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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!

Remember back at the height of the pandemic, when the Chinese Yutu-2 rover discovered green blobs on the dark side of the moon? Well, if you somehow don’t remember that, here is my blog post from last year (spoiler, the blobs were lunar rocks). I mention this because the Yutu-2 lunar rover (which I am going to start fully translating as “Jade Rabbit 2” so it sounds less like a ballet dress) is now making international waves with a new discovery–a strange gray cube evocatively designated as 神秘小屋 “magic secret little hut.”

Courtesy of the Chinese space agency, here is a picture of this mysterious lunar object.

Wow! It, um, does look comparatively more like a magic secret little hut (or any sort of outbuilding, really) than the rest of the lunar regolith. As I write this, Jade Rabbit 2 is heading towards the mystery feature, so we should have a better answer about the lunar cube shortly. Based past Jade Rabbit discoveries, I am going to go on record and opine that this is a rock.

However a large square boulder is hardly a disappointment. There are no glaciers (currently) on the surface of the moon eroding erratics and carrying them around, so how did it form and get where it is? If, as seems likely, it was the result of a lunar impact event, then perhaps it can teach us something new about lunar basalt?

Finally, what can the Chinese teach us about drumming up space-exploration support with crazy names and press releases? Their square boulder has made international headlines (in an age of omicron and Olympics controversy!) just because it has a jazzy designation. Maybe we should start giving more space objects Chinese names (a development which is undoubtedly on its way, anyhow). We will keep our eyes on this lunar cube, in the off chance that little gray elves come out and try to sell strange lunar goods to Jade Rabbit. Off-world exploration doesn’t just teach us things: it is fun!

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.

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