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Artist’s conception of Ingenuity on Mars

Congratulations to NASA for orchestrating the first flight of an aircraft on another world! Today, early in the morning (in East Coast Time, here on Earth) NASA’s miniature robotic helicopter “Ingenuity” rose three meters (ten feet) into the thin Martian air (the pressure of the Martian atmosphere is a mere 1% of what we experience here at sea level on Earth, so there was not a lot of air beneath those rotors). I will leave it to professional news sites (or NASA’s own site) to describe the exact parameters of the feat, but I would like to take a moment to look at the little aircraft as though we were Martians ourselves. One of the things which I find funny about our amazing unmanned space missions is how alien our Earth technology looks on alien worlds. The most egregious example of this effect was the flying-saucer-looking Huygens probe which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan. That particular craft combined a flying-saucer aesthetic with steampunk design such that it would look perfectly in place in a Jules Verne novel or if little green men had stopped by to watch the Monitor versus Merrimack battle.

A replica of the Huygens probe

However other probes of other worlds have also looked uncannily like pulp fiction from the 1950s as well (the hopping robots of Hayabusa2 leap into mind as does Messenger on its kamikaze final run into the surface of Mercury). Anyway, Ingenuity partakes of this tradition in that its minimalist design and utilitarian construction of make it look like an alien mosquito. Perhaps if the picture at the top of the post does not show what I mean, this picture taken by Ingenuity of its own shadow will explain better.

Doesn’t that look like a lander sent by waterbug people or by the Great Gazoo’s race? It makes you stop and take a second look at humankind as though you didn’t know us (an exercise which proves both inspirational and dreadful). Perhaps that sort of perspective shift is one of the purposes of our offworld explorations too…

There is an enormous hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn which is large enough to drop the Earth into. Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by this giant yet geometrically-regular storm, and that was before we learned that the hexastorm…changes color!

Like Earth, Saturn is tilted, and, as with Earth, the tilt affects how much sunlight reaches different hemispheres of the planet as it proceeds around the sun. Since Saturn is rather farther from the sun than the Earth is, a Saturn “year” lasts for 29 Earth years. Due to this somewhat lengthened calendar (and because we have only recently acquired some of the necessary tools to study other planets) the seasonal variances on Saturn are only now being recognized.

Using the Hubble Space telescope, scientists have been keeping an eye on Saturn’s seasons (each of which last for 7.25 years). As summer in the northern hemisphere changes to fall, the color of the atmosphere is changing and so are the appearances of the bands within the atmosphere. NASA scientists speculate that increased sunlight may lead to increased photochemical hazes in the atmosphere which causes the shift from winter blue to summer gold. As we continue to study Saturn in years to come, it will be interesting to see how much of this color shift is seasonal and how much it changes based on larger cycles.

Congratulations are due to NASA today. Yesterday at 3:55 p.m. ET the Perseverance rover (with the Ingenuity flying probe aboard) touched down in good order on the surface of Mars after a 470.7 million kilometer (292.5 million mile) journey. The spacecraft lifted off back last July and my somewhat wistful post about the launch from back then is a reminder of the trying nature of summer 2020 (but also serves as a useful overview of the larger Perseverance mission). Right now, in the aftermath of the bravura landing on an alluvial fan delta within the Jezero Crater, Perseverance and NASA are running diagnostics and preparing to explore the 49 km (30 miles) diameter crater. Ingenuity has not launched yet (although I am super excited to see what a 49 km (30 miles) crater on Mars looks like from the air). We do have one picture from the mission already (top), and although the low res view is partially obscured by a dust cover, it already hints at great things in the future (while also somehow reminding me of terrestrial nuggets of ice on my walks to the subway this week). We will keep you apprized from Mars as we learn more (and Ferrebeekeeper also extends its best wishes to the Chinese space agency whose own rover is scheduled to reach the red planet in May).

In this glorious new era of planet hunting, astronomers have been discovering all sorts of freakish & unexpected worlds. To date scientists have confirmed over 4300 exoplanets (and they have partial data or leads on thousands of others). Among the 4300 known planets there are some true odd balls–a carbon planet nine times the size of Earth made of diamond, a super ghost planet twice the volume of Jupiter with half the mass, “hot Jupiter” worlds which are bigger than Jupiter but closer to their suns than Mercury. Today scientists have announced a whole new superlative: they discovered the oldest known planet, a world which dates back to the roaring infancy of the galaxy. This world goes by the name TOI-561b and, before our sun spun into existence, it was already older than the sun is now.

To put this in proper context, we need some astronomical ages (which are highly revealing in their own right). Here is a useful table of the known ages of various galaxies, stars, and, uh, everything. These dates are in Earth years (in case you are reading this elsewhere, I guess) as of AD 2021. The dates may be subject to some revision, although we keep zeroing in with greater and greater precision so I do not anticipate any large shifts:

Age of Universe13.77 Billion Years
Age of Milky Way Galaxy13.4 Billion Years
Age of TOI-561b10 Billion Years
Age of Sun4.6 Billion Years
Age of Planet Earth4.543 billion years
Age of Cher74 Years

The exoplanet TOI-561b is located in the thick disk of the Milky Way. The planet is close to its home star which it orbits twice an Earth Day (ergo, a TOI-561b year lasts about twelve hours). Because TOI-561b is so close to its star, it is hot, the surface temperature is reckoned to be about 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit). The rocky world has a volume 50 percent larger than Earth and a mass three times as great. The density of TOI-561b, however, is much less than that of Earth and this is because the planet is largely lacking in metals. The reason for this absence is disconcerting: TOI-561b formed before many stars had exploded, back in a time when metal was rare in the universe. There may not be many planets older than TOI-561b anywhere because there was nothing to make planets out of in the time before it formed. A generation or two of stars needed to live and die before such elements existed!

Thinking of how different things were when Cher was young is hard for me! (I like Cher and I put her up there because she is still a dynamic star). Thinking of what things were like when TOI-561b formed out of the first matter more complex than hydrogen and lithium and whatnot is practically inconceivable! It must have been quite a view though: hovering above a glowing brand-new galaxy sparkling with supernovae. I wonder if there was ever any sort of (non metallic) life there before its star became old and giant and hot.

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

The beautiful twilight sky (Nov 28, 2019) after sunset with the planets conjuction of Moon (with earth shine), Venus and Jupiter.

I was really alarmed by how many people saw the report of (potential) life signs on Venus and immediately said “We need to cease all space exploration and never look beyond the Earth”. For example, the Christian columnist at “The Week” wrote a characteristically dimwitted column about the subject [coincidentally, it strikes me as funny that followers of Abrahamic faiths worship an omnipotent extraterrestrial wizard, yet clutch their pearls about space!].

Yet even people who do not take such absolutist anti-knowledge position, are still wary of bigger plans for space-faring. Right here, in Ferrebeekeeper’s comments, our own frequent reader K Hindall, took a more nuanced, but still restrictive view:

“I am all for the exploration of space, but not establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere…We need to prove that we can take care of a planet before we go bounding off to live on other ones. It’s like giving another toy to a child who has proven that they just break their toys, not play with them. When we’ve stopped driving everyone else on the planet into extinction, then it will be soon enough to talk about living on a different one.”

It is well said (and I left out the part where K Hindall ably defend the space sovereignty of the Venusian bacteria). Yet I worry that it is wrong-headed (please keep commenting K Hindall! You know we love you).

Lately I have seen more and more philosophical arguments that humankind should have never developed agriculture or civilization. Although these arguments do indeed seem to have a fair amount of moral and ecological validity, they somewhat overlook the facts on the ground right now. We are an aggressive invasive species which has gotten everywhere. What is to be done?I agree with K Hindall that humanity is not to be trusted. Yet does that mean we must resign ourselves to never dream beyond the Earth? I keep thinking about the fable of the animals and their gifts (a story which presents a powerful dark truth human nature). We are destroying the world with our gifts–which seem greater and darker by the day. And yet despite all of this strength we cannot agree with what is proper to do or what rules we must follow. Indeed our disagreements on these points are a further cause of our destructiveness!

In fact I worry that K Hindall has it backwards: humankind won’t be able to desist from destroying ourselves and our fellow Earth life unless we find a more suitable frontier for our boundless appetite and ruthless cunning.  If we wanted to stop using up the Earth right now, we would have to live with hundreds of thousands of super intrusive new rules that nobody would ever agree to (no more children for most people, no more of most categories of useful chemicals, no more pets, no more flower gardens, no more travel, no more beef, no more luxury –a tiny beige microcube and a set of mostly-incomprehensible, ecologically-useful tasks for everyone!).  Perhaps people would accept such austerity for dreams of mansions on Jupiter, I doubt they would accept it to know that somebody else’s ever-so-great-grandchildren can live in “Logan’s Run”.

If they exist (which I doubt), the Venusians might already be earth life, brought by some meteor or Soviet probe.  Maybe the opposite is true and we have all been Venusians (or some even more esoteric alien ) all along. I am not sure that it is wrong for living beings to reproduce and expand into new territories–it is the nature of life!

Pragmatists will say that this whole essay is like writing about whether it is wrong to fly around like Superman and shoot powerful beams out of your eyes. We can’t do that anyway! So why worry about it? And yet…every year we have better flying devices and better high energy beams. Who is to say what is possible? Our dreams shape our abilities. And casting our dreams towards a worthwhile pursuit might be a way to finally grow up out of childhood.

Just like the bamboo destroys itself (and the whole forest) by flowering, we are destroying the world ecology. My fondest hope is that we are doing this for a purpose: to cast the precious seed of Earth life up into the heavens. Even if we gain wisdom, power, and prudence beyond all measure everything could go wrong with this plan. We could destroy other worlds. We could destroy ourselves. It is still worth risking though. Plus the whole reason that Bonnie Kristian (whose name seems suspiciously fake) is alarmed by humans is that we don’t do what we are told. We do what we are able.

Longtime readers will know that Ferrebeekeeper eschews the popular fascination with Mars in favor of our much closer sister planet, the luminous Venus. Therefore, I was delighted to see the second planet from the Sun making front page headlines around the globe (of Earth) this week when scientists discovered traces of phosphine gas in the strange, dense Venusian atmosphere.

The internet tells us that phosphine is a colorless, flammable, very explosive gas which smells like garlic or rotten fish. Additionally, it is extremely toxic. This stuff is not exactly the must-have gift of the season (well…maybe for Christmas, 2020), so why am I so excited to find it on a planet which may be the best option for an off-world human colony?

Phosphine exists on Earth where it is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in oxygen-free conditions (it is also a by-product of certain kinds of industrial processes). This means that the only known methods of producing phosphine involve living things (I suppose industrialists and anaerobic bacteria both qualify as such). It may well be that phosphine is produced on Venus due to some quirk of the planet’s strange atmosphere or weird volcanism (which is not well understood and seems to be fundamentally different from that of Earth).

In the past we have explored some compelling yet inconclusive evidence of life in the clouds of Venus. Today’s news adds to that evidence, but is still not compelling. The phosphine gas and the cloud bands both demands further study, though (and if we happened to learn more about the opportunities for cloud cities, so be it). I have long thought that a robot blimp probe of Venus’ clouds is the most rational next exploration mission for NASA (no matter how much I love super rovers). Perhaps the phosphine revelation will bring other people closer to this view. Maybe you should drop a quick email or phone call to your favorite elected representative about that very thing (or you could always write Jim Bridenstein–he is the rare Trump appointee who seems to be basically competent).

Speaking of basic competence, I was sad to see many of the liberal arts enthusiasts on my Twitter feed angrily denouncing this discovery and demanding “no more money for space!” (I unfollowed them all, by the way–sorry poetry). Beyond the fact that this discovery was made here on Earth by a clever lady with a simple telescope and a gas chromograph, money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth. Such expenditures further fundamental discoveries in material science, engineering, aerospace, robotics, and other high tech disciplines. Our world of high tech breakthroughs, the internet, super computers, solar power, nanotechnology, and super safe aviation (among many other things) was made possible by government money spent on space exploration (or did you think some MBA guy running a private company would ever think more than one quarter into the future?). Beyond these reasons though, Venus was once the most earthlike of all other Solar System planets. Long ago it almost certainly had warm oceans teeming with life. Uh, maybe we should have a comprehensive answer about what happened there before we say that government money should only be spent on social initiatives. If you came home to your nice row house and noticed that the house next door had been knocked down, the neighbors were gone, and also the temperature there was 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sky replaced with sulfuric acid, maybe you would ask what happened! (although, to be fair, that very thing seems to be happening now in California, and a substantial number of people say “science has no place in understanding this).

Anyway, commentary about earth politics aside, I continue to be more and more excited about our closest planetary neighbor. Seriously, can you imagine how cool a robot probe-blimp would be?

50169630453_a7335051bf_k

What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

helicopter_landing_composite_crop-web-1

Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

1920px-Diagram_of_the_perseverance_rover-instruments

Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

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