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How should we protect and preserve our history — on the moon?

The next several years are shaping up to be busy ones for the moon, with no fewer than 14 landings in the works. That includes the robotic missions soon to be undertaken by five privately funded teams vying for the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, in which the contestants must land a rover on a pre-planned spot, move it at least 500 meters “along an interesting path in a deliberate manner,” and transmit video and other data back to Earth. In fact, tracks from the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) rovers could be the next intentional tracks to be made by humans on the moon’s surface.

But amid the excitement of exploring the moon, we can’t overlook our lunar heritage, says Derek Webber, a commercial space exploration consultant and former satellite engineer (TEDxBudapest talk: Claiming the future; protecting the past). After all, humanity’s past isn’t just what has been left here on Earth — it’s in space, too. “Lunar heritage is the record of when we first reached the moon, and it captures the epoch-making reality of what happened back then,” he says. New voyagers will encounter 58 years’ worth of human-created artifacts on the moon, including flags and footprintsHere’s why we should be thoughtful about what we do with them. Continue reading

Grow plants without water

Ever since humanity began to farm our own food, we’ve faced an unpredictable frenemy: rain. It comes and goes without much warning, and a field of lush leafy greens one year can crackle, dry up and blow away the next. Food security and fortunes depend on rain, and nowhere more so than in Africa, where 96% of farmland depends on rain instead of the irrigation common in more-developed places. It has consequences: South Africa’s ongoing drought — the worst in three decades — will cost it at least a quarter of its corn crop this year.

Biologist Jill Farrant (TED Talk: How we can make crops survive without water) of the University of Cape Town in South Africa says that nature has plenty of answers for people who want to grow crops in places with unpredictable rainfall. She is hard at work finding a way to take traits from rare wild plants that adapt to extreme desiccation and use them in food crops. As the Earth’s climate changes and rainfall becomes even less predictable in some places, those answers will grow even more valuable. “The type of farming I’m aiming for is literally so that people can survive as it’s going to get more and more dry,” Farrant says. Continue reading

Why we need to build our own tsunami

Nobody likes tsunamis, but earthquake engineer Tiziana Rossetto at University College London (TEDx Talk: Engineering against tsunami) is hard at work building one of her own. Don’t worry — it’s not going to destroy your coastline. It’s a scale model designed to help Rossetto and other engineers better understand the precise sequence of events that take place during and after a tsunami. That could help them build better coastal defenses and more resilient buildings — and perhaps even tame the terrible toll of the next big one. Here’s why Rossetto’s ideas matter: Continue reading