Some Random Thoughts

September 27, 2006 at 11:36 am | Leave a Comment

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

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, we will now be—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 “” in the email address to “”. 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.

September 21, 2006 at 13:05 pm | Leave a Comment


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!

Pirated Ideas

September 19, 2006 at 16:00 pm | Leave a Comment

Avast ye hearties! In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I thought I’d talk about some ideas pirated from popular culture about science, particularly astronomy.

The first one is that scientists, and particularly astronomers, don’t have a sense of humor or know how to have fun. My guess is that anybody who says this has never been to an astronomy meeting. You would be amazed at the fun time we have, particularly at the opening sessions where the refreshments loosen a few tongues. I think the most fun an astronomer can have is in combining science and socializing. In that vein, check out Bad Astronomer’s tale of a supernova discovery.

In the humor department, while it may be a bit intricate, go look up the thinking behind the two new solar system bodies Eris and Dysnomia. You can read more about THAT here.

Another stupid idea about science that I’m going to pirate from popular culture is that science is hard. Well. Yeah. So it is. But then again, so is raising a family. And learning a new job and balancing a budget. And running a country wisely and keeping peace among nations, and respecting each other’s intrinsic qualities in a diverse country. But aren’t we all supposed to work at those things, too? And what tools do those things take, if not a knowledge of logical, critical thinking and an understanding of how the world (and the cosmos) works?

Maybe there are relative levels of hardness among these tasks, but they all involve using the brain to solve problems. Which is, of course, what science is about. Everytime I think of the stupidity of the Barbie Doll makers making this doll say things like “Math is hard” I have to wonder just how much market research these folks did. Or maybe their market research was flawed because they thought math was hard.

My final rant about stupid ideas that I’m pirating from popular culture has to do with astronomers being total geeks. This sort of goes with the material above about having fun at astronomy meetings. Quite a few years back I was invited to give a talk at an amateur astronomy meeting in Florida. I went down and spent a few days with this enthusiastic group of observers and found out what a wide spread of jobs they held. There were several doctors, a couple of lawyers, some teachers, planetarium folk, bankers, truck drivers, and writers (to name a few of the professions present). Not one of them seemed geeky, but more like enthusiastic. Some of the dinnertime conversations got quite technical, but not any more so than if you had a bunch of NASCAR enthusiasts sitting around talking about the characteristics of their favorite race cars. And heavens, NOBODY would think of calling NASCAR folk geek, now would they? But, it’s all technology and science behind it.

One of the kids attending the meeting asked me how hard it would be to become an astronomer. I told her that she already was one because I’d watched her work on a mirror for her telescope, and she’d been out observing with her folks each night. She persisted in wanting to know about school. And I told her about the math and science requirements, waiting for her to wrinkle up her nose. She didn’t, which told me that she hadn’t subscribed to this society’s silly ideas about geeks and math and science. So, maybe someday I’ll go back to that star party and she’ll be there, PhD papers fresh in her hand, and giving a talk about whatever her research object was in college. I hope some kids pirate some good ideas from her, and all the others of us who go around showing the world that science and astronomy aren’t geeky… but a darned lot of fun, even if they do require us to use our brains!

Yarrr! Embrace the cosmos smartly! Ye have nothing to lose but yer fear of science!

The Moon Falls to Earth

September 18, 2006 at 12:33 pm | Leave a Comment

I’ve been out on a weeklong medical leave due to surgery and of course in my downtime a slew of cool astronomy events transpired. Most of you have read about Eris and Dysnomia now (the two latest solar system bodies to be named), so I won’t go into that, other than to say I think the naming is very, very clever.

What caught my eye in a pile of emailed press releases was a story about a rock found in Antarctica. You can see a large-size image of it here.

It’s a lunar meteorite, meaning it’s a rock from the Moon that fell to Earth, specifically in Antarctica. A group of researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, found it on December 11, 2005 on an icefield in the Transantarctic Mountains. They subsequently did some mineralogical testing on it to confirm its origin and announced their find last week.

Here’s a bit of info about the rock from the press release:

Scientists involved in classification of Antarctic finds at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History said the mineralogy and texture of the meteorite are unusual. The new specimen is a very coarse-grained gabbro, similar in bulk composition to the basaltic lavas that fill the lunar maria, but its very large crystals suggest slow cooling deep within the Moon’s crust. In addition, the plagioclase feldspar has been completely converted to glass, or maskelynite, by extreme shock (presumably impact events). The new specimen most closely resembles another Antarctic meteorite, Asuka 881757, one of the oldest known lunar basalt samples.

Like the other lunar meteorites, MIL 05035 is a piece of the Moon that can be studied in detail in the laboratory, providing new specimens from a part of the lunar surface not sampled by the US Apollo program. Many researchers believe that Apollo visited some of the most unusual and geochemically anomalous regions of the Moon, and lunar meteorites, knocked off the surface of the Moon by random impacts, give us samples that are more representative of the Moon as a whole. The highly-shocked nature of MIL 05035 suggests an old age and may provide new constraints on the early intense bombardment of the Earth-Moon system, improving our understanding of the history of the Earth’s nearest neighbor and aiding NASA’s efforts toward a return to the Moon.

Following the existing protocols of the U.S. Antarctic meteorite program, scientists from around the world will be invited to request samples of the new specimen for their own detailed research. Details concerning initial characterization of the specimen and sample availability are available through the Antarctic Meteorite Newsletter, available on the Web at ( and mailed to researchers worldwide.

Discovery of this meteorite occurred during the fourth full field season
of a cooperative effort by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to enhance recovery of rare meteorite types in Antarctica, in the hopes new martian samples would be found.

So, how do rocks from the Moon get to Earth? As you might have figured out from the press release segment, bombardments and collisions knock rocks off of one body and send then careening through space. Eventually, if orbits match, those rocks stray into Earth’s orbit and come to rest on our planet. Rocks from Mars have also made the trip, taking a little longer than rocks from the Moon. No matter where they come from, however, meteorites give us fascinating glimpses into their parent bodies and into their histories.

This rock appears to be evidence from early in the Moon’s formative period, when molten lavas were cooling deep beneath the surface. How this particular rock got blasted loose and sent on its way to Earth is a story waiting to be told. I suspect it will involve a massive impact and tremendous outbursts of rock from the Moon.

Where in the Cosmos do You Want to Go?

September 8, 2006 at 12:03 pm | Leave a Comment
Distant black hole, courtesy National Observatory of Japan, Subaru Telescope.

Distant black hole, courtesy National Observatory of Japan, Subaru Telescope.

I’ve always wanted to be a space traveler, ever since I was a kid. The first place I remember wanting to visit was Saturn because I saw a picture of it in a book. It was such an alien-looking place.

Later on, as I grew older, I focused on Mars. Not sure why, but it was a great kids’ game to play “search for monsters on Mars” in the fields near our house. When I outgrew that it was the mid-60s and NASA was sending people in orbit around Earth and testing for the Apollo missions. Then I guess I wanted to go to the Moon.

Lately, I’ve been doing more work (writing and editing) about objects out as far in the universe as we can detect. These objects are galaxies, and some of them exist at a time when the universe was perhaps 700 to 800 thousand years old. That’s pretty darned early for a galaxy, given the current state of thought about galaxy evolution. But, if we’re seeing them that far back, then we’ll have to adjust our theories about how and when galaxies first formed. That’s the way science works. You observe it, then you explain it.

There are also black holes out there, not quite as far as the most distant galaxy, but darned close.

So, now I want to go to the most distant reaches of the universe and sample what happened back at the time when those distant galaxies and that black hole formed. Because, as you know, farther out in space takes you further back in time.

Of course, the best way for me to explore that era is to follow along as astronomers look farther out there, searching for the birth of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. It’s amazing to me, as that little kid who couldn’t wait to get to Saturn, that we can now see so far out in the cosmos.

So, where do YOU want to go?

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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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