BAN #269: Biden/Harris 2020, Mars InSight digs again

9 November 2020   Issue #269

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]

Subscribers have 20/20 foresight.


As Dave Barry said, “Poli” = many and “tics” = blood-sucking parasites

Well. How did your weekend go?

If you haven’t heard — HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA — the media finally called the election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, after an extended delay due to close races in the key states that put the team over the top for electoral college votes.

I have so much to say I’m not even sure where to start. I obviously am delighted with the results, and pushed hard for the Biden/Harris ticket. Neither candidate was initially my first choice, but in fact I’m quite happy with how this turned out. I liked pretty much all the top handful of Democratic candidates, so any of them becoming the top 2 was fine by me. And the important thing, of course, is that Trump is defeated.

The speeches on Saturday night were really lovely.

Vice President-Elect Harris’s speech is one for the history books: First woman VP, first Black VP, first VP of southeast Asian descent, first generation immigrant family… and as I said at the time:


Yeah, how beaten down is our collective psyche after four years that just a positive mention of science feels like a cool breeze on a stale, humid summer day?

I was pleased with President-Elect Biden’s speech too. And again:

I’m greatly looking forward to seeing actual plans for dealing with stuff. I mean, can you recall a single policy statement Trump made during the campaign? Just one? I mean, besides letting millions of Americans die of COVID-19?

So having smart, caring, empathetic, coherent, eloquent, and above all capable people in the White House will be an overwhelming circumstance. I was choked up several times over the weekend by what I saw and heard. We have a chance to shine again.

I have many other thoughts, many focused on the negatives swirling around this election and the GOP. Obviously! However rather than enumerate them here, I will send you to three links that I urge you to read, which I largely agree with:

Yes, there are a lot of problems we face, including a large swath of Americans who will fight what needs to be done. But isn’t that always true? And despite that, those of us on the left, when running the government, still tend to make things better for those very people. Reading Biden’s plans for the future, there’s a lot there to like. And some to love.

So. I have celebrated, and I have shared the joy.

And now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There’s much to do.

Upcoming Appearances/Shameless Self-Promotion

Where I’ll be doing things you can watch and listen to or read about

What would happen if you flew your Federation starship too close to a black hole?

Watch this to find out!

The game Star Trek Online has a level where you fight an alien enemy near a black hole, and it get scomplicated. Game designer Jesse Heinig, astronomer and science consultant for “Star Trek” Erin MacDonald, and I talk about black holes, time dilation, gravitational waves, and more with moderator Mike Fatum for the Vendor’s Haul virtual con.

It was fun! Watch to the end to see who wins the Treknobabble contest. Hint: It wasn’t me. My mistake was I didn’t make up a bunch of sciencey-sounding stuff (which I’m actually pretty good at), but instead tried to find an actual solution to the problem posed. Sometimes being a scientist by training has its disadvantages.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[I love magnetars, though they terrify me. From Thursday’s article. Credit: NASA / GSFC / Chris Smith (USRA)]

Monday 2 November, 2020: UPDATE: Incredible footage of OSIRIS-REx tagging an asteroid

Tuesday 3 November, 2020: Elect to take a respite from the day with a spectacular face-on spiral galaxy

Wednesday 4 November, 2020: A doomed lander reveals one last secret: Comets are fluffy like cappuccino foam

Thursday 5 November, 2020: Breakthrough! Mysterious radio signal traced to a galactic minimonster

Friday 6 November, 2020: Planets around old red dwarfs may still get blowtorched by flares

Space news

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

Waaaaay back — a year ago! — in BAN Issue 159 I wrote about the problems the Mars InSight lander was having with the “mole”, one of its instruments designed to take the temperature of Mars beneath its surface.

Technically called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, it’s supposed to wiggle its way down about 5 meters under the Martian surface so that it can measure how heat flows through the upper layers of the planet, giving scientists back on Earth more insight (ha! Haha!) on the interior of Mars.

The problem was, it was having a difficult time burrowing into the ground. To drive itself down it uses friction with the material around it, and it wasn’t getting what it needed. To help, engineers moved a scoop on the end of a robotic arm to apply pressure to the top of the probe.

[The Mars InSight mole is finally underground, with its electronics ribbon visible, and the scoop at the end of the robotic arm which has been used to help. At the bottom you can see part of the lander itself. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

That worked! And now, finally, a year later, the probe is finally under the surface, with only its “tether” — an electronics ribbon connecting its sensors to the InSight lander hardware — still visible above ground. There’s still a long way to go, but this is very promising. The scoop will be used to drop more material (technically not dirt, but regolith; broken up rock and sand) on top of it to help it dig even better.

There’s a nifty animation of this but it’s over 8 Mb, so as not to overflow your email inbox I’ll just link to it here.

I’ll note this is a very slow process — I mean, it’s been a year — and it’ll be months before there’s enough regolith on top of the mole for it to start hammering itself into the ground again. But this is still good news! And I love how folks back on Earth figure out a way to fix a problem that’s taking place tens of millions of kilometers away on another freaking planet.

More stuff about Mars InSight:

Et alia

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