August 30, 2008 at 13:00 pm | Leave a Comment
…to Talk about Settling Venus?
A few years ago I had the honor of being invited by the World Science Fiction convention planners to give some science talks and be a panelist in a couple of discussion groups about some intriguing topics. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun and I’ve always wanted to attend a WorldCon, so I said “Yes.”
One of the two panels I participated in was about colonizing Venus. Yes, you read that right: colonizing a world that astronomer George Abell once described as the next best thing to being in Hell. It’s a cloud-covered, desolate, volcanic world with atmospheric pressure and temperatures so high (up to 462 C (865 F)) that surface-landing craft are destroyed after a short time. Put an unprotected human on that surface, and he or she wouldn’t live more than a few seconds before being crushed to death by the oppressive weight of the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere that bears layers of sulfur dioxide clouds (not to mention choking on sulfur fumes, enduring sulfuric acid rain, and frying in the heat).
So, what can be discussed about colonizing Venus? There are a lot of questions, and our panel of distinguished writers tried to tackle some of them.
The first one that comes to mind is “WHY???” As I’ve just shown, nobody can live on that surface. At least, not without massively protective habitats. Just getting to the surface would be an exercise in extreme danger.
So, that leaves living in the clouds. There have been some good SF stories about living in those clouds. I’m assuming that perhaps if in the future we have a civilization that has the money to throw at putting a station into the tops of Venus’s cloud decks, it would likely be an orbiting science research facility, a la the ISS. If so, that answers another question, “What would we do there?” We’re not likely to be there mining carbon dioxide — we seem to be making plenty of it here on Earth without having to get the expensive imported stuff. So, my guess is we’d be studying the complexities of the Venus atmosphere, perhaps in an effort to understand what’s happening to Earth’s atmosphere as a result of climate change. Or, because we’re interested in Venus and its evolution. Both are valid reasons. Simply going there to live is not likely a good enough reason to spend the money to go there and build stations.
But, let’s say that in the future, we do have a station there and scientists are happily studying Venus and sending back lots of data. What sort of place would it be? An ISS-like station? A huge floating city? Could such a place grow large enough to support a growing population, or act as a tourist destination? Who would own it? What would it cost to go there? What sort of people would live and work there? Or simply want to visit there?
Good questions, all. No simple answers presented themselves at our panel, and as I write this, I can think of a great many things that would have to happen before humans would take that first step toward a Venus colony. It’s not unthinkable, but I don’t think it’s the first place that humans would want to go once we figure out good ways to travel to other planets. Still, Venus may well yet attact some future adventure travelers, as my friend Paul Hodge wrote in his fabulous book, Higher Than Everest:
And yet, people will go to Venus. It is so close and its surface is so exotic that we cannot possibly resist the temptation to explore it. You might as well be among the first.
If so, then I think the operative question in that case would be: “When?”
August 29, 2008 at 19:04 pm | Leave a Comment
Opportunity Moves On
NASA’s Opportunity Rover on Mars is leaving Victoria Crater, a place it has been exploring for nearly one Earth year. It looked back toward Cape Verde, a rock promontory that has intriguing layers of rock that the rover could study. Those layers are treasure troves of information about the environment that existed on Mars when they were laid down, and in the geologic eras after that when the rocks were affected by weathering and other processes.
Now that Opportunity is back on flat ground, it taking off (slowly) across the Meridiani plains to study smaller rocks that were dug up and tossed out during long-ago impacts that created nearby craters. It’s the sort of standard planetary geology that people do on Earth, and we’re lucky to have the Mars rover to do it for us on the Red Planet. Read more and follow the mission along with the scientists, at NASA’s Mars web site.
August 28, 2008 at 21:33 pm | Leave a Comment
Word Clouds about Stars and Galaxies and…
This is cool! You can make an artsy word cloud of words from your blog or website! How? Just run on over to Wordle.com and make some word clouds. Here’s what MY Worldle word cloud looks like.
August 28, 2008 at 15:12 pm | Leave a Comment
With a Hydrogen Gas Prominence
Here’s the Sun as seen today through the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) today (August 28), with a few prominences dancing around along the limb (edge). Those are clouds of hot hydrogen gas streaming out along magnetic field lines from the sun’s “surface.” They may look small, but these fingers and prominences are thousands and thousands of kilometers long. They make handy targets through telescopes equipped with special solar filters.
Here’s just such a view from observer Pete Lawrence of Selsey, UK. It was posted on Spaceweather.com.
(Note: Earth has been added for scale — this is not a prominence reaching out for our planet.)
August 27, 2008 at 11:18 am | Leave a Comment
Galaxy Cluster Clash Points out Dark Matter
This image just released today may look like a galaxy cluster with some Photoshop airbrushing on it, but it’s really proof of an effect that had been observed once before but not completely proved. The Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory both studied the same area of the sky, looking at a collision of galaxy clusters into a giant supercluster, called MACS J0025.4-1222. The combined observations provide another clue to the existence and distribution of dark matter. This time the mechanism was provided by the cluster collision. When such objects collide, they pack a heck of a punch, and the energy of that punch separates dark matter from ordinary matter.
Here’s how the Chandra folks describe the mechanics of the collision: two galaxy clusters, each a quadrillion times the mass of the Sun, collided to form the system known as MACS J0025.4-1222. When they merged at speeds of millions of miles per hour, the hot gas in each cluster collided and slowed down, but the dark matter did not.
Optical images from Hubble were used to infer the distribution of the total mass — dark and ordinary matter — using a technique known as gravitational lensing (the blue area shows where light is “bent” as it passes by clumps and regions of dark matter and is influenced by the dark matter’s gravitational pull). Chandra data enabled astronomers to accurately map the position of the ordinary matter, mostly in the form of hot gas, which glows brightly in X-rays (the pink regions.) The separation between the material shown in pink and blue provides direct evidence for dark matter. The fact that it could be separated from baryonic matter in such a powerful collision is another clue to the nature of dark matter.
Understanding this unseen material, particularly how much of it there is in the universe, is key to our understanding of so many other things about the universe. The expansion of the universe, the ordering of large-scale structure (into clusters of galaxies, superclusters of galaxies), and even such aspects of galaxies as their rotation and merger rates are all affected by this dark matter. It permeates the universe, yet it is extraordinarily difficult to detect using conventional observational techniques. It’s “easier” to infer its existence by observing its affect on light, for example. Which is what gravitational lensing does, and what makes it such a useful tool for astronomy. While we still don’t know the entire story of dark matter, discoveries like these are helping “fill in the puzzle pieces.”
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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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