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We knew that, if the Webb telescope could make it to the L2 Lagrange Point in one piece and deploy properly, this would be an exciting season for astronomers–but, even so, the parade of stunning new images from outer space are marvelous and demand comment. Today’s treasure is a picture of Planet Neptune and its moons as imaged by the near-infrared camera on Webb. The ice giant Neptune is made of strange cold things with a great pall of methane gas over them. Methane gas is very opaque to infrared light (which it absorbs) and so the planet looks like a frosty, haunted bowling ball with glass rings.

Ever since Pluto got demoted to “dwarf planet”, Neptune is the outermost world of our solar system. Yet the great gas giants…or even the trans-Neptunian objects like Eris and Haumea get all of the attention. No space craft has even visited Neptune since Voyage II rolled by in 1989 (the first and last time a probe entered the Neptune system).

Aside from the spectral rings, the image shows some bright sparks in a line along Neptune’s Tropic of Capricorn (which is not called that, but you get the idea). These bright spots are caused by high altitude methane clouds which are made of methane ice (which reflects infrared light better than methane gas does).

The full Webb photo has a striking focal point! Pulling back we see that Neptune’s largest and strangest moon Triton outshines the giant world it orbits. This is because Triton (which is named for the Greco-Roman deity Neptune’s merman super-son) is covered in a sheet of frozen nitrogen which reflects 70% of the sunlight which strikes it–so Triton glows like an aquamarine star in this photo. Ultimately Triton might well turn out to be be more interesting than Neptune: it is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit (an orbit opposite of the planet’s rotation). Such an unusual orbit suggests that the moon was a little world captured by the ice giant long ago.

Triton is larger than Pluto and is one of five moons in the solar system known to be geologically active (the others being Io, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus). Voyager II spotted geysers of nitrogen gas venting from the moon. Clearly cryovolcanic activity is taking place below the strange patchwork of old ice (as explained in this confusing yet compelling map/diagram) and lakes of liquid water may exist below the moon’s crust.

I am going to keep staring at images of our strange far-off neighbor world, but I can’t wait to see what Webb photographs next!

The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism

Hey everybody! Sorry I went awol for a little sabbatical from writing. It is summer plus I felt burned out after the last two (or 20) years, and none of my blogging pleasure centers were registering any joy. However today there is something to be quite joyous about: the President of the United States released the first deep field image from the James Webb Space telescope, a colossal near-infrared eye in the sky, which is now unfurled, debugged, and fully operational at Earth’s second LeGrange point! Huzzah!

Courtesy NASA Webb Space Telescope

And what a picture it is. It is so good and so spectacular that it almost looks like background art from a disco album rather than a colossal galaxy-studded expanse of outer space as it existed billions of years ago. The image is a composite of multiple scans taken with the space telescope’s Near-Infrared camera over a 12.5 hour window (the world famous ultra deep field photo from Hubble which rocked the world back in 2004 required closer to 12 days of scope time and did not peer early so deeply into the universe).

The Webb image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 which is 4.6 billion light years away. Because this galaxy cluster is (or was?) so massive, it acts as a gravitational lens and much more distant galaxies can be glimpsed in the curvy fisheye at the center of this image. I am no galactic astronomy expert (here are some vague pointers about what the color means from an earlier post), but the beauty and grandeur of the image is evident to even the rankest layman…and this is the first real image. There are going to be lots and lots of additional pictures coming in of every conceivable sight out there in the universe and we are going to be blown away by what we see. I can hardly wait for more!

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Hopefully you enjoyed the 2022 Winter Olympics! Whatever you may have thought about the participants or the hosts (or winter sports in general), I don’t think anybody could complain that the Beijing competitions lacked old-school Olympic drama. Now that I have had a relaxing fortnight of watching the contest (on the sofa, as far from winter as I can get), I will try to blog more regularly! First of all, let’s get to some overlooked news from a few weeks ago.

The good news of the world tends to get overlooked either because it is quotidian, or because it is esoteric/perplexing (with equally incomprehensible ramifications). This news bulletin definitely falls into the latter category! Remember previous posts about the National Ignition Facility, a colossal laser array at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory which is experimenting with alternate methods of initiating nuclear fusion? There has been a update or two since I first wrote about the place a dozen years ago (sigh), but thus far the lab has not produced the desired results. Suddenly, however, events on the ground are moving more swiftly.

The National Ignition Facility attempts to bypass costly and difficult mechanisms to reach nuclear fusion (like, you know, setting off nuclear fission bombs or building magnetic doughnuts the size of Malta) by concentrating a prodigious amount of energy at a tiny nuclear fuel capsule by means of an array of 192 super lasers all aimed at the tiny capsule (you should maybe imagine that this is being explained by someone with chaotic white hair and a German accent). Thus far, progress has been slow and incremental (at best). Four weeks ago, however, the researchers changed the size and shape of the capsule, and they achieved a new milestone on the road to nuclear ignition: a burning plasma, in which the fusion reactions themselves are the primary source of heating in the plasma.

In some ways this was the goal of the National Ignition Facility–to get more energy out of their process than they put into it. However, now that the experiments are starting to truly pay off, scientists will be working even harder to maximize energy output and efficiency and further optimize the encouraging results. Sadly, this potentially world-changing news, has received limited media attention (aside from within the pages of, you know, Nature and Ferrebeekeeper), however, I have a feeling that much more news will be forthcoming from Livermore. Hopefully some of this news will capture the public attention since prodigious energy breakthroughs are exactly what we need to break free of the prison of fossil fuel consumption which world society remains trapped within. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, but for now, for the first time in a while we can at least fantasize of a world of abundant cheap energy which does not cause environmental devastation.

OK. the fantasizing is over, now go back to watching Russia use oil and gas to kick Germany (and its EU underling partners) around. Oh, maybe keep an eye on the rising global temperature too. Gee whiz, why aren’t we spending more money on ignition research?

The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa)

Today’s news featured a story which I wasn’t expecting at all in 2022–a new species of primate has been identified in the Mekong region! Actually the new langur was discovered in 2020 (when it was duly reported by the BBC) but the news did not make it to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of newly discovered species until now thanks to circumstances of the wider world. Indeed, the endearing Popa langur was not alone: there were 224 newly discovered species on the list released by the conservation group. The list highlights the need to protect biodiversity in the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam) where new species are still being discovered. Ferrebeekeeper has previously posted about the saola and iridescent snake for similar reasons (you should look at those posts since they rhapsodize about the mysterious hinterlands of Indochina, which are home to all sorts of mysterious and compelling creatures). Speaking of new snakes, this year’s WWF report also included a bright orange snake that lives on slugs!

The new langur species was identified by whiskers which point forward and by broad white circles around its clever eyes…oh and by DNA (in fact the species was originally discovered and collected in the 19th century, but nobody properly identified the bones at Britain’s Natural History Museum as belonging to a new monkey species until now). Unfortunately this “new” primate is already in pretty deep trouble and scientists estimate the total population to be at 200-300 individuals, most of whom seem to live near Myanmar’s dormant Popa Volcano (an otherworldly location pictured immediately below).

Mount Popa also features a fetching monastery

It is easy to wring our hands about the fate of these amazing new rainforest organisms, since they may well disappear forever…right after we have learned they exist. Myanmar, in particular, is going through a destructive era in the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’etat. Yet the pristine forests of Southeast Asia (along with their ghost monkeys, iridescent snakes, and giant catfish) have lasted this long thanks to their remoteness and to the customs and lifestyles of the people who live there. And the national governments are not universally dedicated to economic extraction over all else (Vietnam in particular is serious about protecting its ecological treasures–like their astonishing giant softshell turtles). The rest of us need to find a way to help out. There are wonders in the Mekong jungle (and I never even told you about the new succulent bamboo species).

Boy, the holidays sort of feel like a super-fun carnival ride that abruptly stops and tosses you out beneath an icy highway overpass in the middle of nowhere–which is to say, 2022 is officially rolling along now. Pursuant some of last year’s stories, we have a couple of updates: one sad and one uplifting.

Magawa retires after spending five years detecting landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. AKP

The sad update is that the much-lauded hero rat Magawa has retired from retirement and moved up to that great rat-burrow in the clouds. Magawa was a Gambian pouched rat who helped find and disarm 108 unexploded land mines and anti-personnel explosives in the killing fields of Cambodia. The oldest known Gambian pouched rat in captivity lived to be eight years old, and great Magawa too was eight when he passed away last weekend. His glowing obituary in the New York Times (!) extolled his work (and, by extension, the heroic work of Belgian NGO APOPO which runs the “heroRAT” initiative to save lives and limbs from forgotten weapons of yesteryear). We will not forget his work (indeed some…or maybe lots…of people will have entire lives because of it) and we should also remember what great things are possible when we collaborate with our animal friends. Requiescat (requiesrat?) in pacem, Megawa, and thank you!

The other (much happier) news is that the Webb Space telescope has fully deployed. The telescope launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas (2021) and ever since then it has been unfurling huge, sensitive, delicate components by means of robot manipulators in the cold (yet not cold-enough) darkness of space. My roommate’s brother was an engineer on the telescope, and he said that if the telescope’s mirror (a 6.5 meter (21 foot) gold-plated beryllium hexagon) were expanded to the the size of the United States, no part of it would be more than a meter or so tall (or, to be less poetic, its surface is nano-engineered to exquisite and inhuman smoothness). The infrared telescope must be kept extremely cold (50 Kelvin or −369.7 °F) in order to accurately measure long infrared waves. Since no coolant would last long enough to satisfy mission requirements, this has involved building an ingenuous array of radiators connected to a ponderous sunshield apparatus the size of a tennis court (but made of many layers of meticulously engineered super-plastic each the thickness of a human hair). The sunshield and the telescope mirror were too large to be placed in the rocket payload capsule when assembled. Therefore it was necessary to assemble them in space, far away from the contaminants and perils of low Earth orbit…and far away from any possible help if anything went wrong. It was NASA’s most complicated deployment yet (by quite a lot, apparently) and if anything went wrong, humankind’s great 10 billion dollar eye to look at the universe would be completely ruined. Mercifully, the deployment was a success and the incredible telescope is now undergoing calibration as it travels to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, 1,500,000 km (930,000 miles) away from Earth orbit.

It is still several months (or more) before we receive the first data and images back from the telescope, but the most harrowing stage of the mission has now passed. Ferrebeekeeper will keep you updated, but the telescope is already an astonishing achievement which has greatly advanced material science, optics, robotics, and sundry other disciplines! Mabe 2022 is already looking up (even if it is currently 265 Kelvin here in Brooklyn right now).

Humankind has finally reached up and touched the sun–well, figuratively anyway, by means of NASA’s Parker solar probe. The spacecraft is the fastest human-created object ever made (so far) and travels at a blistering 532,000 kilometers per hour (330,000 mph). Since its launch in 2018, it has been circling closer and closer to the sun, and yesterday mission controllers announced that the craft had finally flown through the corona of the star (which can reach toasty temperatures of one million degrees Kelvin (1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit)). Fortunately the upper atmosphere portion of the sun which the craft flew through was a mere 2500 degrees Fahrenheit and the crafts stout carbon shielding protected its sensitive instruments just fine.

During its time in the hot seat (which actually occurred back in April, but which is just being announced now), the Parker solar probe sampled solar particles and analyzed the sun’s magnetic fields so that scientists can try to understand more about the fundamental dynamics of stellar physics. The probe will continue to circle the sun during the course of its seven year mission and should provide ample material for physicists to analyze.

Gonggong and its moon Xiangliu (red circle) seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010

While idly scanning trans-Neptunian objects & suchlike miscellaneous dwarf planets of the outer solar system, Ferrebeekeeper was stunned to see a familiar name–GongGong, the dark water dragon who messed up Chinese cosmology and nearly destroyed the world. In Chinese mythology, GongGong’s reign of chaos was stopped by the gentle creator goddess Nuwa. However, in order to repair the damage wrought by the naughty dragon, Nuwa was forced to jerryrig creation back together with turtle legs and river rocks (and the end result is decidedly more rickety than the original).

The dwarf world Gonggong was discovered by astronomers waaaaaaay back in 2007. Although it is not the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system, it is not inconsequential in size and has a diameter of 1,230 km (760 mi). Gonggong’s eccentric ecliptic orbit takes 550 Earth years and the planetoid rotates very slowly as well. At its perehelion (when it is closest to the sun) it is 55 AUs from Earth, however at its apehelion it is 101.2 AUs (1.514×1010 km) away from the gentle sun. Brrrr! Gonggong was last at perehelion fairly recently, in 1857, and now it is moving farther and farther away–so if you left your wallet there in 1857, you may just want to get a new one. The orbital diagram below shows the orbit of Gonggong (in yellow) contrasted with that of Eris.

Like the lozenge-world Haumea, Gonggong is a strange reddish pink color because of organic compounds known as tholins which cover its ancient ice. In some stories, the evil water dragon Gonggong had a copper head, so maybe the name suits it. Oh, also, in Chinese mythology GongGong has a sidekick, a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu. Gonggong the planetoid has a tiny moon which bears this name. Finally, Chinese mythology is weirdly ambiguous about whether Nuwa and Zhu Rong finished off GongGong or whether he escaped to cause trouble another day. If I were hiding out from a bunch of quasi omnipotent Earth deities for thousands of years, I know where I would go!

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September 2022