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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.

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!

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?

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There have been some stories bouncing around the world media lately which are highly germane to past Ferrebeekeeper posts (and to some bigger topics too).  We’ll get to them one at a time this week, but let’s start with the most exciting news:  today (11/26/18) NASA’s InSight lander touched down successfully on Mars at 2:47 PM Eastern Time.   The craft is the eighth human-made craft to successfully touch down on the red planet. It’s unwieldy name is a trademark agonizing NASA acronym which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”  To put this in more comprehensible (yet less correct) terms, the lander is a geophysics probe which will examine the interior of the planet.  Of course InSight isn’t really geophysics since it is not studying Earth, but saying “astrophysics” misleads one from the lander’s core mission of assessing Mars’ internal composition and structure.

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The landing was a marvel of aerospace engineering since, in the span of about 6 and a half minutes, the craft was forced to slow from 17,300 kph (10,750 mph) to 8 kph (5 mph). Coincidentally, this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from California…from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where my paternal grandfather used to paint rockets back in the 1950s and 60s! Speaking of which, as always, I am taken aback by the extent to which our interplanetary probes resemble retro UFOs from 1950s science fiction.

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The craft landed on Elysium Planitia an enormous featureless plain famous for its dullness.  You may think “why didn’t they just send the poor thing to Kansas?” but since the craft is designed to examine the interior of Mars, its landing sight was not important (except to make sure the lander arrived in one piece).

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Now that the probe has finally reached its destination, it will begin to utilize a sophisticated array of instruments including a seismic wave reader, a subterranean infrared reader to monitor heat escaping Mars, and a sophisticated radio array to monitor the planet’s core (among other tools).

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It is easy to lose track of the many amazing Martian discoveries being made by robot explorers, but InSight strikes me as truly important since it offers to answer one of the most important question about Mars–how did it go from being a volcanically active world with oceans and an Earthlike atmosphere to being an inactive, desolate desert?  We’ll keep you posted as discoveries (insights?) come rolling in, but, for now, congratulations NASA!

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I am still working away at my flatfish project.  Here are four recent drawings/mixed media works which I made.  The flounder above is a cosmic flounder and represents humankind’s aspirations for the stars.  The mathematicians and engineers (here represented as ancient Egyptians) do their best with the tools and calculations they have available, but the universe is so vast.  The flounder represents all Earth life waiting to be lifted to the heavens.  As they struggle, insouciant aliens fly by waving.  The combination of ancient and modern elements make one think of the biblical ark (which is represented in the next picture. The flounder is, of course, a watery beast and is unmoved by divine wrath, although it does look a bit appalled at the inundation.

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Next is a picture of a crude and vigorous flatfish made out of thick lines.  The fish swims by a Viking long hall as seabirds wheel about in the sky, but thanks to some trick of the world (or perhaps the artist’s whimsy) a coati is raiding the pumpkins and fruiting vines. Is this scene unfolding in the old world or the new?

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Finally, there is a scene of a medieval styleeremitic  brother who has forgotten his scriptures and is now contemplating the life-giving sun.   A saintly duck and a far-flying swallow look kindly on his devotions, but the monk’s cat seems unmoved by his devotion.  Crystals hint that religious fervor is becoming convoluted by the vagaries and appetites of the modern world, which can be witnessed all around the verdant turbot.  Yet the fish and its inhabitants maintain a solemn and studious otherworldliness.  Whatever this mysterious devotion is, it is represented in each of these 4 fish, but the viewer will have to devote some time and thought of their own in order to elucidate the subject of this devout zeal. 

monastic

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There are more pictures coming in from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and they are amazing. The plucky space probe has entered an orbital pattern which causes it to swoop from one pole of the gas giant to the other in 2 short hours (that may not sound like a short period…but Jupiter is enormous). As it passes close to the gas giant, Juno has been able to photograph and record hitherto unknown features of the fifth planet from the sun—such as a magnetic field twice as powerful as predicted and intricate and heterogeneous ammonia weather systems.
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Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this new trove of data comes from Jupiter’s previously unexplored poles which are filled with intricate webs of cyclones—each up to 1400 kilometers in diameter. You can see them here on astonishing photos. Scientists are eager to learn more about the storms—and what lies beneath them. The coming months will feature even more beautiful images from the solar system’s grandest planet—and maybe we will get some answers too concerning what is under the clouds and what powers these colossal storms on our breathtaking neighbor.
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Did you all watch Moana?  That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something).  The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better.  That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.

There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie.  Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef.  Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes.  Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past.  Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…

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Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder).  “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.

Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture.  I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal.  We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.

There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls.  The first reason is about making children behave.  If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.

Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.

People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation.   They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger.   It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe.   The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories).  We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile.   Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.

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Based on what we are learning from the exoplanet surveys of the past decade, our galaxy is the home of an immense number of Jovian-size gas giant planets.  There are countless “hot Jupiters”–gas giants located close to their stars which whip around and around their orbits in ridiculously short “years”.  There are frigid slow gas giants and super massive ones—practically brown dwarves– which are larger than Jupiter.  There is an endless proliferation of Uranus and Neptune type giants. Imagine them all glittering in strange colors with weird shapes.  They are cloaked in alien clouds and covered in mysterious storms.  Who knows what lies beneath?

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All of these billions of giant planets seem pretty hypothetical to me as I sit here at my cramped & cluttered desk on solid little Earth.  Yet they exist.  They are out there in numbers too vast to comprehend. However, right now, NASA is conducting the most comprehensive exploration yet of the gas giant we can access.  Juno’s mission is just getting underway in earnest, and the largest gas giant in our own backyard should reveal lots about all of the billions which are out of reach.

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I am sad that I can neither understand nor convey the loftiness of this crazy ongoing mission. It is an astonishing undertaking—but we are so inundated by with murky political battles and vulgar popular drivel, that it is hard to see the utterly astonishing nature of this undertaking.

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Maybe I can put it in perspective somewhat. Imagine back to the year 1609 AD when Henry Hudson was first seeing the river which was later named after him. Before him was an exquisite expanse of islands, bays, and sparkling river. The vast waterway flowed down from unknown mountains into a bay surrounded by lovely islands.  The whole expanse was filled with flocks of unknown birds and schools of fish. Beyond the thriving marshes, mysterious forests were filled with moving shadows.

Now multiply that a billion times: replace Henry Hudson with a tiny fragile robot and replace the Hudson River with luminous gas oceans large enough to entirely submerge scores of Earths.  That is what is happening right now.  As you sit reading this on a little glowing screen, we are making fundamental discoveries about a whole planet.

On August 27, 2016, Juno executed the first of 36 orbital flybys over Jupiter. The doughty spacecraft was only 4,200 kilometers (2,500 miles) above Jupiter’s atmosphere. It sent back the first detailed images of the north pole of Jupiter—and it is unlike the rest of the planet.

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The North Pole of Jupiter as seen by Juno [NASA]

To quote Scott Bolton, one of the lead scientists of the Juno mission, “[The] first glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole…it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before….It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to — this image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter. We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”

Jupiter’s clouds contain whole continent-like regions of air which are different than the rest of the planet’s storms and whirls.  We don’t yet know why or how, but we are finding out.  As we do so, we are peeling back a layer of mystery which surrounds all such worlds.

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Solar Radiation Streaming over the North Pole of Jupiter

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