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Venera 3 Lander

Venera 3 Probe

This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.
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The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.

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Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?

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Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.

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mona_islandThe weather in New York has turned distinctively wintery, so Ferrebeekeeper is going to compensate by featuring a little known tropical island! Isla de la Mona (“Island of the Bow?” Mona Island?” help me out here, Spanish speakers) is a small island which lies in the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The island measures 11 km by 7 km (7 miles by 4 miles) about the same size as Manhattan. But while 1.7 million people live on Manhattan, Isla de Mona has only a ranger station and no true permanent residents.

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Indeed, Isla de la Mona is something of an anomaly in the world: becoming less inhabited over time. In ancient times the Arawak Indians dwelled there. Archaeological evidence establishes their presence on the island by at least 3000 BC. However after Columbus (who officially “discovered” the island), the murky affairs of the colonial era caused the island to gradually depopulate. At one point, the island was controlled by Francisco de Barrionuevo, a Spanish grandee who fell afoul of Alonso Manso, the rapacious bishop of Puerto Rico. Bishop Manso was fond of proscribing wealthy enemies and seizing their possessions and retainers. To escape this fate, de Barrionuevo escaped to mainland South America, and he took most of the island’s remaining inhabitants with him. Thereafter, remaining natives were generally impressed (enslaved?) by French corsairs. The emptied island became a haunt of pirates including the infamous Captain Kidd. It passed to American control in the Spanish American War and remains an administrative part of Puerto Rico (although it is actually closer to the Dominican Republic).

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Abandoned lighthouse in the middle of a cactus forest on Mona Island

In the modern era, Mona Island, was mined for guano. During World War II, it was attacked by a German u-boat in what must have been a thrilling “Hellboy” or “Indiana Jones” type adventure (or maybe the submarine was trying to disrupt the Allies’ nitrogen supply). Today the island is entirely a nature preserve, and no more than 100 people can be on it at a given time.

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Because of this enforced isolation, the island has a pristine ecosystem of dry scrublands and tropical forests. There are extensive sea-caves and coral reefs around the island. As you can imagine, it is a refuge to wildlife such as sea turtles (which are displaced by beach development everywhere else). Unfortunately feral pigs, goats, and cats have invaded the island and messed up the unspoiled ecosystem, but they are kept somewhat in check by annual hunts and by the efforts of the Park Service. I think it is thrilling to imagine this empty island out there. It pleases me no end that there are still such places.

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From the 1830s through the late 1850s, the capital of winemaking in the United States was Ohio. Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati successfully planted great vineyards of Catawba grapes along the Ohio River. He had moderate success making sweet white wines but his greatest success came after he accidentally produced a sweet sparkling wine which oenophiles of the day likened to French champagne. The sparkling wines of Ohio became briefly internationally famous and bon vivants of the East Coast, Victorian England, and continental Europe paid top dollar for what was regarded as a premium International luxury beverage. Odes to the grape were written by famous poets and the Ohio valley briefly resembled Ardennes.

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Oh jeeze….

The Catawba grapes which were at the center of this Bacchic empire were a dark brownish pink/purple grape from the East Coast. They were said to be a hybrid of native American grapes and imported European vines, although where the distinctive grapes and the distinctive name actually came from is seemingly lost in history (which is to say it was probably all a marketing stunt by Longworth). The grapes themselves were sweet red grapes with a tendency to have a foxy flavor (which sounds like more marketing language for unpleasant muskiness). The vines grew vigorously but were subject to attack from powdery mildew. In the 1860s powdery mildew joined forces with economic devastation and dislocation of the American Civil War to crush the nascent Ohio wine industry to such a thorough extent that it sounds like I am writing about alternate universe history.

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The entire reason I bring up this boom and bust story is because it is memorialized in a very beautiful color, Catawba, a pretty organic shade of brownish pinkish purple. Now whenever you see the delightful color (which is used less than it should be), you can think of how Ohio might have become a land of rolling rivers, chateaus, monasteries, lavender fields, and fine living….

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(Call me crazy, but this kind of looks like Ohio with a beautiful medieval town in it…)

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Wax palms in the Quindio area of Columbia

The Quindio wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) is a tree which lives on the western slopes of the Andes mountains in Quindío (a region in northwest Colombia).  This palm tree has a smooth waxy trunk topped by a crown of dark gray green leaves….and what a trunk it has!  The tree grows to heights of 50 and occasionally 60 meters (160-200 feet) a bit taller than the space shuttle or the Statue of Liberty (without its base).  They are the tallest palm trees in the world. They are exceedingly beautiful and magical.

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(Monilemor photography)

The Quindio palms almost went extinct since people relentlessly overharvested them to make wax candles and torches and for palm fronds (which have a religious significance in Christianity).  This would have been a tremendous shame since the palms are not just magnificent in their own right but also provide a habitat for astonishing animals such as the yellow-eared parrot.

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Although the palms are still in trouble due to habitat loss, they are now stringently protected by law (and they have been named the national tree of Colombia).  Additionally landscapers grow them in warm climates around the world. Somehow I still find it hard to believe they are real…just look at them.  The world is filled with beautiful wonders!

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Andromeda (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC)

While everyone else was making popcorn garlands and giving sentimental presents and eating marshmallow candies shaped like Santa, astronomers were busy too…busy scanning the Andromeda galaxy with a super powerful x-ray telescope array in space! (Yeah, that’s right, astronomers are no joke, boy!)  According to NASA’s mission overview, “The NuSTAR instrument consists of two co-aligned grazing incidence telescopes with specially coated optics and newly developed detectors that extend sensitivity to higher energies as compared to previous missions such as Chandra and XMM. After launching into orbit on a small rocket, the NuSTAR telescope extends to achieve a 10-meter focal length. The observatory will provide a combination of sensitivity, spatial, and spectral resolution factors of 10 to 100 improved over previous missions that have operated at these X-ray energies.”

The astronomers operating this device (devices?) chose to look at Andromeda (AKA M31) the Milky Way’s big sister galaxy which is located relatively close by in galactic terms…a mere 2.5 million light years away.  They wished to observe X-ray binary systems–disturbing star systems where a supermassive star collapsed either into a black hole or a neutron star.  The huge mass left over from such a collapse plays havoc with the remaining living star.  Frequently great plumes of matter are stripped away from the living star into the gravity well of the white dwarf or the black hole.  As star stuff falls into the massive stellar fragment it produces large amounts of exotic radiation like x-rays.

Astronomers hope that by determining which of these systems harbor black holes versus neutron stars, they can find out more about such systems, which are theorized to have played a critical role in heating the interstellar gas nebulae which gave birth to the galaxies.

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NuSTAR X-Ray Observatory (NASA)

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2016 has only just started and already there is shocking news…at least for New Yorkers: Doctor Zizmor is retiring! While the information that a cosmetic dermatologist is finally hanging up his collagen and moving to his down-sized mansion in the suburbs to study Talmud is not necessarily interesting in and of itself, anyone who has lived in New York City in the last quarter century will be instantly galvanized. “Dr. Z” had an oversize reputation in the city because of his omnipresent subway ads. They were as quintessentially a part of New York as egg-creams, the Warriors, and Wall Street.

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Although conceptually located in the late eighties (or early nineties), Zizmor ads had a sort of timeless snake-oil feeling to them. To be blunt, the advertising always seemed somewhat dodgy. It featured a “before” picture of an acne scarred woman in bad light and an “after” picture of the same woman looking mostly the same (but wearing makeup and smiling). Also there was a discount rainbow and some scary stuff about “chemical peels” and a suspiciously young picture of Doctor Z himself looking like a big serene glob of tallow that just dripped off a particularly lucrative candle. In our world of computer aesthetics and grim graphic formalism, the old-timey shysterism of the ads was rather refreshing.

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I had a friend who always looked up at the ad and said “Hold still while Dr. Z gives you a chemical peel!” It always made me laugh, but, since I suffered from painful eczema, I always looked at the ads with a measure of longing too—an infidel staring at the shrine of Saint Anthony. Even now they engender a sort of bemusement: Should I tag this post as “Invaders” (since the ads certainly invade our collective space) or “Color” (they feature a scaled-down rainbow) or “science” (since apparently somebody gave Dr. Z a real M.D. despite all his grubby grabby talk about chemical peels and payment plans)? Or maybe Dr. Z belongs in “Deities of the Underworld” since he was a (lesser) deity of healing and avarice who drew his believers from the chthonic realm of the subway?

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Cover of the New York Observer (Zina Saunders, 2012)

In New York City everything is in constant flux. Neighborhoods come and go overnight. Since I have moved here, the best pizza place has been replaced with a bank branch, the best bar has been replaced by a bank branch, and the best bookstore has been replaced with a bank branch. Yet I always assumed that Dr. Zizmor’s ads would last forever. I guess I assumed Dr. Zizmor had already died back during the Crimean war…or never even existed… and the ads were simply an incomprehensible but immutable part of the cultural landscape. Yet according to the internet, the ads only started in 1991. They marked my youth now lost forever into the hurly-burly of Gotham. Although I am sure another rapacious dermatologist will move into his niche, I can’t imagine he will display the same level of Kanye West style narcissism or Old West advertising flair.

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