Some New Directions

scicomm

Hey all. I’m finally excited about something for the first time in awhile. I recently received a tablet from my LOVELY wife. It’s a Wacom Intuos Pro. I have been wanting an art tablet for years now. I had one once, but it was a slow, crappy little thing on slow crappy little computers. This one is a bit more high end.

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The best present ever. Creativity.

This thing has opened up creaking doors in my brain, which I thought had fused shut. It’s even been helping me in a therapeutic sense. I have had some pretty dark years recently, and they have taken their toll. This tablet has enabled my mind to properly elucidate and crystallise several things which have been weighing me down…

alien

I’ve always loved cartooning, and this guy, whilst new, brought back some memories…

Sometimes art can give a form to nameless and shapeless fears. It can help you contain and control them, by capturing them on paper (so to speak)…

lonely boy

Innocence lost…

monster2

A nameless monster..

This tablet is already hard at work, helping me with my next video, which takes a look at how a quaint little engine from the nineteenth century could help us take a real look at the surface of Venus!

Lots of things sloshing around in my head! The video is shaping up to be a lot of fun! I hope you can check it out when it’s up! I will start putting up artwork as it comes. Here’s the thumbnail for the video..What do you think?venus video thumbnail

Find me on my facebook group, where astrobiology is the name of the game!

https://www.facebook.com/groups/AstroB/

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Exploring Titan: a Channel Update

astrobiology, scicomm, Science fun, solar system, Uncategorized

My tiny little channel lives! I’m almost at 200 subscribers.

UPDATE: 3rd APRIL 2018

200 Subscribers!

Back to the post.

That is peanuts, but it tells me this channel is definitely trending on an upward trajectory. My most recent video “A Brief History of Astrobiology” is doing well (hint, check it out!)

Watch it for an irreverant look at astrobiology over the ages.

My next one will take a closer look at Titan through the imaginary eyes of its discoverer; Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch astronomer who spied this mysterious moon in 1655. I plan on taking Huygens there for a grand tour. He may even meet his namesake!

huygens_astronaut

What would a 17th century stargazer think upon seeing his high tech namesake, at rest on a frozen plain on Titan?

The tale of Huygens incredible discovery, as well as his amazing mind is worth a single video, and so that’s exactly what this new one is, the story of the exploration of Titan, from 1655 up until some imaginary mission sometime in the late 2020s, when a drone flies through the thick soupy atmosphere of this exotic moon. Maybe (just maybe) a submarine will explore the methane seas that dot the moons northern expanses. I personally can’t wait for both to happen.

Titan boasts liquid hydrocarbon lakes at its north pole

This would be quite a view.

Here are a few screen shots from the upcoming video:

titan drone flight.00_04_24_12.Still005

A drones eye view of titan, seen through a veil of organic haze and interference.

titan drone flight.00_02_49_16.Still004

The drone takes wing, dropped into the atmosphere of Titan. One of the mysterious methane seas can be just discerned through the haze coating the landscape.

titan drone flight.00_05_00_11.Still006

A night time flight over a methane lake. Beneath the frigid surface a small submarine drone looks for signs of methane based aquatic life.

I’m super excited about this one, and I am sure it’s going to be a lot of fun. Stay tuned!

Ben.

Wolf-Rayet: The Day The Bubble Burst

scicomm

It’s a story that began 20000 years ago, and has been waiting for you. Like something out of a “Star Trek” episode. The vista before you hangs in the black like a portal into the fiery underbelly of all that’s good in the Universe.

WR-124. Like a passage leading into the flaming maw of Hades itself.. Image: ESA/Hubble and NASA

“Star Trek” You remember it now. The Battle of Wolf-359. It was a classic episode, in which a tattered human military force took on a vastly superior foe: the Borg. These creatures were bloodless and implacable. Truly unsettling bad guys.
This monster is just as unsettling. Wolf-Rayet-124 is real. It’s huge. You’ve come a long way to encounter it. A small fleet of drone-sats has been dispatched to get up close and personal with this Wolf-Rayet star, to see how extreme extreme sports can get.

As soon as humans got comfortable in space and started calling all kinds of dark corners and odd rocks home they were up to their usual mischief. As soon as all the laws were decreed and the soapboxes were all put away, humans got back to the serious business of finding new and bizarre ways to enjoy themselves.

To Hell with that.


Space tourism didn’t become big business. It became exponentially big business. Extreme sports fans weren’t interested in scuba diving with great white sharks anymore, or parachuting.
Ha! You recall the stories. The One-G-ers were those quaint old extreme sportsters who couldn’t let go of old mother earth. Most of them were toothless and half nuts decades ago, but they still harped on about climbing Mount Everest or wrestling crocodiles.

You look upon Wolf-124, blazing with a luminosity several million times greater than Earths sun back home. Wolf-124 is huge. How huge? These kinds of stars are rare. Of the millions of stars known to humanity only around 500 Wolf-Rayet stars are known to exist in this galaxy.

Wolf-Rayet stars are thought to be the powerhouses driving many planetary nebula or stellar nurseries. How does this work?

Your little drone sats are tasting the cloud of ionised gas and interstellar gunk that swirls around the star. This cloud is nearly 6 light years across; a dusty miasma flung outwards by the intense solar winds radiating from the star within. From your vantage point out here, looking down into this slow maelstrom you see chunks of the star heading outward. Earth sized pieces of WR-124 soar through the cloud like the volcanic rage of a demon tearing itself apart.

You write that last line down. The tourists will love it.

Sometime around 20000 years ago, when human beings were first discovering Europe WR-124 began tearing itself apart. Scientists never really ascertained why, but it’s made for some great observations over the years. Tourists will love this. You got here first, to set up the first fleet of solar sailing yachts. The winds from the star crack along at 1600 km per second, fast enough to twist the most iron stomachs.

These stars have unusual emission spectra. Many of the space tourists won’t care what this is, but there’s always someone in every group who just has to understand what they’re leaping into. Fair enough. What it means is that like any other star a Wolf-Rayet star burns up fuel. Our star, a relatively youthful star somewhere near middle age, is still burning hydrogen via the process of stellar fusion. As a star ages it’s supply of hydrogen becomes depleted, and it must burn heavier elements in order to survive.Wolf-Rayet stars are often seen to have high levels of quite heavy elements or “metals” such as carbon or nitrogen in their upper atmosphere. This is due to nearly complete depletion of hydrogen fuel so as a result heavier elements are being used up.

What does this have to do with spectra?  Well, as elements transition from higher to lower energy states, ie when they’re being burned up inside a star, photons of particular wavelenghts are given off. It’s possible to tell just by analysing the wavelengths of light radiating from a star (it’s emmision spectra) what’s going on in and immediately around the star. This is why scientists know WR stars are old, and what they’re burning off in place of hydrogen. It’s also the reason they can infer the presence of extreme solar winds. The luminosity and heat given off by a WR star is extreme. At it’s surface a WR star can reach temperatures of between 30000 and 200000 Kelvin; hotter by far than most other stars. Such radiative pressure literally manifests as a “wind”, with the abilty to exert pressure on objects, such as solar sails!

Sailing the Big Empty. Image: Andrzej Mirecki


Most of the drone sats are keeping a safe distance from WR-124. This might just be an imaginary blog post, but you have imaginary operating costs, you know?

So you’ve staked your claim here. Now, all that’s left to do is wait for the money to fly in!

Still, you’re thinking of your next venture. There’s an exoplanet out there somewhere: HD 189733B where it rains glass! Now that sounds like fun…..

While you’re here, join me on the AstroBiological YouTube channel. I’m hard at work sprucing it up. What do you think of this intro sequence?

One last thing! 

Hop onto WeCreateEdu: an online community for educational you tubers. There is a galaxy of stuff to learn and explore here. Very much worth a look:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaSBVqfz2RjL3lBC3DX4aSw
Small YouTube channels are feeling the squeeze from some draconian new measures by Google which effectively punish small creators and make it almost impossible to gain traction. Some thoughts on the matter from a fellow YouTuber. 

16 Psyche

astrobiology, astronomy, scicomm, solar system

My newest video features the bizarre metal asteroid 16 Psyche. This improbable chunk of iron and nickel may one day be mined, yielding metals worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars! No, that figure doesn’t seem real to me either.

Here is the transcript for said episode. I had some fun experimenting with effects for this episode, and I think it works well!

“G’day metal heads!

Do you think you’re rough and tough?

Do you believe you’re made of metal?

hah!

See if you can outmetal THIS monster! A ball of metal mayhem 200 km across! Let’s go check out 16 Psyche!!!

Long long ago, in a molecular cloud not so far away….

The Solar System: Episode 1

It is a time of turmoil in the newly formed solar system. Planets, moons and other heavenly bodies have coalesced from the primordial cloud. As larger bodies fall into orbit around a blazing new sun, smaller worlds are caught up in a system wide spree of destruction known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.

It is a perilous time for a planetesimal or moon, and many smaller planets are destroyed in the cataclysm.

A lone youtuber known as Ben has ventured out into the Big Empty, to visit the long dead core of one such world. Upon reaching it, he sends in a gallant drone to investigate….

Yes Sir! Here we are. Welcome to 16 Psyche. An oddball world really. This place is special for a few reasons.

Discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, 16 Psyche was named after Psyche, a figure from ancient Greek mythology. The word itself means “Soul”.

16 Psyche is pretty big: a ball of metal over 200 km in diameter! It’s almost entirely nickel and iron to be more precise, although about 10 percent of its surface is strewn with silicate rock much as you’d find here on good old earth.

So this ball of tinfoil from hell comprises nearly one per cent of the mass within the asteroid belt where it lives. It actually lies roughly halfway between Jupiter and Mars, about 3.3 AU from the sun.

What’s an AU?

AU is a very common astronomical term. It means “astronomical unit’. 1 astronomical unit is defined as the distance between Earth and the Sun. This is about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometres. At 3.3 AU this means 16 Psyche lies some  308 million kilometres from the Sun.

Wanna know what’s really special about this metal asteroid?

Two things.

First of all, 16 Psyche is extremely valuable. All of that iron and nickel within has been valued at over 10000 quadrillion dollars!

Obviously that means a lot of folks would love to mine it for all that metal.  A whole bunch of companies have sprung up in the last few years, looking to cash in on asteroids: the next big thing!

Personally, I don’t care about all that. You wanna know what’s really cool about 16 Psyche?

It’s the exposed core of a long dead protoplanet; the remains of a tiny world maybe 500 km in diameter. This tiny planetoid took a beating during the Late Heavy Bombardment, some 4 billion years ago. In fact, this nameless world may have been impacted by other large bodies up to 8 times. This pounding shattered the outer crust, sending scattered fragments out into the newly forming asteroid belt and leaving behind an exposed core. Scientists would love to study 16 Psyche, because it can teach us a lot about planet formation and how planets work- including our own.

Just look at it!  Imagine walking on the core of a planet. 16 Psyche gives us an opportunity to see into our own world in a way. It’s like a time capsule: a snapshot of a newly forming planet, frozen in time for ever.

This is the real value of 16 Psyche, this frozen soul. Let’s take one last look and imagine actually being there….

Outro!

I hope you’ve enjoyed watching this episode. It was super fun to make, and if you got something out of it, then subscribe to this channel for more. Join the astrobiological Facebook group, find me on Twitter. Links in the description.

AstroBiological: giving you the universe in plain human. See you next time!”

Making videos on your phone. 

scicomm

A few months ago I was watching a YouTube video which steered me towards the topic of this post. I am a (very small time) youtuber myself, and spend a lot of time looking for ways to tweak my content and make it more polished. The YouTube video mentioned above was made using screen capture software and the simulation package Universe Sandbox. The video featured all kinds of hypothetical scenarios being imagined and allowed to play out within the simulation. For example, the questions were asked: what if Saturn was moved closer to the sun? What if Earth passed through its rings on this inward journey? What if Saturn and Jupiter made a close approach to each other?

It was fascinating to watch. Simulating actual physics and real world parameters you could see what actually could happen if such scenarios actually took place. It got me thinking about my own video content, and about these simulation software packages. I of course had to get my hands on some!

Currently I am producing videos using both my laptop and my smartphone. In this post I will focus on the capabilities of a smartphone to produce videos about outer space.

Animations for this video were produced entirely on my smart phone, using several apps available on Google Play. My phone is an Android device, but I’m assuming there are equivalents over at the enemy camp.

First off, these apps are great educational tools. Perhaps where they are the most effective is getting people to explore from the palm of their hand. In this device obsessed era this is a big deal and also a drawcard for the digit generation. This video explores some mobile apps I’ve been using for my YouTube channel. It’s really amazing what you can do with amazing most nothing! I’ll also include a video about Uranus. All of the planetary animations came from mobile apps. 

The Uranus video:

Here is another earlier video briefly introducing the moons of Mars…

And in this one I discuss Enceladus and some promising signs of habitability there:

These videos were extremely easy to make and perhaps the point of this post is that anyone can communicate something they care about. Enjoy! 

Goldilocks and the Three Planets

scicomm

Hi all. It’s been a while I’m ashamed to admit. I’ve been working on a new Facebook group to raise the profile of my channel. It’s been fun. Here is the link (hint: join the group!)
Here is my newest video. A basic breakdown of what exactly the Goldilocks (or circumstellar habitable) zone is, and it’s importance to life on Earth. If you like the channel please subscribe!

I’ve also provided the script/transcript for my upcoming episode of “Astro-Biological:”, which introduces us to the concept of the Goldilocks Zone….

G’day! Welcome to Astro-biological:!

Porridge!

Life.

Porridge!

Life!

Ben what the heck are you talking about? What’s the connection?

 Let’s go check out THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE!!!!

INTRO BIT

Life, as I like to remind you, is really special. Here on earth, life exists only because certain conditions are met. Today, we’ll consider water. Everything needs it, but it only exists as a liquid at the surface here on Earth. 

So? Big deal right?

Well it is actually!

Check out the sun. Giver of life! Driver of climate! Pumping out some pretty respectable energy. How much?

384.6 yottawatts.

Yotta whatta?

1 yottawatt equals 10 with 26 zeroes after it!

Brutal! And the sun is a pretty average star! Nothing special about it!So there’s plenty of sunlight for everyone!

Could other planets benefit from the sun’s golden goodness the way we do? Let’s take a look at the inner planets. They’re the only ones that really matter in all this…

Let’s see…Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The rocky planets. The so called “Terrestrial Planets”. 

Mercury is 58 million kilometres from the sun. That’s really close. This close proximity has turned Mercury’s surface into an oven, where liquid water couldn’t possibly last.

Let’s visit the next in line: Venus. Venus is similar to Earth in composition, gravity and size. Long ago Venus might have had oceans just like Earth, but again the planets closeness to the sun and other factors saw all that water disappear into space. Venus is now the hottest place in the solar system. Definitely no liquid water there anymore!

Wanna know more about what happened to Earth’s twin? This guy I know made a video! 

Earth! Beautiful Earth. Our home. Every thing’s home actually. Eighty per cent of earth’s surface is covered by liquid water. There’s so much spare water here that our bodies are mostly made up of it! It’s absolutely everywhere, even locked up deep in the earth’s crust! Enough of earth. We’ve all been there.

Next planet out:

Mars. The cool planet. Every one wants to go here. Pity it’s so cold! Liquid water may exist here in tiny amounts, but most of the red planet’s water is locked up as ice or permafrost just below it’s surface. Plenty there for future colonists to use, but nothing readily available for biological processes. Pity. It’s a beautiful planet. Just ask Matt Damon!

So what is the Goldilocks Zone then?

Here’s the inner solar system. Mercury, Venus,  Earth and Mars. Let’s visit a special guest who can explain the Goldilocks Zone for us…

Chef Ben bit. (Watch the video when it’s up!)

Nice work Chef! So, if Earth was a bowl of porridge it would be the one Goldilocks ate: the one that was just right! it’s that simple! Earth is lucky enough to be at the perfect distance from the sun, where water likes to slosh around in liquid form. Things would be a lot different here if that wasn’t the case. 

So that’s it for now! A simple but important piece of information. The Goldilocks Zone!

How am I going so far?

If you thought I was alright, then subscribe for more. If you thought this video was useful to you, then give it a like! Likes help this channel get noticed. That little notifications bell is just the thing if you want to see more. Go on. You know you want to.

Thanks for watching astrobiological. Giving you the universe in plain human. Ciao!

Europa: Life Beneath the Ice?

astrobiology, astronomy, Biology, Biomolecules, scicomm, solar system

The Chicken and the Egg

 

There’s an old theory known as Panspermia,  which hypothesises that life got its initial leg up on Earth (around 4-3.5 billion years ago) after a long journey across space. According to this theory, (which at the very least is quite reasonable) the ingredients and precursor molecules for life hitched a ride on comets and asteroids and reached earth early in its history, when these objects impacted our planet. As for where these molecules and ingredients came from…well, that is a real chicken and the egg type question, and one I will be exploring in more detail in future posts as well as videos.

Not all astrobiologists agree with this of course. Each to their own. Science and seeking the truth is all about disagreement. I’ll leave the debate alone and for the purpose of this post assume that Panspermia is a pretty valid idea.

Screenshot_2017-09-11-12-58-26-1

You said it Neil. Funny thing is, look at all the people agreeing with him. Kinda ironic?

 

This post (and the YouTube video it will eventually give birth too) is essentially a piece of speculation. Looking into the future of space exploration, what is waiting for us out there?

Europa has been the hearts desire of many an astrobiologist for decades now. Ever since the Pioneer 10  probe rushed past back in 1973 and sent back the first pictures it’s been a bit of a rock star. Why? Because it ticks a whole lot of boxes on the “Things could live here because…” checklist.

Things could live here because….

Let’s look at some of those boxes. And why they’re important. First of all:

1: Europa is  now widely believed to harbour a substantial subsurface ocean: of actual honest to gosh water. How have we come to this conclusion?

Take a look at the surface of Europa.

It sure is striking. Huge channels and streaks criss cross the moons frozen exterior.

And that’s about it.

No craters? Callisto is part of the Jovian family as well, and is the most heavily cratered  object in the solar system. Compared to Europa Callisto is a teenager with weapons grade acne.

Like an explosion in a pizza factory.

Europas surface is geologically new, having been resurfaced recently (in geological terms). Something is wiping the slate clean on Europa, and this is our first clue that Europa is special. Something under that icy shell is acting upon the surface and rearranging it.

Astrobiologists think it’s water. A lot of it. Europas surface is basically a shell of ice, rafting and fracturing like pack ice on Earth. Essentially vast swathes of pack ice remodel the Europan landscape and are thought to be it’s version of our plate tectonics.

 

2: Some time ago, none other than the venerable Charles Darwin postulated that life began in a “warm little pond”, whereby the right combination of mineral salts and energy resulted in the first biomolecules. Ever since this first speculation, forwarded in a private letter from Darwin to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1871, science has placed an emphasis on water as the likeliest birthplace of life on Earth. Darwin believed in a warm little pool, many other theories have thought bigger, fingering the ocean as the culprit. Whatever the case may be, and whatever supporting evidence gives testament to it, water (for now) is the one thing no life can exist without.

And Europa has a lot of it. The deepest point on our planet lies at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, some 12 kilometres below sea level. That is deep to be sure, but the abyssal plains of the world’s oceans are on average about 4 kilometres beneath the waves. Europas subsurface ocean averages a cold dark 62 kilometres deep!

Where do the minerals fit into this? Patience, grasshopper!

Jupiter pumps out extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation. This is, of course, a constant engineering hurdle for the various missions that have paid the gas giant a visit. It’s extensive family of moons: some 67 in total are constantly immersed in this field, which interacts with various bodies in various ways. Europas magnetic field is no different,  and is an induced magnetic field.  This is a special kind of magnetic field produced when an electromagnetic field is passed through some kind of conductive material. In the case of Europa this material is believed to be an ocean, brimming with conductive mineral salts. Such an ocean would be a vast salty brew, fulfilling Darwin’s vision somewhat.

Europa-magnetic-field.jpg

Europa’s magnetic field changes in relation to it’s position within Jupiter’s magnetic field, indicating it isn’t generated by the moon itself, but is induced by Jupiter.

What of Darwin’s energy source? To understand this a little more, and to see what it means for Europa, we need to understand that all life requires an energy source. On Earth, the vast majority of life is solar powered. What does this mean? You can’t just go outside and photosynthesise! You need to go to the fridge and get a snack. Food keeps you going, right?

Absolutely. But where did that food come from? Whether  you’re a vegetarian or a carnivore, ultimately every single thing in that fridge of yours exists because of the sun. Either it grew from the ground, something came along and ate it, or something bigger came along and ate that something. The sun is at the base of this very simplified food web, and it’s been doing it forever of course.

No solar power is not some fandangled idea. Renewable energy has been around, well, since before life began. The sun provides energy not only for Earth’s climate and hydrological cycle, it also fuels all photosynthesis on Earth. Plant life not only provides food and oxygen for animal and fungal life, it also contributes to climatic processes.  Yes, the Sun is really important.

Ah, you think, how does any of this relate to Europa? The frozen moon is a bit further out from the sun than warm little earth, at about 485 million kilometres. Not much use for solar power out there! Well it turns out that not all life on Earth is completely dependent on the Sun after all.

Enter the hydrothermal vents.

These are exciting and mysterious places, home to a bewildering and diverse array of lifeforms. They are found where life seemingly has no business existing, and yet there they are: on the vast abyssal plains of the ocean floor. Miles away from any sunlight, subjected to pressures and extremes that would kill us instantly life thrives in a hostile alien world.

Champagne_vent_white_smokers

A white smoker, situated at the Champagne Vent in the Marianas Trench, Pacific Ocean. Image: NOAA

These ecosystems are based not on photosynthesis, whereby sunlight is converted into a food source for plants, but chemosynthesis. Down here life has found a way, to steal a phrase from “Jurassic Park”. Literally, bacteria have evolved to survive at the hellish temperatures and pressures around these hydrothermal  vents, where the water can reach temperatures of over 350 degrees Celsius. With nothing but a rich mineral brew spewing from these vents out onto the ocean floor, these bacteria have learnt to make use of this brew. These bacteria then form the basis for some of the most intriguing ecosystems on the planet. These vents are an oasis of life, all alone in the abyssal night.

life-on-europa

Concept art showing the possible structure beneath the ice. Image: NASA/JPL

Does Europa have the capacity for such vents, far beneath the ice? On Earth, the vents are geothermally heated. Earth posesses a core of molten iron, heated by slow radioactive decay of elements from the formation of the planet 4.6 billion years ago. This internal heat eventually reaches the upper mantle of the planet, seeping through in more threadbare regions of the Earth’s crust,  Europa is heated by Jupiter itself. As the moon orbits the gas giant, tidal forces act upon it, squeezing and massaging. Resulting frictional forces are believed to sustain a heated core, which, just like earth, could provide energy to keep systems of hydrothermal vents running on the abyssal plains of Europa.

So. Europa may tick some really important boxes, for the existence of life. Water: definitely check. Minerals and organic compounds: check. A source of heat, to power possible life: check.

Now the only thing for it is to visit; to get through the icy shell to the ocean beneath….

To be continued….

Next post takes a ride beneath the ice.

17th November 2017:

And here is the video for which this post formed the script:

 

Further Reading and Resources

http://geology.com/stories/13/life-on-europa/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia

http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=83497&tid=7842&cid=70453

View at Medium.com

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtomics/did-life-evolve-in-a-warm-little-pond/

http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/212_spring_2015/Amir_Raz/amir_raz/Magnetic.htm

https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/hunting-the-building-blocks-of-alien-life?utm_content=bufferc7d0e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

Astro-biological: The living universe 

scicomm

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: 

#Astrobiology

scicomm

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

C.S.I. : #Ceres

scicomm

 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

10 Things That Happen To An Exposed Human In Space

Incredible footage of a NASA test subject being exposed to a space-like vacuum