Twilight of the Gods – The Archaeology and Climate Change of Ragnarök

A lot of scientific data is tucked away in mythology and tales. Sometimes they really do contain a grain of truth!

Bones, Stones, and Books

Pic. “Battle of the Doomed Gods” (F. Wilhem Heine, 1882)

(FYI this post is based on a paper I recently wrote for a course on archaeology and climate change.)

Thanks to popular culture, the Viking legends of Thor, Odin, Loki, and their homeland of Asgard have become well-known within recent generations through Marvel’s Thor comics and movies, with the most recent installment, Thor: Ragnarök, set for theatrical release in late 2017.  Google describes the storyline as “Imprisoned on the other side of the universe, the mighty Thor finds himself in a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against the Hulk…in a race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home world and the Asgardian civilization.”  Much like the characters of Thor, Odin, and Loki, the tale of Ragnarök is recorded in the early literature of the Vikings, or Norse people.  Unlike the movie description, however, the…

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C.S.I. : #Ceres

 Warning: some graphic imagery

Soundtrack: something from Blade runner. If not that, then “Worlds in Collision” by God is an Astronaut

One day…

Someone will die in space. Some day someone will be killed whilst working on an offworld colony or space station.

One day space will just be another workplace, and all workplaces have accidents.

Perhaps more to the point; space will not be devoid of crime. As humanity begins it’s gradual ascent beyond low earth orbit everything that makes us human will follow us out into space: our drive to explore, to look upon new vistas, and our darker side. It makes sense really. The corporate world will be at the forefront of the conquest of space. Big money will be planting it’s flag whether it can. Wherever money goes, corruption soon follows. One day someone will unwittingly join a select group of other human beings who have achieved a first in space. They will be the first murder victim.
Law enforcement will extend its reach to the other worlds of the Solar System. I don’t think to speculate on the finer details and brushstrokes of law and order beyond Earth. I do think it would be an interesting thought experiment to wonder just what may await the very first space cop to come across the very first murder scene in space….

Some things won’t change. Image: Pixabay

Ceres comes around, drifting into view as your transport approaches. The mining facility on the dwarf planet and the transports AI exchange pleasantries; handshakes, exchanges of code and other silicon bureaucratica dart across several thousand kilometres of vacuum. The transport is on old Tesla: a pilotless model now used as a taxi between outposts in the asteroid belt. Ceres is of course the largest settlement out here. Ever since the Asteroid mining business took off in a big way in the 2050s, this stretch of space between Mars and Jupiter is the new Wild West. 16 Psyche; the remnant metallic core of an ancient protoplanet is the real prize. Ceres is the main stop off point to 16 Psyche and scores of other frontiers out here. Now it’s the first crime scene in the Asteroid belt. 

Screenshot 2017-06-23 22.54.09
Ceres contains most of the Asteroid Belt’s mass, and may be an important port of call one day. Image: Solar System Scope

You’re quietly amazed it’s taken this long. 16 Psyche has seen plenty of action. It’s heavily guarded. It has to be. It’s worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars. Plenty of skirmishes. Ceres is quieter, but people will be people. Get a few hundred thousand together in an enclosed space and they begin acting funny.

Not funny haha either.

See, cops on Earth have it real easy. People have been killing each other there since before they were people. There’s a lot of knowledge to draw upon, because forensics and taphonomy have several thousand years of crime to study. All of it earthbased. Up until this day outer space has technically been a Utopia. No killing. You feel like you’re investigating a murder in the Garden of Eden.

We meet again… Image: Pixabay

Boy, that would be a story and a half….
So what does happen to a body in space? What happens to a body on another planet? Every single environment we can think of beyond Earth is utterly hostile to anything larger than a bacterium, and even they have only managed to hitch rides on spacecraft. Life isn’t at home in space. So how would death work there?

That sounds like a dumb question. Death doesn’t work. When you die you stop working, right? Huh!

Death is messy, but it’s actually a process, with discrete steps. Of course all living things cease functioning eventually, but for all multicellular organisms death is akin to synchronised swimming: hard to figure out with a lot happening beneath the surface. 

Death comes to us all, from the smallest bacterium to the largest redwood tree. It had one obvious and final result, but this result can be arrived at in many ways. It all depends on exactly what you are too. 

When you die, yes, you stop working, but like a cheesy zombie movie it doesn’t really end there. There’s still plenty happening as your body transitions back to inanimate matter. Because that’s what’s happening really. You’re being broken down and cycled back into the firmament.

I’m sure the undead will make an appearance in future blog posts… Image: Pixabay

The Stages of Death
Fresh

Okay. So you’re dead. (Just work with me okay?) Your heart has stopped and your body is switching off quickly. About 4 minutes after death your body begins to undergo autolysis.  This essentially means that your body is digesting itself. This is as disgusting as it sounds. As oxygen decreases to be replaced by carbon dioxide cellular enzymes in the body are free to roam unchecked. So off they go, breaking down all in their path; rupturing cell membranes and releasing their contents into the mix. It’s like the prison guards have suddenly stopped being paid and so they decide to let all the prisoners loose. Obviously a riot would ensue. Autolysis is your body being broken down by a biochemical prison riot. 

Bloat

Gases are produced inside your body by all of these enzymes and microorganisms: particularly in your gut. Your body swells like an unopened can of coke after being shaken. 

Putrefaction. Yuck. 

This is where the magic happens. Microorganisms are now officially in charge. Further breakdown of tissue turns you into a fetid mess. Those gases produced during the bloat stage? Those ones in your now distended gut? They begin escaping; sometimes violently. We all know what happens when gas escapes our bodies.  Sometimes this out gassing is so nasty it ruptures the skin! Putrefaction essentially means that decay is running rampant and you now resemble an extra from “The Walking Dead”. If you’ve ever seen that show, or anything featuring the undead, you’ll notice that often the dead are crawling with maggots. This is an important stage in decomposition. Breakdown by insects and larger animals is part of putrefaction, and a necessary function performed by these creatures. If nothing broke down dead bodies the world would be awash with diseased corpses. Forget “The Walking Dead”. This is nowhere near as cool as it sounds. 

The last discrete stages of decomposition are mummification and skeletonisation. Mummification means that whatever is left behind  after voracious bacteria have exhausted your body’s nutritional goodness and larger creatures have cleaned you out and moved on just dries out. Usually this is skin. It becomes a dry dessicated shrink wrap around your bones, which are themselves leaching their component compounds into the environment.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Death. 

Hang on, you say. I thought this post was about Ceres! I thought it was gonna be  detective story set in space, like  CSI meets The Expanse! Well it is, but to understand how death works and to understand death in space we only have a single frame of reference: Earth. 

A marsupial body farm. Decomposition on earth is at the whim of countless variables. Image: LaTrobe University.

Let’s head back to our unfortunate murder victim, sailing serenely around the largest asteroid/dwarf planet in the solar system. You’ve gone out and collected the body, cursing several poor life choices as you bring it into your transport. 

Be a space detective in a someone’s blog post they said. It’ll be fun they said. 

  The body on the slab can’t tell you much. Trying to work out a time of death will be problematic, at best. It’s hard to tell how long this guy’s been floating home. See, the stages of death mentioned before tend to be fairly discrete and take place in a fairly predictable sequence. Of course Earth is one big mess of wildly changing environments and variables. Gil Grissom would have found life easier out here. Space is a little more unchanging.

When someone steps beyond the veil you can almost set your watch (metaphorically speaking) to these physical stages:

Pallor mortis.  A paleness sets in within minutes; more noticeably in those with lighter skin. 

Algor mortis. Internal temperature regulation is switched off. The body’s temperature acclimatises to that of the external environment. The rate of acclimation can actually be used with some precision by investigators to determine a reasonable time frame.

Rigor mortis.  A stiffening of the body occurs around 4 hours after death. This is due to chemical changes in the body causing  cellular fluids to gel. This can be affected by the environment. For example, freezing cold can greatly prolong the time it takes rigor mortis to take hold. 

Livor mortis. When a body has been prone for some time blood (particularly the heavier components like red blood cells) settle, pooling in the dependent or lower portions of the body. This causes reddish purple discolouration in these lower portions. Livor mortis usually starts becoming really apparent about 2 hours after death.  

Death is what happens when physics regains control of the body. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Alright then. You’ve read the Wikipedia pages. You know how death works. 
On Earth. 

But you’re in the asteroid belt. There’s no gravity, no air and no insects or scavengers out here to make short work of this poor sap’s remains..

Time to roll your sleeves up.  

A lot of things are confounding your attempts to determine a time of death. First of all being in a vacuum has freeze dried him. He went out for a nice space walk without his helmet, remember? His nostrils and mouth look burnt because they are. In a vacuum liquids instantly boil away. It’s no different to what happens when you open a can of coke. The pressurised carbon dioxide in the drink depressurises,  forming bubbles of gas. This is a more extreme example. The saliva and fluids in his nose boiled away instantly. Ouch. 


People don’t explode in space. Forget every B-grade science fiction movie you ever saw. Your skin is actually pretty tough- as are your eyeballs. This guy is bloated though. Depressurisation has caused the water in his body, particularly in his circulatory system, to start boiling. His blood vessels have expanded and ruptured. Not to mention the fact that this guy didn’t listen to any safety instructions during his time in space. Golden Rule when being cast out onto the Big Empty: exhale. Do not hold your breath. Have you ever blown too much air into a balloon? The air inside becomes pressurised, more so than the air around the balloon. We’ve all scared enough small kids and cats to know what happens. You’re trying not to imagine what’s left of this guy’s lungs. 

Yikes. Maybe your lungs don’t quite do this, but the principle is the same. Image: Giphy

So anyway. There goes bloat as a yardstick. 
So. Your murder victim is frozen, freeze dried and a purple mess with a case of weapons grade sun burn. No sunblock out here. No pretty blue sky protecting him from deadly solar radiation. Had he survived he would have had a million percent chance of terminal cancer anyway, and soon. Livor mortis is nowhere to be seen. No gravity well down which red blood cells can settle. Algor mortis seems tricky too. He didn’t freeze instantly. Again, forget those bad Sci Fi movies. Heat transfer happens via conductance. Space is a vacuum.  There’s nothing to draw heat away from this man’s body. He’s frozen now, but he’s not a popsicle. About the only normal stage of death you notice is rigor mortis. The ion channels and transfers involved in muscle contraction and relaxation don’t seem to be affected by being in a vacuum. 

Maggots and scavengers feeding on a body are disgusting to be sure, but they’re also really handy for determining how long a body has been lying around somewhere.  Insects are purely driven by instinct, so on finding fresh meat they deposit eggs, or feed or interact with the corpse in very discrete waves or phases. These phases and even their durations are so predictable that forensic entemology is one of the most useful tools investigators have when determining times of death.

Stupid earthbound forensics guys you mutter under your breath. They think they’re so cool, don’t they? Not so much as a tick on this guy. Not even bacteria or fungi. They don’t do well in a vacuum and they’re all in cold storage. Radiation would have wiped most of them out too. This guy is basically perfectly preserved. No pooling of blood, no putrefaction and no chew marks from hungry scavengers!

It looks like you might have to look beyond regular physical and chemical factors surrounding death here, because out in space they mostly don’t apply. 

Cause of death? Er, being thrown into space without a helmet! He would have passed out within a minute or so. Blood pressure became essentially nil, resulting in no oxygen getting to his brain at all. In addition exposure to the vacuum caused oxygen to be dumped from his brain. He died of asphyxiation, before ruptured lungs and internal membranes got to him. 

Your first instinct as a cop, and particularly as a space cop in this blog post is to establish a time of death. Unfortunately, no such studies have been carried out just yet. Mankind is still stuck in Low Earth Orbit. If the forces of ignorance ever gain control (if they haven’t already) we may never leave LEO. 

But, if we do…it’ll be business as usual. Crime will colonise the solar system along with us and wouldn’t it be useful to get some space forensics knowledge under our belts, so we’re ready and waiting for it?

What do you think? 

References and Resources:

Vass, Arpad A (November 2001). “Beyond the grave – understanding human decomposition” (PDF). Microbiology Today. Spencers Wood: Society for General Microbiology. 28: 190–192.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livor_mortis

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decomposition
http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2012/08/how-would-you-die-in-outer-space.html
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arpad_Vass
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/survival-in-space-unprotected-possible/
http://wiki2.benecke.com/index.php?title=All_Mark_Benecke_Publications#Forensic_Entomology
http://listverse.com/2013/07/06/10-things-that-happen-to-an-exposed-human-in-space/
https://www.spaceanswers.com/space-exploration/incredible-footage-of-a-nasa-test-subject-being-exposed-to-a-space-like-vacuum/

A Tourguide Amongst the Tombstones…..

Hello all. Welcome to my very first interview. As a scientifically educated non scientist I find one of the most exciting things about blogging and researching is coming into contact with interesting people, whether they be immersed in science or not. I’m meeting the vast majority of people on Twitter, which is a hotbed of conversation, opinions and is also chock full of brain-sugar to rot your brain-teeth!

Sam Perrin is a fellow traveller I’ve  bumped into on my travels. She currently resides in the United Kingdom and is a self confessed Londonphile, with a passion for history, but she is also a cemetery tour guide. Death is a fascinating thing, and so this sounds pretty damn interesting. Imagine the history beneath her feet! Find and follow her on Twitter:

A city or a nation is a living breathing thing. Neil Gaiman wondered what would happen if the living cities of the world ever woke up. It’s an interesting notion, and fits in well with my thoughts on emergence. Death and our rituals surrounding it are also part of this living fabric. Death is the result of careful evolution, and is a vital part of life. It’s not the end of things at all. Why else would cemeteries and other monuments to it exist? I got the chance to ask Sam about what she does….

Sam, you are a cemetery tour guide. This sounds self explanatory, but tell us about yourself, and exactly what it is you do.

Hi Ben, thanks so much for inviting me!

I’ve been a cemetery tour guide for the past 14 years.  We introduce visitors to the cultural and historic treasure troves that are cemeteries by telling them about interesting people interred there, as well as discussing Victorian & Edwardian social history and funerary architecture.

Cemeteries hold a powerful fascination over many people for many different reasons.  What about you? What draws you to what (on the outside) looks like a macabre occupation? How did you end up showing people around cemeteries? 

Those who perceive cemetery tour guiding to be macabre or sinister are exactly the kind of people I love taking around on tour!  The notion that what we do is morbid couldn’t be further from the truth: we celebrate the lives of those who’ve come before us, highlight their accomplishments and show people how much beauty – both natural and architectural – can be found in cemeteries.

I fell into this accidentally after volunteering at one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries to help with the landscaping.  At that time, the organisation had too many gardeners and suggested I try my hand at tour guiding instead.  It was one of best decisions I’ve made as it combines three of my passions (history, architecture and wildlife) and I’ve made lifelong friends out of it.

Cemeteries are solemn places (or should be). Do people generally show respect when being showed around?

For the most part, yes.  Most people are well behaved and genuinely interested in the cemetery’s history and landscaping.  It’s about maintaining a balance between respecting grave owners and mourners while still enjoying an educational tour.  The vast majority of visitors appreciate that and behave accordingly.

What’s the oddest epitaph you’ve ever seen?

One of my favourites is in Hampstead Cemetery (north London) and makes me laugh out loud.  The memorial belongs to Charles Cowper Ross, “A Man of the Theatre” who died in 1985 and reads:

What will be said

When I am dead

of what I used to do?

They liked my smile?

I failed with style?

Or more than likely      “Who?”

Charles Cowper Ross
My kind of guy!

 

In the same cemetery, I recently discovered a headstone with an email address inscribed on it.  That was a first for me!

jessicaclarkatheavendotnet.jpg
404 Address Unknown.

That is a classic! An email address! I believe the email address ends with @heaven.net!

What’s the oldest grave you’ve ever seen?

Probably London’s Charterhouse, which was once used as a burial ground for victims of the plague back in the 14th century.  It’s an amazing place and the sense of history there is almost tangible.

Charterhouse,_EC1_-_geograph.org.uk_-_27285
The Great Hall, viewed from the Master’s Court of the London Charterhouse. Image taken by Stuart Taylor, Wikimedia Commons.

Australia has so little (European) history comparitively. Encountering that kind of age is always an experience. Have you come across any historic figures in your travels?

Absolutely!  We’ve covered famous artists, actors, scientists, law makers, prime ministers, criminals, inventors, writers, engineers, pioneers, sports figures and musicians from the Victorian era through to the 21st Century.  That said, I’ve found some ‘Regular Joes’ who led extraordinary lives to be just as (if not more) interesting than the more well known figures.

Now that would be worth exploring. Death has been called the great leveller. Every story means the same at the end, I guess.

Cemeteries and history are deeply intertwined. Can cemeteries teach us anything?

Sir William Gladstone summed it up perfectly: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals”.  My tour guiding partner-in-crime (@SheldonKGoodman) often describes cemeteries as being ‘people museums’ and ‘libraries of the dead’ and I can’t think of more apt descriptions than those.

I’m in Australia, so obviously we have no cemeteries older than a couple of hundred years. Have you explored any graveyards outside of England? Tell us about them.

Funnily enough I visited Brisbane in April and spent two days in Toowong Cemetery – what a stunning place!  It officially opened up in 1875 and is built into the slopes of Mount Coot Tha, which offers gorgeous views over the city.  The landscaping is quite dramatic in that the plots are built into the undulating hills, which are quite steep in some parts.  Something I immediately fell in love with was how beautifully preserved the ironwork surrounding some of the graves is!  It’s one my favourite cemeteries.  Next on my list are Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires and Sapanta’s Merry Cemetery (Romania).

I see you are interested in history, particularly that of London. A city can be seen as a living thing, and it’s history can be a powerful part of this. Free plug!: Tell us where we can find out more. Are there any organisations or groups where readers can explore and learn about the mysterious world of cemeteries? 

Naturally I’m going to do a shameless plug here by mentioning @CemeteryClub!  Also visit the websites of most cemetery Friends organisations and join any guided tours they offer.  Cemetery Friends organisations are also usually crying out for volunteers, which is an excellent way of getting more actively involved.  You can also support your local history society, library and archives, all of which are fantastic sources of information.  Websites like Findagrave, Deceased Online and online newspaper archives are brilliant, as are most genealogy sites.

Sam, thank you so much for talking today! 

Readers can follow Sam on twitter and her profile links to others involved in keeping history alive. Some of her partners in crime; see what they’re up to! Start with the Cemetery Club Blog:

Then see what they doing on Twitter

#OddPuzzlePieces 2

A definite bone theme this week!

Sifting through a veritable deluge of science and random factoids this week it seemed that bones and facts about bones seemed to be all that came my way! That’s odd in itself, but what do you do?

What I love about this kind of post and researching it is that I get sent in completely random directions. I discovered a couple of things I didn’t know, revisited some old interests, met some interesting new people (one of whom will be featuring  in an upcoming post), and found some meaty new topics to work on for future posts. My brain is even getting back into video mode again, so it’s very likely that my YouTube channel is not dead just yet!

I find many of these tidbits whilst trawling twitter. So, I have embedded hyperlinked screen shots of the relevant twitter profiles of some interesting people. Check them out and follow them!

So, let’s see what we’ve got this week!
Fact 1: Marsupial bone is somewhat different to that of eutherian or placental mammals. Different enough that it weathers differently when exposed to the elements. In fact, the Zooarcheology team at LaTrobe University in Victoria, Australia have set up an animal body farm, to study taphonomy in a cross section of mammalian species:

Studying the process of weathering and decomposition in several native Australian marsupial species. Image: LaTrobe University

Here’s me thinking bone is bone! It makes sense I guess. I wonder how monotreme bone differs. Monotremes are egg laying mammals. Only two examples are extant today and are native to Australia: the platypus and the echidna. 

This fact was provided by the Zooarcheology team based at LaTrobe University. Many thanks!

Fact 2: Bone density: Despite sometimes appearing superficially similar, it’s quite easy to tell rock from bone. Simply put it to your tongue! Bone will stick! An episode of CSI actually featured this technique being used in the field once. The only part of bone that won’t stick is the Petreous Portion, a dense region inside the skull by the ear.

Fact 3: The walrus has the largest baculum! What is a baculum,  you ask?

It’s a penis bone! Many placental mammal species possess them. Scientists are a little divided on exactly why they’re needed, and why human males don’t possess them.  The walrus is impressively well endowed, with a baculum that reaches up to 60 cm in length. Take a look at this whopper, coming from an extinct species:

This big daddy was found in Siberia, and is about 12000 years old. Image: PunkinFinland.net

Oh my Grod!!

Fact 4: Bones change shape with occupation! We all know that baby bones- particularly the cranial bones of babies are soft, so as to ease the process of birth. But it’s also true that bones will “mould” into a particular configuration over a lifetime of use. Warning: graphic images in the following link. The archaic Chinese practice of footbinding is one example of bones being deliberately shaped for cosmetic purposes. 

These three facts were provided by Steph Halmhofer, a Canadian blogger and bioarcheologist from the University of Toronto.

Fact 5: Our ear bones are actually modified jaw bones! To put it in more detail; a diagnostic feature of all mammals, be they living or in fossil records is that they possess two bones in their ears which all other amniotes use for eating! Amniotes are all vertebrates which encase their embryos in a specialised protective membrane, either in an egg or within the womb. Such animals include reptiles, birds and mammals, but not fish or amphibians which lay their eggs in water.

Changes to the middle ear of mammals over evolutionary time, shown from the earliest mammalian lineages. Image: Understanding Evolution, Berkeley

Fact 6: bones were originally a handy way for soft bodied animals to sequester excess calcium  which is extremely toxic in higher than trace amounts.
Fact 7: bone and blood are both considered to be connective tissue, although blood’s status in this respect is sometimes disputed.

This last fact was provided by Cam Hough a PhD student from Alberta, Canada. 

Thanks to all who helped make this post possible. Who knows what random facts will head our way?

Further Reading:

http://www.nature.com/news/2004/040329/full/news040329-18.html

The One Where Ravens Outsmart Chimpanzees!

It seems we don’t have the monopoly on intelligence…

Woman in Science

A memory like an elephant, that’s how the saying goes isn’t it? But, as new research published in Animal Behavior this week shows, ravens may not be far behind.

raven-4590_1920Müller et al. found that ravens were able to remember specifically if people were fair or unfair to them during an interaction (food exchange). In the future, the ravens were more likely to choose to interact with people they remembered as having a positive experience.

Even more amazing was that these ravens could remember this for up to a month after the first exchange!

Only about a week ago a colleague of mine was talking about how she had had some experience with ravens and how incredibly smart they are.

She told me that they had to be extremely careful when working with ravens, especially how they unlocked, and locked gates. The ravens would watch them and then would try to…

View original post 200 more words

The One Where Ravens Outsmart Chimpanzees!

It seems we don’t have the monopoly on intelligence…

Woman in Science

A memory like an elephant, that’s how the saying goes isn’t it? But, as new research published in Animal Behavior this week shows, ravens may not be far behind.

raven-4590_1920Müller et al. found that ravens were able to remember specifically if people were fair or unfair to them during an interaction (food exchange). In the future, the ravens were more likely to choose to interact with people they remembered as having a positive experience.

Even more amazing was that these ravens could remember this for up to a month after the first exchange!

Only about a week ago a colleague of mine was talking about how she had had some experience with ravens and how incredibly smart they are.

She told me that they had to be extremely careful when working with ravens, especially how they unlocked, and locked gates. The ravens would watch them and then would try to…

View original post 200 more words

#MetalCore: Walking on 16 Psyche

Soundtrack: anything that makes you bleed out of your ears..

The horizon is small. It always feels weird when  you see it curving away unnaturally the way it does. Of course, this chunk of nowhere you’re on is a little smaller than home on Mars. Even there though tourists from Earth are full of ooh and aahs at the Red Planet’s horizon.

16 Psyche. Take a security job there they said. It’ll be fun they said. Guard the most precious hunk of metal in the solar system; an asteroid over 200 km in diameter, composed almost entirely of iron and nickel. Over a quadrillion dollars worth. This place could smash the earth’s economy to smithereens.

16 psyche 1
Roughly elliptical in shape, and with a fairly even surface, 16 Psyche is a true relic from the formation of the solar system. Image: Arizona State University

Easily.

A lot of other places in the solar system have a certain feduciary value. Asteroid mining has been big biz for a long time now.  Your grandparents were among the first belt miners, heading out from Hamer Station on Phobos.

16 Psyche is the jewel in the Crown. This chunk of metal comprises nearly one per cent of the asteroid belt. Like all gold rushes there’s naturally a lot of interest, to put it diplomatically. You’re here to take care of folks who get a little….too interested.

This place sure gets boring though. Most security is automated these days. Fleets of weaponised drones orbit the moon, keeping a watchful eye out for unwanted visitors. Space piracy isn’t much like Star Wars. Space is way to dangerous and chaotic for that. No, in this day and age anyone wanting a piece of this prize has to be organised to the fourteenth decimal place. They need to know what they’re doing, and they need lots and lots of money behind them. Like the privateers of old, the only pirates these days are on government or corporate payrolls, mainly out to disrupt things. Occasionally they head out here and make pains in the ass of themselves, but that’s about all they really do. The real wars for territory take place in boardrooms across the solar system.

You don’t care. The view is incredible. You’re walking on the core of a protoplanet!

This place was named Psyche after the greek word for soul. Walking on this bare expanse of metal it seems fitting; that this exposed core is a window into the soul of a dead world…

The gravity on these tiny bodies always messes with you. On Phobos you weigh about 70 grams. Here, you’re the same weight as a small cat. You think back to your time on the tiny Martian moon. Handrails everywhere. The moon was covered with them like chain mail. Too easy to trip over a rock and become an unofficial new moon of the red planet. Who was that guy working out of Stickney Crater?  He had a good operation going; a small fleet of drones patrolling the space around Phobos, plucking over enthusiastic hikers from Martian orbit.

You’ve forgotten his name. Who cares anyway? Here on 16 Psyche the handrails aren’t a big deal. The whole asteroid is metal, right? Iron, for the most part. Taking a walk across the metal fissures and canyons is simple. No engineering expertise needed; just magnetic boots.

Break time. You squat down in a dark crack in the surface and log off for a bit.

The commute out here is the ultimate trip to work.

This asteroid lies roughly 3 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU is roughly 93 million  kilometres: the distance at which earth lies from the sun. 16 Psyche spins slowly- so you’ve been told. With only the Milky Way up there you can’t really tell. There’s been a bit of activity today. A few unmarked ships have come a little close. One even buzzed the extraction facility over at Jay Gorge. It’s a low gee quarry basically. The drill broke down, a monster the miners out at Jay call Grindstein. Built on Earth decades ago, Grindstein saw service on Mars and the Moon, carving cities out of the regolith. Now it’s here, taking tiny nibbles out of the most valuable chunk of metal anywhere.

The broken drill is sabotage someone said. Economic rivals want this place, and they’ll stoop to all sorts of tricks to disrupt things anyway they can.

You don’t really care. You really came here because it’s not every day you get to walk on the core of a planet! 16 Psyche is a battle scarred veteran of the very earliest eons of the solar system. Once it was a newly minted protoplanet. Now a remnant, this place dodged other large forming bodies and chunks of debris, orbiting a ten million year old sun. The night sky looked very different then. The solar system was a coalescing mess of rock, ice and organic muck. Everything was colliding and jostling. 16 Psyche’s outer layers were destroyed; torn away by up to eight impacts with other large bodies.

Earth’s moon may have formed in a similar cataclysm. 16 Psyche’s original face may have been destroyed in 8 such impacts.
  1. Rough childhood. Maybe this nugget represents what Earth may have ended up looking like, had Jupiter not scooped up rogue planetesimals terrorising the inner solar system during the late Heavy Bombardment.

Where did all that outer shell go? You wonder sometimes. This place took a beating for sure. Now this frozen little nugget is all that’s left. Old NASA sent a mission here way back in the 2020s, sending back pictures of a cracked metal hulk. Not all of the outer mantle was stripped away.  About ten per cent of the surface is silicate rock, no different to anywhere on Mars, Earth, Venus or Mercury. That thin veneer was once the mantle and crust of a planet that no longer exists.

Video: Arizona State University

Science began taking a back seat to big business sometime after that NASA mission arrived, so the one and only scientific mission to 16 Psyche couldn’t turn up much. But big business was more motivated. All the big players headed out here to slap their dollars, roubles,  renminbi or rupees down on the table. There were even people sent here. There’s only so much automation can do. Tunnels were dug into the asteroid, and human beings finally journeyed to the centre of the earth, in a sense. Jules Verne would have been proud. The first tunnel into the core of this core was actually called Verne tunnel….

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip into the future. 16 Psyche is just one of a number of bizarre places in the solar system that are worth a tale. There are several other incredible places I plan on visiting in future posts. Tell me what you think!

 

Ben.

P.S.

Follow the nascent 16 Psyche mission, blasting off from a planet near you in 2022.

Take a look at NASA Psyche Mission (@NASAPsyche): https://twitter.com/NASAPsyche?s=09

References and further reading:

https://sese.asu.edu/research/psyche
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16_Psyche

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-03-06/16-psyche-asteroid-like-no-other-metal-world-nasa-mission/8316054

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-two-missions-to-explore-the-early-solar-system