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All posts for the month June, 2007

A short note for those of you who have been reading this with a newsfeed and are checking on the regular blog page to see what’s up. I switched to Feedburner a week or so back and have just found out that my feed isn’t working right. I’ve just spent two hours troubleshooting it with no relief. Email to Feedburner (Blogger help in this area is NO help) is on the way. So, I apologize for the outdated newsfeed. Hopefully it will get fixed soon.

Fixed! all thanks to Chris the Friendly at Feedburner support!!

Aristarchus Plateau (and crater) on the Moon, courtesy Hubble Space Telescope.

Aristarchus Plateau (and crater) on the Moon, courtesy Hubble Space Telescope.

A couple of days ago, just after I wrote here about humanity’s return to the Moon, I got an email from the web editor at Scientific American, pointing out an article about an interesting idea from a scientist who hopes to explain the phenomenon of lunar transients. The article, called Lunar “UFOs” May Be Volcanic Belches, describes work done by Arlin Crotts of Columbia University. He has been studying what he calls a “hairball of a data set” containing reports of flashes on the Moon’s surface that date back many years. In fact, people have been reporting strange flashes on the lunar plains since the 1500s. Crotts’s idea is that the flashes, if they really do exist, are the result of dust stirred up by emissions of radon gas belched out from under the lunar surface. Many of these “transients” appear to happen around the crater Aristarchus, which is known to be the most volcanically active region of the Moon in the past.

Crott’s idea is that volcanic gas is escaping from the lunar interior. When it reaches the surface, it disturbs the dust, creating what looks like a flash of light (since the dust is reflecting sunlight).

Now, it sounds plausible, but I was a little skeptical—as are other planetary scientists who are nonetheless interested in the idea. There are many questions about the interpretation he’s making, most of which can be answered with more research and data.

The first objection that popped into my head as I read the article (and I was glad to see somebody else bring up) is that these things, by their very nature, are transient. That makes them hard to predict and observe, and prediction and observations are at the heart of understanding what’s happening here. To really determine the cause, we need to observe more of them under more rigorous conditions. Crotts anticipates this and is setting up a robotic imaging system to track the Moon and watch for transients.

I suppose when we return to the Moon, lunar geologists will be able to study these phenomena in real time, which is a good argument for having people there to do the work. Not only will they be able to measure the emissions, but they can also monitor seismic conditions more closely and do more extensive surveys of the geologic makeup of the regions where these “UFOs” are lighting up the surface.

(Not that these are UFOs. I’m just echoing the headline, which uses the term “UFO” in quotes to indicate that they know these things aren’t little green men or aliens from the Pleiades or other nonsensical beings that the tinfoil crowd brings up every time there’s an unusual sighting in the sky.)

To Space

After I got out of college (the first time) I was working as a newspaper person, editing and sometimes writing the news for the Denver Post. I started as a newsroom editorial assistant, but before I knew it, I was writing science stories occasionally. One of the first big stories I covered was the Voyager 2 flyby of planet Saturn in 1981. That was a lot of fun and I got to meet a number of scientists and fellow science writers, some of whom I still see from time to time at various science meetings. I think the seed for my interest in going back to school to study astrophysics got planted in that busy, fascinating week of press conferences and discovery. The fact that I got sidetracked into science journalism is a separate story, but someday I’d like to get that degree in astrophysics… if I can ever find the time and money. But, I digress.

Not long after the Voyager encounter (which was the subject of a planetarium show I wrote a few years later), I got an invitation from an old college friend to attend a meeting in Boulder, Colorado, called the Case For Mars III. It was the third in a series of meetings where a lot of bright, energetic people sat down and roughed out plans for human exploration of the Red Planet. I attended as “press” but immediately got assigned to a propulsion systems study group that spent several days (and nights) sketching out the various propulsion needs for the eventual mission. It was our job to come up with the best “delivery methods” for the trans-Mars spacecraft as well as the landers the crew would need to shuttle back and forth to and from the surface. Other groups studied life sciences (how to keep the crews happy and alive during the long-duration mission), science goals (the geology, geography, biology, etc. of Mars), and social factors (crew selection, cultural aspects of “melting pot” crews, life in space, etc.)

There was a Case for Mars IV and so on, and in each meeting, the missions got honed down a little more, the cases were sharpened substantially, and it was clear that support for Mars missions was great, particularly in the science community.

Buzz Aldrin at work on the Moon

Buzz Aldrin at work on the Moon

The standard scenario we worked on went as follows (with some variations, but this is the general one):
1) Send a series of precursor missions to Mars to scout out the terrain, do some pre-landing science. These would be landers, mappers, orbiters, and sample-return missions.

2) Get to Earth orbit and build staging stations that would serve as construction yards for the trans-Mars spacecraft.

3) At the same time, return to the Moon and mine raw materials to build the craft (after first discerning whether or not those raw materials existed in abundance).

4) Build the things, while at the same time training the crews for the trip. The trip was a multi-year plan, based on getting to Mars at orbitally reasonable times, spending at least 180 days on the surface doing science and exploring, and then setting up for the next wave of explorers to land.

5) On Mars, there would be habitats, science stations, rovers, possibly some ultralite aircraft, and other infrastructure to maintain a modern science station.

Over the years I’ve seen part 1 happening pretty well. Some of the rovers are the grandchildren of the discussions we had in the early 1980s at the first CFM meetings. Part 2 is lagging, although we do have a space station that the world has been knocking together for a number of years now. The lessons learned there will be valuable no matter what else humans decide to build in Earth orbit. The actual scenarios may well vary widely from what we planned in the 1980s, but the basic framework remains the same: get to the Moon, then to Mars, in stages (when necessary).

At work on a future Mars mission

At work on a future Mars mission

Part 3, the getting to the Moon part, is now of a piece with NASA’s ‘return to the Moon’ effort. Last week NASA announced the selection of proposals for science experiments to be performed on the Moon, whenever it is that explorers return there. There’s a lot of science to be done. The first human missions to the Moon were short and limited to sample returns and a few experiments. They went well and whetted an entire generation’s taste for exploration. Despite a few decades of inactivity, I don’t think people have lost that taste. What we need now is a bit more bold exploration and a lot of public support for these first steps back out to space, and eventually to Mars. I’ve always been a Mars exploration kinda person. We’ve got a long way to go, and a lot of “next steps” to take before it’s a reality.