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Posts Tagged ‘exploration’

Breaking!

One of the missions of SiMF is to present new science that’s interesting to science fiction and fantasy readers and writers. But with a weekly schedule, rarely do we get to bring you breaking news.

Today, though, I’m writing this while listening to the NASA briefing about the Curiosity Rover’s latest findings (live from AGU, Noon EST, 3 December 2012). A few weeks ago John Grotzinger told NPR that Curiosity had provided some exciting new results.

Wild speculation ensued, of course, forcing NASA to backpedal: “not really earthshaking.” Which is what I’d figured: it would be something that makes scientists really excited, and bores the general public.

So what did they find?

Curiosity sampled soils that are much like those sampled by Spirit and Opportunity. This is important to check, to make sure that what they’re looking at is usual rather than something odd.

NASA soil samples on Mars
(Curiosity’s soil samples; image courtesy of NASA

SAM data: that’s what I’ve been been waiting for. Paul Mahaffy is describing the SAM results, and says right up front that they haven’t found any definitive organics in this sample. Curiosity takes the soil sample and heats it, then measures what gases come off. Mostly water vapor, followed by carbon dioxide, some oxygen gas (O2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

The deuterium to hydrogen ratio in the water was higher than it is on Earth. Deuterium is heavier than the regular isotope of hydrogen, so water molecules are too. My guess is that lighter water molecules would be more easily lost to space, so Mars ended up with more heavy isotope. (Ah yes, this was addressed in the comments.)

Oxygen and sulfur dioxide, plus other sulfur compounds were observed, and were also seen by the Phoenix lander. SAM did find organic chlorine compounds, but they can’t definitively state yet that the carbon is Martian rather than terrestrial. Mars is a harsh environment, and lots of things can break up organic compounds.

So: simple organics, but not conclusively. Signs of complex chemistry, including perchlorates. As Karl Schroeder pointed out on twitter, this has direct relevance to figuring out whether the Viking experiments did or didn’t find evidence of life. Perchlorates can break down organic molecules. The SAM instruments are much more sensitive than those on the Viking lander, and scientists have a better idea of what they’re working with and looking for, plus much better control of experiment planning. The ability to modify experiments based on previous experiments? Invaluable.

John Grotzinger ended the panel by reminding everyone that this is a slow process, and patience is necessary. The equipment is working well, and mission scientists are working to figure everything out.

Here’s the official NASA summary, and screenshots of the graphics presented. What do you think?

Spiders In Space: Our Constant Companions

Last week, I suggested a few likely inspirations for Science in My Fiction Contest entries:

  • Far-future fabrics that block radiation, clean the air and water, and deflect meteors.
  • Replacing personal items on spaceships with virtual possessions.
  • And the inevitability of man-made mischief during long journeys through space.

Here are a few more fun scientific sparks for all you Science in My Fiction contestants:

I don’t know about everyone else, but I like to get out of the city once in a while. The same will certainly be true about at least some of our space-faring descendants, and we will need systems in place to accommodate that impulse. Specifically, ecosystems. In fact, there is nothing to indicate that humans can survive in the absence of earthly ecosystems. Sure, we may travel in tin cans to the moon, asteroids, and maybe even Mars, but it’s bad for our physical and mental health. Extrapolate that over the course of generations, and the absence of natural cycles bodes ill for our chances of surviving past the edges of our original solar system, let alone reaching new stars.

Because the boundaries between different ecosystems are blurry and interdependent, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to just select one living system to pack up and take with us. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill in the natural gaps technologically by that time, and while we’re at it, we should take care to remember that all terrestrial environments possess a soundtrack. Different species move through a given territories at different times of day and year; they have mating calls and warning cries, and those sounds have an effect on their environments. The absence of a natural soundtrack has an adverse impact on an ecosystem, including its humans, so we’d better not omit it from our packing list when the time comes to prepare for lift-off.

In spite of how often writers portray spaceships and space stations as austere, hyper-sanitary environments, they’re not. Real astronauts must take their cleaning duties very seriously, or else everyone might get sick and their instruments could fail. Part of the problem is the absence of the sort of biological checks and balances that exist on earth. It’s a bit harder for microbes and other species to run rampant on Earth because everything on the planet undergoes population control, mainly in the form of predation (with the notable exception of humans, and we’ve spread so far we’re trying to swarm new planets). Which means that as part of the ecosystems we’ll need in order to survive long space missions, we will need to bring some predators with us. Spiders are likely candidates because they have already adapted to live everywhere humans do – and many places we don’t – and depending on the species of arachnid aboard, they can prey upon pests ranging in size from gnats to sparrows.

There will be more suggestions like these as we approach the contest deadline. In the mean time, what are some of your ideas for good-but-overlooked ideas for humans making their way in the far future?