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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…

Earth’s oceans today are defined by the disasters and exigencies of the past. When you dip a net in a shallow tropical sea it does not emerge from the waves seething with conodonts…because they died out completely during the Triassic. You could fish from the beach every night from now until the sun burns out and never catch another belemnite nor see an Archelon drag her 5 meter carapace from the sea to lay her eggs. Past disasters (and the constant ebb and flow of evolution) have removed some of the core cast from the great drama. Yet the oceans are vast: sometimes we find that an organism known only from fossils and presumed long lost has been swimming around the Comoro Islands or living in an ancient grove in Hubei. Today’s post involves a “living fossil” of this sort, but this creature was presumed lost for longer than the lobe-fin fishes or the purple frog.

This is a fossil monoplacophoran, a strange ancient superclass of single shelled mollusks which thrived in the ancient oceans of the Palaeozoic (or earlier) but then was known only through fossils. I can understand if you are shrugging about some primitive snail/limpet thing–but, my friend this is no gastropod–it is an entirely different class of mollusk which was presumed to have died out 380 million years ago. A look at the (long and complicated) taxonomy of monoplacophorans on Wikipedia is like looking at a World War I cemetery (extinct taxa are noted with a funereal superscript cross).

Monoplacophoran Diagram

Yet, scientists came to discover that not every name on the list had a cross. The monoplacophorans never fully died out. They just moved to the bottom of the oceans and stayed there for the long ages as continents drifted across the world and dinosaurs came and went. As mammals scurried out of burrows and across the world, the monoplacophorans lived their ascetic lives upon the floor of the ocean. They are still there right now, as you read these words! If you look at a picture of the colorless gray ocean bottom, you will see colorless gray ovals–the monoplacophorans (their very name makes them sound like some implacable cthulu-ish monk)

Living Fossil: Tiny mollusc makes big impression on marine biology world |  Inner Space Center

It is funny to me that ancient fossils in 400 million year old rocks were more accessible to scientists than the bottom of the ocean up until about the time I was born. Yet, since then, the bottom of the ocean has become closer as humankind’s ever-grasping arms have become longer. Lately our robot probes have reported a bit of summery warmth at the cold ocean bottom. And mining cartels are eagerly pushing to vacuum of nodules of precious ore upon the distant seabed. I truly wonder if we could look 380 million years into the future whether we will still find these tough little eremites still going about their business in the crushing depths? Or will the field of taxonomical crosses finally be complete, with these ultimate living fossils turning into yet another victim of our insatiable appetite?

Pacific ocean sea in planet earth, view from outer space

Today (June 8th) is celebrated as World Ocean Day. I am pleased about the existence of this new holiday because the oceans are ridiculously underrepresented in people’s estimation and concern. From outer space, it is readily apparent that we live on a water world where 70% of the surface is covered by liquid (and that number is growing by the day as we run more motors and melt more ice). Yet in the human world, you can go for weeks of listening to constant stupid human blather without ever hearing about the oceans at all (and I live in New York, which is ON the ocean–imagine what it is like in landlocked hell cities like Timbuktu, Dallas, or Ashgabat). At any rate, what is of real concern here is not the oceans themselves (which will keep on covering the planet so long as it has an atmosphere) but the vast intricate realm of life within the oceans. And make no mistake, the whole ocean ecosystem–the cradle of life from which all living things came, and upon which we are all still dependent–is in the deepest trouble possible. Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and other rampant abuse of the oceans are unchecked even in rich world countries. But most of the ocean is not even in a country. Enormous fish factories and trawlers can just show up and destroy the irreplaceable ecology at will with virtually no oversight or rules. Undoubtedly you have heard of the world ocean’s troubles before, but, unfortunately, whatever you have heard does not begin to compile the true devastation. The oceans are undergoing a mass extinction event caused by us humans. Even if we considerably mitigate the scale of the damage we are causing, we are about to lose more than we can imagine…forever.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Just as the oceans are more damaged than we immediately appreciate, they are more robust as well. A handful of sensible reforms which would not even greatly change the life or lifestyle of most people could ensure the health of the blue part of the planet. Alas, there is not yet any political pathway to sensible regulations, rules, and refuge areas yet (at least at a worldwide scale). Like other intractable political or environmental problems, we can change that, but it will require knowledge, attention, and organization.

I recognize that I am writing in generalizations, however a true accounting of the troubles that the ocean ecosystems face would be beyond any single person to write and would be so painful as to be unreadable. Instead, we will celebrate an extended World Ocean Day for the next fortnight, during which time we will talk about all sorts of different aspects of the ocean world (the good, the bad, the sublime, and the weird) in digestible micro essays and artworks (instead of a single impassioned blurb of dense and depressing facts and statistics). The ocean isn’t one of several different painted backdrops to add passing interest to a light opera. It is the main home of Earth life. Every day should always be world ocean day. Even if we are unable to make people see that fact, at least for the next few weeks we will try.

The Planet Venus (Luis Ricardo Falero,1882)

There is thrilling news for fans of our nearest planetary neighbor, the mysterious and beautiful hell-world, Venus. NASA has just announced two exploratory missions to Earth’s hot-mess of a twin. Long-time readers know that, in addition to dreaming of floating cities and artificial ecosystems on Venus in the future, Ferrebeekeeper is fascinated by the planet’s past.

In the early twentieth century, astronomers thought that beneath the clouds of Venus, there might be a lush jungle or tropical swamp teeming with strange sensuous lifeforms. Alas, the first probe to descend below the clouds melted on a surface hot enough to, uh, melt solidly constructed Soviet space probes. Enthusiasts of space colonization (and enthusiasts of exploring planets that a human visitor might possibly survive) quickly turned their attention elsewhere. But those sweaty palmed early twentieth century space buffs were not necessarily wrong. A billion years ago, Venus may well have had liquid oceans and temperate skies (if not necessarily lizard men and sultry Amazons), but then something went appallingly wrong and the world melted. The seas boiled away (assuming they ever existed). The sky turned into a mad scientist’s pressure cooker, and the surface turned inside out through a strange planet-wide volcanic process.

If this happened to your next-door neighbors’ place, you would probably be curious about what happened! Even if you didn’t care much about your neighbors, there would be prudent reasons of self-interest to figure out why their once comfy home was now 470 degrees Celsius with an atmospheric pressure akin to what is found a kilometer below the waves of Earth’s oceans! However what happens in a speck of light in the night sky is an abstract concern to a lot of people and Venus exploration has languished for decades…until now!

NASA has finally decided to see if Venus ever had liquid oceans or a surface akin to that of Earth. In coming years, the space agency will launch the DAVINCI and the VERITAS missions. Davinci will feature a spherical falling probe which will comprehensively assay Venus’ atmosphere as it drops through the clouds. Not only will Davinci sniff for traces of a lost ocean, it will seek other gases and volatile compounds which can tell us about the past of the planet (and whether we could build a flying cloud city there in the present). It will also photograph the perplexing “tesserae” features of Venus’ surface in high definition.

Veritas is even more concerned with the surface of Venus and will scan and observe the planet by means of next generation imaging technology. This should tell us about the surface (and deeper features) of the planet and finally answer whether the planet is still geologically active and document what it is actually made of. Answers to profound questions about our sister world are finally forthcoming! If you would like to know technical specifications about these missions, you should head over to NASA’s webpage.

We will be talking more about Venus as the missions get closer, but isn’t it thrilling to finally have some good news!

Cryptochiton stelleri, (aka the “gumboot chiton”, or “the wandering meatloaf”)

Chitons are back in international headlines again! Or, to be more technically accurate, the overlooked armored mollusks at least made it into the news (perhaps for the first or second time in their 400-500 million year history). These remarkable miniature tanks consist of a muscular mollusk which lives encased in 8 interlocking pieces of hard aragonite armor. The armor is not only a shell–it contains integral parts of the chiton such as aragonite eyes and other sensory cells. Thanks to this robust design, chitons are extremely successful and they can be found living in intertidal zones worldwide. Although they lack the pizzazz of their flamboyant mollusk cousins such as bobtail squid or giant clams, chitons are of enormous interest to a new generation of materials scientists who have been studying the natural world to get fresh ideas for molecular engineering. This weekend’s news story comes from such scientists who discovered that a brown rectangular chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, (aka the “gumboot chiton”, or “the wandering meatloaf”) contains an esoteric mineral named santabarbaraite never before found in a living creature. Santabarbaraite is an extremely hard and tough mineral (itself only discovered by scientists in the year 2000) which contains a surprising amount of water. In the parlance of chemists, it is an amorphous ferric hydroxy phosphate mineral hydrate. The gumboot chitons manufacture this material as part of their long rows of rock-hard teeth (with which they scrape algae from marine rocks). Coincidentally, gumboot chitons are the largest chitons out there, with a maximum possible length of 36 centimeters (14 inches).

The teeth of the gumboot!

This is undoubtedly fascinating to people with advanced understanding of the chemical structures and properties of matter, but it is somewhat abstruse. The study’s lead author, scientist Derk Joester of Northwestern helps contextualize the importance of the finding by noting that “mechanical structures are only as good as their weakest link, so it’s interesting to learn how the chiton solves the engineering problem of how to connect its ultrahard tooth to a soft underlying structure.” The researchers are already planning how to use the secrets they have gleaned from the chiton to print hard santabarbaraite structures onto soft papers.

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August 2021