The Science of Iron Man – Ciara Barrett

With the shadow of Infinity War looming over our heads, and the role model status I currently place in Iron Man’s hands, I wanted to find out if our (my) favourite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist could actually exist. The following issues concerned are mostly from the films (with fewer references to the comics).

Arc reactor-

From the comics and films, we know the arc reactor in Tony’s chest is a small fusion reactor built into him and runs on palladium, for which the isotope evidently matters due to its fusion properties. Moving past the fact the continuous collision of particles and subsequent emission of beta and gamma rays would cause serious damage to Tony’s health, if this power source could produce the same amount of energy as a full-sized reactor then it is entirely possible that it could power the suit. However, the physics of building a small scale nuclear reactor with a ring of electromagnets, heat containment and electron recovery into someone’s body is still far on the horizon. The arc reactor would also need to store its power, because the amount of power needed when Tony is and isn’t wearing the suit would be greatly varied. In Iron Man 2, Tony is seen to be quickly burning through his arc reactors which suggests that the power output from them can be controlled based on if he’s fighting or just going about daily life, even though it’s usually the former.

Flying suit-

Iron Man has 4 visible thrusters, one on each of his hands and feet. However, when he flies horizontally in the films there is nothing to oppose the downward force of gravity so he should continue to move horizontally but fall in altitude as he did. He usually combats this by flying in a parabolic or slightly ascending path or with his arms outstretched to mimic a plane, where the pressure difference above and below his arms would generate lift.  Next, the 4 thrusters would need to not only generate enough lift for Tony’s weight but also heavy objects like cars or an aircraft carrier which he has been known to lift while flying (see: The Avengers (2012)). This means the thrusters must be able to lift up to 100,000 tonnes (100 million kg) based on the Nimitz Class, the world’s largest aircraft carrier, which is not impossible given that we’re assuming the arc reactor works to power the suit.

Jarvis (or Friday, his badass Irish counterpart)-

Considering Jarvis is basically a better version of Alexa this is completely within reach. He can do facial recognition, use the Power of The Internet, listen to all your problems and do all the heavy brainpower lifting like calculating the results of different scenarios that could occur. He is peak AI technology which he proves when he is able to hide from Ultron by uploading himself into the internet. Again, this is possible, definitely in the near future.

Ammo firing-

The chest ray the suit is capable of firing is made up of photons from the reactor so is also possible. This is because the arc reactor can produce photons during the atom collision process, and as mentioned, the only issue is storing them. He has guns built into his arms and shoulders, like many fighter planes. One issue that could arise is how he could fire these while flying without experiencing the momentum in the opposite direction to make him fly backwards, however the guns themselves are reasonably realistic in terms of being able to build into a suit.

Suit features: calling from afar, self-fitting, freeze prevention-

In Iron Man 3, Tony develops the suit so that he can call it from miles away to fly to him and it then fits on his body by itself. Breaking this down, the first part of this problem is calling the suit, which obviously isn’t possible via Bluetooth or even radio considering the distances involved. A reasonable solution, since it isn’t listed how he manages to do this, could be through the use of satellite signalling like how a phone call works. He also manages to fix the freezing problem mentioned in Iron Man 2 by using a “gold-titanium alloy from an earlier satellite design” as mentioned in a comic. The next issue is the self-fitting suit which is completely possible through the use of an algorithm since the suit is tuned to his shape. Put simply, the suit knows to first secure the feet, then clasp the legs and so on.

Depending on how you choose to rank these issues, this shows that a suit like Iron Man’s isn’t completely out of reach and that the parts of the suit that don’t defy the laws of physics are amazing feats of technology even if they are just special effects for now.

Further Reading:

Shoot for the Moon: Would the USA’s Cold War plan to blow it out of our night sky really work? Fiona McBride

In 1958 – the year after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik became the first object to be launched into space by humankind – 60 years ago – the government of the USA began to work on a secret plan to assert their dominance on the stage of world power: by blowing up the moon. Known covertly as “project A119”, the intention was to make the military might of the USA abundantly clear to all on earth.

 Of course, the first question this raises is: would such a show of force actually be possible? Though it may look small from down here, and is supposedly made of green cheese, the moon is actually a seventy trillion megaton rock located four hundred thousand kilometers away. That’s quite a big thing to blow up, and a significant distance to send explosives. The explosion would have to have enough energy to not only break the moon into pieces, but also send them far enough away from one another that their gravitational fields – the attractive forces that act between all objects – wouldn’t be able to pull them back together. Otherwise, the single lump of geological matter we call our moon would simply be replaced by a pile of lunar rubble. It is estimated that such an explosion would be equivalent to the detonation of thirty trillion megatons of TNT; given that the Tsar Bomba – the most powerful nuclear bomb ever built – had an explosive power of fifty megatons, blowing up the moon would require six hundred billion of these. Humanity has neither the uranium supplies to build such a bomb, nor the rocket technology to get it there.

Other options include creating a “moon quake” to split apart the internal structure of the rock; this would need to be equivalent to a 16.5 on the Richter scale. The most violent earthquake recorded read just 9.5 on the Richter scale, so it’s unlikely that such a quake could be artificially produced on the moon. Alternatively, the moon could be zapped with a giant laser, however this would need to provide the same amount of energy instantaneously as the sun outputs every six minutes. Humans don’t really have the resources to power such a thing.

 It seems, therefore, that blowing up the moon to assert their dominance over the space and nuclear spheres wasn’t really an option for the USA in 1958 – or even sixty years later – due to a lack of both technology and resources. However, the idea of blowing a large crater in the moon, in order to produce a giant explosion to demonstrate to the world the might of the USA, and leave behind a crater visible from earth to remind them of it forevermore was also considered. This, too, was dismissed in 1959; the reasons for this are not clear, but perhaps those in charge of the project realised how utterly ridiculous their own idea sounded.

 But let’s just take a step back for a moment, and imagine if exploding the moon were possible: what would the consequences be here on earth? Would lumps of moonrock kill us all? What would life be like on a moonless planet?

So the moon has exploded. The first thing most humans notice is a big, bright cloud spreading out through the sky where the moon used to be. This is the light from the explosion illuminating the moon debris. Dust then covers the sky for a while, making daylight darker and air travel impossible for a few months. Our seas and lakes are still tidal – the sun exerts a gravitational pull on the earth that contributes to this, but does not move relative to the earth – so there will be no spring or neap tides – the water will rise to one-quarter the height of a spring tide and return to the same lower level each day. Fragments of moon start to fall to earth; some burn up as they enter our atmosphere; others hit the ground and wreak havoc where they land, though it is unlikely that this would be catastrophic for humanity, as they would move slowly in comparison to other astronomical objects that fall to earth, such as asteroids.

 Once the dust clouds have cleared, the next noticeable thing is a lot more stars. The moon is by far the brightest object in the night sky, so with it out of the way, nighttime will be darker and the stars much brighter by comparison. One –or more – smaller ‘moon replacements’ may also appear in the sky, if the explosion leaves some larger chunks of rock as well as debris and dust. Of course, this debris and dust continues to rain down on the earth whenever a piece falls out of orbit.

 Only after the majority of this debris has cleared – in perhaps a few thousand years – is the next major effect noticeable by humans: the earth will tip over. Gravitational interactions between the earth and the moon are what is currently preventing this; without it, the earth will tip on its axis, causing the poles to melt and an ice age to occur every few thousand years on whichever part of the planet is furthest from the sun at that point.

 So, although exploding the moon isn’t really possible – and certainly wasn’t in the 1950s – it wouldn’t have utterly catastrophic consequences for the earth, just bring significant change. However, as a show of force, it still seems somewhat excessive.


The Hidden Water Contamination Scandal – Fiona McBride

Scientists have discovered that over 90% of the world’s water supplies are contaminated by a deadly chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide. It is estimated that every human on earth has come into contact with some of this deadly substance during their lifetime – every minute, a newborn baby dies as a direct result of dihydrogen monoxide!

 This chemical is a sneaky killer: large quantities of it cause suffocation, while smaller amounts lead to poisoning. Low levels of it have been found inside the corpses of those who starved – it is thought that dihydrogen monoxide may reduce some people’s ability to take nutrition from food. The substance is also a very common occurrence in all types of tumours, and is almost always found in the brains of stroke patients and the blood of those who have suffered from heart attacks.

 And, to make matters even worse, dihydrogen monoxide is absolutely everywhere. It’s present in the atmosphere in such high levels that it falls to earth with the rain, it’s in the stuff that flows out of your taps, it’s almost certainly in the coffee you drank this morning. Even if we could avoid all of the ways in which it contaminates the liquid water we use every day, it’s still unavoidable: dihydrogen monoxide makes up around 4% of the air we breathe. That might not sound like a lot, but it adds up to three million litres of the chemical entering your lungs every year. No wonder it’s found in almost all corpses.

 But, fear not, the very same scientists who discovered dihydrogen monoxide and revealed just how widespread it is are working on a cure for its effects! It turns out that a processed form of the deadly chemical – known as dehydrated dihydrogen monoxide – can reverse some of the issues caused. For example, if someone is at risk of suffocating as a result of dihydrogen monoxide, the very presence of the dehydrated form will reduce the amount of the dangerous chemical to the point that the person is no longer at risk. However, this solution is not yet perfect: although dehydrated dihydrogen monoxide can greatly reduce the amount of dihydrogen monoxide present in the body, it can also have some nasty side effects. These include weakness, dizziness and headaches, heart palpitations, fainting, and, in the case of overdose, death. A way to safely reduce these symptoms is currently the focus of significant research.

 A bigger question, though, and perhaps the key to solving our dihydrogen monoxide related issues once and for all, is where does it come from? The answer: scientists aren’t sure yet. Some chemical reactions such as those used to make plastics produce it, however dihydrogen monoxide has been present on earth for centuries, and we don’t make nearly enough plastic for it to be as widespread as it is. And that definitely doesn’t account for the evidence of dihydrogen monoxide found on the moon! There is a theory that it could have arrived on earth during an alien landing, however we haven’t met any aliens yet so that theory remains unconfirmed.

 For the moment, though, until we discover the source of the dihydrogen monoxide on earth and develop a reliable sure for its effects, perhaps the best way to stay safe is to avoid water wherever possible. You never know if it’s going to be contaminated!




 Happy 1st April! Dihydrogen monoxide is actually the longhand name for the chemical formula H2O – the scientific name for water.

 The first three paragraphs of this article are pretty much true. For instance, every minute a newborn baby does die due to lack of access to clean water. Paragraph five is also fairly accurate; if humanity ever does make contact with aliens, presence of water on their home planet is probably pretty high on the list of topics to discuss.

 Paragraph four is a little less true. “dehydrated” literally means “water has been removed”, so dehydrated dihydrogen monoxide does not exist! However, if it did, then it probably would react with water to make it disappear as is described here. The side effects described for dehydrated dihydrogen monoxide are actually symptoms of dehydration; this is what would happen if a proportion of the water in your body disappeared.

**DISCLAIMER: This was an article written for April Fool’s Day, 2018. The above article was intended for entertainment purposes only and may include completely fabricated facts.**


When can I live on the moon? Fiona McBride

Every civilisation that has ever existed on earth knew about the existence of the moon, long before any of us knew of any other civilisations and landmasses. So why aren’t we living there yet?

 The biggest issue preventing ancient – or more modern – civilisations from settling on the moon is the difficulty associated with getting there.  Despite millennia on earth, humans only made it to the moon in 1969, and we certainly didn’t get there in a boat. Indeed, travelling to and from the moon is still a significant barrier to colonisation: the Apollo moon mission cost an equivalent $107 billion in today’s money. However, massive advancements in aerospace technology have already reduced projected costs for getting humans to the moon, and shaved the time taken to get there down from three days to less than one day.  So, if humanity decides to focus on advancing this technology and making it cheaper, we could be on regular flights to the moon in just a decade or two.

 But getting there isn’t the only challenge to life on the moon: once we arrive, we have to survive. The moon has no atmosphere, so the fluffy blanket of air that keeps us on earth away from the majority of the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation and insulates us from the worst of the sun’s heat and the universe’s cold just isn’t there. This means a daily temperature range of -233 – 123 degrees centigrade, and killer sunburn during the hours of daylight. No atmosphere means no weather, but the moon still experiences frequent storms consisting of micrometeroids – tiny space rocks – that can be as large as golf balls. Earth’s atmosphere is also the ultimate reason that life exists on its lands and in its oceans: it provides oxygen. In order to survive on the moon in the longer term, we need to conquer all of these challenges. A smart way to do this might be to send robots and building materials ahead of the first human colony, so that the settlers could move into pre-built airtight pods providing oxygen and protection from the harshness of space. This isn’t so far beyond the current technological abilities: we already have lunar rovers capable of mapping out a suitable site for a moon settlement, and robots capable of construction, so the main challenge is again developing a cheap and efficient means of space travel to get these robots and building materials to the right place.

 Even with more efficient space travel, taking all of the resources necessary for longer-term human survival with us from earth just isn’t sensible or economical.  Evidence of ice has been found on the moon, and it has been hypothesised that there may be large amounts of water stored within its structure, however whether or not this is correct, and how to extract the water if it is there, need to be determined before any concrete plans for settlement are laid. Depending how much water there is, we either need to develop a means of splitting the H2O molecules to make pure oxygen, or find a way to extract the 40% oxygen from the sharp dust coating much of the moon’s surface. Additionally, surveys must be conducted to find out what other resources the moon has to offer – can we grow plants there? Is there something that could be used as fuel? Can we harness some of the heat from the active volcanoes as an energy source? Can we create some kind of atmosphere that will support tree growth, so we can recycle our air? This aspect of lunar colonization is probably the one we know least about at the moment, so we’re looking at a decade or two for those lunar surveys, plus some time to work out the chemistry involved – maybe thirty years total if humanity puts some thought towards it.

 So what will it be like to live on the moon, if and when we eventually get there? Well, given the killer ultraviolet rays, the extreme temperatures, and the micrometeoroid storms, you’ll probably want to send most of your time inside whatever the robots have built. The transmission rate for messages between earth and the moon is around one second, so it’s likely you’ll have wifi up there to keep you entertained. In terms of employment, there’s plenty of potential for science in and out of the settlement buildings, as well as lunar geography and geology, and even space photography. The new settlement will also need doctors, although anyone in need of specialist treatment will probably need to be shipped back to earth. There also remains much to be discovered about the effects on the human body of living in a low-gravity environment; anyone moving to the moon must bear in mind that they will essentially be a test subject for this.

 So, it seems that if we were to focus our collective scientific and creative minds on the subject, humans could be moving to the moon in as few as thirty years. But should we be putting energy into moving to the moon, instead of on limiting the damage we’re doing to our own planet? Space travel has led to the invention of a whole range of useful technologies – from CAT scanners and artificial limbs to Velcro – however if research and resources required to move us to the moon were instead dedicated to thirty years of increasing sustainability and promoting global development, perhaps staying on earth would become a more attractive option.

Clearing Up Our Space Junk – Matt Jones

Over the last sixty years or so, space exploration has been at the fore of the public’s imagination, and our desire to learn more about the universe we live in has led to the advancement of space technology. This has resulted in many test launches and experiments, during which a whole array of spacecraft and satellites have been sent into space. Consequently, we have slowly been contributing to an ever-growing jumble of junk that is now orbiting Earth. Although it’s out of sight, the University of Surrey are working to make sure that it is not kept out of mind. Later this year, they are launching a spacecraft on a mission called RemoveDebris, which will hopefully do exactly what is says on the tin before burning up into flames.

Broadly speaking, the term “space junk” refers to any man-made object in space that no longer serves a useful purpose. This definition encompasses objects such as used boosters, dead satellites and even Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, a sports car owned by the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, which was used as a dummy payload for the test flight of the SpaceX Heavy Falcon earlier this month. Even though the car is technically space junk, it is following an orbit around the sun and so it poses little cause for concern. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the 7500 tonnes of junk that the European Space Agency have estimated orbits the Earth.

Having so much debris orbiting the Earth is a problem because even the smallest objects can cause a lot of damage. In 2016, a fleck of paint chipped a window on the International Space Station (ISS), which regularly has to move out of the way of bigger pieces of junk. Furthermore, a piece of junk just 10 centimetres long could devastate a satellite. This could have detrimental effects on communication and weather forecasting, making clearing our cluttered low orbit environment a joint responsibility.

Another dangerous aspect of the debris is the potential for a cascading collision effect known as the Kessler Syndrome. This is a scenario triggered by the collision of two large objects that then cause a self-sustaining chain reaction of collisions, producing more debris. The large inactive satellite Envisat, which is owned by the European Space Agency, has been listed as a potential trigger for a Kessler event. It weighs roughly 8 tonnes and it passes within 200 metres of two other pieces of catalogued space junk every year.

Research into ways of clearing up our space junk is therefore of immediate relevance and we will hopefully be able to learn a lot from the RemoveDebris mission, which is being led by the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey.

The small RemoveDebris spacecraft – the size of a washing machine – was shipped to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in December. It will be launched into space later this year on a ISS resupply mission. Once at the ISS it will be unpacked by astronauts and deployed on its mission to experiment with techniques in which debris can be collected and removed from orbit.

In the first scheduled experiment a cubesat (a miniaturised satellite used for space research) will be ejected from the spacecraft. A net will then be ejected from the spacecraft to ensnare the cubesat. The development of this kind of capture technique could lead to space junk being hauled out of orbit by spacecraft in the future. The heat upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere will cause the space junk to burn up.

The second capture experiment is due to test a harpoon system. In this experiment, a target, made out of the same materials as satellite panels, will be extended out by the spacecraft. A harpoon will then be fired at the target. If a successful hit is made, this will be the first harpoon capture in orbit.

The third experiment will test vision based navigation. In this experiment, another cubesat will be ejected from the spacecraft. Cameras on-board the spacecraft will be used to collect data, which will then be sent to Earth and processed on the ground. If successful this will validate the use of vision-based navigation equipment, and ground-based image processing, in the context of active debris removal.

Finally, at the end of the mission, the spacecraft will deploy a large drag sail. The sail is made out of a reflective material and uses radiation pressure exerted by photons of light from the sun to produce thrust in a phenomenon known as solar sailing. The sail will cause the spacecraft to gently de-orbit before it violently burns up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere so that, crucially, it doesn’t become space junk itself.

Whether the RemoveDebris mission is a success or not, it is important that we keep the ball rolling into the future. Clearing up our skies is a collective responsibility between governments and space agencies as the consequences of an essential satellite being damaged, or space missions being grounded, will affect us all. Space exploration has an inexhaustible ability to inspire and thrill us, so let us not call time early on this journey simply because of our inability to look after the planet we live on.


The Northern Lights – Naomi Brown

At the beginning of November, residents of Scotland and Northern England were
able to view a dazzling light show in the sky: the Northern Lights. But what
causes them and how can we predict when it will happen again?
The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon where brightly, coloured lights
are seen across the night sky in the appearance of sheets or bands. They are
generally seen close the magnetic poles in an area called the ‘auroral zone’. The
best time to spot the auroras is when the Earth’s magnetic pole is between the
sun and the location of the person observing. This is called magnetic midnight.
The Northern lights are caused by gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere,
colliding with charged particles, released from the sun’s atmosphere.  The
charged particles are carried towards Earth by solar winds. The particles are
deflected from the Earth’s magnetic field. However, at the poles, the field is
weaker allowing a few particles to enter the atmosphere. Hence this is why
auroras are more likely to be seen close the magnetic poles; making Iceland and
Northern Scandinavia common destinations for travellers searching for the
Northern Lights.
The colours of the Northern Lights are dependent on the type of gas molecule
involved in the collisions. Green is one of the most common colours seen and is
caused by collisions of oxygen molecules, whereas blue or purple auroras are
caused by nitrogen molecules.
Why can the northern lights sometimes be seen in places further from the
Earth’s poles e.g. the UK ? The answer is the spread of aurora oval due to
ageomagnetic storm. Geomagnetic storms are more common after the maximum
in the solar cycle, a repeating 11-year cycle. The most recent solar maximum
was in 2013.
The Northern Lights are notoriously unpredictable. There are many forecast
apps available such as “My Aurora Forecast”. One of the best websites to check
out when the auroras will be visible from where you are is the Aurora Service
( forecast/). The site gives the Kp value
predicted for the next hour by using solar activity data obtained from a NASA
spacecraft, ACE. The ACE orbits 1.5 million kilometres from Earth: the prime
position to view the solar winds.
A common way to represent geomagnetic activity is the Kp index. Magnetic
observatories located all over the world use instruments to measure the largest
magnetic change every three hours. The recorded data from all these
observatories is averaged to generate Kp values, which range from 0 to 9. The
larger the value the more active the Earth’s magnetic field is due to geomagnetic
storms and the further the aurora oval spreads. If the Kp value is above 4, then it
is storm-level geomagnetic activity. These Kp values are useful in predicting
when auroras will be visible. To see the aurora from the UK, the Kp value would
have to be at least 6.

To get a great show, the conditions are important. Clear nights with no clouds
are best. It is also worth checking the moon cycle: the brightness of a full moon
drowns out the lights of aurora.

Dreams of Mars


Sam Jenkins

In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX, with the view of revolutionising space technology and the ultimate goal of making it possible for mankind to live on planets other than Earth. This came just a year after Musk detailed Mars Oasis, his plan designed to build public excitement at the idea of eventually walking on Mars, as he was disappointed with NASA’s lack of plans for sending any manned mission there. The idea was that a lander would be sent to the surface of the red planet, carrying a small greenhouse. On landing, seeds in dehydrated nutrient gels would be activated. The life and death of the plants they grew would give an insight into the challenges of sustaining life on Mars. However, Musk soon realised that the current level of technology was the main obstacle in seeing his dream succeed.

As you’d probably expect, getting to Mars is difficult. NASA has so far had six robotic landers successfully touch down on the surface, and although this is impressive, robotic missions are far easier than manned missions. This is because the manned missions not only have to carry the crew and supplies but also, crucially, fuel for the trip back home. For this reason, future manned missions will likely dock with a spacecraft in orbit around the planet, where fuel and supplies can be kept, rather than heading straight for the surface. While the journey to Mars would generally take about 300 days, much of the fuel on-board will get used at the very beginning and end of the trip. Firstly, the ship must be accelerated to roughly 25,000 miles per hour, to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth. Upon arrival at Mars, the ship must then decelerate, so it can be captured into circular orbit around the planet.

Traditionally firing booster rockets do this backwards, but to save on the amount of fuel required, scientists are employing new techniques. The first, known as aerobraking, has already been employed successfully in missions. This involves getting the ship into an orbit via reverse firing of rockets, and then using the drag caused by passing through the upper atmosphere of the planet to slow the ship, and achieve the desired circular orbit. The second, which has never been tried before, is known as aerocapture. Instead of using rockets to slow the ship down it goes straight into the atmosphere, at a slightly lower altitude than for aerobraking, and the drag from the atmosphere causes the ship to be captured straight into a circular orbit. This means a lot less fuel must be carried on the journey. Unfortunately, using this method of braking causes the kinetic energy of the rocket to be transformed into heat, requiring more thermal protection for the ship. Overall though, this weighs less than the fuel that would otherwise be needed, and any weight saving is an advantage when it comes to space travel. Sadly, funding cuts and tight budgets are causing NASAs plans to be slowed dramatically, and as such collaboration with other agencies such as SpaceX will be paramount to man’s ability to reach the red planet.

15 years since its founding, SpaceX has undoubtedly made large leaps in terms of their technology, frequently making headlines for vertical landings of rockets. For travel to Mars, SpaceX plans to employ their recently revised BFR rocket design, capable of carrying a payload along with an eight-story tall living space. Musk hopes that these will begin construction next year, with the potential for two carrying just cargo to launch in 2022. They would then aim to follow this two years later, with two carrying cargo and two carrying crew. Once there, the missions would aim to find water and establish a propellant plant, for running around trips between the Earth and Mars.

While some see these dates as ambitious, Musk describes them as “aspirational”. Regardless of whether these dates slip or not, manned missions to Mars are swiftly becoming a real possibility, and that is something we should all be very excited about.