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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.

Hi everyone! Sorry that the posts were thin on the ground last week. The head druid told me that I needed to honor the solstice by taking some time to reflect on the meaning of things [citation needed]. Anyway…since I didn’t blog last week, I failed to post these astonishing pictures of Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede, which were photographed by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it slaloms though the Jovian system.

Ganymede as imaged by NASA probe Juno

Although its lack of atmosphere and pockmarked plains of dust make it superficially resemble Earth’s moon, Gannymede is a very strange and unique heavenly object Of the 200 known moons in the solar system, it is the largest. Indeed it is 26% larger than the planet Mercury by volume (although it is only 45% as massive as the metalliferous first planet). Ganymede has a diameter of 5,268 km (3,273 mi), so each pixel in the full size image of the Jovian moon is equal to a kilometer (although you may want to check out the NASA image to really savor that scale–since WordPress has a noteworthy penchant for scrunching up my images in incomprehensible ways).

A photo of the dark side of Ganymede taken by Juno’s incredibly light sensitive navigational camera

Alone among moons in the solar system, Ganymede has a magnetic field, albeit a rather meager one compared to Earth or Jupiter. Scientists surmise that the magnetic field is created by convection within the liquid iron core of the moon–although answers are not forthcoming as to why it has a liquid iron core to begin with (these planetary cores seem to be the real determinant of what planets are like, but I feel like we know precious little about them). Thanks to its size (and maybe thanks also to its magnetosphere), Ganymede has a very thin oxygen atmosphere…but that just creates more question, since elemental Oxygen has a tendency to instantly bond to all sorts of other elements. The 20 percent or so of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere did not become a mainstay until about 1.5 billion years ago when photosynthesizing bacteria finally became so prevalent that they overcame the constant loss of atmospheric oxygen thanks to oxidation. Hopefully Juno’s survey will help us solve atmospheric mysteries on Ganymede. Ganymede is also believed to have a vast subsurface ocean of icy water tucked away somewehere beneath its surface. Astronomers have reasonably speculated that this Ganymede underworld ocean may contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined!

This is the largest version of this interesting cross section which I could find

Ganymede is a Galilean moon–which means it was discovered by the great scientist, and is one of the first objects ever discovered to orbiting another planet (I still sometimes imagine the thrill Galileo must have felt when he realized what he was seeing). I wonder what surprises Juno will send back for us!

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!

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…

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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.”

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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).

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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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Before we resume our normally scheduled program, let’s pause for a bittersweet farewell to the Spitzer Infrared Space telescope, one of the most remarkable scientific tools ever put into operation.  In 2003 the telescope was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta II rocket.  It was sent into a heliocentric orbit rather than a geocentric orbit–following Earth rather than orbiting around it in order to minimize heat interference from our home planet.  When the telescope ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 most of its instruments and modules became unusable (since the main mirrors required a frosty -459 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to operate).  However, some of its most important discoveries came during the “warm phase” of operation between 2009 and January 30, 2020 (when mission scientists turned off the telescope).  For example it found and observed the seven world Trappist1 system which Ferrebeekeeper was so very enamored of back in 2017.

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Spitzer has provided enormous treasure troves of data concerning the formation of planets and galaxies (particularly back during the peak star-formation era ten billion years ago).  It has also afforded humankind an in-depth look at non-luminous objects like comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust and gas between the stars.

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Although astronomers are sad to see the mission end, they are excited by the prospects of Spitzer’s replacement.  Spitzer had a main mirror which was a bit smaller than a meter (33 inches).  The upcoming Webb telescope will have a 6.5 meter (21-foot) mirror (if we ever manage to launch it).  Goodbye to the little telescope that could…but prepare for great things in the near future!

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Today (November 11, 2019) is the last time you will be able to watch Mercury transit across the face of the sun until 2032.  From sunrise EST until about 1:04 PM EST, people who are equipped with special super shades and giant weird specialty telescopes will be able to watch the tiny black dot of Mercury move across the face of the sun.  Mercury is slightly larger than Earth’s moon (although it much more dense) but it is also much farther away from Earth.  As the innermost planet moves between the sun and Earth, viewers here at home can watch…provided they have lots of weird specialty equipment (whatever you do, don’t stare directly at the sun or point any unfiltered lenses at it).  If you are like me, you certainly don’t have these sorts of optical tools lying around. But never fear: NASA is there for you, and you can watch the show with their fancy equipment via their site (or you can check out pictures after the event, in case you didn’t look at this post until it was too late). Enjoy this transit!  We can talk about the larger implications and about future plans for Mercury during the next transit in 2032…

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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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It’s an exciting new year in space exploration and today we are getting back images from the most distant object ever explored by a probe spacecraft.  Launched in January of 2006, NASA’s amazing New Horizons mission (pictured above) has been flying through the solar system ever since.  Back in 2014 it reached its primary objective, the icy dwarf world Pluto, which has been the focus of considerable interest and, arguably, of even greater controversy concerning astronomical naming conventions (“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us….Nothing.” could arguably teach us about astronomy AND independent food preparation, I suppose).  Since that time, New Horizons has continued to fly further from the Sun and deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a dark distant band of icy pseudo-worlds at the edge of the Solar System.  New Horizons just flew past one of these Kuiper Belt objects…the distant ice ball 2014 MU69.

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This frozen miniature planet is only 35 by 15 km (20 by 10 miles in diameter) and it orbits the sun every 298 years.  The most exciting part of this body is its shape.  It is literally a snowman—a smaller spherical lump of ice frozen to a larger one.  Just look at it! You can practically see Charlie Brown half-building it and then giving up with a silent outer space “Good Grief”

Sadly, the mission has generated another astronomical naming controversy.  Scientists were dissatisfied with the way “2014 MU69” rolled off the tongue so they crowdsourced the problem to the internet to find names for this distant iceball.  The internet suggested “Ultima Thule” which was a Roman and Medieval term for the unknown icy lands beyond the periphery of the known world.  That is a pretty good name and the scientists split it into two for the weird binary snowman (the larger body is “Ultima” and the smaller is “Thule”).  Unfortunately, though, Nazi occultists also found the name “Thule” back in the thirties and they used it as a mythical place of origin for the mythical Aryan Race (sorry Nazis, we are all originally African).

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Like all good-hearted people, I despise Nazis…but this seems like a Roman name sullied by racist morons more than a millennium after its introduction.  Do you think scientists need to rename this primitive snowman world? Or should we go with Ultima Thule?  Or should we just stick with 2014 MU69 (since, frankly, unless New Horizons discovers some strange artifacts, alien beings, or something we are probably never going to think about this corner of the solar system again).

 

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