BAN #279: Meteors and solar eclipse, I gave a NASA talk, MOXIE on Mars

14 December 2020   Issue #279

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

Subscribers got moxie.

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news

Because of course, I was clouded out for the lunar occultation of Venus last week. Did anyone see it?

As you read this (probably) last night (Sunday) was the peak of the Geminids meteor shower. As I wrote this on Sunday morning it’s gorgeously clear out though somewhat chilly. I’ll hopefully go out and sit under the stars for an hour or so and watch and try to keep my eyeballs from freezing open. I hope all y’all got a chance to see it as well. And if you didn’t it should still be OK to go out Monday night as well! There won’t be as many meteors but hopefully you’ll see some.

[The total solar eclipse of 1999, seen in France. Note the pearly corona and the red glow of huge eruptions of hydrogen off the Sun’s surface, driven by the turbulent solar magnetic field. Credit: Luc Viatour]

On top of all that there’s a solar eclipse today! The path sweeps over the southern tip of South America, and for any given spot totality will last about 2 minutes. The Time and Date site has tons of info about it.

You may have noticed I sent this newsletter out early; this is why, to give you time to watch live if you want to. The Virtual Telescope Project is doing a live feed from Argentina, and the Exporatorium in San Francisco is showing a live feed from Chile that starts at 07:30 Pacific time (15:30 UTC). You can find out more at their website. NASA will also be covering it live (as well as in Spanish). Use your favorite search engine to find more coverage, if you want as well.

I saw the 2017 total eclipse from Wyoming, and the effect it had has profound. You can read what I had to say about it at the time.

Upcoming Appearances/Shameless Self-Promotion

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

In a recent issue of BAN, I wrote a recommendation for y’all to binge the TV show “12 Monkeys”, because it’s really just great. In that article, I also wrote about meeting the cast and moderating a panel with them on the show.

That was all part of an annual festival put on by Smithsonian magazine called Future Is Here. It’s held in Washington, DC, and I participated in a few events besides that panel (I also moderated a conversation with “The Martian” author Andy Weir and movie producer Aditya Sood (who turns out to be a great guy and you should follow him on Twitter)).

[That’s a big stage. Credit: Smithsonian Magazine, from the video]

One thing I was asked to do was give a very short presentation on NASA, so I put together a talk called, simply, “What Does NASA Do?” I like giving broad talks like this, because it allows me to wax lyrical a little bit more than usual.

I wish I could embed it here to make it easy on y’all but all I can do is link to the Smithsonian magazine page that has the talk on it. And yes, they misspelled my name but that’s OK. J

The talk is only 7 or so minutes long, and IMNSHO it’s one of my better ones. Please take a look, and I hope you like it!

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Jupiter and Saturn are nearing their closest approach on 21 December! Tuesday’s article has what you need to see this amazing event. Credit: Giorgia Hofer]

Monday 7 December, 2020: A sunspot seen in jaw-dropping detail by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope

Tuesday 8 December, 2020: Jupiter and Saturn align in the sky, their closest approach to each other in 400 years

Wednesday 9 December, 2020: Will the Sun's current sunspot cycle fizzle or crackle?

Thursday 10 December, 2020: Our galaxy is blowing *enormous* hot bubbles into space and no one knows why

Friday 11 December, 2020: Does Planet Nine exist? An alien world 300 light years away gives hope

BONUS: Saturday, 12 December, 2020: The Geminids are coming! Here’s how to watch one of the best meteor showers of the year

Space news

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

A big issue with sending humans to Mars is that we are living beings, aka big bags of glop, and we need things like air and water to survive. Also, fuel is heavy and difficult to transport to Mars, so if the humans we send there want to come back, they’ll need to make their own fuel there. That means somehow turning the air or regolith on Mars into breathable, drinkable, rocket-powerable chemicals.

There are lots of ideas how to do this, but a new experiment shows very promising results. The scientists note that the Mars Phoenix Lander found a high concentration of magnesium perchlorate in the ground. This is what chemists call a salt, and when it’s dissolved in water it depresses the melting point to about -60°C (this is why we use salt to melt ice on sidewalks and such; if the melting point drops then the ice will thaw even if it’s below the usual freezing point outside).

Phoenix also found lots of ice locked up in the surface too. With that knowledge, the scientists looked to see if they could extract oxygen and hydrogen from water with dissolved magnesium perchlorate in it. If so, that means air (O2) and fuel (H2) can be generated in situ.

Long story short, they did it. They used electrolysis, where an anode and cathode are placed in such a brine. They simulated a Martian environment by doing this at -36°C and in a low pressure carbon dioxide atmosphere. If you want the chemistry details read the paper linked above, but what they found is that they can produce ultrapure hydrogen and oxygen gas.

[Schematic of the location of MOXIE on the rover Perseverance. Credit: NASA]

And it gets better. There’s a device on board the Perseverance rover called MOXIE: the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. It’s designed to try to get oxygen from the Martian air. In this new work they found they produce oxygen at 25 times the rate MOXIE does for the same amount of power used, or, phrased another way, it uses far less power to make the same amount of oxygen.

That’s pretty cool!

If this really works, and can be scaled up, then it’s a promising avenue for astronauts to support themselves on the surface of Mars. I think we’re still a long way from sending people there, and there’s a very long path to making sure they can survive there. But this appears to be a solid step in the right direction to do so.

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!