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Tomorrow’s world

One giant leap for space telescopes

Credit: NASA

The James Webb space telescope is expected to “revolutionise astrophysics and cosmology” when it launches on 18 December, says Nikk Ogasa in Scientific American. But this fragile $10bn observatory the size of a tennis court must first be packed up and sailed from California to French Guiana – via the Panama Canal and the Caribbean – during hurricane season. Once there, it will be launched in the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket, with 178 release mechanisms allowing it to gradually unfold before it reaches its destination a million miles from Earth. All must go to plan, as a repair mission would be almost impossible.

Its golden-hued mirror, 21ft in diameter, will gather six times more light than the Hubble space telescope. It will detect light from the first stars to form, just 250 million years after the Big Bang (the universe is 13.8 billion years old), and study planets far beyond our solar system – “exoplanets” – for “any indication that a planet is home to life as we know it”, says Nell Greenfieldboyce in NPR.

We’ve been able to detect big, gassy exoplanets for a while. But the James Webb telescope, named after the man who led Nasa in the 1960s, will analyse small, rocky planets for “biosignatures”: gases such as oxygen and methane. For instance, are any of the seven Earth-sized planets that orbit the small star Trappist-1 surrounded by air?

The first proper images should emerge six months after launch. Just don’t expect to see pictures of little green men. “When people hear things like ‘habitable zone plus water’, they immediately assume that we’ve found aliens,” says astronomer Nikole Lewis of Cornell University. “We’re going to have to be careful with that.”

Vertical farming is on the up 

The world’s largest indoor “vertical farm” will open next year in Gloucestershire, says Joe Pinkstone in the Telegraph. Sixteen workers and a team of robots will grow fruit and veg in 17 layers of trays, stacked nearly 40ft high – the equivalent of a 3.4-acre field. The Jones Food Company already has a vertical farm in Scunthorpe; if you’ve got any basil in your larder, there’s a good chance it was grown there, says James Lloyd-Jones, who founded the business in 2017 and teamed up with Ocado to fund the forthcoming farm.

Stacking produce means every acre becomes 17 times more productive, he says, with water use reduced by 95%. The plants don’t need full-spectrum light; low-energy LED lights bathe the warehouse in an eerie magenta glow. No pesticides are needed, either. Lloyd-Jones has big plans for vertical farming. “We plan to be able to supply 70% of the UK’s fresh produce within the next 10 years,” he says.