Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone. Well, I’m back!! My cast came off last week (for those of you who missed it, I broke my arm in October) and I am now typing CAPITAL LETTERS! The DEEP staff was kind enough to allow me this break, which was a big help since I could only type with my left hand. My arm and hand still aren’t quite back to normal, but I’m making great progress.
As you can imagine, several science stories caught my interest during the break and I’ll be sharing them with you in the coming weeks. As I review the files, I have discovered that the largest one (no surprise here!) is the space stories, so off we go on some outer space adventures!
IT CAME FROM THE SKY
We’ll start with a visitor from outer space. One of the largest meteor impacts of the last several hundred years happened over Siberia in 1908. It’s called the Tunguska Event and it flattened 830 square miles of forest and killed several thousand reindeer. If it happened over the east coasts of North America or Asia today, hundreds of millions of people would die.
New research by scientists at Cornell University concludes that the Tunguska explosion was almost certainly caused by a comet impact and they have reached their conclusions by studying the exhaust plume of the space shuttle. The research connects the two events by what followed each about a day later: brilliant, night-visible clouds, or noctilucent clouds.
Noctilucent clouds are the Earth’s highest clouds. They form over the polar regions during the summer months at an altitude of about 50 miles where the temperature is around minus 180 degrees F., They’re made of ice particles and only form at very high altitudes and in extremely cold temperatures.
Following the 1908 Tunguska explosion, the night skies shone brightly for several days across Europe, particularly Great Britain — more than 3,000 miles away. Most researchers think this massive glow was from noctilucent clouds.
They think the massive amount of water vapor spewed into the atmosphere by the comet’s icy nucleus was caught in swirling eddies produced by the explosion and carried thousands of miles away with tremendous energy by a process called two-dimensional turbulence, which explains why the noctilucent clouds formed a day later many thousands of miles away.
The space shuttle exhaust plume, the researchers say, resembled the comet’s action. A single space shuttle flight injects 300 tons of water vapor into the Earth’s thermosphere, and the water particles have been found to travel to the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where they form the clouds after settling into the mesosphere.
The researchers saw the noctilucent cloud phenomenon days after the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-118) launched on Aug. 8, 2007. Similar cloud formations had been observed following launches in 1997 and 2003.
The scientists became intrigued by the historical eyewitness accounts of the aftermath, and concluded that the bright skies must have been the result of noctilucent clouds. The comet would have started to break up at about the same altitude as the release of the exhaust plume from the space shuttle following launch. In both cases, water vapor was injected into the atmosphere.
The scientists have attempted to answer how this water vapor traveled so far without scattering and diffusing, as conventional physics would predict. Their computer models of a similar event shows that the water vapor is caught up in counter-rotating eddies that have extreme energy. Once the water vapor was trapped in these whirling maelstroms, it traveled very quickly – over 200 mph.
So, typhoon-strength winds from a comet impact. Doesn’t surprise me in the least. Will it happen again? Well, there hasn’t been much in the popular press, but there have been somewhere between five and ten reports of massive fireballs in the sky in the last few months. The locations range from Indonesia to Canada to the San Francisco Bay area. I personally wonder just what it is we’re hitting!
In 1927 Professor Leonid Kulik took the first photographs of the massive destruction of the taiga forest after the Tunguska catastrophe. (Credit: Professor Leonid Kulik)
And speaking of things that go past in the night!
TRIPLE YOUR FUN
The Goldstone Tracking Radar system keeps tabs on all sorts of things from the robot satellites we’ve sent out into the solar system to visitors who are just passing through. They took some pictures of a near-Earth asteroid called 1994 CC when it whizzed through our area on 10 June this year.
Now ‘our area’ can be a considerable distance when you’re talking solar system scale and 1994 CC missed us by a million and a half miles.
Before this approach we didn’t know much about 1994 CC. Like most of the asteroids, it’s blacker than charcoal and it’s always night in outer space. But when the astronomers examined the recent radar pictures of 1994 CC they discovered it’s a triple system.
The main body is about 2,300 feet in diameter or about half a mile across. The pictures also show that it has two smaller moonlets that orbit it. The small satellites are roughly 200 feet in diameter. Follow-up observations by the big radar dish at Arecibo also detected all three objects.
The next close Earth flyby for asteroid 1994 CC will be in 2074 when the space rock trio will fly past Earth at a distance of 1.6 million miles. Of the hundreds of near-Earth asteroids observed by radar, only about 1 percent are triple systems.
Radar imaging at NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar on June 12 and 14, 2009, revealed that near-Earth asteroid 1994 CC is a triple system. Image Credit: (Credit: NASA/JPL/GSSR)
I mentioned earlier that a large comet or meteor impact would have devastating effects on Earth’s weather, and now we’re off to observe the worst weather you can possibly imagine. Don’t like lightening? Don’t plan on visiting the rings anytime soon!
THE BIGGEST THUNDERBUMPERS
The big planets are noted for big storms. Jupiter has hosted a swirling storm called the Great Red Spot for at least 300 years. No, it’s not a typhoon, it’s a swirling area of high pressure and not low. It is big though; three Earths could be dropped in side by side.
Jupiter also has big lightning storms as well but apparently nothing like those that occur on Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft, which is in orbit around Saturn, has reported that a thunderstorm that erupted on Saturn in January has become the solar system’s longest continuously observed lightning storm.
The monster storm broke out in "Storm Alley," a region 35 degrees south of Saturn’s equator. The storm isn’t
as big as the Great Red Spot but it is nearly 2,000 miles across.
The powerful event was spotted by the US space probe Cassini, using an instrument that can detect radio waves emitted by lightning discharge. Strangely enough, this means that Cassini didn’t see the lightning at first; it heard the static produced by the lightning in its radio detectors.
The Cassini scientists aren’t sure what it is about this particular latitude that produces the bumper crop of storms. There’s a possibility that it’s one of the few places in Saturn’s atmosphere that allows large-scale vertical convection of water clouds, which is necessary for thunderstorms to develop.
But the storms (like ours) may be seasonal. In 1980 and 1981, the Voyager spacecraft flew by Saturn and observed lightning storms near the equator. It could be that the mega-storms will now shift back to equatorial latitudes as Saturn continues its orbit around the Sun. A Saturnian year is 30 Earth years long.
The previous record-breaker for a solar system thunderstorm was an event that lasted seven and a half months, running from November 2007 to July 2008, also spotted by Cassini.
This one has been going on for almost a year now and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. A year-long thunder storm. My dog would be dead of fright. And we thought we had bad weather sometimes!
And now for a little speculative science.
LIFE AS WE DON’T KNOW IT
One of the things I tell the kids who visit the Planetarium is that there are so many stars out there that no matter what they imagine the aliens to be like, there have probably been aliens like that in the past, will be aliens like that in the future or are aliens like that right now.
The aliens aren’t here however, and will probably never be here because space is so big and so empty that it is virtually impossible to travel to other stars and planets in a human lifetime.
I also tell the kids something very important. Whatever those aliens are like, they are NOT humans dressed up in alien suits. Scientists are beginning to realize that we’ve probably been very parochial in our attitudes toward ‘life’. For all we know, the aliens could be here right now, we just may not recognize them as being alive.
Scientists at a new interdisciplinary research institute in Austria are working to uncover how life might evolve with “exotic” biochemistry and solvents, such as sulfuric acid instead of water.
Traditionally, scientists felt that life could only occur on a planet that circled another star in what we call the ‘habitable zone’; the region around a star in which Earth-like planets with carbon dioxide, water vapor and nitrogen atmospheres could maintain liquid water on their surfaces. We’ve only looked for extraterrestrial life that had metabolisms resembling our own, where water is used as a solvent and the building blocks of life, amino acids, are based on carbon and oxygen. We are slowly beginning to realize that ‘our’ conditions may not be the only conditions under which life could evolve. We can’t rule out that life forms have evolved somewhere that neither rely on water nor on a carbon and oxygen based metabolism.”
One requirement for a life-supporting solvent is that it remains liquid over a large temperature range. Water is liquid between 0°C and 100°C, but other solvents exist which are liquid over more than 200 °C. Such a solvent would allow an ocean on a planet closer to the central star. The reverse scenario is also possible – a liquid ocean of ammonia could exist much further from a star. Furthermore, sulfuric acid is found in the cloud layers of Venus and lakes of methane/ethane cover parts of the surface of the Saturnian satellite, Titan.
The newly established research group at the University of Vienna will investigate the properties of a range of solvents other than water, including their abundance in space, their thermal and biochemical characteristics as well as their ability to support the origin and evolution of life supporting metabolisms.
As I tell my Astronomy students, “Everything you’ve learned in this University is confined to the planet Earth. I’m going to teach you about everything else!” Space IS the final frontier!
The day after Christmas 2004, our planet was rocked by the biggest earthquake in years. The 8.9 earthquake struck 25 miles below the north coast of Indonesia and was the fifth largest quake since 1900. It was so huge the Earth’s rotation rate was very slightly affected. But the real destruction was caused by the massive tsunamis (tidal waves) generated by the earthquake.
The tsunamis killed thousands of people including several in the African nation of Somalia, which is 3,000 miles away from the earthquake’s epicenter. Many people died in Sri Lanka and in southern India and in many other parts of coastal southern Asia.
The tsunami caused by the December 26, 2004 earthquake strikes Ao Nang, Thailand.
In 2006, we had another tsunami scare that generated some local controversy. An 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck the Kuril Islands north of Japan and it generated tsunami waves that reached California, damaging docks and boats in the Crescent City Harbor near the Oregon state line. The harbor was hit with a series of surges that would cycle about every 15 minutes, changing the water level about five feet each time.
The National Weather Service estimates the surges reached speeds of 30 miles an hour. The Crescent City harbormaster said the repeated battering pulled apart at least two docks and set boats adrift, which banged into each other. He estimated that two dozen or more boats were damaged, but none were sunk and no one was hurt.
Boat damage in Crescent City CA
Here on Guam, a tsunami alert was issued but most people were unaware of it, including some of the mayors, who are responsible for spreading such alerts to their villagers. Two mayors said they weren’t called by the Office of Civil Defense, and noted that the early warning sirens that had been utilized in such instances were destroyed by typhoons and never replaced. Guam Homeland Security says that the island is “tsunami ready”, but many people dispute that claim.
We have just had the “Pacific Week of Despair” with multiple deaths from typhoons, mudslides, floods earthquakes and tsunamis. The death toll from the tsunami in the Samoas has risen to almost 200.
We have earthquakes here, we have typhoons here and well, do we have tsunamis here? There was a tsunami alert called on Guam for both the quake in Samoa and the quake in Indonesia. Lots of people are really worried about tsunamis here on Guam. Should you be?
Well, here are some questions to ask yourself. Have we had a tsunami here in your lifetime? If the tsunami that was generated by the earthquake in the Kurils in 2006 was destructive in California, why wasn’t there any damage here? Agana Harbor faces north where the waves came from. Why weren’t there any reports of boat damage on Guam? Did anyone notice five-foot waves pouring into the harbor? Why weren’t beachside homes flooded? We had one of the most powerful earthquakes in the world off our western shore in 1993. Do you remember that it generated a large tsunami that destroyed lots of houses? Here on Guam, we’re surrounded by Mother Ocean. How susceptible are we to the devastating effects of tsunamis, the deepest waves on Earth?
Tsunamis are often called ‘tidal waves’ but they have nothing to do with tides. They are caused by undersea earthquakes and landslides that displace huge volumes of water (and they have nothing to do with the weather). These gigantic ripples spread across the ocean in excess of 500 miles per hour. Because the water is disturbed at the ocean floor, these waves are as tall as the ocean is deep. These waves aren’t dangerous in the open ocean; ships at sea may not even notice them.
The problem occurs when the tsunami approaches land. The bottom of the huge standing wave is pushed up by the rising ocean floor. As the waves approach shallower water, they get taller (their amplitude increases) and run-up occurs. Run-up is a measurement of the height of the water onshore as observed above a reference sea level, and the wave gets higher and higher above the water’s surface. If the sea bottom rises gradually, the wave becomes a wall of water that may crash miles inland and destroys everything in its path.
The key to understanding tsunamis is that they are extremely deep waves and as they enter shallow water all that energy and all that water piles up in tremendous waves. So what’s the point for Guam? It’s that little phrase shallow water.
This is an underwater map of the area surrounding the Samoas with the epicenter of the earthquake marked. Have a look at the lighter areas on this map. They represent shallow water less than a thousand feet deep. The earthquake occurred in very deep water and as the tsunami it generated reached the shallow water surrounding the islands, it piled up and reached far inland, wiping out whole villages and killing many people.
Map of Samoa region (made in GeoMapApp) showing epicenter of Sept 29, 2009 8.0 earthquake
Now have a look at an underwater topographic map of the island of Guam. As you can see, there’s virtually NO shallow water around Guam. Our island rises more or less (mostly more) vertically from the abyssal depths (roughly 13,000 feet [almost three miles] in our area). If you travel away from Guam on a boat, you don’t have to go very far before you’re over water that’s hundreds and even thousands of feet deep. Guam has no gradually rising slopes where run-up can occur and tsunamis simply curve around our island and travel on to their ultimate landfall. Virtually the only place on Guam where a tsunami can occur is in Talofofo Bay (and a woman was swept out to sea from the shores of Talofofo River by a tsunami wave in the 1800’s).
Map generated by Pam Eastlick’s Hands-On-Science students. Flat seafloor regions indicate areas of no data for those depths.
Having said this, DO NOT ignore tsunami warnings! And if you’re ever at the beach and the water goes away (i.e. recedes dramatically away from the shore), GET AWAY FROM THE WATER. It is ALWAYS better to be safe than sorry. But in general, we may have to worry about earthquakes and typhoons here on Guam, but you can cross worrying about tsunamis off your list!
Well, I realized that the medical file was bulging and since I’ve got several items that have some relevance for us islanders, I figured it was time to dig in the back and pull out some wonderful things!
We certainly do a lot of flying in these islands and I’m sure we all have our little tales of horror about some of our incredibly long flights. It’s hard to top my worst because I was in the air between Tokyo and Chicago when the planes went into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. What happened afterwards was a tale of legendary proportions!
SICK ON A PLANE
I suspect we’ve all been on flights where someone became ill. Our first little item is on in-flight emergencies. Scientists researched the data on the number, type and frequency of medical emergencies on board two airlines.
Michael Sand led a team of researchers from UCLA who analyzed 10,189 different emergencies. He said, “The breakdown of the various medical emergencies encountered in our study showed that fainting was by far the most frequent medical condition, followed by stomach upsets, and heart conditions”.
In all, the authors found 5307 cases of fainting (53.5%), 926 cases of gastrointestinal problems (8.9%) and 509 cases related to a cardiac condition (4.9%). The highly publicized problem of deep vein thrombosis accounted for a very small number of cases, although they do occur most often after a flight, rather than during. The authors said, “Surgical illnesses accounted for a minor percentage of all on-board emergencies. There were 47 cases of thrombosis (0.5%), 27 appendicitis cases (0.25%) and just one case of gastrointestinal bleeding (less than 0.1 %). There were two births and 52 deaths”.
The authors also stated that there are major problems with record keeping about in-flight emergencies. Out of 32 airlines approached to take part, 27 did not have the data available, one had data that was unsuitable and two refused to take part due to company policy. Sand said, “Standardization of in-flight medical emergency reporting is necessary for further larger studies to be conducted, as the current quality of data is poor”.
The limited scope of the data available makes it difficult to make strong recommendations based on the information, but the authors do note that not all of the airlines had defibrillators as part of their medical flight kits. Sand said, “Considering the fact that cardiac conditions were the third most common condition seen in this study, patients with cardiac irregularities may profit from an on-board automatic external defibrillator. The same is true for patients with a suspected myocardial infarction."
Hmmm, I don’t find this particularly reassuring, I’m afraid. With all that money we pay for tickets to be trapped in a tin box for eight to twelve hours, it would be nice to know that our health care was a little higher on the list.
The next news is significantly better. I suspect that many of my readers take the drug called Glucophage, also known by its generic name metformin. Glucophage means “eats sugar” and it’s traditionally given to diabetics and pre-diabetics. It’s cheap and effective and doctors routinely prescribe it for their older patients. I take two metformin tablets every day.
NOT JUST FOR DIABETES ANYMORE
Researchers at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that metformin increases the efficiency of the immune system’s T-cells, which in turn makes cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more effective.
The specialized white blood cells of the human immune system known as "T-cells" remember pathogens they encountered in previous infections or vaccinations. This ‘memory’ enables them to fight subsequent infections much faster and it’s been the subject of intense study for many years, but until now scientists didn’t really understand how it worked.
Researchers have discovered that many of the same genes that are involved in sugar metabolism and diabetes are also involved in cancer progression. Research data also indicate that diabetics are more prone to certain cancers. This study is the first to suggest that targeting the same metabolic pathways that play a role in diabetes can also alter how well the immune system functions.
The scientists discovered that the metabolizing, or burning, of fatty acids by T-cells following the peak of infection is critical to establishing immunological memory. They used metformin, which operates on fatty-acid metabolism, to enhance this process, and their experiments on mice have shown that metformin increases T-cell memory as well as the ensuing protective immunity of an experimental anti-cancer vaccine.
We don’t really tend to link cancer and diabetes but recent advances have uncovered common links between them, in particular how metabolic pathways, the basic chemical reactions in our cells, are controlled in these diseases. The results suggest that common diabetic therapies that alter cellular metabolism may enhance T-cell memory, providing a boost to the immune system. This could lead to novel strategies for vaccine and anti-cancer therapies.
So, keep taking your metformin. It may be better for you than anyone realized! And along the lines of “it may be better for you than anyone realized”, let’s also add vinegar. Yes, vinegar, that lovely cooking condiment and maker of pickles that’s also one of the best cleaners around in our limestone-dominated world here on Guam. Read on!
Researchers in Japan are reporting new evidence that the ordinary vinegar may live up to its age-old reputation in folk medicine as a health promoter. They report new evidence that vinegar can help prevent the accumulation of body fat and weight gain.
Tomoo Kondo and his colleagues note in the new study that vinegar has been used as a folk medicine since ancient times. Modern scientific research suggests that acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, may help control blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and fat accumulation.
Their new study showed that laboratory mice fed a high-fat diet and given acetic acid developed significantly less body fat (up to 10 percent less) than other mice.
The new research suggests acetic acid fights fat by turning on genes that regulate fatty acid metabolism. The genes churn out proteins involved in breaking down fats, thus suppressing body fat accumulation in the body.
Found in many salad dressings, pickles, and other foods, vinegar could help prevent accumulation of body fat and weight gain, scientists report. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
So, we’ve had some feel-good stuff about how taking common things is good for you, now how about some information about how you can be good for other people. We’ve all lost loved ones to diseases that could be cured if only there were enough scientists, enough researchers, enough money to devote to finding those cures. Well, now YOU can be that scientist, that researcher and it won’t cost you a thing.
SETI FOR DISEASES
Several years ago, astronomers developed a program that allowed your home computer to sift through mountains of data gathered by radio telescopes to see if there was any signal that seemed regular and possibly generated by an alien society. Although the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) astronomers haven’t found any alien signals yet, their idea of using home computers to parse data and the number of people who signed up to do it has not been lost on other researchers.
Not using your computer at the mome
nt? You can now donate your computer’s idle time to cutting-edge biomedical research aimed at finding a cure for HIV, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and breast cancer. Through the University of Delaware’s “Docking@Home” project, led by Michela Taufer, more than 6,000 volunteers worldwide are donating their computer’s idle time to perform scientific calculations that will aid in creating new and improved medicines to thwart these major diseases.
Before new drugs can be produced for laboratory testing, researchers must create molecular models and simulate their interactions to reveal possible candidates for effective drugs. This simulation is called “docking”.
Since the combinations of molecules and their binding orientations are nearly infinite, simulating as many combinations as possible requires tremendous computing power. Supercomputers often have long waiting lists or are too expensive to use for extended periods. Thus, medical researchers have turned to citizen volunteers for help. Using their personal computers, the scientists can distribute the hundreds of thousands of computing tasks across a large number of computers.
Volunteering your computer’s idle time to do these calculations takes only a few simple steps highlighted on the project Web page (http://docking.cis.udel.edu/). You install a free, software program called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), and link up to the Docking Server at the University of Delaware to become part of the network. Your computer’s idle cycles are accessed automatically when you’re not using your system.
The BOINC software also is in use for such programs as IBM’s World Community Grid, which focuses on diseases caused by the mis-folding of proteins, and SETI@Home, which is searching for signs of intelligent life outside Earth.
Currently, the 6,000 volunteers worldwide who currently are involved in UD’s Docking@Home project are contributing to the completion of some 30,000 docking tasks per day.
Kevin Kreiser, a third-year graduate student at the University of Delaware is developing software that will allow volunteers to “throw” a molecule right into a protein using a Nintendo Wii. “Other people do yoga with a Wii,” Taufer notes, smiling. “We’re doing science.”
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Water. When you live on an island, you’re surrounded by it and you tend to take it for granted. But there have been years when more people drowned than died in car wrecks here on Guam and I have always maintained that all beaches should have signs posted on them that say, “Mama Ocean does not forgive.”
We all must have water, we’re walking bags of the stuff and water has long been THE limiting factor of space exploration. It has for years cost about $10,000 a pound to put anything in low Earth orbit (LEO). You can quickly figure how much it would cost to put you in orbit.
But the figures quoted by the Russians to put tourists into LEO are in the multiple millions. Why? Because you have to eat in space, and most importantly you must drink and water weighs eight pounds a gallon. Every human on Earth consumes roughly five gallons of water every day. No, you don’t drink that much, but you water your lawn, eat meat from animals that drank water, eat fruits and vegetables that had to have water to grow and you go to the bathroom.
Although the bathrooms in space are different, space exploration and most importantly colonization, requires those five gallons of water every single day for every single person on the trip. Let’s see, that’s $80,000 for every gallon of water boosted into space and $400,000 for one day’s water ration for everybody involved. No wonder the Russians want all that money!!
That’s why the new water reclamation system on the International Space Station is so important and why scientists have been SO interested in trying to locate water on the Moon. If you can find water where you’re going, you don’t have to take so much with you.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Moon has a very harsh environment. It gets up to +250 degrees in the daytime and to –250 degrees at night. If you make your colonies underground, the average temperature is zero, which helps things out as far as easily making an Earth-normal environment, but doesn’t help you at all with the water requirements.
Now most people think that the Earth is the only place in the solar system with water, but that’s not true. Water is made from two elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is fairly common in the solar system although its state as a free gas is found only on Earth because oxygen combines with almost everything and free oxygen has to be continually generated.
Hydrogen is THE most common element in the universe, not just the solar system. Probably somewhere between 98 and 99 percent of ALL the atoms in the universe are hydrogen which should give you some idea of how rare the rest of the elements truly are.
Water, it turns out is very common in our solar system, but virtually all water exists in the form of ice. And not just ice-as-we-know-it. Water is a very malleable molecule and there are at least 15 forms of solid water; some of them are not ice at all, but what we would call rocks. Earth is one of the few places in the solar system (but not the only one) that has the right temperatures to support lots of liquid water.
The Moon has no atmosphere and that 500-degree temperature range mentioned earlier virtually guarantees that when the Sun shines on the lunar surface, the +250 degree heat boils all the water off into space. The Moon is as dry as . . . well, anywhere where there is NO water. And despite the old ‘dark side of the Moon’ legend, the Sun does shine everywhere on the Moon. Well, almost everywhere.
The Moon rotates virtually straight up and that means that the area around both poles would be strange worlds indeed. The Earth rotates tilted and that means that the north pole gets sunlight half the year and darkness half the year. Ditto the south pole.
If you’re a billiard ball and you spin straight up and down, you’d see the Sun endlessly circle your horizon at each pole; but the Moon is not a billiard ball. It’s a big hunk of rock that’s been battered by other rocks for 4 or 5 billion years. One of the largest craters in the solar system is located at the Moon’s south pole.
Hmmmm . . . . big deep hole . . . that would be a place where literally, the Sun don’t shine. And if the Sun never shines there and that big deep hole happened to be made by a comet (read ‘great big iceberg’) then at the bottom of that hole, there could be . . . . water ice.
And it’s apparently true. Three different spacecraft have independently confirmed the presence of water on the Moon. Not only is there water at the poles, there are hydroxyl ions over the entire surface. Scientist still don’t know how those survive the heat of the Sun, but ice on the Moon means that you don’t have to take all your water with you at $400,000 per human per day. Even recycling can’t keep the cost down that much. Water on the Moon makes lunar colonization possible.
But what about beyond? You have to take your water with you when you go to the Moon, but the trip would last, at most two days. If you want to explore further; say travel to Mars, you’re looking at a six-month journey minimum. Go ahead; figure out how much that costs at $400,000 per human per day. Of course, recycling would be the norm, and we know how to do it, but what happens once you get to Mars and want to settle there?
I’ve always been amused by the frequent stories about how we’ve recently discovered that there’s WATER on Mars. We’ve known there’s water on Mars since at least the mid-1800’s. Mars has ice caps, and the one at the north pole is made mostly of water ice. The one at the south pole is made mostly of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice which should make you readers with experience with dry ice realize just how cold it is on Mars.
But as near as we could tell, water on Mars was basically confined to the polar regions which severely limits the location of your colony. Mars does spin tilted and has definite seasons. Living near the north pole so you could harvest the water introduces a whole new world of risks.
But we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the surface of the Earth because we’ve put several increasingly sophisticated satellites in orbit around the Red Planet. (And why do we know more about Mars than Earth? Most of the land on Earth is covered by that liquid water stuff and orbiting satellites can’t see it!)
These satellites have been orbiting Mars for years and comparing current data with the old pictures has revealed some interesting things. In a report in the journal Science, NASA says that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted ice in the bottom of five new Martian craters that were made by meteor impacts. And these craters aren’t at the poles; they’re in the middle latitudes. And they’re small and shallow, which means the water isn’t very deep below the surface.
Above: A fresh crater on Mars photographed on Oct. 18, 2008, and again on Jan. 14, 2009, by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. The crater is about 15 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
So far, the MRO camera team has found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that one and half to eight feet deep. None of the craters existed in earlier images of the same sites. The bright patches of exposed ice darkened within weeks as the ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere.
Right: The patch of ice exposed at this late-2008 crater was large enough for the orbiter’s spectrometers to take readings and confirm that it is water.
An image taken by the MRO on 10 August 2008, showed a new crater that appeared after an image of the same ground was taken 67 days earlier. The opportunity to study such a fresh impact site prompted a look by the orbiter’s higher resolution camera on 12 September 2009, confirming a cluster of small craters.
The bright material at that site didn’t cover enough area for the MRO’s spectrometer to determine what it was made from. But the team quickly discovered another crater with a much larger area of bright material.
Above: This map shows five locations where fresh impact craters have excavated water ice from just beneath the surface of Mars (sites 1 through 5) and the Viking Lander 2 landing site (VL2), in the context of color coding to indicate estimated depth to ice.
The ice exposed by these fresh impacts suggests that NASA’s Viking Lander 2, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug only 4 inches deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, was launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet. The results of some of those tests have never been adequately explained.
What if the Viking 2 arm had dug that extra four inches and revealed unmistakable evidence that there is life on Mars? Would we be there already? Probably. But we’ll get there eventually, and water, water everywhere will certainly help us make the trip!
Everybody loves the cute animals. Just mention the word ‘panda’ or ‘meerkeet’ or ‘kitten/puppy’ and watch everybody go all warm and runny. But say ‘roach’ or ‘rat’ or ‘squid or ‘parasite’ and watch the upper lip curl. But who’s to say which of these animals are more important in the overall scheme of things? Every animal on Earth fills a niche and fulfills a purpose or it wouldn’t be here. So today we’re going to talk about some of those animals that do NOT evoke the “Aw-w-w, how cute!” expression. And you just might learn something!
If I were making a list of the animals on my personal top 10 ‘love to hate’ list, I suspect the cockroach would be right up there at #1. But don’t sell the cockroach short. Recent research has revealed some very interesting (in the Chinese sense of the word) things about this astounding insect.
QUICK! STEP ON IT!
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia recently examined cockroaches to see whether they change their breathing patterns in response to changes in carbon dioxide or oxygen concentration, or humidity.
They discovered that changes in carbon dioxide and oxygen concentrations didn’t have a whole lot of effect on a roaches breathing habits but they did find that the widely loathed insects can hold their breath to save water.
They concluded that cockroaches close the spiracles through which they breathe primarily to save water. In dry environments the insects took shorter breaths than in moist conditions. They also discovered that when cockroaches are resting, they periodically stop breathing for as long as 40 minutes, though why they do so has been unclear.
The study deals a blow to the theory that cockroaches hold their breath to survive underground, where CO2 levels can be poisonous. Nor did the study support the idea that cockroaches hold their breath to avoid damage to their body tissue from chemical reactions with oxygen.
The nifty breath-holding adaptation has allowed cockroaches to colonize drier habitats. Cockroaches also have a waxy coating that helps hold in the water. One of the easiest ways to kill cockroaches in drier climates is to spread kitty litter made from diatomaceous Earth in your cabinets. Diatomaceous Earth is made of diatom shells and diatoms make their shells of glass. When a cockroach runs over these tiny pieces of broken glass, it scores the waxy coating on their shell and they dehydrate and die. That doesn’t work here, unfortunately, it’s too wet.
Cockroaches evolved in the humid conditions of a rainforest, but they are definitely adaptable and can cope in a wide range of environmental conditions. Will the sun ever set on the empire of the cockroach? Not any time soon. Cockroaches have been around for 250 MILLION years. They survived the dinosaurs and they will, no doubt, survive us!
So, we’ve established that, although nobody likes them, cockroaches will probably outlive humans as a species. This leads us to the next icky topic of discussion: parasites. If I’m making that list with the cockroach at the top, parasites certainly rank up there in the top ten. Parasites (specifically fleas) are the subject of the world’s shortest poem. And the poem is: “Adam had ‘em!” Parasites have certainly been around for a long time, but what happens when their hosts go extinct?
THE HIDDEN COST OF EXTINCTION
We wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the loss of endangered species like the panda or the polar bear. But what happens to the parasites hosted by endangered species when they go extinct? And although most people would side with the panda over the parasite, which group should we worry about more?
Researchers from North Carolina State University recently published a paper that examines the concept of co-extinction, or the domino effect of extinctions caused by species loss. For example, each fig species tends to be pollinated by a single fig wasp. The loss of the tree should cause the extinction of the wasp and vice versa. Mathematical models suggest that co-extinctions due to the actions of humans are very common, the paper asserts. Yet, surprisingly enough, there have been few reported cases of co-extinction in the scientific literature.
The models suggest thousands of co-extinctions have already occurred and that hundreds of thousands may be on the horizon. But few such events have been observed. The scientists aren’t sure if the co-extinctions are happening and not being tracked, or if parasites are better at switching partners than we give them credit for, or something in between. Maybe some of the ‘specialized relationships’ – like between the figs and fig wasps – aren’t so specialized.
In addition, the researchers say that the models predict that the number of parasite extinctions should be much larger than the number of host extinctions since the diversity of parasitic or affiliated species – which may include things like viruses, bacteria ticks, lice mites and a whole host of internal parasites — is several orders of magnitude greater than that of their hosts.
This numbers game alone presents strong evidence that suggests co-extinctions are more important than the original host extinctions themselves. But the paper also examines other costs of co-extinction – including the losses of biological diversity, unique species traits and what we can learn about evolutionary history.
But that’s not the really scary part. According to the researchers, there’s a distinct possibility that declines in host species could drive parasite species to switch onto alternative hosts, which in turn could escalate the rate of emerging pathogens and parasites both for humans and our domesticated animals and plants. Simply put, when a host becomes rare, its parasites have two choices: jump ship to another host or go extinct. Either situation is a problem.
The researchers noted that the regions where new human diseases like bird flu, are emerging coincide with the regions where the most mammal and bird species are endangered. We’ve talked for a long time about the negative consequences of the endangerment of the species we love but getting stuck with their parasites is a consequence nobody bargained for!
And now we turn our attention to a much more loveable animal than cockroaches and parasites, but you’ll have to admit, that octopi probably still fall in the ‘ugly’ category. And this tale relates the story of how one hapless octopus turned up in the most unlikely of places. As a fossil.
DEM BONES, DEM BONES, DEM DRY BONES
When the story broke several years ago about the ‘hobbits’ found on Flores Island in Indonesia; I was taken by this tale of miniature hominids. But what really fascinated me is that the news feeds kept referring to the ‘hobbit fossils’. I kept wondering what the real story was because fossils simply don’t form in tropical conditions. The constant rainfall keeps the bones from ever acquiring the minerals that turn them into rocks.
And when I finally read the scientific reports I discovered I was right. The Flores skeletons may have been over 80,000 years old, but they were NOT fossils. They were 80,000 year old bones. If you think about it though, fossils are almost always bones. So, what are the odds that you can find a fossil of something that has no bones? Read on.
Even if you’ve never met an octopus in the flesh, the eight arms, suckers, and sack-like body are almost as familiar a body-plan as the four legs, tail and head of cats and dogs. Unlike vertebrates, however, octopi don’t have skeletons. While this allows them to squeeze into impossibly small spaces, it does create problems for scientists interested in evolutionary history. When did octopi acquire their characteristic body-plan, for example? Nobody really knows, because fossil octopi are rarer than, well, pretty much any rare thing you care to mention.
The chances of an oct
opus corpse surviving long enough to be fossilized are so small that prior to this discovery only a single fossil species was known, and from fewer specimens than the eight legs of an octopus.
The body of an octopus is composed almost entirely of muscle and skin, and when an octopus dies, it quickly decays and liquefies into a slimy blob. After just a few days the carcass disappears entirely. The result is that preservation of an octopus as a fossil is about as unlikely as finding a fossil sneeze, and none of the 200-300 species of living octopus has ever been found in fossilized form. Until now, that is.
Paleontologists have just identified three new species of fossil octopus discovered in Cretaceous rocks in Lebanon. The five specimens are 95 million years old but, astonishingly, preserve the octopuses’ eight arms with traces of muscles and those characteristic rows of suckers. Even traces of the ink and internal gills are present in some specimens.
"These are sensational fossils, extraordinarily well preserved," says Dirk Fuchs of the Freie University Berlin, lead author of the report. But what surprised the scientists most was how similar the specimens are to modern octopus: "these things are 95 million years old, yet one of the fossils is almost indistinguishable from living species." This provides important evolutionary information.
The more primitive relatives of octopi had fleshy fins along their bodies. The new fossils are so well preserved that it’s possible to tell they didn’t have these fleshy fins. This pushes back the origins of the modern octopus by tens of millions of years, and while this is scientifically significant, perhaps the most remarkable thing about these fossils is that they exist at all.
Keuppia levante — one of the new species of fossil octopus discovered in Cretaceous rocks in Lebanon. (Credit: Dr. Dirk Fuchs)
Animals. They don’t all have to be loveable to tell us some pretty interesting things about themselves, the Earth and us! Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about ugly animals and many other topics. Enjoy!
Jim is, above all, a passionate eco-humanitarian who has developed his own science talk-radio show to inform The DEEP’s listeners about such newsy topics as global warming, shark-finning and reef protection as well as to explore earth’s many underwater and space mysteries.
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