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All posts for the month September, 2006

While I’ve been recuperating from surgery, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. The most recent book I picked up is called A Gentle Rain of Starlight. It’s written by Michael West, who is currently head of science operations at the Gemini Observatory telescope at Cerro Pachón in Chile, and is about the history of astronomy on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. It’s a nice, relaxing read, not too technical and beautifully illustrated with some breaktaking pictures of the island and the summit where so much astronomy is being done. Back in 1996 I did an observing run on Mauna Kea, and I’ve always fondly remembered how beautiful it is up there above the clouds of an island paradise. I can’t wait to go back sometime!

I’ve also been catching up on my magazine reading, ranging from Analog to The New Yorker. Enforced “down time” is not a bad thing.

Mars from MRO

Mars from MRO

On the astronomy news front, there’s a lot been happening. Another spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is getting ready to start its full mapping and imaging mission now that it has achieved its final orbit around the Red Planet. On Friday it will send its first low-altitude images of Mars back to Earth for analysis and public display. Here’s a preview image taken by the orbiter’s Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera. To read more about it, go here.

Another spacecraft I’ve been watching on its journey is the New Horizons mission to Pluto. It won’t arrive at its final destination until 2015, but along the way the spacecraft has been testing out some of its instruments and cameras. On September 26 it sent back a nice image of Jupiter from a distance of 219 million kilometers (181 million miles, for those of you using the English system of measurements).

The image (below) also shows the shadows of the Jovian moons Europa and Io.

New Horizons looks at Jupiter

New Horizons looks at Jupiter

In a very cool coincidence, the Japanese Aerospace Agency has launched the Solar-B “Hinode” spacecraft to study the Sun using instruments sensitive to optical, extreme ultraviolet, and x-ray light. The team running the mission, which includes scientists and instruments from Japan, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, is hoping to study the mechanisms that give rise to all kinds of solar magnetic changes that drive space weather. The coincidence? A stream of strongly charged particles is flowing away from a coronal hole in the Sun’s atmosphere, and is headed toward Earth. Hopefully the Solar-B spacecraft will be able to measure the solar wind stream. Here on Earth, there’s a possibility for auroral displays (according to Spaceweather.com.)

And so, astronomy marches onward.

Finally, those of you who know me from my work with Loch Ness Productions should make a note that our website address is changing. Intead of www.lochness.com, we will now be www.lochnessproductions.com—a slightly longer name, but more accurate for us. The shorter name will go to a research group in Scotland at the end of the year (by mutual agreement).

There’s more information on our site about the change, and we’re mailing out a heads-up message to folks we commonly exchange email with to let them know that this also affects our email addresses (simply replace the “lochness.com” in the email address to “lochnessproductions.com”. If you’re a Loch Ness Productions customer (past, current, or future), please make this change in your address book and pass it along to anybody else you know of.

Contacting me through this blog, however, stays the same, at: cc.petersen at gmaildotcom. (Replace the “dot” with a period and the ” at ” with the @ to get my accurate address.

Cydonia

Take a look at this picture and tell me what you see.

Yep, it’s from the surface of Mars, in an area called Cydonia. A pretty famous section of Mars in some eyes. To a geologist, and anybody who has ever looked at rocks and formations while taking a hike through a desert or the mountains, it’s a plain with a lot of eroded rock formations on it, some craters, and maybe some ground cracks and areas where lava may have pooled once. If you go to the Mars Express web page for its current Mars exploration, you can click on any number of images of this region in high-res and in 3D restoration. It’s a fascinating area, full of geological clues for a region that is characterized by wide debris-filled valleys and full of little mounds like you see here. Many of these knobs and mounds are made of layers of rock that are more resistant to erosion than the surrounding plains rocks. So, when erosional forces (possibly flowing water) took away the more easily removed materials, they left behind this little plain of mounds.

As on Earth, if you look at an eroded knob of rock under certain conditions, it might look like something else — an animal, a head, a hand, a face. Earth’s surface is full of places like that. The most famous in my neck of the woods fell down a few years ago, but people still talk about the Old Man of the Mountain at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. Nobody ever suggested it was man-made; everybody pretty much understood that the elements had eroded the rock away to make the head-shaped protrusion. The elements proved too much, and a few years ago the head collapsed and the Old Man was gone.

Much the same thing is happening now with our understanding of the knobs of Cydonia. Any geologist worth his or her salt could look at those knobs and understand what formed them. I think planetary scientists are still trying to decide when the floods that made these knobs occurred, and why. But that’s a scientific argument that can be resolved with more study of the area and better understanding of the geologic past of the planet.

However, at least one of those knobs has made a lot of money for several people whose use and abuse of science in the name of publicity and ego-bosting has led to a faux controversy about what the knob is. Here’s how it happened. In the 1970s, Viking Mars orbiter images (low-res and not very good) showed what looked like a face in Cydonia. It was pretty much understood that this was a case of pareidolia, the tendency of people to see things that aren’t really there in a pattern of light and shadow. It’s the sensory misperception that lets people see images of prophets on tortillas and old men in a crag of rocks. Anyway, that picture (which you can see on the ESA web site) started a cottage industry of feverishly imaginative people who have been making money and publicity for themselves ever since, claiming one eroded mesa on Mars was somehow a face carved out by ancient Martians (for which there’s NO proof) millions of years ago to send a message to people on Earth (who, depending on who you believe about when this rock was carved, probably didn’t exist yet).

That’s quite an achievement for life forms for whom there’s no proof of existence despite nearly 30 years of on-planet and orbiting exploration of Mars. That being said, I guess there probably IS intelligent life behind the stories of a face on Mars, but it’s an intelligence that isn’t being used very well, and twisting perfectly good science around to suit a singularly selfish purpose.

But, you may ask, aren’t there controversies about what happened on Mars? Absolutely. But they are all based in the science we get from our spacecraft, science we can check out with similar rocks and materials here on Earth. Geology is a very mature science, and as its precepts are applied to what we find on Mars, we are learning more about a thoroughly fascinating planet. Mars is so interesting, in fact, that we don’t need fairy tales about ancient Martians to stir up interest. And when the first folks step onto the surface of Mars sometime in the next few decades, I hope that Cydonia is one of the places they visit early in the mission. I’d love to know just how torn up the place is from the ancient floods that sent rocks tumbling across a flood plain. And, a few rock samples would tell us more about the history of water on Mars than any stories about crystal temples and benevolent beings conjured out of thin air. You see, real science is pretty darned interesting on its own!