digging deeper. Their training program was intense, involving 5 months of tough mental and physical exercise to prepare. Jared/SpaceX pulled no stops, launching a Super Bowl ad to gather applications for the mission, creating a mix on Spotify for the occasion, storing official photos on Flickr, and more. You can check out Inspiration4’s official website here.

🌌 History of the space elevator

Quick hits. While not technically news, this article on the history of the space elevator is enthralling. Let’s start with the basics: think of a space elevator as a ski lift, except it takes you to space instead of up a mountain. The earliest mention of a space elevator was in 1895 (over 125 years ago!). Based on research from the late 90s, scientists posit that a space elevator is achievable with our current technologies.

Digging deeper. China said they will complete something akin to a space elevator—what they call a “Sky Ladder”—to send humans to Mars by 2033. As mentioned in the article, we’ve tried to make progress toward building a space elevator for the past few decades, but the feat seems very far away. Personally, I will be quite amazed if China is able to complete its Sky Ladder.


Future-Thinking Companies

👁 Mojo Vision. They create a contact lens that provides the wearer with augmented reality vision. They achieve this by focusing images in the contact lens and projecting them into the wearer’s eye.

🌿 Climeworks. They harvest carbon dioxide from the air and store it deep underground. They recently installed Orca, the largest carbon removal facility to date, in Iceland.