BAN #159: UNDO, Digging Mars, Solidifying CO2

21 October 2019   Issue #159

[Saturn image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute / Gordan Ugarkovic]

The Mole digs on Mars, but I dig subscribers.

I recommend

Something I think you’ll like

My friend Nicole Perlman is a screenwriter by trade. You may have heard of some of the small indie movies she wrote, like Guardians of the Galaxy, or did the story for, like Captain Marvel. I met her a few years ago when we did a Comic Con panel together about the science of science fiction, and hit it off. She’s from Boulder, too!

She just wrote and directed a scifi short called UNDO; it’s on Hulu and also YouTube. I won’t give anything away, because it’s impossible to synopsize a time travel story without spoiling it (that itself is not a spoiler, I’ll note), and it’s only 7 minutes long.


Coooool. Perfect timing for Halloween, too.

Nicky is a terrific person, and I suspect she has a pretty good future ahead of her. She doesn’t tweet much but you can follow her on Twitter, or read about her on Wikipedia.

Space news

Space is big. That’s why we call it “space”

Hey, some good news! The mole is back on the move!

By “mole” I mean the heat probe on the Mars InSight lander, and by “move” I mean downward.

The heat probe, technically the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, is designed to penetrate about 5 meters down into the surface of Mars to see how well heat moves through the rock and how hot it is below the surface. This will give scientists information on the interior of Mars, like what the source of that heat is.

Initially it got about 14 centimeters down, then stopped. At first engineers were worried it hit a big rock, which would have been a critical blow to the project. Then they suspected it had to do more with the material around the probe. The mole (as the probe is nicknamed) needs friction with the material around it to be able to hammer itself into the ground, but the regolith (the broken up rock and gravel and dust) wasn’t providing enough friction.

To solve this, they got clever: There’s a scoop on the robotic arm of InSight, so they pressed the scoop against the part of the mole sticking up out of the ground, pinning it against the side of the hole. There’s an animation of the scoop moving to position itself next to the mole here, and another showing it pressing against the mole (both are a bit too large filesizewise to embed here).

It worked! Pinning it provided enough friction for the mole to start pounding its way down again. They tested it with 20 hammerings first, then 100, then another 100, and it was able to get another 2 cm down. I know, that’s not much, but it’s an infinitely higher ratio than 0.

[InSight on the surface of Mars on 23 Sept. 2019, seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. See here for more info. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona]

Of course, total success isn’t a guarantee. At some point the mole will get far enough down that it won’t stick out from the surface, so the scoop can’t be used to pin it. If it gets stuck again they might use the scoop to drop regolith down the hole to provide more friction. Hopefully, though, they won’t need to test that idea.

Everything else on InSight is looking good. It’s still sending back the daily weather reports (yes, seriously) and listening for marsquakes. Mars is a difficult place to work (and, I’ve heard, ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid) so it’s really nice to see these difficulties overcome.

Is it hot in here, or is it just anthropogenic global warming?

Climate change is real, y’all

This is interesting: A project in Iceland is turning carbon dioxide (that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere) into rock, sequestering it.

A substantial amount of power in Iceland is created geothermally, with water heated by its volcanoes. The plants still emit CO2, though far less than, say, a coal-fired plant, and even then there’s an effort underway to reduce it further. The project is called CarbFix, and it uses natural chemistry to turn the CO2 into solid carbonates by forcing it to react with the copious amount of volcanic basalt that makes up the bulk of the country. You can read more about it at the CarbFix FAQ.

I like this idea, and I hope it’s possible to get it to work on much larger scales. Even then it’s not a final solution to global warming; the needs are too specific (you need a lot of water to make it work (though you get the water back) and it needs to be near vast deposits of basalt) and even then I don’t think it can cope with the 40 or more billion tons of CO2 we humans dump into the air every year. Currently they sequestering 12,000 tons every year, about a third of the 40,000 tons produced annually by the plant.

But here’s the thing: It’s a good start. And there isn’t any one solution to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, unless somehow overnight the 20 biggest polluters suddenly go belly up and can no longer pay graft to the Republican Party. Say. This type of sequestration is but one of many that we can employ to reduce our waste CO2. And again, it’s hard to climb that 40 gigaton output hill we have, but the more we try, the more likely we are to find better solutions, and ones we can vastly scale up.

The alternative is to give up. Screw that.

This is one step, but it’s in the right direction.

P.S. Stripe, the company that handles the fees for subscriptions to the newsletters hosted by Substack — including the one you are reading right now — has pledged to go carbon negative. They already buy offsets to be neutral, but now they will spend twice as much, with a minimum of a million bucks, investing in tech that will take carbon out of the air and sequester it. That’s a lot of cash, and could make a huge difference to small companies trying to figure out how better to do this.

So — HINT HINT — when you’re a paid subscriber to the Bad Astronomy Newsletter, you not only get news about global warming through me, you’re actually contributing to doing something about it.

Hey, I’ll make it even easier: Here’s a button.

I thank you, and the planet thanks you.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Hubble spies the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, from Thursday’s post. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles)]

Monday 14 October 2019: Magnetars are the most powerful magnets in the Universe. Here's how they're made.

Tuesday 15 October 2019: The Milky Way stole a lot of its satellite galaxies from another small galaxy

Wednesday 16 October 2019: Citizen scientists find asteroids in Hubble images (note the correction at the bottom)

Thursday 17 October 2019: Hubble observes an alien visitor: the comet 2I/Borisov

Friday 18 October 2019: M81: Spiraling dusty galactic heat

Et alia

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