Tag Archives: science

Skiing dry ice boulders on Mars

Dune slope, with grooves, in Russell Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image and video time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows something that when I spotted it in reviewing the newest image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found it very baffling. The photo was taken on March 3, 2020, and shows an incredible number of linear groves on the slope of a large dune inside Russell Crater, located in the Martian southern highlands at about 54 degrees south latitude.

If these were created by boulders we should see them at the bottom of each groove. Instead, the grooves generally seem to peter out as if the boulder rolling down the slope had vanished. Making this even more unlikely is that the top of the slope simply does not have sufficient boulders to make all these groves.

The image was requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who when I emailed her in bafflement she responded like so:
» Read more

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ESA resumes science operations on orbiting spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reactivated four science spacecraft, two in Mars orbit and two headed for the Sun, after putting them in safe mode because the agency had shut down many operations due to one person becoming infected with COVID-19.

Fortunately, the initial case remained the only one as the people in quarantine did not develop any symptoms. “When we shut down science, we established very clear criteria to decide when it would restart, and as of this weekend we have begun to gradually bring the missions back into their normal state,” adds Paolo.

…Because of preventative measures taken early to limit the chance of infection spreading, the situation at ESOC is now stable. The few individuals that periodically go on site are predominantly working in isolation, and generally do not even meet each other. If they have to be in the same room, they follow very strict social distancing rules and protections.

It remains unclear whether this reactivation means there will be sufficient staffing for the fly-by of Earth by ESA’s BepiColumbo Mercury mission on April 10th. The information at the link is very encouraging, but it is also an official statement from ESA. Getting the real truth from such statements is not guaranteed.

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Enigmas on Mars

Enigmas on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a perfect example of the difficulty of explaining the alien landscapes on Mars, based on orbital imagery. It was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 23, 2020.

In this one image alone we have the following strange features, all within an area about 8 by 11 miles in size:

  • Several small very obvious pedestal craters (near the top right), some located inside depressions. Pedestal craters are created because the surrounding terrain eroded away around them. Since these are pedestals, however, why are they also inside depressions?
  • Two large circular mesas that appear to vaguely have terraced erosion. These might also be pedestal craters, but maybe not. They also sit much higher than the pedestal craters above. Either way, the mesas remained while the terrain around them eroded away.
  • Several normal craters with a series of circular features within each. At this latitude, 34 degrees south, it is possible these craters are filled with buried ice, what scientists call concentric crater filled glaciers.
  • A light-colored string of ridges aligned to almost look like a kite with tail. The light color says this ridge is not made up of the same material as the circular mesas and pedestal craters, but it too was not eroded away.
  • A number of small bean-shaped depressions (just south of the biggest circular mesa and near the top left). Don’t ask me what caused them. I have no idea.

Overview map

The spot is located in the Martian southern cratered highlands, as shown by the blue cross in the overview map to the right. Complicating its geological history is that it sits inside a very gigantic very old and degraded crater, with numerous newer smaller impacts overlaid on top. Any explanation needs to include these impacts, and the ejecta from them.

If you click on the image and study the full resolution photograph, you can find even more enigmatic features. For most there is a reasonable geological theory. Putting them all in one place and somehow getting all those different explanations to fit together however is far more difficult.

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Triple impact on Moon

Impact craters Messier and Messier A on the Moon

Cool image time! A new image release from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) takes a look at the impact process that created the crater Messier and its neighbor crater Messier A. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, shows both craters.

Take a close look at Messier A. It is actually a double crater itself. From the release:

Messier A crater, located in Mare Fecunditatis, presents an interesting puzzle. The main crater is beautifully preserved, with a solidified pond of impact melt resting in its floor. But there is another impact crater beneath and just to the west of Messier A. This more subdued and degraded impact crater clearly formed first.

Did these three craters happen as separate events. According to the data, it appears no. Instead, they might have all been part of a single rain of asteroids, all occurring in seconds.
» Read more

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It ain’t simple keeping a camera functioning properly in orbit around Mars

ADC settings test on MRO
Click for full image.

In doing my normal exploration through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the last to occur near the end of February, I came across a slew of 49 images, each labeled as an “ADC Settings Test,” each covering a completely different location with no obvious single object of study, almost as if they were taken in a wildly random manner.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a typical example. It shows the mega dunes located near the end of the canyon Chasma Boreale that cuts a giant slash into the Martian north polar ice cap, almost cutting off one third of the icecap.

The black areas are shadows, long because being at the high latitude of 84 degrees the Sun never gets very high in the sky, even though this image was taken just before mid-summer, when the Sun was at its highest.

I was puzzled why these images were being taken, and contacted Ari Espinoza, the media rep for the high resolution camera, to ask if he could put me in touch with a scientist who could provide an explanation. He in turn suggested I contact Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who coincidentally I had already spoken with several times before in connection with the annual summer avalanche season at the Martian north pole.

Dr. Byrne first suggested I read this abstract [pdf], written for the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science conference by the camera’s science team. In it they outline two issues with the camera, one blurred images and the second an increasing number of bad pixels occurring in images over time.

The first problem has since been solved. To preserve battery life — another long term problem that they have to deal with — they had adjusted the orbiter’s orbit slightly to get more sunlight and stopped warming the camera during the night periods. “That had the unfortunate effect of changing the camera’s focus,” explained Byrne. “Since we understand that now, we do warm-ups before taking the images and that fixed the blurring problem.”

The other problem however remains, and these ADC test images are an effort to fix it.
» Read more

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In the midst of Mars’ volcano country

lava channel
Click for full image.

Cool image time! While the rest of the world is entirely focused on panic and disease, I am going to go on with my life. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 26, 2019. I suspected this channel was lava, and when I asked Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona, he confirmed my suspicion.

Yes, that surface appears to be lava–it is part of the Elysium plains, which have many geologically-young lava flows. It’s likely that the channel is a lava channel, and the surrounding plains may be from an earlier stage of the same eruption.

The entire surface of the channel and the surrounding plains appear very fresh, mostly because of their smoothness and lack of many craters. You can also see what looks like a recent impact (the small dark splotch near the left edge about two-thirds from the top).

The fresh and smooth look of Elysium Planitia generally has led scientists to conclude that much of this region is formed from lava flows, some relatively recently. Thus, this particular lava channel is smack dab in the middle of Mars’ volcano country, quite vast and extensive. The context map below illustrates this.
» Read more

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Europe’s BepiColumbo mission to Mercury threatened by COVID-19

Because of the strict rules and work suspensions imposed due to the Wuhan virus panic, there will be a reduced workforce during the April 10, 2020 fly-by of Earth by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) BepiColumbo Mercury mission.

The press release tries to make it sound like they are heroically working through the fly-by, but the truth is revealed far down in the text:

The operation, however, will be performed with limited personnel at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, where engineers will have to comply with social distancing rules presently in place all over Europe as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. “The Earth swing-by is a phase where we need daily contact with the spacecraft,” says Elsa Montagnon, BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESA. “This is something that we cannot postpone. The spacecraft will swing by Earth independently in any case.”

The coronavirus threat forces the team to work with minimal face to face interaction while ensuring all steps in the process are properly covered. “During the critical two weeks prior to the closest approach, we need to upload safety commands to prepare the spacecraft for unexpected problems,” says Christoph Steiger, BepiColombo Deputy Spacecraft Operations Manager. “For example, we need to prepare the transfer module for the 34 minute-long eclipse when its solar panels will not be exposed to sunlight to prevent battery discharge.”

Operations can still be conducted as planned, he adds, but will require more effort and attention than in a normal situation. [emphasis mine]

I suspect that much of the software work is now being done remotely, but there is no doubt the inability to be present in the control room will prevent any quick fix, should the spacecraft need help during the fly-by.

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Quick fading of a Martian impact crater

Fresh impact crater on Mars, in 2010
Click for full image.

The same impact, four Martian years later.
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Though it seems that no one is really interested in anything but the Wuhan virus and the attempt by our corrupt politicians to use it to gain power, I think that life requires more from us than politics and panic. Thus, I am going to keep posting pure science and cool images.

The two photos to the right were taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) almost ten years apart. They were both posted as captioned images, the first in 2010, the second on March 19, 2020 to illustrate the remarkable fading of a fresh impact’s dark ejecta, in only about four Martian years.

The March 19, 2020 captioned image included an animation to illustrate the change. I prefer putting the two images side-by-side. Either way, the change is striking. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen noted in his caption, “the dark material has faded into the background, while the new 6.3-meter diameter crater persists.”

Wind and dust storms probably acted to wipe out the dark material, but the process did not take that long, and last year’s global dust storm was not a major factor, since much of the dark material was already gone in this July 2012 image.

The crater itself is located in Arcadia Planitia, just west of the Erebus Mountains, the very region in the northern lowlands that SpaceX has made its primary candidate landing site for its Starship rocket, partly because the terrain is flat which makes landing easy, and partly because there is amply evidence that these lowlands have lots of ice just below the surface. And the full image for the 2019 photo reinforces this conclusion. Much of the rougher ground south of the impact appears to be the partially sublimated surface of an ice block.

So, while this region will provide an easy smooth landing site and plenty of water for the first human arrivals, those humans will also have to contend with a planet without a thick atmosphere to protect them from most meteorites. Rare as these events are, they happen more often because of Mars’ location closer to the asteroid belt, and they hit the surface far more frequently.

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Mars: Volcanic, Glacial, or Fluvial?

Sinuous ridge on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on September 30, 2019. It shows what the image title dubs a “sinuous ridge” in a region called Tempe Terra.

What caused it? At first glance the meandering nature of the ridge suggests it was originally a riverbed, formed by flowing water. Eventually the water dried up, and because that riverbed was made of harder material than the surrounding terrain, long term erosion caused that surrounding terrain to wear away, leaving a raised ridge where the river used to be. Scientists have found many such inverted channels on Mars.

Not so fast!
» Read more

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New radio telescope discovers many new Fast Radio Bursts

A new radio telescope in Canada, designed to detect the mysterious and as-yet unexplained Fast Radio Bursts (FRB), has in the past year raised the total of known FRBs from 30 to 700, including nine repeating bursts.

This confirms an earlier very preliminary analysis that there were two different types of bursts, those that repeat and those that don’t.

Warning: It is very dangerous to take these results too seriously. A lot of uncertainty exists, including some basic facts about the bursts.

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European planetary missions go dark because of Wuhan virus

The European Space Agency has suspended operations and shut down several planetary missions, including two Mars orbiters and two solar missions, because of lockdowns imposed because of COVID-19.

The problem is that they don’t have enough people in their mission controls to operate everything. They are shutting these down so that they can continue operations on their Mecury mission BepiColumbo, for example.

The article also tries to lay the blame for the recently announced launch delay of Europe’s Mars 2020 rover to 2022 on the virus, but that’s false. The mission was delayed because it simply wasn’t ready.

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Martian plateaus and buttes

Martian plateaus and buttes
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Cool image time! Rather than sit in cowering fear, as it appears too many worldwide are doing, I am going to stay calm and carry on. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced in resolution to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 20, 2020. It shows a small section of a region dubbed Iani Chaos, a terrain dubbed such by scientists because of its cracked and chaotic nature, flat-topped mesas cut by canyons and fissures.

Chaos terrain is generally found in the transition zones on Mars between its southern highlands and northern lowlands. It was formed over time by erosion processes, either liquid water or ice, that slowly washed out the material along fault-lines, leaving mesas behind. This particular spot in Iani Chaos appears to be late in this process, with the gaps between the buttes wide and many of the mesas worn down into pointy knobs.

The location of Iani Chaos, as shown in the map below, tells us much about its history.
» Read more

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Layers upon layers upon layers on Mars

Layered mesa on Mars
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Cool image time! Or rather, a bunch of cool images! On February 17, 2020 the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) released a very cool captioned photograph of a terraced mesa in a crater just north of Hellas Basin, shown in the image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here.

The color strip down the center of this image illustrates how the colors of the different layers indicate the different make-up of each. These distinctions are not obvious in black & white. That array of colors also leads to some very beautiful scenery, as noted by planetary scientist Alfred McEwen in his caption:

Sedimentary layers record a history of Mars’ erosion and deposition by water and wind, and they make great landscapes for future interplanetary parks.

That this terraced mesa is located on the northern edge of Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars, is possibly not surprising. Other similarly terraced mesas like this have been found on the basin’s eastern edge, highlighted in my September 2019 post. The geology here appears to encourage this kind of erosion, where the different sedimentary bedrock layers erode away at different rates, leaving behind terraced mesas.

Terraced layers on Mars however come in other varieties, some of which build up over time instead of getting eroded away.
» Read more

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Webb telescope further delayed by COVID-19

As part of its decision to shut down most of the agency’s operations due to fear of the COVID-19 virus, NASA’s has suspended all work on the James Webb Telescope, further delaying this much delayed space telescope.

The follow-on to the popular Hubble Space Telescope [Ed: a NASA lie that is not true], years late and billions over budget, it was on track for launch in March 2021, though some NASA officials were hinting there might be another delay. Today’s action almost certainly assures it. “The James Webb Space Telescope team … is suspending integration and testing operations. Decisions could be adjusted as the situation continues to unfold over the weekend and into next week. The decision was made to ensure the safety of the workforce. The observatory remains safe in its cleanroom environment.” — NASA

I must repeat this incessantly, as it appears too many modern space reporters are very ignorant about their own field. Webb is not a” follow-on to Hubble.” Astronomers made the decision in the late 1990s to build an infrared space telescope instead, which is what Webb is. For more than a decade they, and NASA, lied to the public about this, claiming Webb was a better version of Hubble, in order to garner support for building Webb.

I have been calling NASA on lie this since 2008, when I wrote The Universe in a Mirror, which I think eventually forced the agency to stop doing it. It is shameful however for a reporter now, in 2020, to still spread it.

As for Webb, this decision by NASA will certainly delay it again. The project is already fourteen years behind schedule, with its budget ballooning from $500 million to about $10 billion. All told, a perfect example of government in action.

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Friday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Global distribution of Martian ice scarps
Today was supposed to have been the last day at the cancelled 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference. As such, only a half day of presentations had been scheduled in order to give participants the option of returning home sooner.

While many of the abstracts of the planned-but-now-cancelled presentations were on subjects important to the scientists but not so interesting to the general public, two sessions, one on Martian buried glaciers/ice and a second focused on Mercury, would have made the day very worthwhile to this science journalist, had I been there.

The map above, from the first abstract [pdf] of the Mars session, might possibly epitomize our present knowledge of ice/glaciers on Mars. It provides an update of the continuing survey of ice scarps in the high mid-latitudes of Mars (see the most recent post on Behind the Black from February 12, 2020). Clearly, the more they look, the more they find of these ice scarps, cliff faces with visible exposed pure ice layers that will be relatively easy to access.

But then, finding evidence of some form of buried ice on Mars is becoming almost routine. Of the thirteen abstracts in this Mars session, ten described some sort of evidence of buried ice or glaciers on Mars, in all sorts of places, with the remaining three abstracts studying similar Earth features for comparison. The scientists found evidence of water ice on the top of one of Mars’ largest volcanoes (abstract #2299 [pdf]), in faults and fissures near the equator (#1997 [pdf]), in the eastern margin of one of Mars’ largest deep basins (#3070 [pdf]), in Gale Crater (#2609 [pdf]), in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and southern highlands (#1074 [pdf]), and of course in the northern mid-latitude lowland plains (#2648 [pdf] and #2872 [pdf]).

The results tell us not that there is water ice on Mars, but that it is very plentiful, and that its presence and behavior (as glaciers, as snowfall, and as an underground aquifer) make it a major factor in explaining the geology we see on Mars. I’ve even begun to get a sense that among the planetary scientists researching Mars there is an increasing consideration that maybe ice formed many of the river-like features we see on the surface, not flowing water as has been assumed for decades. This theory has not yet become dominate or even popular, but I have been seeing mention of it increasingly in papers, in one form or another.

If this possibility becomes accepted, it would help solve many Martian geological mysteries, primary of which is the fact that scientists cannot yet explain how water flowed as liquid on the surface some time ago in Mars’ long geological history, given its theorized atmosphere and climate. If ice did the shaping, then liquid water (in large amounts) would not be required.

Now, on to the Mercury session.
» Read more

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Inactive hot springs on Mars?

Inactive hot springs on Mars?
Click for full image.

Overview of Vernal Crater

Cool image time! In prepping my report of the interesting abstracts from Friday of the cancelled 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference (to be posted later today), I found myself reading an abstract [pdf] from the astrobiology session about the possibility of now inactive hot springs on Mars! This was such a cool image and possibility I decided to post it separately, first.

The top image to the right, cropped and expanded to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009. It shows some dark elliptical splotches inside the floor of a crater dubbed Vernal. The second image to the right, taken from the abstract, shows the context, with the top image a wide shot showing the southern half of Vernal Crater where these features are located, and the bottom image zooming into the area of interest. The white box focuses on the elliptical features seen in the first image above. From the abstract:

The elliptical features consist of concentric halos of high but varying albedo, where the highest albedo in each occurs in a small central zone that mimics the shape of the larger anomaly. Each feature is also traversed by circumferential fractures. Several similar tonal features extend for 5-6 km, on stratigraphic trend with the elliptical features. Hypotheses considered for the origin of the elliptical features included springs, mud/lava volcanoes, pingos, and effects of aeolian erosion, ice sublimation, or dust, but the springs alternative was most compatible with all the data.

The abstract theorizes that the small ligher central zone is where hot water might have erupted as “focused fluid injection” (like a geyser), spraying the surround area to form the dark ellipses.

I must emphasize that this hypothesis seems to me very tenuous. We do not really have enough data to really conclude these features come from a formerly active hot spring or geyser, though that certainly could be an explanation. In any case, the geology is quite intriguing, and mysterious enough to justify further research and even a future low cost mission, such as small helicopter drone, when many such missions can be launched frequently and cheaply.

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NASA considering shutting down Curiosity in 2021

Even as the space agency is about to launch a new rover to Mars, it is considering cutting operations for the rover Curiosity as well as considering shutting down its operation as soon as 2021.

Other ongoing missions are threatened by the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. “The FY21 budget that the president just recently submitted overall is extremely favorable for the Mars program, but available funding for extended mission longevity is limited,” [said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program].

That request would effectively end operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, and reduce the budget for Curiosity from $51.1 million in 2019 to $40 million in 2021, with no funding projected for that rover mission beyond 2021.

The penny-wise-pound-foolish nature of such a decision is breath-taking. Rather than continue, for relatively little cost, running a rover already in place on Mars, the agency will shut it down. And why? So they can initiate other Mars missions costing millions several times more money.

Some of the proposed cuts, such as ending the U.S. funding for Europe’s Mars Express orbiter, make sense. That orbiter has accomplished relatively little, and Europe should be paying for it anyway.

These decisions were announced during a live-stream NASA townhall that was originally to have occurred live at the cancelled Lunar & Planetary Science conference. I suspect its real goal is to garner support for more funding so that the agency will not only get funds for the new missions, it will be able to fund the functioning old ones as well.

Sadly, there would be plenty of money for NASA’s well-run planetary program if our Congress and NASA would stop wasting money on failed projects like Artemis.

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Thursday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Jezero Crater, under theorized ocean

It is now time for today’s virtual report from the non-existent 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference, cancelled because of the terrified fear of COVID-19.

Unlike the previous three days, the bulk of the abstracts for presentations planned for today are more what I like to call “in-the-weeds” reports. The science is all good, but it is more obscure, the kind of work the scientists will be interested in but will generally hold little interest to the general public. For example, while very important for designing future missions, most of the public (along with myself) is not very interested in modeling studies that improve the interpretation of instrument data.

This does not mean there were no abstracts of interest. On the contrary. For today the most interesting sessions in the conference program centered on Mars as well as research attempting to better track, identify, and study Near Earth asteroids (NEAs).

The map above for example shows the location of Jezero Crater, where the rover Perseverance will land in 2021, under what one abstract [pdf] proposed might have been an intermittent ocean. The dark blue indicates where the topography suggests that ocean might have existed, while also indicating its shoreline. If it existed in the past, Perseverance might thus find evidence of features that were “marine in origin.” This ocean would also help explain the gigantic river-like delta that appears to pour into Jezero Crater from its western highland rim.

There were a lot of other abstracts looking closely at Jezero Crater, all in preparation for the upcoming launch of Perseverance in July, some mapping the site’s geology, others studying comparable sites here on Earth.

Other Mars-related abstracts of interest:
» Read more

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French and American studies find drug that can treat COVID-19

It isn’t a vaccine that will prevent infection, but tests in France and in the U.S. now show that a drug normally used to treat malaria is very effective in reducing the symptoms of the Wuhan virus.

He said that the first Covid-19 patients he had treated with the drug chloroquine had seen a rapid and effective speeding up of their healing process, and a sharp decrease in the amount of time they remained contagious.

Chloroquine – which is normally used mainly to prevent and treat malaria – was administered via the named drug, Plaquenil.

The drug is readily available and can be prescribed to anyone who is considered threatened by the virus to help them get better why reducing the chances of them giving it to others.

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Comet C/2019 ATLAS brightening

Comet ATLAS, discovered in 2019 by a telescopic survey looking for near Earth asteroids, is brightening more than expected as it approaches the Sun, and could by May be visible to the naked eye.

Jonathan Shanklin, Director of the British Astronomical Association’s Comet Section, reports that the current comet, C/2019 Y4, brightened quite rapidly in mid February, and adds “as of March 11 there is no sign of a slowdown in the rate of brightening. It is already visible in large binoculars . . . The uncertainty in brightness at the time of perihelion is large, though the worst case indicator is 2nd magnitude. It will remain well placed for UK observers into May and could become a prominent object.”

If 2nd magnitude is the dimmest they presently expect, this comet will be one of the brightest objects in the sky come May. Stay tuned!

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Wednesday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

The Moon's south pole

My virtual coverage of the cancelled 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference continues today with a review of the abstracts of presentations that were planned for today, but unfortunately will never be presented.

As a side note, the social shutdown being imposed on America due to the panic over COVID-19 has some side benefits, as has been noted in a bunch of stories today. Not only will this possibly destroy the power the left has on college campuses as universities quickly shift to online courses, it will also likely put an end to the endless science conferences that are usually paid for by U.S. tax dollars. (That cost includes not just the expense of the conference, but the fees and transportation costs of the participants, almost all of whom get the money from either their government job or through research grants from the government.)

Anyway, for good or ill, the virus shut down the planetary conference in Texas this week, forcing me to post these daily summaries based not on real presentations where I would have interviewed the scientists and gotten some questions answered, but on their abstracts placed on line beforehand. Today, the three big subjects were the south pole of the Moon (as shown in the map above from one abstract [pdf], produced by one instrument on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO]), the Martian environment, and Titan. I will take them it that order.
» Read more

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Secondary impacts in water ice on Mars

Secondary impact in water ice on Mars
Click for full resolution image.

Cool image time! Today the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) released a beautiful captioned image of a secondary impact of an object into the icy plains of Utopia Planitia, the northern lowlands northeast of where the rover Perseverance will land in 2021. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows one of several secondary craters in the full image. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen explains in the caption,

One interpretation [for the crater’s unusual appearance] is that the impact crater exposed nearly pure water ice, which then sublimated away where exposed by the slopes of the crater, expanding the crater’s diameter and producing a scalloped appearance. The small polygons are another indicator of shallow ice.

Note the dunes at the bottom of the crater. This has become a trap of wind-blown sand and dust. Note also how this secondary impact gives us a rough idea of the thickness of this ice, based on the area sublimated away.

There is a lot of relatively accessible ice in those northern lowlands, which is why SpaceX likes them for its possible landing site for Starship. That candidate site is in Arcadia Planitia, on the other side of Mars, but it is still in these same northern lowlands, where scientists have found lots of evidence of buried ice.

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COVID-19: the unwarranted panic

Four more stories today indicate once again that the worldwide panic over the corona/COVID-19/Wuhan virus is strongly unwarranted:

The first report, from the science journal Science, provides an update on the situation in South Korea, where testing for the virus has been the most thorough of any nation in the world and where, because of that extensive testing, has shown the death rate has turned out to be far lower than the preliminary statistics have suggested. Out of a population of 50 million, slightly more than 8,000 have been infected, with only 81 dying. This is a death rate of 0.9%, higher than the flu’s 0.1% but not horribly so. And like the flu, most of those deaths have been among the elderly.

The numbers there are now dropping, indicating that the disease might have run its course without causing a catastrophic disaster. There is still a chance it could break out again, but the data suggests otherwise.

Moreover, South Korea controlled the situation without any strong-arm authoritarian tactics, as seen in China and as becoming popular here in the formerly free U.S.

“South Korea is a democratic republic, we feel a lockdown is not a reasonable choice,” says Kim Woo-Joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University.

It sadly appears that South Koreans might value freedom more than too many of today’s Americans.

The second article describes research from Wuhan in Hubei province in China, reconfirming the South Korean data. There it appears the death rate was 1.4%, only slightly higher than in South Korea. And once again, the death rate is mostly confined to the older population with already existing health issues, like the flu:
» Read more

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Tuesday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Boulder on Bennu with changes in layered texture changes

Today was supposed to have been the second day of the week-long 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Conference, sadly cancelled due to fear of the Wuhan virus. As I had planned to attend, I am now spending each day this week reviewing the abstracts of the planned presentations, and giving my readers a review of what scientists had hoped to present. Because I am not in the room with these scientists, however, I cannot quickly get answers to any questions I might have, so for these daily reports my reporting must be more superficial than I would like.

On this day the most significant reports came from scientists working on the probes to the asteroids Bennu and Ryugu as well as the probes to the Moon. The image to right for example is from one abstract [pdf] that studied the texture differences found fourteen boulders on Bennu. The arrows point to the contacts between the different textures, suggesting the existence of layers. Such layers could not have been created on Bennu. Instead, these rocks must have formed on a parent body large enough and existing long enough for such geological processes to take place. At some point that parent body was hit, flinging debris into space that eventually reassembled into the rubble pile of boulders that is Bennu.

Other abstracts from scientists from both the Hayabusa-2 mission to Ryugu and the OSIRIS-REx mission to Bennu covered a whole range of topics:
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Monday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Today I had planned on attending the first day of the 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science Conference in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. Sadly, for the generally foolish and panicky reasons that is gripping America these days, the people in charge, all scientists, decided to cancel out of fear of a virus that so far appears generally only slightly more dangerous than the flu, though affecting far far far fewer people.

Anyway, below are some of the interesting tidbits that I have gleaned from the abstracts posted for each of Monday’s planned presentations. Unfortunately, because I am not in the room with these scientists, I cannot get my questions answered quickly, or at all. My readers must therefore be satisfied with a somewhat superficial description.
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China on track for Mars launch in July?

Two stories today, one from Nature and the second from space.com, pushed the idea that China’s Mars orbiter/lander/rover mission is still on schedule to meet the July launch window.

A close read of both stories however revealed very little information to support that idea.

The Nature article provided some details about how the project is working around travel restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 virus epidemic. For example, it told a story about how employees drove six scientific instruments by car to the assembly point rather than fly or take a train, thereby avoiding crowds.

What struck me however was that this supposedly occurred “several days ago,” and involved six science payloads that had not yet been installed on the spacecraft. To be installing such instrumentation at this date, only four months from launch, does not inspire confidence. It leaves them almost no time for thermal and vibration testing of the spacecraft.

The article also provided little information about the status of the entire project.

The space.com article was similar. Lots of information about how China’s space program is dealing with the epidemic, but little concrete information about the mission itself, noting “the lack of official comment on the mission.” Even more puzzling was the statement in this article that the rover “underwent its space environment testing in late January.”

I wonder how that is possible if those six instruments above had not yet been installed. Maybe the instruments were for the lander or orbiter, but if so that means the entire package is not yet assembled and has not been thoroughly tested as a unit. Very worrisome.

Posting today has been light because I was up most of the night dealing with a family health issue, meaning that I ended up sleeping for several hours during the day. All is well, nothing serious (it is NOT coronavirus), but it has left my brain and schedule very confused. Will likely take a good night’s sleep to get back to normal.

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Black dunes and weird hills on Mars

Black dunes and weird hills on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Or I should say a bunch of cool images! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated by me, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 3, 2020. An uncaptioned image, it was entitled “Arabia Terra with Stair-Stepped Hills and Dark Dunes.” Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone on Mars between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands. It is also where Opportunity landed, and where Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover will land, in 2022.

This image has so many weird and strange features, I decided to show them all, Below are the three areas indicated by the white boxes, at full resolution. One shows the black dunes, almost certainly made up of sand ground from volcanic ash spewed from a long ago volcanic eruption on Mars.
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