Wednesday, July 08, 2015

It’s ALIVE! And it’s in Outer Spaaaace!

Excitement is building for the New Horizons Mission and its hurried swing past Pluto on July 14.  What a terrific way to celebrate Bastille Day!  Watch this terrific video - Fast and Light to Pluto - about New Horizons, created by the NY Times.

I met Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh when I was 15...

Spread the word about this!  Grab lapels and shout at your co-workers. Get neighborhood kids to watch the encounter on SCI or  NASA TV... and remind them to then stand up, remembering they are members of a civilization that does stuff like this! 

Those of our fellow citizens who cannot feel even a little thrill and pride? Alas, pity such impoverished souls.

And see how the IAU and the New Horizons mission team will come up with names for all the great new features the mission will (we hope) reveal. 

Okay, so there's rough news from space, as well... the latest SpaceX launch failed.  With the take home lesson that space is hard. Hang in there, Elon. If failures didn't happen, it would be a sure-fire clue that we aren't pushing hard enough.

Still, there hasn't been a time like this one -- in humanity's exploration of the universe -- since the early seventies.  Daily, you are being yammered-at by dour cynicism addicts of all kinds -- especially of the "left" and of the "right" -- but pay them no attention.  

Dare. Dare to feel some pride.  

== It's aliiiiive! Sinkholes and “signs of life” on comet 67/P ? 

surface of comet 67P 
The ESA's Philae lander is alive!  Moreover, beaming science from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,  I was at first surprised, since the increased sunshine that roused it back to wakefulness is also making the comet active, with sublimating ice turning into expanding vapor, blowing off dust. In fact, given the comet’s minuscule gravity, I thought the lander might have been - at this point -- also blown tumbling into space. 

Though, now that I think on it, what seemed bad luck, back in November, might instead be fortunate!  According to my doctoral dissertation (1981) activity will wildly vary across a comet's surface, because of accumulated dust layers -- which helps explain 67-P's wildly varied surface features.  (See a blatant sea of dust in the accompanying photo.) This suggests that Philae bounced and plopped into a shaded region where activity is low… and may remain low enough for the little probe to stay put during perihelion passage.  If so, then we may have a monitoring station during that exciting phase.

In fact, fascinating news keeps coming. Like that collapsing sinkholes may be responsible for 200 meter-deep pits on comet 67Cameras on Rosetta's OSIRIS instrument have spotted dust jets shooting out of some of the deeper depressions, but those that are more shallow do not seem to be active.

  Scientists “wondered if the pits might have formed as a result of the melting of frozen materials on the comet's surface, also known as sublimation, but computer models nixed this idea as well.  The researchers say that excavating just one of the pits this way would take more than 7,000 years. Although the comet likely formed 4.5 billion years ago, it has only been flying close enough to the sun for sublimation to occur since 1959, when a close encounter with Jupiter changed its orbit.”

Hmm. well, in fact I have an idea about that. And it relates to the other comet-related "news" that media have been raving about.  Chandra Wickramasinghe is a remnant colleague of iconoclast astronomer and sometime science fiction author Fred Hoyle. Chandra does some solid science... but also relentlessly pushes Hoyle's notion of life burgeoning in interplanetary space. “He and colleague Dr Max Wallis, from the University of Cardiff, believe 67P and other comets like it could provide homes for living microbes similar to the “extremophiles” that inhabit the most inhospitable regions of the Earth. Comets may have helped to sow the seeds of life on Earth and possibly other planets such as Mars, they argue.” 

They suggest that the comet's black hydrocarbon crust, subsurface ice, flat-bottomed craters, and smooth, icy “seas”—are the result of microbial organisms living beneath the comet’s icy surface. (Alas, their credibility has been self-injured by some cult-like ways their Panspermia Zealot followers have behaved, especially at the tendentiously unscientific so-called "Journal of Cosmology.")
To be clear, I have no problem at all with pondering a possibility -- that comets may have been reactor vessels that cooked up the original primordial life-stuff.  There was a period in the early solar system when decaying Aluminum 26 from a recent supernova might have internally heated comets in our newly formed solar system, enough to give them liquid interiors protected by ice-cold shells. Think a trillion micro-Europas. That would be one hell of a lot of test tubes and petri dishes! (A possibility elucidated both in my thesis and in a novel Heart of the Comet.)

Indeed, might this account for the "sink-holes" that the Rosetta Probe seems to have found, at comet 67/P? I’ve not yet seen anyone propose that super-ancient vacuoles and chambers thread cometary interiors, left over from those early, liquidy days – a physical possibility, whether or not organic chemistry produced “life.”

On the other hand, Wickramasinghe (as usual) reaches way too far. The dark, quasi-organic dust seen by Philae and Rosetta is far simpler to explain -- as simply the same stuff as we already observe in carbonaceous chondrites. Please, we get plenty of dustfall from old comets and so far, evidence for actual microbes is scant. I lean toward lots of early-days organic chemistry. But existing and active organisms? Meh.

Okay, okay. Clearly I still care about this scientific field… because it’s fascinating!  

Do I miss being a world-class comet guy, who might have been sitting right now in Darmstadt, poring over data as it comes in?  Well… sure.  You guys are to blame. Bribing me to play hookie, living off speculative blather and SciFi. Yeah, that's the ticket. It's your fault.  Sigh.

== And there's more! ==

Like the continuing stunning effectiveness of our two robot labs on the surface of Mars and four orbiting overhead. Want coolness?  Here are images these emissary labs (paid for with pennies each from you taxpayers) took of Comet Siding Spring as it passed by Mars last year, inside the orbit of Phobos!  (Picture a comet passing Earth at just 1/3 the distance to the Moon. I am so jealous.) we celebrate the Opportunity rover's completion of a "marathon" having traveled 26.2 miles across the Martian surface on our behalf, doing great science all the way, having lasted more than a decade longer than the originally planned 90 day mission. Watch this terrific video showing a time lapse of Opportunity's journey. (Oh and I served on the commission that chose the names "Spirit" and "Opportunity" proposed by one of several thousand school children.) Be proud of your loyal robots!

And NASA has put money into a Europa mission.  Science instruments have just been selected -- to analyze the surface and subsurface ocean of Jupiter's icy moon -- and look for possible clues to life.

Wow.  Uttergloss!  A video animation: Fly-over the dwarf planet Ceres, based on images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, provides dramatic views of this heavily cratered, mysterious world. Note: YOUR civilization did this.  Just part of the best year in space exploration since the 1970s.

Oh, and we just finished a fabulous orbiter mission to Mercury. And we still have marvelous Cassini, near Saturn and Titan...

Here are some of the latest pics of geological features taken by the DAWN probe, at Ceres. Oh, but there’s no end to fun with “bright patches” (that might be salt, rather than water ice. And now...a 5-mile tall “pyramid” mountain. Take this flyover video! We are SO getting our money’s worth. 

Shall we finish with some cool space miscellany? How about a look at some of the space habitats portrayed in science fiction, from Deep Space 9 to Elysium….are they plausible?

Phil Plait offers up a little allegory about an asteroid heading toward the Earth, and how easy it might be to save ourselves, if not for mistrust of science itself.  And here's hoping you all enjoyed Asteroid Day and decided to support the B612 Foundation!

Did I say we live in fascinating times? It's our mission. We are rising out of kindergarten, at last. Growing up means we're behooved to take more responsibility, for each other and the planet our descendants will inherit.  But it also means recognizing there's a lot more to do, beyond the nursery walls.

Spread the excitement.  And happy Bastille Day.  Allons enfants de la univers...


Anonymous said...

The pyramid on Ceres is a temple of the Old Gods, waiting for our solar system to slide back into the Dark Matter fields of the Ancient Ones. Then, "when the stars are right" and the exotic matter of the Old God's bodies can again manifest in our plane. The Stone Age reptilian peoples and the rest of the sauroids were easily caught by the tentacles of the Many Angled Ones before they were forced back into slumber as Sol retreated from the Darkness. They came back during the reign of the aquatic civilization of the Cetaceans of Atlantis, what we no know as the Eocene-Oligocene extinction event. Whales still sing of the wars fought by their ancestors to push the evil back into It's hyper-spiral shells before Atlantis finally fell.

In deathlike sleep the Elder Gods wait again for the proper galactic alignments to awake. Their dreams are filled with hunger for organic minds. Lets hope the whales still remember the circuitry and spells capable of driving them back. -AZM

Alfred Differ said...

Those large scale terrain patches on Pluto remind me of Miranda... but with color.

David Brin said...

Anonymous... really? Um, well... I would have been dubious. Except that it's you. In which case... panic!

Paul SB said...

I think our buddy AZM is going for the Cthulu/Nyarlothotep ticket next year...

I noticed that the flyover of Ceres gave an impression of a much higher crater density in the northern hemisphere than the southern. Any speculations? Is it just chance, or could there be a deposit of something very heavy in the north that increases the odds of impactors being attracted to that region?

Dr. Brin, it's summertime, and I was wondering if you were planning on doing a movie-related thread in the near future. I enjoyed your discussions before, even when you eviscerated the movie you were critiquing. In no case was I able to participate much as I haven't been able to see a lot of movies that were not kids flicks for the past 16 years, though your discussion of the Lego Movie convinced me to check it out. My son loved it, and with his condition it is hard to get him to try different things. I would love to hear what insights you (and other folks here) have of some of the recent theater fare, especially Inside Out, as I'm a bit of a brain nut. It was pleasantly surprising to see a mainstream movie studio make a movie about a brain, especially a kid's movie, and one that got a lot of things right that run counter to common misconceptions.

David Brin said...

Alas Paul, We don't go to cinema much and mostly wait for flicks... except for those that demand a big screen. Hence we did see Jurassic World. Enjoyed it as pure popcorn... without having to use even a single neuron. It contained no thoughts, only color, noise and teeth.

I am among the few who thought Ex Machina was total drek. This utter-slavish remake of Frankenstein cheated us by leaving out angry villagers with torches. Its pretense at intellect was faux and superficial.

Beyond that, it seems the action is with sci fi TV series. Of which I have never seen so many! Halle Berry's EXTANT stands out.

John Kurman said...

The Solar System sure looks to belong to robots. My taxpayer pennies, you say? I would donate $3 right now for more of them out there.

Alfred Differ said...

Double that and go buy a SpaceX engineer a beer or something. They are the type of people who will get us out there.

Pick a different team if none of them are local enough to you. 8)

Alex Tolley said...

P Z Myers on the life in the comet story.
They had me going for a moment

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin, please do not underestimate your direct contributions to science you have made even though you left research to write science fiction. Your works have inspired more than a generation of young and not so young readers to think deeply about science and the future. Your visions provoked ideas of new ways of integrating the advances in science we see today into our everyday lives. The literature you write is not only entertaining and delightful but also highly educating, something that is rare in science fiction today with its endless string of dreary dystopian universes. Your message that civilization is hard to kill, bounces back from disasters and adapts to new conditions encourages hope for the future and inspires confidence that the Human Race can prevail. You are a key player in the new world Dr. Brin.

Paul451 said...

"Lets hope the whales still remember the circuitry and spells capable of driving them back."

And people wonder why the humpback sings.

Paul SB,
"I think our buddy AZM is going for the Cthulu/Nyarlothotep ticket next year..."

"Why vote for the lesser of two evils?"

Paul SB said...

Paul451, alternatively, there's always the Bill & Opus ticket.

Dr.Brin, I wasn't much tempted by Ex Machina. In the golden age of cinema a Latin name often meant a good, thoughtful movie, but today it is likely to be just pseudo-intellectual driven that spends most of its time blowing things up. My daughter had a big pre-teen Jurassic Park phase and is curious just for the nostalgia. I'll tell her what you said about it, and I doubt she will want to go. She's not much interested in popcorn, and I got tired of watching people get eaten ages ago.

Deuxglass, those are just the kids of words a good soul needs to hear once in awhile, especially after years of dealing with some of the knuckleheads & vesicular basalt here! I'm a high school teacher, which is a very different career but it shares both the sense of hoping you are doing a good thing for the hundreds of people who you interact with and the dread that they are not getting the message. Once in awhile I run into a former student from years ago who remembers, and all thoughts of tying up that slipnot and leaving the career permanently fade for awhile. We all can do good, even in small ways, and those small goods keep the world going.

A.F. Rey said...

So, what do you think are the chances of finding an observatory on Pluto?

Last chance to place your bets... :)

David Brin said...

Deuxglass thank you. You made my morning.

AF Rey, I am hoping to find the crashed starship I saw in one classic SF story. Crashed on Pluto, they evacuated the passengers but left the stardrive TURNED ON! Which forms a bubble, 0.1 LY in diameter, within which all reference frames are the same and the speed of light is a retarded constant velocity-limit in all directions. Finally, fearing the denizens of Sol III will sue, the spaceliner company quietly turns it off.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the Ceres white spots, what about that annoying white spot on Oscar Isaac's head in "Ex Machina"?

Alfred Differ said...

We need people like Deuxglass on the political threads too.
I do believe I hear purring. 8)

I was in college when I read Sundiver, so our host has the honor of teaching me to look at the physics I was learning as a form of story telling. Later, I got interested in how we constructed our stories (theory as explanatory narrative) and that kept me going through grad school.

My mother used to push me to read SF as a kid. I wouldn't have any of it and stayed focused on science fact when she handed me her copy of Analog, but I eventually bowed to the pressure and began to read and then to imagine our civilization as it might be in the future. She clearly saw SF writers had a critical role to play for her kids and their futures.

Tony Fisk said...

I thought it had been established that the Boskone pirate base was on Triton?

My bit of whimsy involves finding glittery strands attaching Charon and Pluto, with little dots moving along them...

This scenario is just as improbable, but far more feasible, than the one described by Brian Aldiss in his novel 'Hothouse'.

Pluto's heart brings to mind the old caption for 'Ladyhawke'.
"Always together, but forever apart."

Jonathan S. said...

Of course, the dark thing at the north pole of Charon is the part of the mass relay that's sticking out of the ice, just waiting for us to dig it out and start exploring the galaxy (at least until a turian patrol finds one of our ships turning relays on all willy-nilly, and the War starts...).

Paul451 said...

After Existence, I was thinking that the dark equatorial stripe around Pluto ("the whale") and the lighter shape interrupting it ("the heart") are mining and construction areas respectively for interstellar Von Neumann probes. The factory, a billion years old, left over after its job was complete.

But I'll accept spider-plants casting webs between Pluto/Charon... Provided they stay 39 AU away.

Deuxglass said...

I am glad you liked my post. I just said what I feel and think about your work Dr. Brin and it’s my way of saying thank you. I am about the same age as you and have been an avid reader of Sci-Fi since I was the 7th grade (Starship Troopers). I picked up “Startide Rising” when it first came out and have been reading your books ever since.

Paul SD, for me education is the most basic and most important endeavor for humans to make. You are a teacher and my wife was a teacher for 37 years so I understand the frustrations you feel but she told me when a student “gets it” it make everything worthwhile. I made sure my kids started reading speculative fiction early to instill in them the sense of “wonder” and I must say it has worked beyond my dreams.

Alfred Differ, yes I am active in threads that deal with international politics, economic and defense matters. I am much less involved in American politics simply because I have been living outside the US for over twenty years so I am out of date. Fortunately Dr. Brin writings and talks have given me some insight into some very important political issues.

Paul SB said...

Deuxglass, it's good to have you! I'm sure most of us would be glad to have another conversation partner. Open minds only gain from more voices.

I got my daughter on reading the good stuff when she was little, but I've had less luck with my son, whose brain has been eaten by the WII U (his mother got it for him over my dead body, so I am speaking to you from the grave). I started when my 5th grade teacher pointed my way to Robert Heinlein.

Duncan Cairncross said...

I started with Captain W E Johns and the "Biggles" saga
(Given to me my my dad)
And worked up through C S Forester and Gerald Durrell to Heinlein

My son started with the Harry Potter series - I read them to him and then he read them himself
I have now read the first three but I read book four by reading a chapter - Thomas read a chapter then I had to read the next chapter to him - I must read the whole book sometime

I was in my thirties when I read Sundiver but I have tried to keep up with all Dr Brin's books since then

Alex Tolley said...

I started with Captain W E Johns and the "Biggles" saga

Same here. I think the first SF book I bought was The Weapon Shops of Isher from my local W H Smith, sometime around my early teens. I (and my peers) was already deep into SF by the time I read 2001: A space Odyssey which I can pin to 1968.

David Brin said...


siska said...
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