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Artist's conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

Artist’s conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life.  And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world.  The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury.  Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so).  Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun.  The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals.  The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.

The mission featured a big surprise.  Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury.  This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings.  What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds.  According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering.  Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second).  This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater.  Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury.  Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts.  The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024.  Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!

Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above.  NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will.  Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere?  You should probably ignore that…

Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.


Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) photo by Bob Hall

Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world.  It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red.   The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy).  Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name.   There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English.  Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.

Cryptocephalus (Burlinius) fulvus, photographed by Josef Dvořák


Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)


The common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) photo by Emmanuel Van Heygen


The Fulvus Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros fulvus) painting by Gray, 1838


The Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)


The Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia)


Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos macei)


The tawny grisette (Amanita fulva)


The Fulvous Limpet (Iothia fulva)

The Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)

The genus Lynx consists of four furtive species of medium-sized wildcats which inhabit giant swaths of the northern hemisphere.  The cats are solitary hunters which prey on a wide range of animals including lagomorphs (rabbits and pikas), rodents, foxes, sheep, goats, various species of deer and chamois, as well as gamebirds such as grouses, turkeys, ptarmigans, and waterfowl.  This list is hardly comprehensive–all four species of lynx are opportunistic predators which will catch and eat all sorts of insects, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.

A Lynx Finishes Off a Hare.

Lynxes share common features such as bobbed tails, large paws, tufted ears, buff spotted coats, ruffs under the neck, and long whiskers.  All four species also utilize a common reproductive strategy.  Lynxes and bobcats mate in winter and the female then raises her litter of two to four kittens over the course of a second winter.  After one winter with their mother, the young adults move out on their own. Lynxes like to sleep in sheltered dens provided by caves, deadfalls, or hollow logs.  They are strongly territorial (although males maintain larger territories which overlap each other and may contain the territories of many females).

Baby Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

Although the classification of the family Felidae is continuously being revised, the current members of the Lynx genus are as follow:

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the largest lynx, which ranges from Europe, across all of Siberia to China.  Male Eurasian Lynxes weigh from18 to 30 kg (40 to 66 lb) and can stand up to 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder.  Like all lynxes, the Eurasian lynx is a stalking predator which silently shadows its prey before pouncing for the kill.

The Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) a specialist of the arctic forests of Canada which preys largely on snowfoot hares.  The Canadian lynx has huge paws which spread its weight out over the snow in the manner of snowshoes.  In winter the Canadian lynx grows a thick multilayered coat.

The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is an adaptable predator which ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Southern Canada deep into Mexico’s deserts.  An adaptable generalist, the bobcat can live in any type of forest, as well as in deserts, swamps, and mountains.  The successful creatures even live in agricultural or developed lands.

In contrast to the bobcat, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is the world’s most endangered cat species. At present there may be fewer than a hundred left in the wild.  Once overhunted, the Iberian lynx now suffers from habitat loss (thanks to overdevelopment) and attendant traffic fatalities.  In Spain and Portugal rabbit populations (the Iberian lynx’s preferred prey) have crashed because of myxomatosis, a viral disease from the Americas which was introduced to Europe by a short-sighted French bacteriologist.  Finally, the once diverse forests of Iberia were replaced with agricultural monoculture which exacerbated the ecosystem destruction.

The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

If the Iberian lynx does indeed go extinct, it will be the first cat to do so since Smilodon.  Fortunately the other 3 lynxes are all relatively secure in numbers (although habitat destruction sometimes drives them out of specific areas–particularly in Western Europe).

There is a bobcat (Lynx rufus) somewhere in there I think.

Superb stealthiness, nocturnal habits, and highly effective camouflage render the lynxes nearly invisible to humans (although people do sometimes hear their unearthly haunting yowls at night).  Because of this elusiveness (combined with their keen eyesight and hearing) lynxes have acquired a somewhat otherworldly reputation in folklore and myth.  In ancient legends and stories, bobcats and lynxes were said to hold secret wisdom hidden from the comprehension of men or other creatures.  They were animals of augury and foresight which occasionally appeared to sorcerers, oracles, and shamans with occult knowledge.  According to “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews, “The Greeks believed the lynx could see through solid objects. In fact it is named for Lynceus, a mythological character who could also do this.” During the middle ages and the Renaissance, the lynx’s ability to see without being seen was linked with the omniscient vision of Christ.

The Crest of Accademia dei Lincei

The long association of lynxes with sharp-sightedness lingered into the early modern world where the lynx’s piercing vision became a metaphor for scholarly insight and scientific breakthrough.   The world’s first Academy of Science (well, the first one which wasn’t disbanded by the Inquisition) took its name from the lynx:  The Accademia dei Lincei, (“Academy of the Lynx-Eyed”, or Lincean Academy), was an Italian science academy founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi, an aristocrat from Umbria.  Cesi was passionate about natural science (particularly botany) and he gathered a group of polymaths and geniuses together to observe the natural world and explain it by means of experiments and the inductive method.  The society was one of the first to use lenses for scientific purposes and they produced an important collection of micrographs—drawings created with the newly invented microscope.  Their most famous member, Galileo Galilei was famous the discoveries he made with a telescope—discoveries which altered the way humankind perceived the universe.  Even as the Church turned the zealous eye of the Inquisition upon Galileo, the society supported him and made sure his books were published and his ideas were disseminated (thanks largely to Cesi’s aristocratic connections and fortune).  In fact, after joining the society, Galileo always signed his name as Galileo Galilei Linceo.

Frontispiece of Galileo’s Istoria e Dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp

Born in 1857, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky grew up in a remote province of Tsarist Russia with his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, Edward Ciołkowskia, was a Polish orthodox priest who had been deported deep into the heart of Russia as a result of his political activities.  Edward Russianized his name and married an educated Tartar woman: the two then proceeded to have many children (of whom Konstantin was fifth). When he was 9 years old Konstantin caught scarlet fever and barely survived.  Once he finally recovered, he was deaf or very nearly so.  Because of his hearing problem he was denied admittance to elementary school and he quickly fell behind his peers. His mother died when he was 13 and his family’s poverty prevented him from moving forward in the world.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp ( I'm sorry that I'm still thinking about stamps even in the midst of this remarkable tale)

This is a very grim and Russian story so far but here is where it becomes extraordinary. Isolated and alone, Konstantin made his way to Moscow.  He was teaching himself at the Chertkovskaya Library where a very strange and brilliant man named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov was an employee. Fyodorov was a transhumanist philosopher and a futurist who believed that humankind’s path forward leads ultimately to technological transcendence and divinity. He felt that scientific progress would eventually lead to physical immortality and then ultimately to the resurrection of all people who have ever died (Fyodorov liked to think “outside of the box”).  With the tutelage and mentorship of Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky taught himself math. He took an active interest in Fyodorov’s scientific philosophy and even began to wonder what could be done with all of the immense number of dead humans if and when they returned. The thought led Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to think about outer space and the subject came to dominate the rest of his life.

Inspired by Fyodorov’s wild ideas and by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky began to invent the science necessary to carry humans up gravity’s well and beyond this world.  The Encyclopedia of Science summarizes his work as follows:

Tsiolkovsky produced some of the earliest scientific literature on spaceflight, including the classic work Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Apparatus (1896). In 1898 he derived the basic formula that determines how rockets perform – the rocket equation. This formula was first published in 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers’ historic manned flight. It appeared, together with many other of Tsilokovsky’s seminal ideas on spaceflight, in an article called “Investigating Space with Rocket Devices,” in the Russian journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review). Unfortunately, the same issue also ran a political revolutionary piece that led to its confiscation by the Tsarist authorities. Since none of Tsiolkovsky’s subsequent writings were widely circulated at the time (he paid for their publication himself out of his meager teacher’s wage), it was many years before news of his work spread to the West.

No one understood Tsiolkovsky’s work at the time he wrote them.  Today the basic concepts behind space travel—such as multistage rockets, orbital velocity, and compressed liquid fuels–are widely understood [Ed. not according to the comments of any given article about space exploration on CNN] but at the dawn of the twentieth century they were wildly fantastic and incomprehensible to international scientists much less to Tsarist Russians. Tsiolkovsky did not stop at elementary proposals of space travel and the fundamental underpinnings of rocketry.  He also came up with sophisticated ideas such as using graphite rudders for rocket telemetry, cooling combustion nozzles with cryogenic propellants, and pumping fuel from storage tanks into the rocket’s combustion chamber.

Tsiolkovsky's Conception of a Spaceship

His neighbors regarded him as an eccentric outsider—a deaf schoolteacher mumbling gibberish—but Tsiolkovsky kept on coming up with brilliant ideas, some of which are still ahead of their time.  In 1895 he was inspired by the Eiffel Tower to propose the creation of a 35,790 kilometer tall tower surmounted by “a celestial castle” from which objects could be launched directly into space: it was the first conception of a space elevator.   By the twenties, as the scientific minds of the new Soviet Union began to realize how innovative Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were, he was contemplating sustainable space habitats and galactic colonization.

Today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of theoretical astronautics—or more simply the father of spaceflight.  Sputnik was launched on his one hundredth birthday.  Soviet propagandists built many statues and monuments to Tsiolkovsky but the greatest tribute to his legacy (apart of course from humankind’s space programs–which grew from his ideas) has been seen by only a few humans. Tsiolkovsky crater, the most prominent feature on the dark side of the moon is named in his honor.

The Dark Side of the Moon (Tsiolkovsky Crater dominates in the upper left quarter)


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