News from Space: First Detailed Map of Ganymede

ganymedeLast week, researchers released the first-ever geological map of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon and the largest planetary satellite in the Solar System. Led by Geoffrey Collins of Wheaton College, these scientists produced the first global geologic map that combines the best images obtained by NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft (1979) and the Galileo orbiter (1995 to 2003).

The information of these probes was pieced together as a mosaic image of the planet, giving us our first complete image of the geological features of the world. This image has now been published by the U. S. Geological Survey as a global planar map. The 2D version of the planet surface illustrates the varied geologic character of Ganymede and is the first global, geologic map of the icy, outer-planet moon.

ganymede_mapAnd its about time too! As Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California put it:

This map illustrates the incredible variety of geological features on Ganymede and helps to make order from the apparent chaos of its complex surface. This map is helping planetary scientists to decipher the evolution of this icy world and will aid in upcoming spacecraft observations.

Since its discovery in January 1610 by Galileo Galilee, Ganymede has been the focus of repeated observation; first by Earth-based telescopes, and later by the flybys and orbiting spacecraft. These studies depict a complex, icy world whose surface is characterized by the striking contrast between the dark, very old, highly cratered regions, and the lighter, somewhat younger regions marked with an extensive array of grooves and ridges.

Ganymede-JupiterMoon-GeologicMap-SIM3237-20140211The map isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it also informs our understanding of Ganymede’s geological history. Researchers have identified three geological periods – one involving heavy impact cratering, followed by tectonic upheaval, and then a decline in geological activity. The more detailed images let them study the ridges and groves, and have revealed that the formation of cryovolcanos is rare on Ganymede.

Baerbel Lucchitta, scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., who has been involved with geologic mapping of Ganymede since 1980, had this to say:

The highly detailed, colorful map confirmed a number of outstanding scientific hypotheses regarding Ganymede’s geologic history, and also disproved others. For example, the more detailed Galileo images showed that cryovolcanism, or the creation of volcanoes that erupt water and ice, is very rare on Ganymede.

ganymede_ridges_craters_600According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ganymede is an especially valuable body to study because it is an ice moon with a richly varied geology and a surface area that is more than half as large as all the land area on Earth. The Ganymede map will also enable researchers to compare the geologic characters of other icy satellite moons, since most features found on other icy satellites have a similar feature somewhere on Ganymede.

Laszlo Kestay, the director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center, explained the implications of this in a statement:

After Mars, the interiors of icy satellites of Jupiter are considered the best candidates for habitable environments for life in our solar system. This geologic map will be the basis for many decisions by NASA and partners regarding future U.S. missions under consideration to explore these worlds.

The project was funded by NASA through its Outer Planets Research and Planetary Geology and Geophysics Programs, and the images can all be downloaded by going to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). And be sure to check out the animated version of the Ganymede planetary map below:

Sources:, (2),,

News From Space: Eyes on Europa

europa-landerIt’s one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, named the Jovians by the famed astronomer – Galileo Galilee – who first discovered them. And from all outward appearances, the moon is an icy, inhospitable place, with surface temperatures never reaching above -160º C (-256º F). Yet, beneath that frozen outer shell is believed to be a liquid, saltwater ocean, one that draws warmth from its orbit around Jupiter.

If this should indeed be the case, then Europa would be about the best candidate for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System, albeit in microbial form. For decades now, NASA has been working under that assumption and preparing for the day that it might be able to send an expedition or probe to confirm it. And it now seems that that day may be on the horizon.

europa-lander-2According to NASA, this would likely take the form of a robot lander. Much like Curiosity, Opportunity, and other robotic research vehicles, it would packed with a variety of sensors and analytical equipment. But of course, the nature of that equipment would be specifically tailored to answer a series of unknowns pertaining to Europa itself.

Overall, the lander would have three priorities: discover the makeup of minerals and organic matter present on the moon; examine the geophysics of the ice and the ocean underneath; and determine how the geology looks (and therefore how it might have evolved) at a human scale on the surface. Basically, it would all boil down to looking at chemistry, water and energy – in other words, the conditions necessary for life.

And though NASA has not announced any official dates, it has begun to speak of the idea an indication of intent. A new article by NASA scientists published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology entitled Science Potential from a Europa Lander set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved.

europa-lander-4One area of focus would be Europa’s distinctive linear surface cracks which are believed to be the result of tidal forces. Europa’s eccentric orbit about Jupiter causes very high tides when the moon passes closest to the gas giant, so it is thought that this process would generate the heat necessary for simple life to survive. NASA thinks the cracks could contain biological makers, molecules indicating the presence of organic life, which have come from the ocean.

But of course, plotting a mission is not as simple as simply launching a robot into space. To ensure that such a mission would maximize returns requires that a “scientifically optimized” landing site be identified, and to do that, Europa’s surface must be thoroughly surveilled. Thus far, the little we know and think about Europa is based on a handful of flybys by Voyager 2 in the 70s and the Galileo probe in the 90s.

europa-lander-3Lead author Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory summed up the situation as follows:

There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.

At the present time, NASA’s exploratory itinerary is quite packed. In addition to wanting to tow an asteroid closer to Earth to study it, launching two more rovers to Mars, constructing a settlement on the far side of the Moon, and conducting a manned mission to Mars, it’s safe to say that a robot lander on Europa won’t be happening for some time.

converted PNM fileBut of course, the plans are in place and moving forward with every passing year. NASA is certainly not going to pass up a chance to examine one of the Solar Systems best candidates for extra-terrestrial life, and we can certainly expect more deep-space probes to be launched once Cassini is finished shooting pictures of Saturn.

I am willing to bet good money that any future probe sent into the outer reaches of the Solar System will be tasked with taking high-resolution photos of Europa as part of its mission. And from that, we can certainly expect NASA, the ESA, and even the Chinese, Russians and Indians to start talking turkey within our lifetimes.

What do you think? 2035 seem like a safe bet for a Europa lander mission?


I Saw Sunspots Today!

solar1Today, I achieved a personal first and got to see an astronomical phenomena that few people will. While attending an open house event at my local Aviation Museum, I managed to meet up with a man who had set up a stargazing station and was showcasing some serious equipment. After waiting my turn, I got to peer through his special telescope with a sun filter. And what I saw, as the title would suggest, was something truly amazing – sunspots!

As some may know, sunspots have remained something of a mystery to astronomers and philosophers until the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. It was at this time that Galileo observed them using his own telescope, which he did by projecting the image onto sheets of paper and recording the imperfections in the light.

sunspots1The discovery was important in helping to disprove the prevailing theory that the Earth was at the center of the universe – aka. the Geocentric theory. Up until this time, European philosophers were living under the impression that the Sun, like all celestial bodies that were believed to orbit the Earth, was a perfect sphere. By showing it to be riddled with imperfections, Galileo placed an additional nail in the philosophical basis of this idea.

This in turn helped pave the way for the acceptance of Copernicus’ theory of a Heliocentric universe. As with his observations that Jupiter had its own set of moons, that the Moon itself did not have a polished crystalline surface, and that Copernicus’ theory resolved numerous logical inconsistencies in the other model, Galileo helped to establish the field of truly scientific astronomy.

sunspot_activityToday, I learned that observing sunspots continues to be a difficult thing, since direct observation with a telescope is impossible without sun filter. Not only that, but many people mistake high-magnification for high-power, which in turn leads to images that are not of the best quality. And observing them can by difficult since they go through cycles.

As the kind host of the solar observation explained, and this NASA graph shows, sunspot activity goes through a cycle that repeats every eleven years. As we are currently at the edge of a peek in the cycle, its prime time to get a look at sunspots in the sky. The last time anyone could get a good look was in 2001, and the next opportunity won’t come until 2023.

So I feel pretty privileged, both as a geeky, space-enthusiast and a regular person. If you know someone who has access to a telescope with a solar filter, or just happen to live near an observatory that conducts tours, get out there and spot those surface imperfections. I’m not exaggerating when I say its a rare treat!

Happy Birthday Copernicus!

heliocentricAs I learned not long ago, today is the 540th birthday of the late great man who definitely proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. And so I thought I’d take some time out of my busy (not so much today!) schedule to honor this great man and the massive contribution he made to astronomy, science and our understanding of the universe.

Given the importance of these contributions, I shall do my best to be pay homage to him while at the same time being as brief and succinct as I possibly can. Ready? Here goes…

copernicusBorn in Toruń (Thorn), Poland on 19 February 1473, Mikolaj Kopernik was the youngest of four children to be born into his wealthy merchant family. Given his background, Copernicus’ family was able to provide an extensive education for their son, which took him from Thorn to Włocławek to Krakow, where he attended university. In this time, he learned to speak many languages – including Polish, Greek, Italian, German and Latin (the language of academia in his day) – and also showed himself to be adept at mathematics and science.

During this time, he also received a great deal of exposure to astronomy, since it was during his years in Krakow (1491-1495) that the Krakow astronomical-mathematical school was experiencing its heyday. He was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and Averroes, and became very self-guided in his learning, collecting numerous books on the subject of astronomy for his personal library.

Leaving Krakow without taking a degree, Copernicus moved to Warmia (northern Poland) where he turned to the study of canon law, perhaps in part because of his family’s strong Roman Catholic background. However, his love for the humanities and astronomy never left him, and he seemed to devote himself to these subjects even as he worked to obtain his doctorate in law. It was also during his time in Warmia that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

geocentricUnder Ferrara, Copernicus traveled to Bologna, Italy and began critiquing the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – that would eventually lead him to doubt both models. In the early 1500’s, while studying medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, he used the opportunity to pour over the libraries many ancient Greek and Latin texts to find historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems.

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. It was here that all of his observations about the movement of the planets, and the contradictions in the current astronomic models, would crystallize into his model for the heliocentric universe. However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to official sanction from the church, he withheld his research until a year before he died.

It was only in 1542, after he had been seized with apoplexy and paralysis, that he sent his treaties, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to Nuremberg to be published. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book.

Impact and Legacy:
The immediate reaction of the church to the publication of Copernicus’ theories was quite limited. In time, Dominican scholars would seek to refute based on logical arguments and Aquinism, ranging from the positions of planets in the sky to very idea that Earth could be in motion. However, in attempting to disprove Copernicus’ theory, his detractors merely fostered a debate which would provide the impetus for reevaluating the field of physics and proving the heliocentric model correct.

galileo_telescopeAnd in time, with the help of such astronomers and mathematicians as Galileo, the debate would come to a head. Using the telescope, a technology he helped pioneer, he was able to demonstrate that the size of the planets during various times in the year did indeed conform to the heliocentric model, and that it was only through distortions caused by observing with the naked eye that made them seem larger (hence, closer to Earth) than they really were.

And although Galileo would eventually be forced to recant and placed under house arrest for his last few years on this Earth, the Copernican system became the defacto model of astronomy henceforth, and would help to launch the Scientific Revolution whereby several long-established theories would come to be challenged. These included the age of the Earth, the existence of other moons in our Solar System, Universal Gravitation, and the belief in the universe as a giant, rationalized clockwork mechanism.

Final Thoughts:
Naturally, there are those purists who would point out that he was not the first to propose a heliocentric planet system. In fact, the concept of a universe with the sun at the epicenter dates back Ancient Greece. However, Copernicus would be the first astronomer to propose a comprehensive model, which would later be refined by Galileo Galilee.

HeliocentricOther purists would point out that his system, when he developed it, had numerous observation and/or mathematical flaws, and that it was only after Galileo’s observations of the heavens with his telescope that his theories were made to work. But it is precisely because he was able to realize the truth of our corner of the universe, sans a reliable telescope, that makes this accomplishment so meaningful.

In Copernicus’ time, the rigors of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models were still seem by the majority of astronomers to be the correct one, regardless of church doctrine or religious bias. In purely mathematical terms, there was little reason to make an intuitive leap and suppose that the great minds on which Scholastic science was based had got it all wrong.

So when it comes right down to it, Copernicus was an intuitive genius the likes of which is seen only once in a lifetime. What’s more, his discoveries and the publication thereof helped bring humanity out of the Dark Ages – a time where learning and the hearts and minds of men were still under the iron grip of the Church – and helped usher in the modern age of science.

Copernicus_conversation_with_GodAnd if I could get a bit polemic for a second, I would like to say that it is unfortunate then that much of what Copernicus helped to overcome is once prevalent in society today. In recent years, long-established scientific truths like Evolution, Global Warming, and Homosexuality have being challenged by individuals who claim they are lies or merely “theories” that have yet to be proven. In all cases, it is clear what the agenda is, and once again faith and God are being used as a justification.

In fact, despite the monumental growth in learning and the explosion in information sharing that has come with the digital age, it seems that misinformation is being spread like never before. Whereas previous generations could always blame ignorance or lack of education, we few who are privileged enough to live in a modern, secular, democratic and industrialized nation have no such excuses.

And yet, it seems that some decidedly medieval trends are determined to persist. Despite living in a time when the vast and infinite nature of the universe is plain to see, there are still those who would insist on making it smaller just so they can sleep soundly in their beds. As if that’s not enough, they feel the need to villify that which they don’t understand, or openly threaten to kill those who preach it.

Sorry, like I said, polemic! And on this day of days, we can’t help but remember the lessons of history and how so often they are ignored. So if I might offer a suggestion to all people on this day, it would be to choose a subject they feel uninformed about and learn what they can about it. And do not trust just any source, consider the built-in biases and political slants of whatever it is you are reading. And if possible, go out and hug a scientist! Tell them you accept them, do not fear what they have to say, and will not be sending them death threats for doing what they do.

Happy 540th birthday Mikolaj Kopernik!

Italian Court Convicts Scientists for Failing to Save Lives

hi-italy-earthquake-852In a move that calls to mind the Inquisition, the Scopes Monkey Trial and other cases where science was put on trial by fearful minds, an Italian court made international news in 2012 for charging six seismologists with manslaughter. The verdict was handed down back in October in relation to the deadly earthquake that struck  the Abruzzo region in 2009. This decision has sent ripples through the scientific community, and inspired a fair deal of rancor the world over.

The 6.3-magnitude quake that struck on April 6, 2009 caused the deaths of 309 people and injured about 1,500 others as well as laying waste to most of the buildings in the medieval town of L’Aquila. In the aftermath, six seismologist were put on trial for not giving the public “sufficient warning” about the quake, even though members of their profession the world over insisted that given the current state of technology, their was no way to accurately predict it.

italy-quake-rtr32cThat didn’t fly with the Italian court, which handed a sentence of six years apiece for the scientists after a 13 month-long trial. On the same day, four top Italian disaster experts quit their jobs, saying the ruling will make it impossible for them to perform their duties. And of course, that feeling was echoed far and wide, especially here in Canada where numerous officials lined up to denounce the verdict and express grief over its likely implications.

In an interview with Nature magazine at the outset of the trial last September, Italian prosecutor Fabio Picuti acknowledged that prediction was not (no pun intended) an exact science, replying “I’m not crazy. I know they can’t predict earthquakes.” Meanwhile judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella, who oversaw the case, said that the defendants “gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether a series of small tremors in the six months prior to the 2009 disaster were significant enough to issue a quake warning.

earthquakeSo in reality, the case was not about a failure to predict the quake, but was instead a matter of “risk communication”. As David Ropeik, a journalist for Scientific American‘s online blog, pointed out, that task fell to Bernardo De Bernardinis, a government official who was not a seismologist, and who tried to assuage public concern by glibly suggesting they “relax with a glass of wine”. He and other members of the Great Risks Commission and the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology were also tried in the same case. All of these men, according to Ropeik, did a very poor job of communicating the risk to the public.

But even with this distinction being made, between failure to predict and failure to communicate, this verdict still has many people worried. One such person was Gail Atkinson, the Canada Research Chair in Earthquake Hazards and Ground Motions, remarked “It’s a travesty… what it will result in is seismologists and other scientists being afraid to say anything at all.” Another was John Clague, a professor in the department of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. “I just think scientists are going to be reluctant to deal with the problem,” he said, “particularly government scientists. Academics like myself, we’re going to be very guarded about the words we use”, referring to seismology and earthquakes.

In short, if there’s a question of liability, one can expect scientists to be far more careful about what they say, which is going to wreak havoc since science depends upon the accurate transmission of information. This state of mind, for many, calls to mind instances in Italy’s past where scientists were forced to hold their tongues and conceal their research and findings for fear of a public backlash.

vitruvian_man_leonardo_da_vinciThree prominent examples include Leonardo da Vinci, who’s extensive work in biology, anatomy, flight, and physics was documented with backwards writing to conceal it from prying eyes. Another is Galileo Galilee, a man who’s seminal work proving the Heliocentric model of the universe was hindered by the Vatican’s fear that it contradicted church doctrine. And third and last is the Luminati, an organization of Renaissance scientists who were purged for their interests in the natural sciences and mysticism.

So the question remains, are scientists and government panels to be held accountable for failing to predict, or accurately convey potential disasters? Moreover, is this is a case of scientists being persecuted, or just liability gone mad?