Tag Archives: astrobiology

Astro-biological: The living universe 

I have been hard at work rebooting my Bens Lab YouTube channel. This has been prompted by a realisation that a niche topic such as astrobiology is not only insanely interesting, it can keep a niche channel alive, away from the blinding glare of the massively monolithic and sucessful general science channels dominating the platform.


Astrobiology is almost too interesting, and there is plenty of scope for all kinds of interesting viewing. It’ll at least be fun making them. There’s also a huge array of related topics, with some room even for a bit of speculation and fun!

To that end I’ve rebadged the channel a little, and here is the first “proper” video from Ben’s Lab presents: astro-biological: 

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#Astrobiology

Were I offered the chance to study again, I know what I would do. Astrobiology. In the last few years it’s been something I’ve followed. The trouble is, I’m easily interested in almost anything I come across. However, I would study astrobiology in a heartbeat.  So, what is astrobiology? 

Ever since humanity made its first baby steps beyond our thin layer of atmosohere astrobiology has looked to the stars, emerging as a discipline in its own right. It is the study of life on other worlds. Moreover, it is the study of life itself and asks the question: could life exist anywhere else? 

We’ve all seen the movies and heard stories. The idea of life on other worlds has had a vice like grip on the human imagination for a very long time. Every single culture on Earth has some accounts of visitors from the sky and encounters with otherworldly beings.

“Ezekiel’s Vision” by Mattheaus Merian. Image: Wikimedia Commons

From Judeo-Christian mythology and tradition to the various disparate and yet somewhat homogenous mythologies of Australia’s aboriginal people, it seems we’ve had visitors from the sky for quite some time.

Wandjina rock art, from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. Image: Wikipedia

 At least so the stories go. Those stories will persist in one form or another for a long time to come, and the popular imagination is still fired up with tales of otherworldly visitors. Just trawl social media sometime and you’ll see what I mean. A search on YouTube: that paragon of level headedness, for a term such as “Area 51” will yield a miasma of conspiracy theories, alien “sightings” and general silly nonsense. Many of these videos have had millions of views. In my first search one particular video had over 20 million views. It was a “sighting” of an alien strolling across a road in some generic American desert setting. 

20 million views? Seriously?

People are eating this stuff up. But what does it have to do with astrobiology? Our desire for interstellar neighbours is always a little, shall we say, elitist? Does all extraterrestrial life need to be flying around in advanced spacecraft and spying on us: the cosmic equivalent of an ant farm? 

An early version of the Big Brother house. Image: Factzoo.com

(Are we that fascinating?)
Astrobiology specifically looks for life beyond earth. That life doesn’t need to be a wookie or a Borg drone. Something as simple as a bacterium would rock the worlds of astrobiologists everywhere. 

Missions to other worlds in the solar system have had this in mind for decades now. Missions to Mars almost turned the science world on its head when micro traces believed to be produced by single celled organisms were relayed back to space agencies. Big news indeed. Life on another world. Not Yoda, to be sure, but better! The jury is still out on this “evidence” but time will tell!

Possible biogenic structures, found in the Alan Halls meteorite, Antarctica in 1996. Image: NASA

You see, astrobiology is the search for life beyond earth. It is the application of a diverse set of scientific disciplines (which includes but isn’t restricted to) chemistry, geology, biology, planetolgy,  ecology and astronomy to look for anything. Any life at all. If human or robotic explorers ventured across the gulf of space and found something as simple as a bacterium it would be a massive deal. From the time of earth’s formation circa 4.6 billion years ago life took around a 

Life really was pushing it uphill in the beginning. Image: NASA/JPL

billion years to appear. The story of life isn’t the key point here. On earth life still took a long time to gain traction. It was only around 800 million years ago that anything as complex as a sponge first appeared, and it went through a pounding before all this happened. The Late Heavy Bombardment, a highly toxic and reducing atmosphere; likely similar to that on Titan today, which was replaced by another highly toxic atmosphere: oxygen. This change led to the greatest mass extinction this planet has ever known. An irradiated, toxic lethal planet somehow gave rise to life. 
Astrobiology looks at life on this primeval earth and posits the question: if it could make it here, it kind of stands to reason that it could develop somewhere else. Earth now is a benign paradise, possessing a very particular set of attributes that enable life to thrive. Among these; a thick atmosphere and life giving heat from a nearby sun which respectively enable liquid water to exist at the surface and provide the fundamental energy for life to prosper. Earth possesses an active magnetosphere which shields life from cosmic radiation.  These are only some of the factors that make earth just right, like the proverbial bowl of porridge. In fact, in honour of that famous metaphor, Earth is said to orbit the Sun in a “Goldilocks Zone” This means that we are just far enough from the sun that the temperature range is just right for liquid water to exist at its surface. Hence the thing with the porridge.

Many other worlds we’ve examined don’t have any or all of these qualities, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. 

Life is seemingly turning up everywhere we look these days, and the more we look the more we see that life is extremely tenacious    From the clouds above us to hadean environments deep within the earth’s crust to active nuclear reactors life seems to be able to survive anywhere. 


That’s what gives astrobiologists hope.
This post is to be the outline of an upcoming episode on my “Ben’s Lab” YouTube channel. For any who are following the channel (thank you!) It will be undergoing renovations. The subject matter will focus more on things near and dear to my heart, and astrobiology is one of those things!  If you like astrobiology please leave suggestions for episode ideas in the comments, or share this with others who like it as well.

References and resources:
This list is not comprehensive and is intended to begin those who are interested on beginning their own research; 

https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/about/
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Hills_84001
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1932751/
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/life-found-deep-inside-earths-oceanic-crust/
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans

#NightFlighttoVenus

Turn that dial. What’s on the radio?

Crackle. Static. Hissss……

….

Welcome back!

You’ve seen Mars. Who hasn’t?  Done to death! Orbital skydiving from Phobos? Yesterday’s thrill! Jupiter? Saturn? 

Boring!!

Deep sea diving with the natives on Europa?

Somebody wake me up!

Chuck all those snoozefests in the trash because we have something special just for the first 10 callers!

Yessiree we’ve moved on from plain old space tourism. None of this flying over the dark side of the moon for hyper rich tourists! Its  2087, and for a limited time Ben’s Lab Mystery Tours have a ripper for you!

Venus!

For a moment I thought I actually heard crickets chirping in this studio…
What’s that you say? Venus is the Florida of the Solar System! How can that possibly be exciting?  I don’t want to fall asleep in the upper atmosphere, enjoying the sun and mild temperatures on some Cloud City! Retirement villages, man!

Well, how about we forget the cloud cities then? We have put together- for the extreme extreme sports nuts out there, a holiday from Hell- in Hell!
Take a walk on Venus.

I hear your bowels clenching. Good!

Venus is hardcore. Venus wants to eat you alive and spit you out! Did you know our ancestors thought Venus was a beacon of serenity,  drifting peacefully in the heavens. Ha! They thought Venus was a cloud covered blue green marble like our little planet.

Well, they were right. They just had bad timing. Earth and Venus formed at roughly the same time, forming from a molecular cloud, made of gas, dust and other muck drifting around our own newly formed sun.

Earth got lucky. We were at just the right distance from the sun for water to exist in a liquid state on the surface. Venus is just within this little strip of safety,  called the Goldilocks Zone.
For half a billion years or so, Earth had a real twin. Sure, Venus is pretty much the same size as Earth, with almost identical gravity, but those two things do not a paradise make. What Venus had back then was oceans. Continents even.  Venus kind of looked like Earth!

Am I selling it yet! Sounds pretty sleepy, doesn’t it? If you nutcases can’t handle the peace and quiet go stick your head in a volcano on Io.

Call now! This is a once in a lifetime experience!

I have a caller! Let’s see who it is!

Jasper Dixon wants to know; what happened to Venus then? How did an earthlike planet transform into an inferno, with crushing clouds of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide? What about that atmospheric pressure, 92 times our own!

I agree Jasper. That’s just plain silly. Well at the risk of driving away listeners I’m going to tell you. If I explain why Venus is the nastiest place in the solar system I reckon the phones will be ringing off the hook!

It’s all about water. Back on Earth water isn’t just used to make fizzy drinks and fill swimming pools. It isn’t just necessary for all life. The planet needs water as well. Really!

I know, I know, the planet has a hydrological cycle. Oceans are vast heat sinks, storing heat and influencing climate. Water evaporates, creating rain and clouds, which not only bug us when we’ve just hung clothes on the line, they also reflect a lot of sunlight and heat back out into space. The planet’s reflectivity is called it’s albedo.

This is all true and all very important. But water performs one other vital function:

It lubricates the planet.

Long ago Earth looked like this. 
 

Some time later it looked like this. 

Then this.  

Then this. 

Plate tectonics, my friends. The continents are basically slabs of crust which happen to be less dense than the crust the ocean floor is made of, and so they float and slide around, moving very slowly, but definitely moving. Australia is whipping along at breakneck speed: at about five centimetres a year!

Plate tectonics and other events in the earth’s crust perform an important task; They release heat from the planet’s core. This planet contains a liquid metal core which is kept superheated by the decay of radioactive elements left over from earth’s formation. If the planet’s crust didn’t fracture and split all the time where would all this heat go?

Nowhere of course! The planet would just heat up and heat up, overheating until it became, well, it became Venus. We don’t want that.

So what the heck does water have to do with this! We don’t care anymore! We get it! Shut up and take our money!

Impatient lot, aren’t you? Well, you can’t hurry education! 

Remember those cars the old timers used to drive around? Remember how they had to put oil in them to stop the engines seizing up? Well, if earth’s crust isn’t kept lubricated by vast amounts of water running deep, then it too will seize up. This is what has happened to Venus.

Partly, at least. The planet’s surface is now so hot as a result of this runaway negative feedback that it can melt lead.

Better make sure you pack a decent space suit, extreme sports fans. One that can handle temperatures of 490 degrees Celsius. Make sure the electronics are tough too. It was only due to the advent of electronics that could operate in these temperatures that rovers and eventually humans were able to reach down and touch the Venusian dirt.

All you rugged outdoorsey types: don’t bring compasses. Yes, it’s a great idea, no they won’t work. Period. Venus has practically no magnetic field. This is a side effect of it’s core shutting down long ago. Don’t even ask me why. It may be 2087, but how the heck would I know? I’m selling holidays, not winning the Nobel Prize.

The folks up in those cloud cities have it pretty good.  Sure, hard core acid rain is a pain, and having to wear oxygen masks can be annoying. By and large, however it was a brilliant idea. Much easier than that whole Mars fiasco back in the 2050s.  Terraforming a whole planet? Good luck! See you in a couple of thousand years. Maybe. But those cloudies have no idea what’s below them. I know it’s not pretty.

Not a drop of water anywhere. A few wisps in the atmosphere.  0.002 percent of it is water vapour I think. Down on the freshly formed lava plains (by fresh read: less than 100 million  years old!) though; nada. Zilch.

Venus is close to the sun. A lot closer than earth at 108 million k’s. The Sun, being the vicious ball of fury it is, is constantly punishing the inner planets with solar radiation. Mercury is completely dead, baked clean by its proximity to the Sun. Venus held onto to atmosphere for a while, but when it’s core bit the dust that’s when things went south.

Earth has a magnetic field, which protects life on earth from harmful cosmic and solar rays. Sure, we get sunburn sometimes, but that’s a damned sight better than being baked to death, or having our DNA so damaged by radiation all life would perish from lethal mutations.

Without a magnetic field Venus’s one time oceans were slowly stripped and cast into space. Even today traces of this water are being ripped away by solar rays and sent into the Big Empty.

Still sound like fun? There’s always some hardcase out there who just can’t listen to good sense.

Operators are standing by!

One other thing. Feel free to call in and let me know exactly what happened to Venus’s core…

#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.

Maat_Mons_on_Venus
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.

220px-VenusDonMiguel
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. 

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.

Have we beaten ourselves to other planets?

Sometimes, science and a love for science begins with a story or two. I’ve always loved stories, be they in the form of books and movies. My favourite books of all time were C.S.Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Micheal Ende’s “The Neverending Story”.

What drew me into these particular stories so deeply was their references to cosmologies; to other realms and universes. For me the most alluring stories create not just intrigues and conflicts. I don’t really care about The Hero’s Journey, complete with it’s checklist of stages in a story. I don’t really care who’s the protagonist or antagonist. I care about the world these tales take place in. When I’m immersed in a story, I want to be  immersed in the story. A universe, with all it’s history,  is a key element of imagined worlds. To borrow a line from “The Dark Tower” by Stephen King:

Beyond the reach of human range,

a drop of hell, a touch of strange. “

Again this tale was heavy with cosmology; alien yet familiar.

These stories were life changing for me in ways. They each provided pieces of a picture, of a universe I’d come to explore. The Narnia books were about other dimensions. “The Magician’s Nephew” featured travel between alternate realities. “The Neverending Story” showed us a universe created by imagination and perception. “The Dark Tower” was about a post apocalyptic world where the laws of space and time were unravelling, where the natural order of things was succumbing to a slow heat death.

But what about our own personal stories?

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time inside my head, visiting other worlds and other times. It was easy to imagine a beach as a coastline on some alien planet, or national park as some dinosaur infested part of Earth’s distant past.

Good times.

The point I’m getting to here is that imagination and stories are important for science because they show us other worlds we’d like to explore.

But what about our own worlds and stories? As I’ve mentioned I spent a lot of my childhood immersed in imagination. If I couldn’t find someone else’s world….I’d provide my own.

I harp on about these other worlds, because the ability to imagine leads to the ability to ask questions. It enables you to speculate. It enables you to perform thought experiments..

Imagined scenario:

An international mission to the outer solar system; the culmination of countless thousands of hours of diplomacy, frustration and determination finally reaches it’s goal.

A lone robotic probe has inserted itself into orbit over Europa. This moon has had the hearts of astrobiologists beating faster for a long time now. They’ve been curious about a global ocean ten times deeper than our own, lying beneath a cracked ghostly shell of ice. Oh yes, Europa could be the culmination of so many dreams..

The probe has been asleep on it’s long journey, stirring occasionally in the deep night to whisper to it’s masters. Digital murmours head home across a solar system filled with shrieks and moans: electromagnetic noise emitted by the planets themselves.

Who knows what the planets are saying?

The probe doesn’t care. It’s staring down at it’s new home. It fusses and frets, seperating and sending a lander down.

Vast sheets of rusty ice buckle and shift. The slumbering moon rolls in its sleep and a geyser of salty water erupts, pelting the lander with ocean spray as it prepares to land. Sensors coating  the probe’s metallic hide taste the spray, sampling the alien cocktail for signs of life….

The moon is permanently encrusted in a shell of ice several kilometres thick. Below lies a deep salty ocean, warmed by constant tidal squeezing from Jupiter. This causes friction and tectonic stresses that render this moon a place of interest.

The probe takes a look around. The sky is eternally dark, and Europa is beholden to mighty Jupiter, which rolls and boils slowly across the night. Excited chatter from home has the probe going straight to work. Sophisticated AI takes over. Arms and legs extend and the probe stands. The days of ugly little rovers belong to antiquity now. Now a tall humanoid drone stumbles across endless Europan permafrost. Shattered ridges of glacial ice reach into the frozen sky like broken continental plates.

The drone walks. The drone sees. It picks up handfuls of snow. Sensors and chemical testing labs are woven throughout it’s frame; the very best nanotech taxpayer and corporate money can buy. The drone tastes the snow with it’s hands, looking for life. It’s masters believe it to be here.

Powder gently falls from the sky, leaving pock marks in the dark snow. There are organic molecules and precursors to life here. The drone tastes them. It looks for openings in the moons icy shell. If it can find a fissure it will climb down, until it reaches the watery underworld. Then, it  will swim, exploring a place that up until now has only been a dream.

Then, it finds something unexpected.

A metallic gleam in loose shards of icy ejecta catch the drone’s eye…

The drone bends down and tastes tarnished copper. What is this?

The drone is not prepared for this.

It is programmed for the chaos of the real world: a state of the art descendant of  the old survey/search and rescue bots. Protocol kicks in, and the drone dutifully sends images to it’s masters…

The machine is patient-as is it’s wont. It continues to explore the ice canyons and expanses of rusted ice. Life is here. The drone’s masters believe this fervently. Onboard mettalurgical analysis by the drone is now being carefully studied back home.

Back home the drone is all but forgotten. All attention is on the artifact it has found. Dutifully the drone sends back reams of data. Most of it is of incredible scientific value, but outside Mission Control no one is really noticing.

Instead, the world’s eyes are on a piece of the ancient world. Rome, to be exact. A speartip, broken away from it’s wooden haft, and buried in alien ice, 628 million kilometres from the Eternal City.

How did it get there?

Comet 67P and Rosetta: a tribute

Comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko, or just plain 67P has been a bit of a superstar ever since the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Probe fell into orbit around it in August, 2014. 

On September 30, the probe will end two years of solid science with a programmed death dive into the head of the comet. This isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds; 67P’s gravity is several hundred thousand times less than that of Earth. Rosetta will gently tumble at breakneck speeds of 90cm a second. In fact, on hitting 67P’s gnarly terrain Rosetta may bounce off, careening back into space for future space travellers to find and ponder over.

67P has seen it’s share of drama. On contact with the comet. Rosetta will join the Philae Lander, which unfortunately was given up for dead two days after landing. This was due to an awkward landing on the comet’s uneven surface which saw the lander wedged in a sunless crevasse. 

But Rosetta has actually been quite sucessful; both in terms of technical achievement and in new discoveries. In situ discovery of complex organic molecules further cements the possibility that comets may seed the universe with the precursors of life.

67P is believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, an ancient cloud of dust and matter hailing from the primordial Solar System. The significance of organic compounds on 67P (or any similar body for that matter is this: their presence may indicate that life precursors may have existed in the primordial cloud from which the Solar System formed.


This is exciting for astrobiologists no doubt, and we look forward to more sciencey goodness. In the context of near earth like planets being discovered all the time studying these findings may be important to humanity’s future among the stars. It’s been a fun ride, Rosetta, and every image, every discovery has shone a little more light on our universe.