Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The *big* picture (part 2)

In "The *big* picture (part 1)" we reviewed astronomical news of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and (some) asteroids. Today we'll start with Mars and head on out ...

Beginning with the possibility that maybe Mars isn't as dry as it has seemed. Indeed, perhaps "Parts of Mars's interior are as wet as Earth's." Studies of meteors of Martian origin indicate that:
... the mantle from which the meteorites derived contained between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) of water. Earth's mantle,  for comparison, holds roughly 50-300 ppm water, researchers said. 
Does (or has) Martian life made use of that water? I'm skeptical of models that get ahead of experiment, but it's nonetheless interesting to read the argument -- reliant on comparative mathematical complexities -- that "Mars Viking Robots 'Found Life.'" Here's an overview of the approach:
Since living systems are more complicated than non-biological processes, the idea was to look at the experiment results from a purely numerical perspective. They found close correlations between the Viking experiment results' complexity and those of terrestrial biological data sets. They say the high degree of order is more characteristic of biological, rather than purely physical processes.

The official conclusion of the Viking mission, of course, was that the Viking Labeled Release experiment could be explained by chemistry, without recourse to asserting that Martian life had been found.

Jupiter (plus Ganymede & Callisto)
Moving on to Jupiter, the news is ... that the big news will be in 2016, when the Juno probe arrives. Still, earlier this month, one of the Juno investigators discussed her expectations at an American Astronomical Society meeting. See "NASA's Juno mission to probe Jupiter's biggest secrets." Considering what the Galileo probe discovered about Jupiter and its moons -- using 1980s technology -- imagine what a probe launched in 2011 may reveal.

(And as an engineer, I'm impressed with Juno's ability to function with only solar power, so far from the sun, rather than the radioisotope thermoelectric generator that powered Galileo. Inverse-square laws are strict!)

Saturn you ask?

As summer heats up (in my native hemisphere, anyway), a trip to the lake is often welcome. If you're looking to cool off, here's just the thing: "Lake detected near equator of Saturn's Titan." Despite the equatorial location, that lake should do nicely. Rather than water, the liquid in the lake is methane (boiling point: -182 degrees C). Discovery courtesy of the Cassini probe.

Uranus? Neptune? If there's recent news about them, I (and Google) seem to have missed it.

On to Pluto ... the demoted. The dwarf planet. It's the only (onetime) planet yet to be visited by a human-built probe. But a probe is on its way, and  "Out in Deep Space, New Horizons Practices the 2015 Pluto Encounter."

Truly, we live in interesting times (and not only for the slow-motion train wreck that is the Eurozone).

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