Friday, 23 May 2014

The fate of four galaxies

The fate of four galaxies

(I posted a variant of this as a comment below an article about breakfast cereals that appeared on the New Statesman website. The spoilsports marked it as spam, so it's going here on my blog instead)

On the 21st March, 2011, 'Kibo,' the Japanese Experiment Module on the International Space Station took delivery of the Taneda Lab: A closed zero-G environment in which the contents of a 255g box of Rice Krispies (each puffed grain meticulously named and catalogued) were allowed circulate in a state of perpetual weightlessness. The purpose of the experiment was to increase human knowledge of the movement and behaviour of celestial bodies. The larger Rice Krispies assumed the identity of planetoids, while the ground-up dust at the bottom of the packet took on the role of space debris. The transition of every object within the artificial galaxy was mapped by a pair of computers that were also able to influence the environment by producing effects that mimicked the space weather being observed by the ISS and by other unmanned space probes and telescopes.

Through this research scientists have gained an improved understanding of galactic dominance where objects in a vacuum assume a pecking order based upon their size, their relative position, and the 'alliances' they make with neighbouring objects. The data has also been instrumental in developing a model of galactic sedimentation which describes how layers of matter arrange themselves within a star system.

Experiment supervisor, Himura Ko, remembers the arrival of the lab:

“It costs a small fortune to send Rice Krispies into space. I was under strict orders not to let my colleagues eat a single one of them.”

Each cycle of the Taneda chamber lasts approximately nine months after which the equipment must be scrupulously cleaned - a process that usually takes 40 days. The lab is currently hosting its fourth galaxy (Tōrō nagashi). At the time of writing there are tentative plans to release it into space at the conclusion of the simulation, if it is thought that this can be done safely.

TN's three predecessors have all been boxed up and returned safely to earth. Of these only one survives:

The first (prosaically named 'Galaxy One') was sold last year at a charity breakfast in Tokyo, where it was consumed with milk by the winning bidder and their guests.

The second (Aomori - so called because the Rice Krispies were treated with a protein harvested from phosphorescent algae which caused it glow bright blue) continues to be the focus of study on earth. Himura hopes to eventually turn it into a reading lamp  for his daughter.

The third (Shomyo-daki - named after the cereal formed itself into a pair of cascading spirals meeting near the bottom of the chamber where they formed a v-shape) was intended for display at The Japanese Museum of Space in Osaka, but was eaten by vermin.

It was like the conclusion of an ancient mythological saga where the world is consumed a giant mouse,” recalls Himura. “It sounds ridiculous but who's to say that our universe isn't made up of somebody's breakfast cereal floating around in a lab somewhere?”

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