Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mars, Microbes, Rovers & Kepler

Science is enjoying a renaissance capturing a broken 5 year old Spirit valiantly struggling in the Martian 2009 Spring, million and half year aged microorganisms  making Antarctica's Taylor Glacier look like its been socked in the nose, staining the ice and snow red.   Mars is full of iron deposits and so is Antarctica, but no correlations can be drawn just yet.  But oh the possibilities.  In Antarctica, seawater teeming with life became sequestered as sea levels rose and majestic glaciers formed and gained mass.  Now those same ice mountains are melting and behold, microbes unleashed for the first time from their salt laden frozen blocks.  Yet, the Phoenix Lander Mission to a lopsided Mars found mineral deposits in the soil after baking the samples in the space-age TEGA ovens, leading to the estimation that a veggie such as asparagus could likely grow in the region. 

No oxygen in the microbial finds, but life was proceeding apace with one species continuing to split cells and multiply.  Blood Falls, an evocative name that describes the glacier nosebleed is annually a scene of wonder and speculation among the scientific communityWhere else in space is this replicable and mars is one f the first places everyone is considering in the realm of the possible for a bacterial colony like this to exist. (Image Benjamin Urmston)
Mikucki refers to the subglacial pond as "a unique sort of time capsule from a period on Earth's history," but it also has lessons for scientists studying Mars, an entire planet that is in many ways a time capsule too. Mars, like Antarctica, was once warm and wet, but the slow loss of its atmosphere also meant the loss of much of its moisture and surface heat. Still, the place was warm and wet long enough for life to have taken hold — life that would have then had to retreat into underground water deposits and make the same kind of hurry-up adaptation Mikucki's microbes did. Similar adaptive metabolism could be in evidence on the Jovian moon Europa, where a layer of surface ice may cover a globe-girdling ocean.
Now Kepler, the planet hunter, has reached its field of study with all the areas gridded for Scientists.  The first pictures came the second week in April.  Kepler's mission is to spot other planets that have possibilities similar to the planet EarthMeanwhile Hubble is still sending back the most amazing pictures of stars in varying stages that are just poetic to see.  Hubble remains without peer and this is the final mission to service the telescope.  As STS 125 gears up on the launch pad, the unusual scene of Shuttles Atlantis & Endeavor being prepped side by side is apparent in this image from NASA.


The Rover twins are in various stages of health.  A Martian windstorm cleaned off Opportunity's solar panels leaving the rover to break new ground.  Spirit the wheel-challenged Rover, that discovered the silica, is temperamental when responding to NASA.  Independently, Spirit rebooted its system.  There is no template to say how many times this can occur.  Meanwhile, there's news an earth-sized exoplanet has been spotted in a HZ or Habital Zone in the Gliese system less than 22 light years away.  The true test if when we can ascertain there is liquid water.  We need more powerful telescopes to see that what is in our Milky Way's obscure places.   Science is being treated with more deference now that facts are overwhelming all the naysayers.

(From Kepler courtesy NASA - First Light - The field of study - millions of stars)
Today is Earth day, and those fortunate few who have ridden into space say there is nothing like the view of our shared planet from space.  preserving our existing globe while exploring all that is within out scientific reach in space is the best of all worlds.  Many Thanks to my former senator, the late Gaylord Nelson, for making Earth Day possible and environmental activism probable!

Beyond Earth Day:  Fulfilling the Promise with Gaylord Nelson, Susan M. Campbell and Paul Wozniak.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Antarctic Ice Bridge Buckles Then Breaks

Ancient Antarctic snow an d ice bridge in the coldest place on Earth could no longer support its weight and fight off warmer air simultaneously. The Laws of Physics intervened, separating two chunky islands of ice, Charcot and Latady, while preparing for the shrinking Wilkins Ice Shelf to drift untethered from the continent holding the magnetic South Pole. The western region of the land mass is heating with all undue speed, rendering past scientific models obsolete as to when the shelves would actually melt.
The shelf, which was originally the size of Jamaica, is located on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, which thrusts up from the continent toward the southern tip of South America.

Originally covering about 13,000 sq km, the ice shelf lost 14 per cent of its mass last year alone, the statement quotes a scientist Angelika Humbert of Germany's Munster University as saying.
Glaciers are gliding to their doom. As ice melts; sea levels rise, storms become more intense and eroded places become flooded are a few of the impending calamities facing the world as climate change becomes more real. Scientists are doing a hair raising freak out in a methodical toned down Spock/Data manner that is just not hyped up and dramatic enough to get the public and media's attention. Ice melting is happening faster than butter on a hot plate. When that happens, horror movies starring weather apocalypses will reign supreme on the nightly news with video of the living nightmare of all caught in the latest event. Antarctica is much larger than continental Europe with the islands of the UK thrown in as seasoning and its ice is breaking off, like giant crumbs, into the sea.
"The rapid retreat of glaciers there demonstrates once again the profound effects ourplanet is already experiencing -- more rapidly than previously known -- as a
consequence of climate change," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

"This continued and often significant glacier retreat is a wakeup call that change is happening ... and we need to be prepared," USGS glaciologist Jane Ferrigno, who led the Antarctica study, said in a statement.

"Antarctica is of special interest because it holds an estimated 91 percent of the Earth's glacier volume, and change anywhere in the ice sheet poses significant hazards to society," she said.
For the most part anybody trumpeting that it will make it easier to get oil or other natural resources missed reading in full the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Scientific research gets a big thumbs up with welcome signs and a ice post office for 4000 international scientists. Military maneuvers and mining is just a flat out NO as the ecosystems and area are meant to be preserved. Rookeries of penguins make their homes in Antarctica with whales making the trek each year trailing certain countries opportunists harpooning behind them, cough, Japan. Antarctica is broken up into claim areas with some nations reserving the right to name a claim later. That doesn't matter much when cubic meters of ice the size of larger Caribbean islands are falling into the ocean because all will feel the effects as more ice melts or destabilizes other pieces.

Third time is the charm and maybe, the curse of an adventurer. A thrilling, yet terrible adventure story that lets you feel the killing cold conditions and the most terrible decisions are in the phenomenol and classic book, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. It's a real icy barnburner of a read that won't let you abandon book.