'Very surreal': BC students help design space colony in NASA-backed competition - Kelowna Capital News - Canadanewsmedia
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'Very surreal': BC students help design space colony in NASA-backed competition – Kelowna Capital News

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Imagine designing a city in space.

Several Lower Mainland high school students did just that and have returned home after helping their team win a NASA-backed contest that involved designing a habitable space colony.

The International Space Settlement Design Competition was held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from July 26 to 30.

“It was intense,” laughed Aden Jabbar, who is starting Grade 12 at Surrey’s Princess Margaret Secondary this fall.

She was one of roughly 20 Metro Vancouver students – about half of whom are from Surrey – who participated in the annual competition.

“We were treated like actual engineers,” said Aden, who is in a NASA club at her high school. “The judges, they were questioning us like we were real engineers proposing a real design. It’s stressful.”

As for the win?

”I was so shocked. I was like, ‘How is this even possible?’” said Aden, chuckling. “After doing this I feel like I’m more interested in pursuing a degree in engineering because this has given me a real life experience of actually working in the field. Actually designing proposals for real companies. It was really cool.”

The competitors – from around the globe – were split into “companies” and tasked with designing, developing and planning operations for “the second large space settlement on Earth’s Moon Luna” in the year 2059. It was dubbed the “Balderol.”

(Some of the local high school students who represented Canada at the International Space Settlement Design Competition in Florida this past July. Submitted photo)

According to their “settlement contract,” the colony had to be a safe living and working environment for a minimum of 16,000 full-time residents.

From infrastructure to safety to automation to costing and even a schedule for construction, the teens had their work cut out for them and were even assigned roles in the company’s hierarchy. The competition involved not only the design and planning phase, but also a presentation to judges and an audience of at least a couple hundred.

The Metro Vancouver students were teamed up with other teens from the U.S., a team from India as well as a team from Uruguay.

In all, about 60 students from the four countries worked on the winning space colony design, meaning about a third of the victorious team were Canadians.

Alvina Gakhokidze, who is entering Grade 12 at Delta’s Seaquam Secondary in September, was in the structural engineering section, helping to design actual buildings.

“My heart was pounding so loudly,” Alvina recalled of the moment before the team found out they’d won. “In the last few seconds I just covered my eyes. It was torture. Then she finally revealed it, there was this whole video of everyone jumping. We all went on stage and got medals. Then we got these big trophies, rocket trophies.”

Alvina said she never would’ve guessed she’d be in a contest that involved designing a space settlement.

“Now I want to be an aerospace engineer,” she said. “Oh, how things change.”

“I like innovation, so that, I think, is my direction.”

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(Alvina Gakhokidze, left, and Aden Jabbar are two of several local high school students who were part of a winning space colony design competition in the U.S. in July. Photo: Amy Reid)

Another student from Princess Margaret’s NASA club, Mehtab Brar, said it was great to “encounter real people from the industry.”

“Engineers, contractors, the organizer herself, she also works with NASA. That was a really good way to network with the industry and the people there…. It was an opportunity to expand on some of the stuff I had already learned.”

Mehtab said about 10 students from Princess Margaret competed, in all.

Sabha El-Shawa, who served as the Canadian team’s adult lead and engineer, explained this was the first year the country has officially participated in the event since its inception dating back to the 80s.

“Previously, the only way Canadians could participate was through a qualifying competition, so instead of having their country’s semifinals, you’d have to write a 40-page proposal over a couple of months, and only three teams get chosen from around the world,” she said, noting that made the chance of being accepted very slim.

“This was the first year Canada was guaranteed a spot.”

El-Shawa organized the national semi-final that served as a qualifier for the first-ever Canadian spot at the competition, and that qualifying contest was held last May at UBC.

All participants are in high school, she noted, and while all came from the Metro Vancouver area this year, she hopes to expand the event and garner more involvement from students across the country in future years.

“It’s pretty awesome,” El-Shawa said of the whole experience, as well as the opportunity the students had, noting real NASA engineers provided support to the Canadian students.

“You literally have people who work on these projects in real life to give you advice. It’s super helpful.”

El-Shawa, who is about to embark on her masters in space studies, said the whole experience was “overwhelming” for her.

“It’s also the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this year, which they launched from Kennedy Space Center. So we were there, literally a week after the 50th anniversary celebration,” she said.

“The trophy that we won, the Saturn V, is the rocket they launched on. It was all very surreal. It was amazing.”

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(Submitted photo of the students preparing for the International Space Settlement Design Competition, held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from July 26 to 30.)



amy.reid@surreynowleader.com

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The weird, repeating signals from deep space just tripled – CNET

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We’re picking up more signals from deep space.


Danielle Futselaar

Scientists suddenly have a whole lot more data on one of the strangest and most recent mysteries in the cosmos, so-called fast radio bursts (FRBs). First discovered in 2007, these fleeting blasts of radio waves originate thousands, millions or even billions of light years from Earth. 

FRBs have influenced the design of new radio telescopes like the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME). And now a team of Canadian and American researchers using CHIME has reported a major new set of FRB detections that could fine-tune our understanding of where these enigmatic signals come from and what produces them. 

The group says it’s discovered eight new FRBs that repeat.


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“Repeating FRBs are highly valuable from an observational perspective since their repeating nature make them better candidates for localizing their host galaxies and multi-wavelength follow-up observations that can help determine if FRBs emit at wavelengths other than radio,” said Ryan McKinven, one of the researchers who is based at the University of Toronto and co-author of a paper about the FRBs.

Those follow-up observations could provide details about the origins of the strange bursts, he added. A larger sample size of repeating FRBs to study could also help scientists answer one of the obvious questions about non-repeating FRBs: Could they actually be repeating FRBs that just haven’t been recorded as repeating yet?

While dozens of FRBs have been detected and cataloged over the past 12 years, few of those deep space signals had been known to repeat themselves. Two have been documented so far in published, peer-reviewed journals. Two others — one via a Russian radio telescope, the other via Australia — have been reported but not yet reviewed. 

So with this batch of bursts, the number of reported repeaters has tripled — from four to 12. 

The team laid out its findings in a draft paper that’s been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and was posted this month on the Arxiv pre-print site

Discovering different types of FRBs at an unexpected rate, we will soon open new windows into understanding the cosmological origin of these high-energy astrophysical phenomena,” said co-author Masoud Rafiei-Ravandi of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. 

In addition to the sheer number of repeating FRBs discovered in one haul, one of the newfound repeaters appears to be much closer to Earth than the handful of fast radio bursts that have been traced back to a source galaxy. So far, traceable FRBs seem to come from sources on the other side of the universe — we’re talking billions of light years away.

However, in the new paper, the authors suggest that one of the repeating FRBs could actually originate near the edge of our own Milky Way galaxy but caution that more study is needed to better localize the signal. 

“Knowing that we are observing every patch of sky visible to CHIME once every day, it was only a matter of time before we detected a very nearby source,” co-author Pragya Chawla of McGill University said.

Studying relatively nearby FRBs will hopefully allow scientists to get a better idea of just what the heck is throwing off these signals, which could be anything from far-fetched notions like alien starships to the less fantastic but literally more powerful sources, like neutron stars.

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Climate Crisis: Hurricanes Are Making Some Spiders More Aggressive – Inverse

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In the most uncomfortable piece of climate crisis-related news yet, a team of scientists believe that the increasing tropical cyclones may be changing the temperament of a “super abundant” spider. As the storms continue to increase in tandem with the planet’s temperature, some of our eight-legged friends are starting to get more aggressive, report scientists in a paper published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Specifically, these findings refer to a species of group-dwelling spiders called Anelosimus studiosus. They’re “hardly majestic,” lead study author Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, tells Inverse, but they happen to have very intricate social lives. Along the Gulf Coast, the spiders form multi-female groups that hunt in packs, dwell in group webs, and sometimes rear each other’s children. But the climate crisis may be shifting these old spider traditions toward a less interconnected lifestyle.

In the paper, Pruitt and his team show that hurricanes are actually changing the social and behavior dynamics of these spider colonies. The aggressive spiders in the colonies are well-equipped to handle the chaos, but the less aggressive ones are not. That inequality, he explains, may reshape life in the colony.

“There’s a behavioral tipping point when very very aggressive colonies stop working together, start killing each other, and the group wisely disbands,” he says. “Combine hurricane increases with global warming and I think you could get something like that.”

Anelosimus studiosus, a social cobweb spider, can live in groups, but if the group becomes too aggressive it can disband. 

The species as a whole will fare just fine, he says, in case you’re worried about losing even more animal and insect species to climate change. But the spiders are a good example of the way incomprehensibly large events — say, increases in large storms — can cause minute but significant changes too, like the behavior of a five-millimeter-long spider.

How Storms Change Spider Behavior

Anelosimus studiosus have two “behavioral” phenotypes (traits) that seem to be heritable, suggesting that they each have a genetic underpinning.

Some individuals are naturally more aggressive, which means that they swiftly attack in large numbers, kill their mates, are more wasteful their their prey, and are prone to fight among themselves; they also happen to be better at foraging when resources are scarce. The other individuals tend to be more docile, so they’re better at coexisting. To survive in a colony, you need a balance of both.

But Pruitt’s work suggests that tropical cyclones are selecting for the aggressive spiders. He observed 240 colonies before and after Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael, and tropical storm Alberto in the fall of 2018, finding that, while roughly 75 percent of each colony survived the storm, the colonies with more aggressive foraging responses produced more egg cases than the colonies with less aggressive tendencies.

Over time, this process shifts the nature of the colony toward the more aggressive types.

What Aggressive Behavior Means For the Species

While this shift likely won’t impact the species’ chances of survival, it does edge in on a “behavioral” tipping point. A colony of overly aggressive spiders, honed by the hostile summer cyclones of the Southern USA, is unlikely to cohabitate, says Pruitt. So if this trend continues, these spiders, which traditionally live in tight communities, may each decide to go it alone.

“I think the species as a whole will fare fine. But, if tropical cyclones start striking some regions all of the time (e.g., annually), then we might see this species revert back to is ancestral solitary state, where females no longer work together and they go it alone,” he explains.

Already, we know that extreme environmental disturbances (like the once predicted with increasing global temperature), will profoundly affect which species will live and die. But Pruitt’s work also shows a more nuanced approach to how climate change will impact species, as Eric Ameca, an ecologist who studies biodiversity and response to extreme climate events, adds in a commentary accompanying the new paper. While some species do have adaptive responses (so they’ll probably make it out okay), Ameca writes, they may look or behave a lot differently due to these extreme weather events.

Pruitt for one, sees the changing behavior of his spiders as a puzzle to be solved — and maybe applied across species in the future.

“It also means that the future of life, how it operates, and who prevails in the face of changing environments is going to be a very difficult puzzle to solve. Thankfully, humans like puzzles,” he says.

Abstract:

Extreme events, such as tropical cyclones, are destructive and influential forces. However, observing and recording the ecological effects of these statistically improbable, yet pro- found ‘black swan’ weather events is logistically difficult. By anticipating the trajectory of tropical cyclones, and sampling populations before and after they make landfall, we show that these extreme events select for more aggressive colony phe- notypes in the group-living spider Anelosimus studiosus. This selection is great enough to drive regional variation in colony phenotypes, despite the fact that tropical cyclone strikes are irregular, occurring only every few years, even in particularly prone regions. These data provide compelling evidence for tropical cyclone-induced selection driving the evolution of an important functional trait and show that black swan events contribute to within-species diversity and local adaptation.

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Hurricanes, spiders and Waffle Houses: How a McMaster evolutionary biologist spent his summer – TheSpec.com

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The findings might seem relevant only to spider colonies, but in a broader sense, studying the evolutionary tendencies of species following extreme weather events could have wide-ranging applications, Pruitt suggested, given climate models predicting more violent storms in the future.

“The fact is, we know surprisingly little about what kind of species do better after these storms; how it affects diversity, how storms can cause the evolution of certain collective traits, or individual traits … It hints that tropical storms could drive the evolution of aggressiveness in other species.”

Anelosimus studiosus spiders are not harmful to humans. Pruitt, an engaging and often humorous speaker — and a Canada 150 Research Chair — said that the spiders are just five millimetres long and, while terrifying to, say, a fly, “I could put some on your Red Lobster salad, and they would drown in the dressing before you would ever know they were there.”


He chased results in the field following hurricanes Florence, Michael and Alberto.

In the process, Pruitt said he observed more than 1,000 spiders in 240 colonies, listened to four fantasy novels in his car while logging 33,000 km on the road and ate frequently at U.S. road-trip staple Waffle House, which never seems to close.

He recorded spider behaviour by putting a little piece of paper in the webbed colony, and then used a mechanical toothbrush with a metal thread attached to vibrate the paper and coax spiders out of their home, as though food, like a moth, was waiting.

Docile spiders “take their sweet time” coming out, and aggressive ones emerge quickly. He noted his findings on the spot.

He laughs imagining the sight he must have been for locals who spotted him poking around a large silken web, wearing his beat-up Pokemon T-shirt (a childhood enthusiasm) and holding a toothbrush “that looks like a narwhal.”

Next up for the insect/storm chaser — McMaster colleagues call him a “swarm chaser’ — is Northern Australia for three months, starting in January, to examine cyclonic storm impact on spiders and a wide range of other insects.

“I’m narrowly missing what could be a cold winter here,” said Pruitt, who grew up in Florida.

“I chase summer.”

jwells@thespec.com

905-526-3515 | @jonjwells

jwells@thespec.com

905-526-3515 | @jonjwells

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