Martian Chronicles has Moved!

Posted October 28, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: Uncategorized

That’s right folks! As of today, this blog has moved over to the AGU Blogosphere! So, head over to check out my new digs and update your bookmarks and RSS feeds While you’re there, take a look at the other excellent blogs that are part of the network.

I’ll keep cross-posting here for a little while to give you a little time to make the switch, but pretty soon this version of the blog will be retired.

Planets Like Grains of Sand

Posted November 1, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: Uncategorized

There’s a new post up at the new home of The Martian Chronicles about a recent study that suggests that one in four sun-like stars had earth-sized planets. Head on over and check it out, and update your bookmarks and subscriptions for the new site! I won’t be posting here for much longer…

The Tubes of Mars

Posted October 27, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: Skepticism

Last week was my birthday, and I unexpectedly got a gift in the mail from my cousin. We don’t normally exchange birthday gifts, but she came across a t-shirt called “Tubes of Mars” and just had to buy it for me. Apparently, this line of shirts is capitalizing on various wacky conspiracy theories and they decided to use one of my favorites, the “glass tubes on Mars” idea.

The shirt itself has a swirly-looking abstract design on it, but then down in the corner it has a caption in fine print explaining:

Photographs taken from Martian orbit reveal what appear to be miles and miles of ribbed ‘tubes’ on the surface of the red planet. It is estimated that these tubes have diameters of close to 600 feet. Some have tried to explain these formations as a the result of geological processes. Others believe they are organic in nature. Yet some are convinced the tubes may have been constructed.

If you’re not familiar with this hoax, let me explain, starting with a picture.

Here's a HiRISE view of some channels on Mars full of aeolian ripples.

See the numerous light-toned ridges arrayed along that canyon floor? There is a group of people who claim that these features are actually the support struts of transparent tubes that crisscross the martian surface. I’ll grant that if you have no idea what you’re looking at, these things might sort of look like a tube of some sort, but it’s actually an illusion. The light-toned ridges are ripples of wind-blown material, likely coarse sand or gravel. These are seen all over the place on Mars, and they don’t always look so tubular. Heck, the Opportunity rover has been driving across ripples like these for years! The thing that is confusing people is that these ripples are extremely common in canyons, and because the canyons funnel the surface winds so that they blow down the length of the trough, the ripples are oriented perpendicular to the canyon walls. If you look closely you can see that these are clearly wind-blown ripples. Take this HiRISE image for example:

Here's a HiRISE view of some channels on Mars full of aeolian ripples.

The channels in this image are filled with aeolian ripples. If you were really determined to see a tube, I suppose you could at the scale shown above, but if we zoom in even more that explanation disintegrates:

You can see here that the larger ripples break up into more complicated ripples toward the edges, and that there is a secondary wind direction forming small ripples perpendicular to the big ones.

I’ve always found the belief that these features are some sort of glass tubes on Mars to be both funny and sad at the same time. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the very interesting geology at work on Mars (and Earth), along with a somewhat disturbing willingness to see evidence of outlandish claims and conspiracies everywhere. Those of us in Mars science are all too familiar with this. There’s a long tradition of seeing what you want to see on Mars, going all the way back to the famous “canals”. These days, no scientists really think there’s macroscopic evidence of life on Mars, but I think there is still a very strong desire among scientists and the public for early Mars to have been “warm and wet” (a.k.a. Earth-like). Maybe it really was earth-like, but maybe it wasn’t. We all need to be vigilant and make sure the way we want Mars to be doesn’t cloud our conclusions.

RIP Mandelbrot

Posted October 18, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: TED

Outpost Tavern and the End of an Era

Posted October 17, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: Humans in Space, NASA, space policy

The Outpost Tavern burned down Friday night. The Outpost was a rickety little tavern in Houston a couple miles from Johnson Space Center, famous as a hang-out for astronauts and other NASA folks. It went out of business earlier this year and it has apparently now met its fiery demise.

I first visited the Outpost when I was in the 2006 Goddard NASA Academy. 20 of us showed up without notice at this little bar with one bartender and a couple of regulars. They were completely overwhelmed by the sudden burst of business, but amazingly, the regulars got up and lent the bartender a hand in the kitchen, and we all got our burgers and beer in impressively little time. We followed the tradition and signed our names to a dollar bill and posted it on the wall along with all the other signed bills and various astronaut paraphernalia.

Future NASA heroes enjoying dinner at The Outpost.

But I mention the end of the Outpost not just so I can share that anecdote with you. I mentioned it because I came across an interesting commentary on the Outpost as a metaphor for NASA in general over at Elliott Potter’s blog Implementation, Detail.

This excerpt really stood out to me:

Now it’s 40 years later. Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle’s proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me. Why? Not because it’s hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology – it’s because small-minded people won’t let science fiction become reality.

Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost. Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday’s paper heroes – Shuttle astronauts who can’t bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren’t viewed as heroes.

I agree with most of this, but I think more than just the Old Guard lament the loss of the Outpost and the era that it stood for. I certainly am sad to see it go even though I share Potter’s disappointment with the tendency for NASA to cling to the past. The early days of NASA have become almost mythological precisely because there were heroes, and it’s very difficult for people to imagine a different type of NASA with different types of heroes. But that’s exactly what we need. The tendency has always been to try to recreate those glory days of NASA, but we live in a different world and we have to accept there are other ways for space exploration to advance.

I sincerely hope that as NASA attempts to move forward and send humans to Near Earth Objects and other destinations beyond low-earth orbit, it also remembers how to get the world excited again. I’ve talked about this before and Potter puts his finger on it: NASA needs heroes again, and people need to be comfortable with scientists and engineers being those heroes rather than Buck Rodgers-style steely-eyed missile men. You can show the average person all the spectacular pictures of space that you like, but they won’t truly get excited about what NASA does unless there is a human element to connect with. Human space exploration is perfect for building this connection with the public, but somehow NASA has lost the ability or the willingness to play on the inherent human drama of what it does.

I’ll close with the eloquent conclusion to Elliott Potter’s post because it sums things up better than I can:

America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future. We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. It doesn’t require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors. All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it – that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same. My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability – the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.

Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace. Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.

Martian Chronicles is Moving!

Posted October 13, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: Uncategorized

Big news folks! Sometime next week, this blog will be moving over to the American Geophysical Union‘s new blog network! AGU is the organization responsible for the Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets, which is one of the most important journals in planetary science, particularly for the terrestrial planets. AGU also hosts the enormous “fall” meeting each December, causing 16,000 scientists to descend on downtown San Francisco like over-educated locusts.

I’m really excited to be representing planetary science as part of the AGU blog network, and I’ll be in very good company. Here is a list of the other geobloggers who will be joining me in the move:

Dave’s Landslide Blog
by Dave Petly

Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal by Dan Satterfield

Mountain Beltway by Callan Bently

Magma Cum Laude by Jessica Ball

Terra Central by John Freeland

Outdoor Science by Vivienne Raper

I’ll keep you posted as the transition occurs, and I should be able to cross-post to both versions of The Martian Chronicles for a while to give you time to update your subscriptions. Stay tuned!

John Huchra

Posted October 12, 2010 by Ryan
Categories: Astronomy

Over the weekend I learned that observational cosmologist John Huchra passed away on Friday. I only met him once, when I was a summer intern at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He very graciously gave the group of summer interns an hour and a half of his time and told us about his research, and about the interplay between observation and theory in astronomy. But more than that he also shared his passion for discovery and learning about the universe. Hearing him talk got me much more excited at the prospect of becoming a scientist. Even though my scientific interests have drifted toward planets rather than cosmology, that morning spent with Dr. Huchra still sticks in my mind as one of the highlights of my first summer doing real research.

I jotted down this quote when Dr. Huchra was sharing the excitement of his research with a bunch of wide-eyed interns. It spoke to me then and I think of it every time I find myself burning the midnight oil for the sake of something I’m passionate about:

“The best sunrises are the ones you see as you’re going to bed.” -John Huchra

My condolences go out to his friends, families and colleagues who knew him much better than I did. Astronomy has lost a passionate leader. He will be missed.