March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This week's news: China’s mystery virus claims first death; the food being made out of air; and the satellite ‘mega-constellations’ threatening astronomy.

Happy Gregorian New Year to one-and-all and welcome back to you weekly does of I, Science News. We’ll be taking a look at the science making headlines over the first week of term, including a new mystery virus in China, making food out of air, and the satellite ‘mega-constellations’ threatening astronomy.

Mystery virus in China causes its first death

An outbreak of a virus causing pneumonia in the Chinese city Wuhan has claimed its first death. The virus is one previously unknown to science, appearing to belong to the same group as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), known as coronaviruses.

Over 50 have currently been infected, with several in critical condition. Like SARS and MERS, the virus is likely to have emerged from animal populations, but it appears the virus cannot be transmitted from person-to-person and is less severe than both SARS and MERS.

Authorities are currently looking to identify the animal population it originated from, particularly before the mass migrations that come with Chinese New Year that could help it spread.

Making food from ‘air’ – an agricultural revolution?

Finnish scientists are producing proteins using bacteria that are fed on hydrogen, and claim that it could compete with the price of soya (the cheapest protein widely used in animal feed) within the decade.

The hydrogen is produced by splitting water with electricity, and if that electricity comes from wind or solar, then the process could run with near-zero greenhouse emissions.

Overall the process of converting electricity to food as a 20% efficiency rate – several times that of photosynthesis. Once scalable, the technology could pave the way for a future of farm-free food.

The satellite ‘mega-constellations’ threatening astronomy

SpaceX has started the decade by sending 60 more satellites to join its Starlink constellation, bringing its numbers to 180.

But there’s a problem – the first batch of satellites have proven to be far too bright, and are impacting telescope images by appearing as bright white streaks. Researchers fear that future ‘mega-constellations’ could have a real impact on astronomical observations.

SpaceX plan to have almost 12,000 satellites in the Starlink constellation by the mid-2020s. For reference, there are currently only around 2,200 active satellites orbiting the earth. This is part of a plan to bring high-speed internet access across the globe.

This week’s news was written by Harry Jenkins, who is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London