Category Archives: scicomm

#BackToVenus

It’s 12.13 a.m. I’m watching the end credits for “Doctor Strange” roll off my TV screen. The house is quiet of course, but I’m still wide awake- as is my norm. Twenty two years working in kitchens has turned me into a nightowl.

Personal Aside: Has anyone else seen that second little end of credits scene in this movie?

Anyway. Because it’s late, I’m thinking of material for my next YouTube video, and am dumping a whole pile of pictures of Venus into Adobe Premier Pro; my video production software. All of these thumbnails are arranged in a disorderly mess before me, calling me to the second planet from our Sun. It’s a fascinating place, and I have been in a real Venus mood for the last few months.

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So close to Earth in so many ways, and yet so alien. Image: NASA/JPL

A Hell born of Paradise

Venus is a dead world like it’s unfortunate sibling Mercury. Both planets are perilously close to our sun. Mercury lies only 58 million km from Sol and Venus is still uncomfortably close at 108.2 million km. However this cloud coated beauty orbits serenely on the very inner cusp of what astronomers call the “Goldilocks Zone”; that mystical band within which temperatures are mild enough for water to remain liquid on a planet’s surface. To our knowledge, only Earth possesses water in this state; although water is actually abundant in the Solar System. A previous post: Water, water everywhere explores this in more detail.

For Earth, the porridge is just right. Venus is a little too close: too hot, and Mars is a little distant: too cold. Venus today is a blistering, scorched wasteland, where on a cold day the temperature is a hellish 460 degrees Celsius and the atmospheric pressure at “sea level” is 92 times that on Earth. Put it this way; if you were standing on the surface of Venus it would be equivalent to being 1.6 kilometres under the ocean.

From a compositional point of view  Venus is very similar to Earth, and in fact the two have been referred to as sister planets.

The Evil Twin?

Venus, thy name is dichotomy.

Venus and Earth are remarkably similar in terms of mass, gravity and composition. Note: composition can only be gleaned from inferences made by measurements made of the planet’s density, but there is a general consensus that Venus and Earth are quite similar in this respect. Structurally Venus is also believed to be kin to Earth, with a rocky crust about 50 km thick and a core of metallic iron, believed to be in a liquid state.

Venus: mass, volume and gravity in comparison to Earth. Image: Wikipedia
A sunburnt Pacman.

Ok, some people say. So we know Venus is obviously not that similar to Earth. Cut to the chase, Ben. Why can’t we go there?

Good! I was waiting for someone to ask that! Even if it was an imaginary reader!

Venus is nasty. Venus is a bad place. Perched in a nearly perfect circular orbit around the sun (itself unusual) Venus should just scrape into the habitability club. Some scientists even believe that Venus once was covered with oceans and continents. Just imagine it!! Fly over those oceans with your mind. Leave the CGI and the billion dollar special effects to the big hitters in Hollywood and YouTube land and join me..

Was this Venus a couple of billion years ago?

 

A long time ago, on a planet not so far away….

It’s morning. You’re on ancient Earth, circa the early Archean Period. Your clock is useless because the days are much shorter. You throw it outside your time machine (any design- it’s your imaginary ship!) and get some breathing equipment slapped over your face. The Great Oxygenation Events haven’t happened yet and won’t for a long time. The atmosphere is not much fun: consisting of mainly methane and ammonia. Fun and games if you’re one of the extremophile microorganisms slowly spreading across the Earth. Not so much if you’re a human from the twenty first century.

Keep that breathing equipment in good shape. You’ll really need it where you’re going.

Artist’s impression of Archean Earth. How close is that moon?!! 

Well, ancient Earth is nothing if not picturesque,  that’s for sure. No harm in taking a few photos before you embark on your voyage out to Venus.

Archean Era Earth: beautiful one day,
And bombarded the next.

Time to go.

Your little ship skips across the void in no time. No special effects budget can out maneuver imagination! You can’t help but fidget as you approach earth’s sister:

Venus looks decidedly different to how it’s represented in twenty first century textbooks and media. The all enveloping shroud of thick sulfuric acid clouds isn’t blanketing the planet. That’s a relief. An atmosphere somewhat similar to the one you left behind  on Archean Earth is here. Atmospheric pressure seems to be tolerable. Are those clouds you see, wafting across a vast equatorial ocean? Your face is pushed so hard against the window of your tiny spaceship you’re about to crack the glass. Decompression NOT FUN. You better go down….

At this juncture in the history of Venus (right now it’s not even 1 billion years old) the planet really could be called Earth’s twin. A shallow global ocean swirls gently, glinting brilliantly in the afternoon  Venusian sunlight.

Afternoon of course is a meaningless concept here. You look at your clock again, and clench your teeth. Again it’s useless! Why did you bring it?

Because you’re a character in this tale and the Author (that’s me) thought it would be a cool plot device, allowing the reader to see how days and years have changed- both on Earth and Venus- over billions of years. You jettison the clock for real this time. No one is ever going to find it.

A day on on Venus is equivalent to about 234 earth days. That’s right. On earth someone would ask you the time, to which you might reply “11.30”. On Venus a correct response might be “half past April.” As if that’s not bizarre enough, the year here is 225 Earth days long. That’s right! A year is shorter than a day here!

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ProtoVenus: quite earthlike?

The planet really is earth-like. The planet has a messy, turgid magnetic field. In a few hundred million years that field will be gone. Some kind of event has taken place (or will take place) that basically is a killing blow for the planet and anything that may live here. For now the magnetic field is allowing liquid water to pool on the surface- lots of it too.

You’re standing on some charred volcanic ridges, looking out over a still, glassy ocean, which glints in the sunlight. No waves crash against the walls. Venus has no moon. No moon, no tides. This ocean is more like a still lake, filling shallow volcanic plains between the planet’s three main highland regions, or “Continents”. In the distant future scientists and missions to Venus may have detected the presence of granite down here on the surface. Granite is found in huge quantities on Earth, and forms in the presence of both water and tectonic activity.

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A world of mysteries, Venus beckons..

The atmosphere is clearly substantial enough for liquid water to be stable. You’re dipping your toes in that water right now! Is anything alive here? You feel a pang of loss for this world. Looking out across this nameless ocean it really seems plausible that right now things are oozing or eating their way across some shallow seabed somewhere, competing for resources which one day will be gone, choked in sulfuric acid clouds and incinerated by oven like heat and pressure.

Earth has had a handful of truly epic extinction events. The greatest extinction event of all is responsible for the rise of almost all modern life. A pollutant began appearing in our atmosphere. It’s ironic that perhaps the most lethal pollutant every pumped into our atmosphere wasn’t carbon dioxide or methane. It wasn’t hydroflurocarbons.

It was oxygen. That’s right. 

Cyanobacteria appeared, spreading quickly across the globe, producing free oxygen as a metabolic waste product. Unfortunately  all other life on earth at the time was anaerobic; meaning they didn’t require oxygen for their metabolism. When cyanobacteria began to massively outcompete all other life, oxygen levels both in the oceans and earth’s atmosphere reached saturation. Almost all life on earth perished.

At this point in time you can only guess what’s out there in that Venusian sea. Isn’t it fun to speculate though? 

It’s time to suit up and fire up your time machine. 2017 is waiting for you, and a world straight from the fevered imaginings of some tortured 16th century poet awaits you….

Welcome back!

Next time, let’s wander across Hell. 

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#DNA: What’s the Deal?

It’s 2017. We’re three sequels into a massively successful movie franchise about the dangers of science without integrity. Rebooting and endlessly recycling movies doesn’t seem to be a problem, but who cares about that?

Four huge movies about science. Naughty scientists playing God. Evil money hungry corporations sacrificing principles in their endless cancer-like quest for growth.

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Grow, my little economy, grow!!!

Nope. Still doesn’t sound familiar? This sounds more like a day on your facebook newsfeed, right?

“Jurassic Park”! At it’s core, this was a tale about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Scientists who should have known better, and knew the right choice to make ignored it in the quest for money and recognition.

What else was this movie (and it’s progeny) about? Breaking it down into it’s scientific sub-units, “Jurassic Park” was a story about serious genetic engineering. Scientists manipulated and recreated ancient DNA, enabling them to bring back creatures that hadn’t seen the light of day in at least 65 million years. As it turned out, these creatures and the twentieth century didn’t get along so well. The rest you know. If you don’t… watch the movie. On a personal note “Jurassic Park” was one of the last “Oh wow!” movies I saw. The first time that Brachiosaurus appears, it sent shivers down my back.

Remember the scene when DNA was reduced to a friendly cartoon character, something like that old Microsoft paperclip?

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Ah, Clippy…

I’m showing my age. Keep reading. Is DNA really that malleable and user friendly? Students and many scientists probably don’t really get the amount of work that went into determining 1): that it exists in the first place, 2): how it works and 3): it’s structure. If you’re this far into this post you most likely have a more than passing interest in science and molecular biology. You know about Rosalind Franklin, Watson, Crick and Wilkins, and various other big hitters in the vast field that is molecular biology.

Like most others I garner things I need to know from textbooks or the internet. All of this information is piled atop older information, blood, sweat and tears. After all of this work, wouldn’t we know enough to be able to create prehistoric GMOs? No. Absolutely not.

One thing that strikes me about DNA, and about life itself, is that within all organisms, across all arenas and Domains of life lies a universal genetic code, evidence of our common ancestry. This code; this cosmic language has given rise to literally all life on this planet. There are a couple of anomalies here and there, but they can be ignored for the sake of this post. Here then, is the Genetic Code:

Adenine, Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine.

…….

You’re tapping your fingers, I know. Your’re waiting for the rest. There isn’t any more. This is the genetic code. Four bases. Often they are reduced to mere letters, and so appear more like a simplistic alphabet. Combinations of these four “letters” comprise the genetic machinery of all life, coding for enzymes, hair, fins, wings, organs, blood vessels, immune systems, bad breath and low IQs.

That’s really it! Four bases, code for all life in all it’s forms. It’s an astonishing feat not only of information storage, but of fidelity of said storage. In nearly four billion years of life on Earth, only 10 percent of the original genetic code has become corrupted, resulting in all life other than simple unicellular organisms. That’s right. Putting it another way, you and me are the result of slight signal degradation. Ten percent doesn’t sound slight! It sounds like a lot! Over 3.5 billion years however, for the original genetic code to degrade only 10 percent is the kind of signal fidelity communications engineers have funky dreams about.

DNAs information storage capabilities are a function of that groovy double helix shape it winds itself into; a result of various molecular bonds inducing this spontaneous double helical twist. A DNA molecule is essentially two molecules; two strands of intertwined de-oxygenated ribose nucleic acid.

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Somewhat resembles a twisted ladder, doesn’t it? Image: Wikimedia Commons

See the “rungs” in the middle of that twisted ladder? They are where the magic happens. These comprise various combinations of the aforementioned bases: Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine, joined by hydrogen bonds of varying strength. The bases attach to nucleotides, which are then fused to this sugar-phosphate backbone. In this way they are safely tucked away, wrapped in loving embrace.

The bases don’t just stick together. As mentioned, they are held together by hydrogen bonds of varying strength. Hydrogen bonds are a common chemical bond found in nature. They are quite weak, but form spontaneously when compatible sub units are positioned appropriately. Adenine bonds with Thymine, forming two hydrogen bonds. Cytosine will only pair with Guanine, forming three hydrogen bonds. To repeat, Adenine will only bond with Thymine and Cytosine will only bond with Guanine. This forms the basis of Watson-Crick base pairing, and is the only way bases will pair in DNA. Complementary base pairing is the mechanism by which DNA strands form, and allows new strands to be created later (to be discussed in a future post).

It also makes a pretty neato U-Beaut exam question, and a real gimme if you’re struggling. After all, knowing the above rules: A to T and C to G, you can determine the sequence of a strand of DNA if you have the sequence of it’s opposing or anti-parallel strand.

I won’t ask you to try it!

Future posts will look at DNA replication, including an examination of the mighty ribosome, one of the funkiest biomolecules around. Please feel free to comment on this post and share it with others. See you again- real soon!

Enzymes: Nature’s Toolbox

Enzymes blow me away, and really do speak of some kind of underlying order in the Universe. I mean, you can’t just study enzymes and their activity without thinking there’s some kind of voodoo at work. When I was young (and even occasionally in these adult years) airplanes would fill me with wonder. I mean, we know how airplanes work, but it still seems somehow magical. Something that big and , well clunky just has no business flying. It’s like that old chestnut about bees. Yes, we know they have no business flying but they just do.

Enzymes have that same mystique. They are catalytic proteins which enable a vast array of biochemical reactions and processes to take place. Without these little worker bees swarming around inside us DNA is useless. After all, DNA may be biomolecular royalty but the French Revolution taught us what happens to royalty when no one’s listening: it becomes surplus to requirements.

Enzymes are thought to work in two main ways. Both avenues are a function of shape. All proteins perform functions tied into their conformation. Over 30000 proteins are known to exist, with a bewildering array of structures: knots, crazy tangles,  wheels, hooks, and just about any other shape you can imagine. How is shape important, you ask?

Do you ever dive into a tool box to perform basic household repair jobs?

Not tools, functional shapes. Image: Pixabay

Pop quiz! Your university graduation certificate has fallen off the wall, causing  your cat to jump twenty feet. After you’ve peeled the cat from the ceiling you need to get the hook back into the wall. Do you grab:

A): A screwdriver

B): A banana

C): A hammer

D): Laundry detergent

Smartass remarks aside, you grab the hammer. Why? Because the hammer has  a very particular shape which turns out to be just right for banging small things (nails) into bigger things (walls). The hammers job is a function of its shape. It doesn’t really stop there. Analogous to proteins; which have been evolving and changing for billions of years hammers are the result of centuries of engineering and refinement. After all, if you were in a hurry or just plain lazy you could have hammered the nail with any heavy object (lucky the cat’s out of reach right now). However,  something heavy like a book would kind of do the job, but it would have limitations. It may not fit in your hand well. It may rip when being slammed into the nail. If it’s a soft cover book it may absorb the energy of impact. It’s width will impair your view of the task at hand.

Get the picture? A hammer circumvents all of these limitations.

You hammer the nail back in and hang your certificate back up. Your cat is having a bad day. The hammering has driven it over the fence and into the neighbour’s yard.

Other tools in your toolbox have very particular functions closely tied into their shape or design. So it is with proteins.

A 3D representation of Myoglobin. Image: Wikipedia

The crazy whorls and loops in myoglobin allow it to be a particularly effective binding pigment, which attaches to iron and oxygen. Found in all mammals it only appears in humans after muscle injury. It appears in higher levels in ocean going mammals such as whales and dolphins, which often dive for extended periods, allowing them to remain submerged.

Protein chemistry and function is surprisingly interesting, but falls outside the scope of this overview. A youtube video briefly explains enzymes and how they work.

https://youtu.be/tmXQoVPgq5w

Proteins are perhaps more astonishing given that they aren’t alive. Yet, they tirelessly perform myriad functions within living things, allowing a signal of life to emerge from chemistry and metabolic white noise.
If you find proteins or other biomolecules interesting, which ones interest you? Interesting comments may form the basis for future blog posts or even youtube videos. Leave a suggestion for the biochemical employee of the week!

#FirstScienceCrush: Meeting Science

It’s nearly 4 pm,  on an absolute postcard perfect day. I’m in my car, parked at a tiny beach; one of a handful strewn along the Port River. Birds scamper on the sand, waves whisper past and the sound of distant traffic is like the pulsing murmur of an unborn child’s heartbeat through an ultrasound. Peace can be found in the most unlikely places sometimes.

In this frame of mind I’ve been thinking about science and it’s place in the lives of the world out there. I know where I fit in, and through a fairly brief but active time on Twitter I’ve discovered a host of others who care about various aspects of science. Scientists, science outreach folks, artists,  explorers, collectors and wanderers. There’s a lot of conversation going on out there. Much of it is exciting and engrossing, some of it can shorten your life one stupid statement at a time.

Where did this start for people? I got curious, after reading a great article in Lateral Magazine. It was the observation of the author that dinosaurs and outer space seem to be two of the main “gateway drugs” leading people into science. I can vouch for both: many of my earliest memories centre around toy dinosaurs, books my dad got for me and the awe inspiring spectacle that was Star Wars, 1979. However,  I would have to say that for me it was dinosaurs that led the charge. Dinosaurs taught me to read. After all, if you want to understand something you find a way to work it out. My earliest books were dinosaur books. Of course, and as seems to be the case, this love affair grew and evolved. I got older, and I found myself interested in just about everything in the animal Kingdom, but dinosaurs were the key to this Kingdom. What about you?

So. We’ve all moved on from toys and daydreams…

(Of course we haven’t! )

Back to Twitter. I decided to run a little poll, asking folks what it was that got them into science:

Not a huge turnout, to be sure, but you can see some common patterns making themselves apparent.

We Love Outer Space!

Duh!! Who doesn’t. We are either drawn to the distant past or the future- immediate or not. Several comments reflected this predilection for the stars, but nature did pretty well also;

“Bug People” seem to be really passionate and popped up a lot in elaborating further on their “gateway drugs”. Even fictional creatures, such as the arthropod-like xenomorph in the “Alien” franchise played a bit part in responses.

A love of these parasitic monsters led to a career in parasitology for one respondent.

Yes, stories are  definitely important in the “recruitment” of budding scientists. The stories we tell ourselves: daydreams, childhood play as well as books and movies.

While bugs and nature had the loudest voice among respondents Outer Space was the runaway winner. Again it’s hard not to disentangle a childhood fascination with the heavens from the landscape of Sci Fi that dominated mine (and many others) imaginations as children.

Excellent responses all, and it’s hard to disagree with any of them.

One thing that stood out was a response regarding coming into science later in life. This was an interesting point for me. Many of you reading this most likely are interested in science and related fields. Is it fair to say that most of you acquired a taste for it early in life? Another poll seemed to reflect this, although the response was extremely minimal:

Were you bitten by the science bug early? Were you grown up, working in some completely unrelated field (as I still do), before you took that left turn?  It would be interesting to examine this further. Please leave some details on your own experience with science if you wish. It would make a great future post!

Thanks for reading! Drop by sometime!

 

Insects up close

I have discovered something about myself as I get older.

Bugs are really interesting. Ever since my first purchase of a cheap little macro lens for my smart phone I literally cannot resist the urge to photograph or film every bug I encounter.

No, I’m not a professional photographer and I am NOT an entemologist. You don’t need a degree in something though to be interested in it, or for your interest to be irrelevant. Insects are one of the “pandas” of the science world. Panda? You ask, wondering what the heck I mean. What’s a panda?

…..

I’ll forget you asked that. No seriously. Does anyone notice that when people are spouting conservation and such to the person on the street, they will hold up pictures of so called “charismatic megafauna”. That is, cute or majestic mammals or large creatures: white tigers, elephants, gorillas and, you guessed it, pandas. These kinds of creatures are the pin ups of the conservation world. In a similar fashion dinosaurs, outer space and insects are the huge drawcards,  the “gateway drugs” drawing people into science.

Insects are eternally fascinating. They constitute the vast majority of  terrestrial life forms on Earth. Beetles alone constitute about sixty percent of all terrestrial species, leading Charles Darwin ( or was it J.B.S. Haldane?) to utter a famous quote regarding God and his “inordinate fondness for beetles”. Whoever gave us this immortal quip, the message is still correct.  Insects in all their forms are everywhere. It’s easy to find a bush, tree or other corner in your back yard and discover an entire world right there beneath your nose. It really takes a minimum of effort; albeit an indifference to getting dirty.

Me, I’ve got no qualms about that!

No expensive equipment is required. I have been doing a lot of photography and filming of insects, spiders, even marine arthropods: crabs etc. All of this has been done with a smartphone and a cheap little clip on macro lens. These lenses are ridiculously cheap and easy to obtain:

I’ve got several videos worth of material to put together for my little YouTube channel, so I look forward to working on and sharing those with you.

And there is no shortage of subjects to film!

Insects have had a special place around the campfire of humanity’s imagination since our ancestors came down from the trees. At times they have been welcome guests,  at times they have been the subject of nightmares, lurking deep within our ancestral memory. Few creatures inspire as much dread and horror as these utterly alien and bizarre denizens of backyards everywhere. Perhaps no other organism inspires so much terror as the spider. No, not an insect but an arachnid I know. In the eyes of arachnaphobes though the difference is essentially nothing.

Insects even populate the darkest corners of fiction. Anyone who has seen the “Alien” franchise must have been struck by the Queen xenomorph, nothing more than a murderous queen bee, atop a mound of carefully laid eggs; overseeing the slaughter of hapless humans at the hands of her hive. It is this cold, metallic, insectile aspect that gives these creatures such hold over our fears.

“Get away from her, you BITCH!!”

Film makers and storytellers know how to make us uneasy. That’s for sure. Fortunately no such creature exists in good ol’ reality. Could you imagine it?

But insects play other roles in the human psyche.

Ancient Egyptians believed that dung beetles were sacred.

Ancient Egyptians believed dung beetles to be sacred, performing the cosmological task of ensuring the sun never strayed from it’s predestined course, making it to sunset. In other words they fancied the sun as a ball of dung, being rolled across the heavens by this celestial beetle!

Bees have a a special place in world mythology, even playing a part in the creation of the first human in some cases.

Ancient Greek bee goddesses. Image: Wikipedia

So insects have a long, sometimes love – hate relationship with humanity. They play every part: aggressor and bringer of plague to custodians of secret knowledge and wisdom- at least in our very human context.

Do you find insects interesting? I’d be keen to hear your tales.Whether you’re just a hunter like myself, chasing the best shot possible, or a scientist or STEM professional working with these ancient creatures for the betterment of humanity. Leave comments below, and it may turn into a conversation!

Water, water everywhere

So. We exist here on our rock, as it flies around our medium size main sequence star, and slowly but surely begin to realise that we are not quite as special as we think. Sure, we’ve come a long way. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Progress is literally a moving forward. By this rationale the human race has made astonishing progress in the last two hundred years. I won’t rattle off the myriad achievements we’ve ticked off the sentient species bucket list, but we’ve done a lot- let’s just leave it at that. The mobile device or computer you’re reading this post on is one tiny part of that progress.

But one piece of wisdom we have gained in the midst of all this gadgetry is this:

We are not the centre of the Universe.

There. I said it.

Ever since Copernicus, Gallileo et al realised that Earth revolves around the Sun, much human progress and thinking has revolved around the fact that no, we are not the focal point of creation, life has gone on before us (and will carry on long after we’re gone), and that our very planet is turning out to be not quite as unique as we thought.

It seems like every second week a new exoplanet is being discovered and added to a growing bestiary of worlds. Most of those worlds are nothing like earth: but I believe it’s only a matter of time. In our own solar system water; that miracle ingredient for the appearance of life is turning up everywhere we look.

Water is a bit of a superstar. I won’t espouse it’s virtues here, but suffice to say, absolutely no life (as we know it) can exist without it. Water is turning up everywhere it seems. Here are a few examples. I will begin this tour with with the inner planets of the Solar System. For the sake of brevity I will only glance on each location. At this point in time current thinking is focused on certain moons in the outer solar system: “outer” meaning beyond the asteroid belt. Water appears to be abundant as we head outward, but I think it fair that the terrestrial planets get some love too. After all, should humanity  ever sort out its myriad problems and eventually stops just dipping it’s toes in the water, one of these worlds might just be a new home for our species. The presence of water would be highly advantageous.

Let’s put together a little list of locales in the Inner solar system where water is thought to exist. I will include Earth here as the first obvious example.

Earth

Home to over 7 billion talking monkeys, loads of beetles, bacteria and a whole pile of other beasties all jostling about on the Tree of Life. A middle aged planet, third from it’s parent sun in a non-descript solar system moving quietly through the Orion Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. There’s a lot of water here, about 1,260.000,000,000,000,000,000 litres. That’s 1260 million trillion litres.

Now, obviously that sounds like a lot, but if you want to really get an idea of how much water this is, just ponder this. Of all water on earth, 96% is saline. Four percent exists as freshwater. Of this four percent, sixty eight percent is locked up in ice and glaciers. Thirty percent of the remaining freshwater is groundwater, and thus not accessible to all and sundry.

About 0.006 of this four percent exists in rivers and lakes.

0.006 percent!

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This tiny sliver of the total global water pie keeps all of us talking monkeys alive.

So, where  is this going?

There are vast amounts of water on Earth. But Earth is only one of 8 other planets in the solar system. There are also five dwarf planets, of which Ceres and Pluto are the most famous examples, and 182 moons orbiting various objects and bodies throughout the solar system.

The Sun

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Huh?

Say again?, you ask. “Ben, are you out of your gourd? Isn’t the Sun that great big hot thing at the centre of the solar system? You know, that really hot thing that is so hot we can feel it’s heat here, from 93 million kilometres away?”

Yes, Dear Reader, the sun is that big hot thing. But researchers have demonstrated the existence of water vapour in the central cooler regions of sunspots. Apparently, so the science goes, these regions are just cool enough that hydrogen and oxygen can get all chummy and form water. Now, liquid water (and obviously ice) are out of the question, but there you go. There is water on the sun. Next.

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Mercury

Poor old Mercury has never had a good trot. The closest planet to the sun, Mercury got baked clean millennia ago. No atmosphere worth mentioning exists, and so you’d think that’d be it. It’s just a barren hellish wasteland. Right?

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462 degrees in the shade.

Wrong.

Like all of the inner planets, Mercury has taken a thrashing from impacts over it’s sad history. It skims around the sun pocked with craters. Some of these happen to sit right on the Mercurian Terminator. A terminator is not a killer robot with poor acting skills. A terminator is simply the demarcation where the planet’s daytime side meets the night time side.

This means that some of these craters contain regions draped permanently in shadow. Similar  craters exist on our very own Moon, and yes, water ice has been observed in them! These ice filled craters are being touted as a bit of a sweetener for permanent human habitation on ol’ Luna.

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Similar shadow filled craters have been observed on the Moon.

Alas, Mercury doesn’t have much else going for it. It completely lacks a magnetic field, and lost whatever atmosphere it ever had long before Eukaryotes began crawling around.

Say you were an alien visitor to our solar system. Imagine yourself flying in: past the gas giants (what’s with that big red spot?), past all those pesky asteroids (that weird metal asteroid warrants a second look!), even past that blue green marble, with all the chatter pouring out on the electromagnetic spectrum. You keep on flying. It’s been a long flight, but there are two more planets to look at. This next one looks liks a big deal!

Venus

As you approach Sol 2 you’re thinking this place seems like Sol 3. Gravity is pretty similar , and it’s about the same size. There are even clouds here: lots of them!

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Venus was once…almost idyllic?

Oh. It’s time to stop using your eyes and switch on some of that fantastic alien technology of yours.

Sol 2 isn’t so nice after all. In fact it’s downright awful. Some sort of disaster has befallen this planet. No magnetic field, atmospheric pressure that will crush your delicate little  space gazelle should you ever choose to land and temperatures that can bake cakes.

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There is water here though! Thick choking clouds of carbon dioxide and sulfur enshroud the planet, but there are traces of water in the atmosphere! It’s only 0.002 percent to be sure, but it’s there.

Your space gazelle (translation: extremely sleek and advanced spaceship) has beauty AND brains. Scans show hydrogen and oxygen ions trailing out behind the planet, and you realise that water loss is an ongoing issue for Sol 2. Solar winds have been slowly stripping Sol 2 of water for a long time; maybe billions of years, leaving this hellish dessicated planet behind. It’s a pity, you figure. Sol 2 would have been nice once. Sol 3 beckons as a potential home sometime, but the natives are barking mad. Looks like rolling in and blowing stuff up might be the only way after all. All that water!

Sol 3 has been studied to death, so you decide to swing around and take a look at the Red Planet.

Mars

Dry as a bone. Peaceful to be sure, but this planet is dead. Weighing in at roughly one third the size of Earth, Sol 4 may have struggled to hold onto any atmosphere it may have had.

Of course, being a little guy isn’t the be all and end all. Titan is the largest moon of Saturn. Somewhat smaller than Mars, yet fifty percent larger than our own moon, Titan sports an impressively thick atmosphere: thicker in fact than our own. Unfortunately Titan can be shunned from this article: it posesses oceans…..of liquid methane. No water here folks. I include Titan to demonstrate that smaller worlds can possess respectable atmospheres.

With 15% of Earth’s gravity and temperatures at an extremely frosty -176 degrees Kelvin, Titan is not a viable destination for human exploration just now. But it is more similar to Earth than anywhere else in the solar system…It just doesn’t have any water.

Mars, like Venus, is missing a key component here. Earth is the proverbial bowl of perfect porridge; just right. Many features of Earth are conducive to life, but perhaps one of the most important is the presence of an active core. This one feature prevents harmful cosmic rays from degrading DNA so badly that life mutates itself to death. It also prevents said rays from stripping away our water and atmosphere. This appears to have happened on Mars and it’s happening on Venus as we speak.

Does it, doesn’t it?

Mars is turning out to be a slippery customer. Evidence for erstwhile liquid water on the red planet seems to be piling up. It’s heading toward consensus that Mars once was much warmer and wetter than it is today.

Another Eden?

NASA’s Curiosity rover is the closest we’ll get to visiting Mars for some time yet, and it has captured some pure Martian magic on it’s sojourns across the dead and lifeless face of possibly humanity’s first true stepping stone to the stars.

Our descendants may one day take off their helmets and breathe Martian air.

Possibly the greatest aspect of Curiosity is that it is a quintessentially human mission. Human eyes see the surface of Mars, beamed across vast distances and tease out information about this place. One simple photo can convey a lot if you know where to look and what to look for:

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These are synaerisis cracks. They typically form in river or lake beds when water dries up, leaving the mud to crack as it shrinks in this fashion. Whats so special about these cracks? They’re on Mars.

Essentially the general thrust of new discoveries these days is that it’s more likely for water to be somewhere than unlikely. I will end this blog post with new insights into water back here on Earth. As mentioned previously, several moons in the outer solar system are posited to possess vast quantities of water in the form of sub surface briny oceans.

However, it turns out Earth has a few surprises still up it’s sleeve. A diamond ejected around 90 million years ago from a volcano in Juina, Brazil contains imperfections, that, like a seemingly trivial clue in some glossy crime investigation show, point the way to to the one time existence of a subsurface ocean deep in earth’s crust. In fact, this ocean was (is?) posited to have descended nearly a third of the way to the edge of Earth’s core. These clues come in the form of hydroxyl ions, which normally only come from water. More evidence is arising, pointing toward water’s earlier appearance on Earth than expected. I will write about this and similar topics as I am able.

More posts on water in the solar system will be up as soon as I find time to write more. Keep on looking up! The Universe is there. See you next time, and thanks for reading.

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Ben’s Lab.