News from Mars: Laser-Blasting and Soil Sampling

mars_lifeAs the exploration of Mars goes on, the small army of robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters continue to provide us with information, photographs and discoveries that remind us of how great a mystery the Red Planet truly is. For instance, in the past month, two major stories have been announced concerning the nature of Martian soil, its ancient history, and some of the more exciting moments in it’s exploration.

For example, Curiosity made news as its high resolution camera caught an image of sparks being generated as it zapped a Martian rock. In it’s lifetime, the rover has used its million watt Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser to zap over 600 rock or soil targets as part of its mission. However, this was the first time that the rover team was able to get the arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the action as it occurred.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamThe ChemCam laser is used to determine the composition of Martian rocks and soils at a distance of up to 8 meters (25 feet). By hitting targets with several high-energy pulses, it is able to yield preliminary data for the scientists and engineers back at Earth to help them decide if a target warrants a closer investigation and, in rare cases, sampling and drilling activities.

ChemCam works through a process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The laser hits a target with pulses to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Successive laser shots are fired in sequence to gradually blast away thin layers of material. Each shot exposes a slightly deeper layer for examination by the ChemCam spectrometer.

Mars_novarockAs Curiosity fired deeper into the target rock – named “Nova” – it showed an increasing concentration of aluminum as the sequential laser blasts penetrated through the uninteresting dust on the rock’s surface. Silicon and sodium were also detected. As Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam’s Deputy Principal Investigator at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, said in a statement:

This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created… Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.

During it’s first year on Mars, Curiosity has already accomplished its primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer. Currently, the rover is driving swiftly to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, where it hopes to find more.

Mars_soilIn that same vein, according to new geological information obtained by Curiosty’s images and soil examinations, samples that were pulled out of a crater that is estimated to be some 3.7 billion years old contain more evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. These findings were announced in a recent paper published in the online edition of Geology by University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack.

Unlike Earth, the Martian landscape is littered with loose rocks from impacts or layered by catastrophic floods. However, recent images from Curiosity from the Gale Crater reveal Earth-like soil profiles with cracked surfaces lined with sulfate, ellipsoidal hollows and concentrations of sulfate comparable with soils in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedRetallack, the paper’s lone author, studied mineral and chemical data published by researchers closely tied with the Curiosity mission. As a professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontology research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, he internationally known as an expert on the recognition of paleosols – ancient fossilized soils contained in rocks.

As he explains in the paper:

The pictures were the first clue, but then all the data really nailed it. The key to this discovery has been the superb chemical and mineral analytical capability of the Curiosity Rover, which is an order of magnitude improvement over earlier generations of rovers. The new data show clear chemical weathering trends, and clay accumulation at the expense of the mineral olivine, as expected in soils on Earth. Phosphorus depletion within the profiles is especially tantalizing, because it attributed to microbial activity on Earth.

dryvalleysThe ancient soils do not prove that Mars once contained life, but they do add to growing evidence that an early, wetter and warmer Mars was more habitable than the planet has been in the past 3 billion years. Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.

Since Curiosity is currently on its way to Mount Sharp, future missions will be needed to fully explore these features. But as Retallack explained, the parallels with Earth are quite exciting:

None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars. The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground.

The newly discovered soils indicate that more benign and habitable soil condition existed on Mars than previously expected. What’s more, their dating to 3.7 billion years ago places them within a transition period when the planet went from an early, benign water cycle to the acidic and arid Mars of today. This is especially important since major changes were taking place on Earth at around the same time.

Living-Mars.2Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying. But some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might indicate that life existed on Earth earlier may have been destroyed by tectonic activity, which did not occur on Mars. Basically, it may offer some credence to the theory that while flourished on Earth, it originated on Mars.

One person who supports this theory is Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida.  In the past, he has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email interview with Science Daily, Benner wrote that Retallack’s paper:

[S]hows not only soils that might be direct products of an early Martian life, but also the wet-dry cycles that many models require for the emergence of life.

So in addition to shedding light on the mysteries of Mars, Curiosity has also been pivotal in addressing some major questions which only increase the mystery of our own existence. Did life as we know it originate on Mars but flourish on Earth? Are there still some remnants of this microbial “Eden” being preserved deep within the soil and rocks? And could life exist there again some day?

All good questions that will no doubt keep robotic rovers, orbiters, landers, and even manned missions busy for many decades to come! In the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Curiosity’s spark-generating laser blast being caught on tape:


Sources:
universetoday.com, sciencedaily.com

Climate Crisis: Terraforming the Desert

green_machineNow that I’m back from my European adventure, I finally have the time to catch up on some news stories that were breaking earlier in the month. And between posting about said adventure, I thought I might read up and post up on them, since they are all quite interesting to behold. Take, for example, this revolutionary idea that calls for the creation of a rolling city that has one purpose in mind: to replant the deserts of the world.

Desertification is currently one of the greatest threats facing humanity. Every year, more than 75,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) of arable land turns to desert. As deserts spread – a process that is accelerating thanks to climate change and practices like clear-cutting – the UN estimates that more than 1 billion people will be directly affected. Many of them, living in places like Northern Africa and rural China, are already struggling with poverty, so the loss of farmland would be especially hard to handle.

green_machine_balloonsAs a result, scientists are looking to come up with creative solutions to the problem. One such concept is the Green Machine – a floating, self-powered platform that would act as a mobile oasis. Rolling on treads originally designed to move NASA rockets. Designed by Malka Architecture and Yachar Bouhaya Architecture for the Venice Biennial, this mobile city would roam the drylands and plant seeds in an effort to hold back the desert.

The huge platform would be mounted on sixteen caterpillar treads originally made to move NASA rockets, while giant floating balloons that hover from it capture water condensation. As the first treads roll over the soil, the machine uses a little water from the balloons to soften the ground while the last set of treads injects seeds, some fertilizer, and more water. The entire platform would run on renewable power, using a combination of solar towers, wind turbines, and a generator that uses temperature differences in the desert to creates electricity.

green_machine_cityThe machine could theoretically capture enough energy that it can self-support an entire small city onboard, complete with housing, schools, businesses, parks, and more farmland to grow produce for the local area. This city would house and support the many researchers, agronomers, workers and their families that would be needed to oversee the efforts. Similar to what takes place in oil drilling, these individuals could be flown in for periods of work that could last up to sixth weeks at a time before rotating out.

The designers were inspired by Allan Savory, who has proposed a much lower-tech version of the same process that relied on cattle to naturally till and fertilize the soil. For the architects, building on this idea seemed like a natural extension of their work. If the machine went into action at desert borders, the designers say it could help formerly barren soil produce 20 million tons of crops each year, and could even help slow climate change by capturing carbon in soil.

green_machine_terraOver time, biodiversity could also gradually return to the area. The architects are currently working on developing the project on the Moroccan side of the Sahara Desert. As Stephane Malka, founder of Malka Architecture, put it, it’s all about using the neglected parts of the world to plan for humanity’s future:

For a long time, my studio has developed work around neglected spaces of the city. Deserts are the biggest neglected space on Earth, as they represent more than 40% of the terrestrial surface. Building the Green Machine units would be able to re-green half of the desert borders and the meadows of the world, while feeding all of humanity

As to the sheer size of their massive, treaded city, the designers stressed that it was merely an extension of the challenge it is seeking to address. Apparently, if you want to halt a worldwide problem, you need a big-ass, honking machine!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, dvice.comdesignboom.com

Tatooine to be Reclaimed by the Desert

Mos_Espa_2All across North and Sub-Saharan Africa, desertification threatens farm land, pastures, townships and even cities, triggering food and water shortages and threatening wildlife. But in a startling twist, it now seems that this ecological phenomena is threatening an iconic movie set, one which science fictions fans should instantly recognize.

Yes, in the deserts of Tunisia, the town of Mos Espa is about to be reclaimed by the desert. This set was first constructed by George Lucas and his crews to act as the skyline for Tatooine in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Serving as the fictional home of Anakin Skywalker, it was here that Qui-Gon Jinn and Padme first met the cloyingly sweet blonde kid that would one day become the most evil man in the universe

mos_espa

And in a new study, lead by Ralph Lorenz of John Hopkins University, researchers have found that sand dunes are swiftly encroaching on the old Star Wars set and threatening to consume it. Since Mos Espa was first constructed in 1997, some sixteen years ago, Lorenz and his researchers have calculated that the sand dunes have moved a total of 130 meters.

mos_espa_dunesNote the satellite images to the left, which display the Mos Espa set in 2004 and 2009 as seen from Google Earth. Between the two, one can see how the large dune wall to the right of the compound is weakened over time, and dust and sand blowing in from the desert is able to make its way into the town proper.

You can also see how the buildings are harder to make out in the 2009 image, a result of them being slowly covered by airborne sand. In time, this will reach the point where the huts are no longer visible, and will likely collapse under the weight of the desert.

The aim of this study, far from inciting Star Wars fandom to mount a campaign, was to track the progress of desertification in the Maghreb nation. One of the benefits of the Mos Espa construction,  as far as Lorenz and his geomorphologists were concerned, was that it gave them a steady frame of reference. Since their interest is in understanding how sand dunes move, the Star Wars set gave them a good way to see changes in dune location.

Mos Espa layout
Mos Espa layout

The report outlined the likely consequences of the approaching dunes, and what they would mean for future generations of Tatooine-tourists:

Should the barchan that forms the focus of this paper overrun the Mos Espa set, many buildings will be temporarily buried.

Their rather flimsy construction will mean roofs will likely collapse, degrading the attraction of the site when the dune moves on. This has already been seen at a smaller film set (‘Repro Haddada’…sometimes referred to online as the ‘slave quarters’)

…This structure was overrun by a barchan around 2004, and has been substantially demolished, although it is still an object of pilgrimage by Star Wars fans, who also admire the barchans a few hundred meters to the south, which are prominent in several scenes of the movie.

They were also sure to point out that even if Mos Espa survives the swiftly advancing dune, the town is still likely doomed, as other patches of desert are encroaching from other directions as well:

In the long run, Mos Espa is still threatened: the large barchan (big enough to totally submerge the site) looms about 500 m to the east. In fact this dune is often driven over en route to the Mos Espa site, reportedly by ~80% of the visiting vehicles. Although the imminent threatening barchan and other effects may degrade the site on this timescale anyway, at the observed migration rate of ~6 m/yr, this large barchan will begin overrunning the site in about 80 years.

Sad news for fandom and sci-fi geeks. But I guess it just goes to show you, nothing lasts forever. But more importantly, it demonstrates one of the principle issues of Climate Change and the planets rapidly-changing ecology. So perhaps this will have the positive effect of making more people sit up and notice, and maybe even mobilize a few to action.

After Climate Change is an issue that effects, and threatens, us all. And against enemies like world hunger, displacement, drought, famine, and flooding, we need all the help we can get! So at the risk of sounding cliche, let me just say: May the Force be with us!

Source: blogs.smithsonianmag.com

Dune, the miniseries (Part II)

Okay, in my last post, I tried to cover Dune the miniseries and everything that made it work. I tried to do this in one post… and failed! Going over that six hour beast is like trying to devour an elephant. You can’t do it all at once, no matter how hard you try. I’m beginning to think this is how Lynch felt when he tried to go about condensing Dune into one movie… interesting!

So, with all that in mind, I’ve decided to divide my review into sections. And for simplification, I’ve renamed them so the first post covers the movie, and the three subsequent ones will address the miniseries. And since I covered all the background to the miniseries in the last post, we can jump right into the content itself! Okay Irulan, take us away!

(Content—>)
Part II opens with Irulan doing a quick intro and a recap, as is her function. We then get into the thick of things, the Harkonnen’s assessing their victory, and Paul and Jessica out in the desert taking stock of things. In the former case, the Baron talks with Kynes who was taken prisoner when they attacked the Fremen sietch. He decides to send him into the desert to die, because of course he suspects collusion. In the latter, we get a series of scenes where Paul and his mother are struggling to find their way to safety, and Paul begins to realize certain things. This section was of great importance in the novel, and it was interesting to see how Harrison would handle it. You see, Paul’s exposure to the open desert means he’s becoming even more exposed to spice. Throughout Act I he was beginning to realize how it was changing him, now he sees those changes plain as day. He recognizes that his mother is pregnant with his little sister, even though there’s no way he could have known this. He realizes that he is the result of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, but that his mother disrupted the processes, thus creating the anomaly that is him. In the novel, he also figures out just by looking at his mother that she is the Baron’s daughter, that she was the product of Bene Gesserit seduction and handiwork, something she herself never knew. But in the miniseries, we are blessedly spared this knowledge til later. Like other revelations, he clearly felt that this was something best reserved for the third act. A good idea, since pacing is important when it comes to revelations!

In the ensuing scenes, we see Paul and his mother out in the desert searching for the Fremen. We are spared some of the events from the book, thankfully, which otherwise would have made this section run long. In the end, the miniseries chooses to move us ahead to the point where, in the course of fleeing from a worm, Paul and Jessica stumble into a sietch and meet up with Stilgar and his tribe. Here, Jessica demonstrates her Weirding skills (which in the novel, as here, are hand to hand fighting skills, not some weird-ass sonic guns!) and takes Stilgar hostage. Stilgar agrees to take them in, mainly because he thinks these skills would be useful to them. Paul also meets Chani for the first time, and immediately recognizes her from his dreams. In between all this, Irulan goes home and confronts her father because she suspects he had something to do with the attack and was using her. He pleads his innocence, but not without telling her that she’s naive to the ways of the universe. This underestimation of his daughter, we shall see, will come back to hurt him later. This scene, I should note, was one more case of something that was mentioned in the novel, but only in passing. By illustrating it, the characters of the Emperor and Irulan, as well as their troubled relationship, get more fleshed out. It also helps to set up future scenes in which she had a role.

The story proceeds apace as Paul and Jessica are introduced into Fremen society. After moving with them to another sietch, everybody gets naked and Paul gets an eyefull of the beautiful Chani (his interest appears to be more prescient than primal though, which is more than I can say for the men in the audience!). His mother also takes this opportunity to speaks to him about how they should consider using the Fremen’s legends to their advantage. Paul is then challenged to a knife fight by one of the tribe, a young man named Jamis that he managed to best in a scuffle when they first met. This scene, which was left out of Lynch’s original but included in the director’s cut, is pretty damn central. It’s the first time Paul has ever killed anyone (did I forget to mention he won? Well… of course he did, he’s the main character!) It made it into Lynch’s Director’s Cut, but like every scene in the movie at that point, it was horribly rushed. In the miniseries, this scene takes its time. Paul is not challenged until after the Fremen leave the last sietch and they are settled into their new haunts, after Jamis has had some time to stew over his humiliation. In the course of the fight scene, much time is also dedicated to showing how Paul is unfamiliar with their customs and is afraid to kill. One of the best scenes of the series is when Paul drops Jamis with a kick and says “Do you yield?” Jamis is furious, and Stilgar angrily informs him: “Never yielding! It’s to the death, boy!” Naturally, his mother tells Stilgar that Paul’s never had to kill before. Stilgar is surprised, but simply replies, “He better learn…” So much is learned about Fremen culture in this one exchange! For one, we learn that life and death are interchangeable in their world, that honor matters more than staying alive, and that by the time they are teens, every Fremen has had to kill someone.

Naturally, Paul does win, and then witnesses the Fremen funeral custom firsthand. Jamis’ body is rendered for its water in a “death still”, and the tribe all gets a share. This process is a very important aspect of the Fremen culture, and – do I really need to say it? – it was left out of the original movie! Yep, not even a mention, all skipped in order to get to the next important thing. I should also mention that one of the reasons this part is so important is because that it is after Jamis’ water is rendered and distributed that Paul and Jessica are officially welcomed into the tribe, and he must choose a Fremen name. It is here that he chooses the name Muad’Dib, mainly because he had a run in with a desert mouse earlier and felt it was significant. Once Stilgar tells him what the mouse is called, Paul immediately recognizes it from his visions. It’s the name he hears the masses of Fremen calling… his vision is now unfolding! Speaking of visions, Jessica also speaks to Stilgar about the spectacle she just witnessed. He confides to her that someday, Paul may have to call him out too. Nobody recognizes leadership in Fremen society without the challenge of combat, and Stilgar feels that Paul may very well be the savior they’ve been told to expect. Therefore, the only way he can lead them, is literally over Stilgar’s dead body!

Anyhoo, Act II then moves about detailing the various aspects of Fremen society. We see how Kynes ecological plans for the planet were being carried out at every sietch. Each one has its own moisture traps for accumulating water, each one is busy growing species of plants and grass which they will use to turn the desert into savannahs and grasslands soon. Paul also learns that Kynes (Liet) was Chani’s father, and the two begin to bond over their shared losses. Again, because there were no time constraints, Harris was able to cover everything that happened in the book, and does so in a way that is well-paced and subtle, never telling the audience too much or how the characters are feeling. We can tell how just by watching them! Incidentally, Paul is also plagued by more visions, which are becoming more vivid and intense with each passing day. But in the meantime, he and his mother begin to exploit the Fremen legends, with Paul proposing to the naibs (leaders) of every sietch that they send him their warriors so he and his mother can train them in the Weirding Way. This way, they can form an elite fighting force – the Fedaykin – that will destroy the Harkonnens and usher in the golden age Liet foresaw. A force that will rival even the dreaded Imperial Sardaukar! Naturally, the naibs are intrigued, and recruits begin to pour in!

Meanwhile, Irulan and the Baron are conducting schemes of their own. Irulan is busy trying to find out exactly what happened the night of the attack on Arrakis, specifically if her father happened to be involved, and whether or not Paul and his mother were truly killed. Stories are beginning to circulate from Arrakis of a new person, a Muad’Dib who is turning the Fremen of the deep desert into a force to be reckoned with. We can see the writing on the wall here, how her fascination is actually a growing suspicion that Paul and his mother are alive. She is also made privy to a private discussion that takes place in the royal place between one of the Guild representatives and the Reverend Mother. It seems the Navigators are also concerned about Arrakis, because their visions are all centered on that place. It has become a nexus in their limited prescience, but beyond this nexus, they cannot see. The future is unclear… Wooooo! More intrigue, and more indications that some serious shit is about to go down on the desert planet and someone or some thing very powerful is behind it. And of course, both parties conspire to do what they can to deal with this problem. “The spice must flow”, “The balance of power must be maintained”, as they say.

And the Baron, back on Geidi Prime, confides in Feyd that he left Raban (the brutal idiot of his two nephews) to run the planet because he knows he will make a mess of it and Feyd will have to come in and clean it up. In the process, Feyd will look like the hero and the population will be more compliant. He is then forced to divulge his full plot after Feyd tries to assassinate him using one the Barons boys as a Trojan horse (poison needle on the inside of his leg, very scheming!) The Baron, of course, survives the attempt and tells Feyd that he should kill him as punishment, but can’t because he needs at least one heir who’s not a sadistic moron. Basically, he doesn’t intend to let Feyd take over Arrakis anytime soon. Instead, he wants Raban to keep screwing up so the Emperor will have to intervene, in the process being forced to travel away from the royal palace to the fringes of civilization, where he can be reached! So, Feyd concludes, the move against Duke Leto was just a prelude to moving in on the royal throne itself, and since he wants in, he promises to behave himself. The Baron is pleased, and finishes the scene with a rhyming couplet: “Let the Emperor mock House Harkonnen and call us swine. For the in the end, his throne will be mine!” All class!

As I think I already mentioned, in the novel this conflict between the Baron and Feyd were being fueled by Thufir, as was the Baron’s plotting against the Emperor. This was his revenge for what they did to Leto, his friend and master. However, in the miniseries, the Baron and Feyd are doing this of their own accord, plotting and scheming without the need for outside help. While I did not like the way Thufir was minimized at first, I could see the wisdom in how Harrison chose to do it. By minimizing Thufir, he gave more credit to the Baron, Feyd, and even Irulan as players in the all the schemes. And right or wrong, this worked pretty well. For one, it made the Baron more credible and made the conflict between Feyd and him more real (chip off the old block, trying to kill his own uncle!). It also gave Irulan some credit for uncovering it bit by bit.

Alas, part II concludes with some very important, and poignant, scenes. The first involves the local Reverend Mother, a Bene Gesserit missionary who’s joined the Fremen, who comes to see Jessica and warn her of the troubles that are coming. Like all Bene Gesserit, she knows what the Fremen legends are and how she and her son have been exploiting them, and lets her know that in so doing, things could backfire horribly. More foreshadowing for the audience to munch on! Then we get Paul and Chani going out into the desert where she tutors him on the subject of the worms and the spice, another nice, paced piece of expository info, right before they duck into a private tent to consummate their budding romance! Hot! But more significance follows when Paul has a dream where the Reverend Mother comes to him and leaves him with a cryptic message. “When religion and politics ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows not far behind. You are the Kwisatz Hadderach, boy. The one who can be many places at once. You are the whirlwind…” This line is paraphrased from the novel, which in its original form was much more verbose (like the litany against fear). Like many other elements in this installment, it establishes a great deal of suspense for the final act. What’s more, it is the first time the term has been used in the series. More evidence of slow pacing and gradual revelation.

To clinch things off, we see Irulan go to Geidi Prime for Feyd’s birthday, where she seduces him and pumps him for information. In the course of boasting about their victory, he confirms that the Harkonnen’s never saw the bodies of Paul or his mother, thus adding weight to her suspicions. What is missing from this scene, at least when compared to the original novel, is where the Baron and Fenrig begin talking about the Harkonnen’s rule of Arrakis and what the Baron intends to do there. In the novel, the Baron accidentally slips that he intends to follow the Emperor’s example and use the planet as a prison/training grounds for his troops. Fenrig is visibly disturbed by this, because its something the Emperor was worried about (remember the various hints?) But in the miniseries, they leave this out at this point, leaving it to Irulan to mention later as a reason for why the Baron is letting the planet go to hell. Not sure why they did it this way, possibly because they chose not to go with the “Thufir playing the Baron” plot arc, possibly to make the Baron seem more cunning, or maybe just as part of their attempts to pad Irulan’s role. Either way, it was a change, but it still worked without disrupting the flow of the story. And finally, there’s the final scene of Act II where the Reverend Mother knows she near death and passes on her title to Jessica. She in turn, takes the water of life in the big ritual, becomes a true Reverend Mother, and her unborn daughter Alia becomes “preborn” in the process. To celebrate, the entire seitch engages in a big orgy, as is their custom. During this spice-induced ritual, Paul also experiences a terrible vision where he sees fields of dead people and his hands covered in their blood. A fitting end for the second act because it ties in with all the other bits of foreshadowing we’ve been fed up until this point. We now know that Paul’s fate is to be a great leader, but that it will come with a great cost, mainly in terms of lives.

Thus ends Act II. Tune in again for the final installment on the Dune miniseries!