On exoplanets, tardigrades and other fun factoids to spice up your Trivia quiz night

by Ines Wynn

The solar system, space, the void and the cosmos are a treasure throve of weird and wondrous things. Some scientists have an enormous curiosity for the many celestial bodies, entities and other mysteries that are lurking out there and which they want to discover. Black holes, white giants, dwarf stars and other marvellous astral forms create an exciting hunting ground for cosmologists, astronomers and astrophysicists. They are forever looking to spot something new or discover Earth-like planets to prove that we are not alone in the void.

Back in 1996 scientists discovered the existence of exoplanets; these are planets revolving around stars outside our solar system. The excitement hit top level 20 years later when a team of Belgian astrophysicists confirmed they spotted a trio of planets orbiting an ultra cool dwarf star some 39 light years away, comparable in size and temperature to our Earth. These planets are considered ‘potentially habitable’, they said, given that they may have regions at temperatures within a range suitable for sustaining liquid water and life. That is because like Earth, they rotate around a heat and light giving stellar body like our sun. This ultra-cool dwarf star has about half of our sun’s temperature, making the existence of viable life-forms a definite possibility.

Staying closer to our own planet, you already knew that the Milky Way is huge. But were you aware that it takes about 230 million years for our solar system to circumnavigate the Milky Way? These numbers are mind boggling so it is a bit more digestible to learn that fellow solar-system planet Saturn has over 150 known moons, whose diameters range from less than 10 to over 5000 km. A Saturnian year, i.e. the time it takes to complete a single orbit around the sun, equals almost 30 Earth years – 29.5 to be a bit more exact. Other great fodder for your trivia quiz questions is that Venus has the longest day in the solar system. It completes one rotation every 243 Earth days. Its day lasts longer than its orbit. It orbits the sun every 224.65 Earth days, so a day on Venus is nearly 20 Earth days longer than its year.Now on to space creatures. If you have seen the latest Star Trek film, you already encountered the sci-fi version of tardigrades. The film introduces a character named Ripper, a space tardigrade who is able to borrow and incorporate foreign DNA (in this case from mushroom spores cultivated in the ship’s greenhouse) into its own genome via horizontal gene transfer. This allows him to travel at more than warp speed and take himself and the entire ship into another space dimension.

A tardigrade is a real animal, not just a figment of someone’s imagination. However, the real tardigrades are quite a bit different from the Ripper version. They are very small, short and plump creatures, about 0.5 mm (0.02 in) long, with four pairs of legs, each with four to eight claws. They are prevalent in mosses and lichens and feed on plant cells, algae, and small invertebrates.

They have been found everywhere: from mountain tops to the deep sea and mud volcanoes, from tropical rain forests to the Antarctic. Tardigrades are one of the most resilient known animals, with individual species able to survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms, such as exposure to extreme temperatures, extreme pressures (both high and low), air deprivation, radiation, dehydration, and starvation. Tardigrades have been revived after being frozen for 30 years; therefore they got a bit of a reputation of being the immortal animal. But warp speeds they don’t do.

Talking about wondrous animals, researchers at the University of Manchester are studying a fossilized hatchling that is around 127 million years old and was discovered at Las Hoyas in Spain. This hatchling pecked itself out of its shell but succumbed soon after. The skeleton—which is well preserved and nearly complete—offers researchers a window into the stages of avian development in the Mesozoic era, the time of dinosaurs. It has been identified as a member of the enantiornithine family, a group of birds – extinct now- which were the most abundant and diverse group known from the Mesozoic era. Almost all retained teeth and clawed fingers on each wing, but otherwise looked much like modern birds externally. The hatchling in question is petite, measuring about the length of your little finger, and weighing less than three ounces. The amazing thing is that the techniques to study the tiny bones of this critter have just recently been developed; therefore we can be assured we still will learn a lot more about our planet’s early creatures.

Have you ever wondered if some of Leonardo Da Vinci’s fabulous inventions are still in use today? Besides being a gifted artist he was also a very practical inventor and the world is richer thanks to the many inventions he bequeathed us. Leonardo’s fascination with flight and flight machines netted us the parachute.The double ship hull and diving gear are maritime contributions. On the mechanical side there are ball bearing, spring drive, rack and pinion gear, the humble scissors and the bucket wheel excavator. Odometers and anemometers are common in today’s world. He also invented the first robot. There are many more examples and even many more that were lost to history because, although Leonardo was definitely a genius and a man of many talents, a good documenter he was not.