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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!

A fortnight ago, Ferrebeekeeper put up a review of “Requiem for a Good Machine” a science-fiction novel by friend and collaborator, Daniel Claymore. The book describes a future police officer’s attempts to solve a chain of murders (and related crimes) in Mirabilis, an ideal city built by robots to serve as a habitat for the faltering biological humans of the post-singularity age.

As of today, Claymore’s work is now on sale and you can get an e-copy (or better yet, a real copy!) of his book by going to any purveyor of fine literature. Different parts of stories stick with different people, and ever since reading Claymore’s novel, I have been thinking about the gleaming city at the heart of his work. Paradoxically, thinking about this future city is causing us to go backwards in time for the subject of this post.

Back in 2015, I built/drew the Apollo and Marsyas miniature theater, a theater for 1:18 figures (mainly the Kenner Star Wars figures…but it turns out there are lots of other little actors at this scale jockeying for position on stage too). Anyway, the fun of that project was drawing some strange background scenes (like a medieval castle, a pleasure garden, Timbuktu, a spooky cemetery, Hell, etc.). One of the backdrops I drew was a glowing city of the future filled with robots, meta-humans, droids, and transgenic chimera animals. Here it is:

Future Megalopolis (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015) ink and colored pencil on paper

My recollection of this work is that I enjoyed drawing all of the future beings (look at that quantum computer clock guy (or thing?) at the left side beneath the pink organ wall…or the purple owl woman standing above the metal dog-robot at right!) but then I got lost coloring in the asphalt and threw the whole thing aside in disgust. Looking at it afresh, however, it is better than I remember. You are getting an impossible peek into the world of the far future thanks to the one power capable of opening such a window–the imagination!

Yet, although the imagination is capable of peering through deep time, it is also fallible (just look at all of that confusing, hard-to-color future asphalt!). I was hoping to portray a city made of cities–where super-arcologies stand next to each other, rank upon rank, stretching to the horizon. I wanted an effect which was akin to the troubling urban art of George Grosz–with all of the maddened machine-people and transgenic organisms spilling out of the architecture like confetti and tainted candy pouring out of a psychedelic piñata.

The fun of painting like Grosz is creating a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics! But the peril of creating such an artwork is getting lost in a world of visual clutter (which is a less-flattering way of describing a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics). With this work I certainly experienced the fun…but I also fell prey to the peril. Even so, this glowing drawing captures some of the effect of looking into a bewilderingly complicated social ecosystem.

The dancing, crawling, and flying robots running from dome to dome in a world of strange machines may not be exactly what the future holds…but they inspire us to think about where we are going (and we need to think about that a lot harder). Maybe I need to get my fluorescent ink back out and paint some more fantastical cities glowing in the purple twilight of ages we will never get to see.

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

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue to marvel over the images from the James Webb telescope (the first such image was the subject of Monday’s post). As an ongoing homage to the new telescope (and to the team of scientists, engineers, and experts who made humankind’s marvelous super eye in space a reality) here is a short pictorial post…about a completely unrelated Caribbean filefish!

This is Cantherhines macrocerus, the American whitespotted filefish, an omnivorous filefish which lives along the southern coast of Florida and southwards through the shallow tropical waters of the Caribbean. The fish makes its living by eating algae and reef/coastal invertebrates like worms, small mollusks, sponges, soft corals, gorgonians, etc. The adult fish grows to a size of 45 centimeters (about 18 inches).

Perhaps you are wondering how this fish is related to the space telescope. Well, like many fish, the whitespotted filefish can–to a degree–alter its color depending on its mood or background. The fish’s dark coloration scheme pays homage to deep field images of the universe filled with galaxies

Obviously this is one of those aesthetic-themed posts which deals with delightful and fantastic (albeit superficial) similarities of appearance. It is the only way I know how to express my delight with cosmology and ichthyology! Indeed, even when this fish is not white-spotted (there is a yellow and olive variation) it still reminds me of the Webb scope..

Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a long track-record of seeing the forms of the universe within the patterns of fish. Humankind looks for patterns–and sometimes finds similar patterns in unrelated forms. Although maybe this particular similarity is not just an artistic conceit: humans and all vertebrate life descend from fish…and all-living things are made of atoms built in long-dead stars. The highest purpose of our new space telescope is to find out about the possibilities of life out there in the universe (since Webb can possibly peak into the atmospheres of exoplanets to let us know about any whiff of molecules associated with life). While we are looking millions of light years away we also need to keep looking at where we are. For the present, home is still the only place we know for sure to have abundant lifeforms (like, for example, the whitespotted filefish). Imagine if we found a water-dwelling, pincer-nosed alien which devoured fractal lifeforms and had a picture of deep space on its lozenge-form body. We would go crazy with delight. But we already have such a thing swimming around Turks and Caicas hoovering up gorgonians and looking cute.

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!

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.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2022