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Today we have some exciting news from out there in the solar system [checks notes] er, excuse me, I guess I mean “in there” in the solar system, since today’s news concerns from the planet closest to the sun. Yet, even though it is first, Mercury is shockingly unknown compared to the other planets of the solar system. This past Friday (October 1st 2021), the joint ESA/JAXA space mission BepiColombo (which launched back in 2018) finally made it to the innermost world. Since 2018, the transfer module has been slaloming around Earth and Venus in order to make it to Mercury. Indeed, the mission is named after the brilliant Italian astrophysicist who first proposed interplanetary gravity assist maneuvers as a mechanism for altering the velocity and trajectory of interplanetary spacecraft. BepiColombo took the picture at the top of this post, a view of part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere taken at a distance of about 2,420 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the world.

In 2025, the spacecraft will deploy two orbiters to truly comprehensively map Mercury and attempt to unlock the mysteries of the planet’s ancient face. Mercury’s surface seems to be made of a very dark lava which has been bombarded by meteorites for the last several billion years. Although Mercury is dinky in volume (smaller than some of the solar system’s moons) it is quite dense and presumably contains a metallic core suitable for a much larger planet. Interestingly (albeit unsurprisingly, for anyone who lives here) the densest planet in the solar system is Earth!

Not since the end of the Messenger mission has Mercury been the thrilling center of attention in astronomy. I can hardly wait for subsequent discoveries about the fast, hot, tiny planet. Some of the secrets of the making of the solar system have been locked away on the little world, waiting billions of years for the right orbiter to come along.

Vanilla Ice on 10/1/90 in Minneapolis, Mn. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Back in college I took a course on planetary and atmospheric dynamics. Although I don’t recall the course as well as I should (the class was extremely mathematical for my taste), one concept which has remained with me is is “albedo”–how well the planetary surface reflects solar radiation back into space. Albedo was a strange wild card in everyone’s computer models of planetary temperature and climate. Small changes in planetary albedo could lead to big temperature changes across the globe (as say when high-albedo ice sheets melt or when reflective white clouds form). Albedo isn’t just important in astrophysics: how well a surface reflects or absorbs radiant energy has engineering and economic implications down here at a human scale as well.

Hmm

This awkward lede is an attempt to contextualize the potentially enormous importance of today’s color-themed topic. Researchers at Purdue University have invented a very, very bright shade of white paint. The color is so white that it reflects 98.1 percent of visible light. The color (which lacks a name, but should be called something like “great white”, “polar bare”, or “super dazzle”) is so radiant that surfaces painted with the compound are cooler than the ambient temperature of things around them. It is the polar opposite (snicker) of the ultra-black developed a few years ago.

The secret to this color is a molecular engineering trick. Barium sulfate is a safe and commonly used white pigment for makeup and coated papers. Engineers created a range of microscopically sized barium sulfate particles and then combined these differently sized particles into a single coating. The result was this glistening mirror white.

white glitter christmas abstract background

Now I can’t show you this color in a photo (since it wouldn’t make any sense on the luminous medium of your computer screen), but I get the sense that, like that super black, it has an unearthly look to it in the real world. Speaking of the real world there is no news yet on practical or saleable applications of the incredible ultra white (which makes me think it might prove hard to produce at scale). Yet the fact that it exists is exciting for engineers (and artists too). Let’s get to work making some more of this stuff so we can find out if is any good…and so we know whether we can solve our climate problems by painting Nevada and the Kumtag Desert shiny white!

Dirona albolineata (photographed by http://www.naturediver.com)

It has been far too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured any miraculous molluscs! Therefore, today we are going to return to a timeless favorite topic and feature a predatory nudibranch sea slug that looks like a rogue lace jabot. This is Dirona albolineata (a.k.a the alabaster nudibranch) a predatory slug which lives in the cold rich waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean from Alaska down to San Diego. The translucent slug grows to a length of 18 centimeters (7 inches) and hunts tiny invertebrates of the coastal zone such as bryozoans, little arthropods, hydroids, ascidians, and, um, lesser mollusks.

The beautiful little milky slug is generally whitish but specimens have been found which were pale pink, peach, or lavender. As a simultaneous hermaphrodite, the slug has an unusual mating ritual where he/she/it meets another alabaster mollusk and both parties copulate both as male and female (they each fire a reproductive dart into the other’s body and both parties leave the union fertilized). The leaf like appendages upon the slug’s body are known as ceratae. These scales are protective and serve as armor or as a diversion (under extreme duress, the snail can jettison the twitching scales in hopes of diverting a predator), however they also greatly increase the snail’s body area and help respiration/gas exchange. Or to be more plain, the ceratae are like a cross between gills and plate mail for this translucent hermaphroditic mollusc.

Buried among today’s ghastly news stories was an interesting micro-nugget of potentially good news: the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California managed to trigger a 1.35 Megajoule reaction by firing an ultraviolet laser array into a tiny target of nuclear fuel. Now Doc-Brown-style engineers/mad scientists might scoff at that number since 1.35 Megajoules is about the same amount of kinetic energy as in a Con Edison Truck rolling down a gentle hill. However the National Ignition Facility is meant to test colossal forces in tiny, manageable packages (it is putatively designed to model the extreme temperatures and conditions of nuclear weapons without requiring actual nuclear testing).

The real purpose of the National Ignition Facility is to try to leapfrog the moribund engineering quest for usable fusion energy. I wrote an overly optimistic piece about the place over a decade ago and have barely heard anything about it since then aside from a story about how they finally got their laser array to work right back in 2012. To briefly recap the methodology of this process, here is a simplified description. Scientists fire a burst of extremely intense energy through the futuristic laser array for 20 billionths of a second. This energy is theoretically meant to vaporize a small gold capsule containing deuterium and tritium. If lasers strike the gold correctly, the disintegrating gold releases a high-energy burst of x-rays which compact the capsule and force the hydrogen isotopes to fuse. On August 8th, for the first time, this process mostly worked and the reaction actually yielded 70% of the energy used to fire the lasers (an enormous improvement from the previous 3% maximum which had been the benchmark for years).

Apparently the breakthrough involved improving the size, shape, and microscopic surface preparation of the capsule (classic engineering stuff!). Nuclear engineers are quick to point out that the result still leaves us a long way from figuring out how to produce the clean abundant energy which humankind desperately needs to solve our (rapidly growing) problems and needs. Yet they also have a long-absent glint in their eyes and a new spring in their step. This is real progress in the search for a goal which has proven maddeningly elusive. Let’s keep an eye on the National Ignition Facility, and, maybe, just maybe this would be a worthy place to spend some more of our national budget.

Hubble space telescope.

Happy news to follow up on our somewhat glum Fourth of July post! The Hubble space telescope (which went offline on June 13th, 2021 due to a failure in the main computer) has fully rebooted and is once more humankind’s eye in the sky for observing the greater universe.

The telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for 30 years, can no longer be serviced by space shuttle crews and must now be fixed remotely by command staff at Godard Space Center in Maryland. Since the Hubble scope was was built in the 1980s, some of its technology is very old and esoteric. To repair the scope, NASA brought back alumni staffers who pored over 40 year old schematics with today’s engineers.

IT departments everywhere joke that the solution to all tech problems is to turn the system on and off, but the solution to Hubble’s problems was not nearly so simple (although, um, that was actually the solution…in a way).

First the NASA team believed a memory module was degrading and switched to other modules. When that did not work, they turned on Hubble’s backup payload computer (for the first time since Hubble was launched to space). Then they carefully turned components on and off to analyze potential faults in the the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter and the Power Control Unit. Although this sounds straightforward, it involved a carefully planned use of backup “safe mode” (from the backup computer) and a laborious process of switching circuits and interfaces.

As it turns out the power supply was at fault, but there is a backup of that too! Now the Hubble is taking pictures of the universe again (like this new picture immediately above–which was imaged since the space telescope returned from its near death glitch). Hurray for Hubble! Imagine how much astronomers will be able to accomplish when they have two space telescopes, assuming everything goes right with the James Webb telescope this autumn.

I have noticed that today’s social media feed (and even the actual media feed) is filled with people who are angry about billionaires going to space. Now there are lots of actual reasons to be quite angry about the existence of so many billionaires and their ever greater consumption of humankind’s limited resources! For example, I am furious at how easy it is to pour dark money into politics and buy up right-wing politicians without anybody finding out about it (or other politicians too, I guess…but apparently most oligarch money quietly goes to the right). Likewise, I am angry at how billionaires use their enormous wealth to skew markets. Such wealth is already a product of market tampering and political favoritism. Where you find billionaires you find monopolies, monopsonies, and cartels. You also find the attendant ills of price-fixing, regulatory capture, and strangled innovation.

Above all, where you find billionaires, you find graft. What is even the point of having so much money other than to convert it into power over courts, and police, and laws, and rules?

So billionaires (or really the status inequality which they represent) are a big problem…but that doesn’t seem to be what is making everyone angry about Branson, Musk, Bezos, et al. Instead on social media I find lots of variants of the tired old line “with so many problems here on Earth, how could you spend that money on space?” (although, in fairness, a close second was “how about they pay their taxes instead?” and that criticism is absolutely on point). A lot of people seem angry about “joyrides and stunts” from these plutocratonauts. It makes me worry that hatred of these creeps is transforming into more pushback against space exploration–and none of us can afford that!

Commercialization of space has a sort of dinosaur’s wing problem. Archaeopteryx obviously gleaned all sorts of advantages by flying around on stylish feathered wings, but how did evolution bridge the awkward gap between such gracile bird-like fliers and their ungainly forbears who just had flaps and pin feathers? There are irrefutable reasons for nation-states to pour money into space exploration (“confers military and technological dominance” jumps first to mind), but what entices entrepreneurs to try to scale such formidable barriers to entry? The first satellite provided the Soviet Union control of the heavens. The first space hotel will provide a way to die trying to use the toilet.

Perhaps this generation of space billionaires is the transitional flap which will someday develop into a functional wing (perhaps a more apt metaphor for this would involve the freewheeling early days of private aviation which involved all sorts of Lindbergs and Howard Hughes).

Also maybe spending this sort of money will actually provide some economic returns. When I get money, I spend it on catfood, beans, shoes, electricity, and internet. Billionaires don’t have a billion more cats than me or use a billion times more electricity, or need a billion more boots (and frankly, I doubt they even eat beans at all). Even with a dozen mansions, a super yacht, and a gulfstream (and a non-bean-based menu) spending simply does not keep up with capital accumulation–their money is hoarded. but money spent on space is actually spent here on Earth (on engineering, materials science, researchers, and other useful things)

Or we could just tax these guys properly and spend the money on scientifically useful space exploration (and medical research, and infrastructure, and fundamental R&D etc.). Yet for some reason, politicians don’t seem to be rushing to close loopholes and collect those taxes. For right now these ungainly space jaunts may be the best way towards actual meaningful space enterprise.

Temnothorax ants living in a tiny acorn

Of all of Ferrebeekeeper’s topics (over there at left in the topic cloud) the one which is farthest from my heart but closest to this blog’s purpose concerns the hymenoptera. This enormous order of important insects always offers diverting stories and anecdotes (like the Schmidt sting index or the Asian giant hornet), but the real reason I started writing about them is that the nature of the huge eusocial ant colonies and bee hives mimics the human super colony in eerie and intriguing ways.

The ants pictured with tapeworm larva (below)

Thus we come to today’s horror story concerning Temnothorax ants which live in German forests in unobtrusive rotting logs and suchlike habitats. Temnothorax ants have a disquieting problem: a parasitic tapeworm likes to live within the abdomens of some of the worker ants. However, to the infected ants it does not seem like a problem. They live up to three times longer than their uninfected sisters and, while the other ants rapidly age and wear out, the ones which harbor live tapeworms keep permanent adolescent good looks through their enormously extended lives. Additionally, infected ants exude a sweet chemical which makes them socially appealing to the honest hard-working ants in their own colonies. Uninfected ants seem to misidentify infected ants as queens (or at least as royalty of some sort) and spend a great deal of time feeding, grooming, and caring for them.

High status individual human

This sounds like a pretty delightful deal for infected ants who live like (and are like?) Kanye West, but there are a couple of drawbacks. The infected ants soak up critical resources from the greater hive and reduce its overall efficacy and ability to survive. Infected hives are at much greater risk of destitution or outright destruction from predators. Which brings up the final problem: the parasitic tapeworm’s final life stage does not take place inside the guts of an ant, but rather the tapeworm must be eaten by an ant-eating bird. There, inside the larger predator, it mates and lays eggs which are released by the bird into the forest where Temnothorax ants feed on the rich droppings and are infected.

So infected ants aren’t just dullard aristocrats not carrying their weight. They are actively seeking self-destruction. When birds tear into the nest the infected ants lift up their heads, glisten, and wait for annihilation (while the infected ones are desperately trying to protect the larvae and the queen). Of course the ants (uninfected and infected) do not comprehend any of this. If we were to ask them about their lives the uninfected workers would probably tell us how fortunate they were to meet so many high-status ants and the infected ones would probably try to sell us self-help books about raw food or talk about running for office in Texas.

The Carina Nebula (a stellar nursery 8500 light years from Earth) as imaged by Hubble

The Fourth of July was on a perfect summer Sunday this year and we failed to celebrate with a gallery of images. Therefore, in a belated salute to our great-but-troubled union, here are some of the all-time best photographs taken from the Hubble Space telescope, the world’s premier orbital telescope, Hubble launched in April 24, 1990 and has provided an astonishing window on the universe since then (despite some glitches which have cropped up from time to time), however now both the main computer and the backup computer are malfunctioning.

The Beautiful Spiral Galaxy M51 (AKA “The Whirlpool Galaxy”)

Hubble was designed to be periodically serviced by a space shuttle and its friendly crew of astronauts, however, since the shuttles have been permanently retired, scientists are now stuck trying to fix the aging legacy systems from 400 kilometers away. Although there are various reset combinations left to try, some astronomers and technicians are starting to wonder if the Hubble era is coming to an end.

The crowded core of a giant star cluster as imaged by the Hubble Wide Field Camera 3

Although Hubble’s troubles are dominating space telescope news at the moment, it is no longer the only story. The long-delayed James Webb telescope is finally getting close to launching (blast-off is set for November). That scope is to Hubble, what Hubble was to its earth-bound predecessors (which is to say, it is orders of magnitude more powerful and sophisticated). We will be talking about Webb in November, but for right now let’s celebrate the warm summer nights with Hubble’s cosmic gallery of astonishing celestial fireworks.

The giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020): The glowing center of the red nebula is a nursery of stars 10-20 times more massive than the sun. The blue nebula is a bubble of ionized hydrogen ejected by the super luminous blue star in the center.

Hi everyone! Sorry that the posts were thin on the ground last week. The head druid told me that I needed to honor the solstice by taking some time to reflect on the meaning of things [citation needed]. Anyway…since I didn’t blog last week, I failed to post these astonishing pictures of Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede, which were photographed by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it slaloms though the Jovian system.

Ganymede as imaged by NASA probe Juno

Although its lack of atmosphere and pockmarked plains of dust make it superficially resemble Earth’s moon, Gannymede is a very strange and unique heavenly object Of the 200 known moons in the solar system, it is the largest. Indeed it is 26% larger than the planet Mercury by volume (although it is only 45% as massive as the metalliferous first planet). Ganymede has a diameter of 5,268 km (3,273 mi), so each pixel in the full size image of the Jovian moon is equal to a kilometer (although you may want to check out the NASA image to really savor that scale–since WordPress has a noteworthy penchant for scrunching up my images in incomprehensible ways).

A photo of the dark side of Ganymede taken by Juno’s incredibly light sensitive navigational camera

Alone among moons in the solar system, Ganymede has a magnetic field, albeit a rather meager one compared to Earth or Jupiter. Scientists surmise that the magnetic field is created by convection within the liquid iron core of the moon–although answers are not forthcoming as to why it has a liquid iron core to begin with (these planetary cores seem to be the real determinant of what planets are like, but I feel like we know precious little about them). Thanks to its size (and maybe thanks also to its magnetosphere), Ganymede has a very thin oxygen atmosphere…but that just creates more question, since elemental Oxygen has a tendency to instantly bond to all sorts of other elements. The 20 percent or so of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere did not become a mainstay until about 1.5 billion years ago when photosynthesizing bacteria finally became so prevalent that they overcame the constant loss of atmospheric oxygen thanks to oxidation. Hopefully Juno’s survey will help us solve atmospheric mysteries on Ganymede. Ganymede is also believed to have a vast subsurface ocean of icy water tucked away somewehere beneath its surface. Astronomers have reasonably speculated that this Ganymede underworld ocean may contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined!

This is the largest version of this interesting cross section which I could find

Ganymede is a Galilean moon–which means it was discovered by the great scientist, and is one of the first objects ever discovered to orbiting another planet (I still sometimes imagine the thrill Galileo must have felt when he realized what he was seeing). I wonder what surprises Juno will send back for us!

Perhaps the most interesting (or the only interesting) job I have had, was working as an intern at Smithsonian’s Marine Systems Laboratory in Washington DC in 1993. The Smithsonian Natural History Museum employed an ecological engineer named Walter H. Adey (?) who had built a synthetic mangrove ecosystem in a spare greenhouse amidst the national orchid collection. The fake everglades ecosystem (which I described more thoroughly in an earlier post) had been built decades earlier and it was starting to fail in some critical ways. However in a larger sense, the failures were the point of the project, since they elucidated the innumerable fragile connections which make living systems possible.

The only picture I could find of this place seems to have been kept because it featured Robert Redford not because of the synthetic ecosystem, which says a huge amount about humankind (although it has raised my esteem for Robert Redford).

All told, the terrarium world was about the size of a large suburban home and, at its heart was a miniature ocean built out of a calcium carbonate pit filled with thousands of gallons of salt water. The water was continuously filtered over algal mats which cleared out the ammonia and nitrogenous waste (and other waste products too). The ocean itself was filled with many tiny cnidarians, copepods, and suchlike micro-invertebrates, however larger animals were scarce (indeed animals larger than a small paperclip were dying out of the entire habitat). The only large fish were a pair of venerable striped sea bass who were definitely not reproducing.

It turns out that ray-finned marine fish almost all go through an extensive (and rather poorly understood) “larval” stage where the infinitesimal and quasi-transparent fish hunt the zooplankton while being hunted by innumerable ocean predators. This phase is nearly impossible to reproduce in captivity (although any ichthyologists or aquaculturists out there should feel free to jump in with additional information). Think of how depressing that is! Almost all of the 20,000 species of exquisite ocean fish are tied inextricably to the ocean! They can’t be conserved or preserved in some zoo or time capsule or artificial paradise, because we have no idea how to do that. If we broke through every sort of technological barrier and built an ark ship to blast off to Alpha Centauri, we wouldn’t have tuna or triggerfish or basking sharks with us.

Hollywood Lies from “Snowpiercer”!

The tiny fake sea (and the brackish mangrove swamp) were not empty though. There were species of small live-bearing fish which lived there and had managed to reproduce. Generations of these robust little minnows lived and died in the ersatz ocean and their delicate stripey shadows could be seen flitting about in bait balls in the depths. I should have asked what species they were–however the fascinating Wikipedia entry on Mangrove killifish should give you an idea of what sort of survivors these characters were.

I have written before about my own terrible childhood experiences keeping aquariums, and (although I still regard myself as a profoundly ineffectual failure on nearly every level), I think the sorts of problems I encountered reveal bigger issues than my jejeune fishkeeping skills. This is a long-winded way of reminding Elon Musk (or whoever else) that Earth’s oceans keep the planet alive and are the defining feature of our world. We would need such things anywhere else–but we know next to nothing about synthetic ecology. It doesn’t seem like a field where just adding more metal tubes and freaky machines actually helps all that much…

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