Author Archives: Nanook


This is an interesting little bit of something that showed up in the scoop mark left behind when they took a scoop of Martian soil with Curiosity.

One can only speculate on what that is.  A white mineral in the soil?  A piece of bone, or tooth, or shell?  NASA is only saying that they believe it is native to Mars and not something that fell off the craft.

Back from the Dead…

I started this blog on Google ate it and discontinued FTP Publishing.  They offered two replacements, neither of which worked because they’d require me to host on which would force me to change the location of my blog and leave me at the mercy of Google who could discontinue anytime they don’t approve of my content.  Not acceptable!

Now this is using WordPress on my own site.  The downside is that any videos I had didn’t make it across the import process.  So some cool stuff is gone.

Mars Surface Life on the Margins

Thirty two years ago, Viking landers conducted three experiments to test for life on the surface of Mars, the results were inconclusive.

The gas exchanger (GEX) experiment attempted to detect changes of the makeup of gases in a test tube indicative of biological experiments.

The labeled release (LR) experiment provided radioactively labeled nutrients for biological organisms and then detected gases emitted by these organisms.

The pyrolytic release (PR) experiment attempted to detect the uptake of radioactive carbon by cooking it out of potential organisms.

For these experiments there was also a control in which the soil was first precooked at 320F to sterilize it. If the sterilized control sample produced the same test results, non-biological activity must be responsible.

The GEX and PR experiments provided positive results, but the control experiment was also positive indicating some non-biological process was at work.

The LR experiment provided positive results for the non-sterilized sample but not for the sterilized sample. When the labeled nutrients were first injected there was a rapid release of labeled gas, but subsequent injections of nutrients caused an initial decrease followed by a slow rise. The decrease was unexpected causing the results to be interpreted as ambiguous.

It was believed that the experiments were the result of unusual soil chemistry involving super oxides and materials which could catalyze some of these results. The exact chemical reactions that could explain these results are unknown. There are life forms that utilize a mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide, H2O2 in their cellular fluids which could produce exactly the results seen in the Viking life experiments. On Earth the soil bacterium Acetobacter Peroxidans is such an example. This article on Mars Daily provides additional details.

The Phoenix lander did not find unusual soil chemistry. The soil it found would be friendly to life, so much so that they say you could grow asparagus in it (but not strawberries because it is somewhat alkaline).

In 2004, Methane and Ammonia were detected in the atmosphere of Mars. Because methane and ammonia are not stable in the Martian environment, something has to be replenishing it. Known mechanisms are either volcanism or biological processes. No active volcanoes have been detected on Mars. In 2005, Vittorio Formisano, chief scientists for the ESA Mars Express Planetary Fourier Spectrometer, found formaldehyde in the martian atmosphere at levels that he believes are too great to be explained by volcanic origin.

Rather than being omnipresent, life may exist in discrete niches on the surface of Mars where atmospheric pressure is unusually high allowing liquid water to exist during the warm season. The average atmospheric pressure is between 6-9 millibars depending upon the season but may approach 10 millibars in low lying locations.

At 10 millibars, the boiling point of water is 45F, so in the depths of some of the craters and trenches there is the potential for liquid water to exist for at least part of the Martian year. Phoenix also found a salt in the soil and this would extend the temperature window over which water may remain a liquid.

What the Phoenix lander failed to find in the Martian soil is fixed nitrogen and organic carbon compounds. On Earth, there are some bacteria capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and some which are capable of photosynthesis. The Martian atmosphere is only about 3% nitrogen but this may be sufficient for properly adapted microbes.

The argument is also made that high levels of UV light would sterilize the surface, however, bacteria present on the surface of equipment we left on the moon were found to be viable after being exposed to direct sunlight in the lunar environment for a year and since our moon is closer to the Sun than Mars and has no atmosphere at all, the UV levels reaching the surface are even higher than on Mars.

Bacteria in nuclear reactors have evolved that survive high levels of neutron and gamma radiation and have even evolved a form of melanin that can absorb and utilize energy present in gamma rays for the organisms energy needs.

It is not inconceivable that organisms on Mars may have evolved with pigments capable of protecting them from UV radiation and even utilize this energy for their own biological purposes.

Based upon this conjecture, I searched ESA photographs from Mars Express of locations below average terrain elevation, having the potential for liquid water, for anything which may be of biological origin and found items of interest.

Nepenthes Mensae

Mars Nepenthes Mensae

Note the dark coloration tends to diffuse out of a central area but does not correspond directly with geological objects, rather it tends to flow over everything but only below a certain critical depth.

Mamers Valles

Mars Mamers Valles

Here in Mamers Valles we see a similar discoloration, and again, it seems to flow out from the center rather than being blasted and splattered, with diffuse but fairly well defined borders.

Maunder Crater

Mars Maunder Crater

This sure looks like a colony of something. It has a strong resemblance the things grown on bread that I’ve left sitting too long in the cupboard. Nasa describes these features as Barchan dunes, but that doesn’t explain why they are so sharply contrasted in color to surrounding features. Gullies along the upper side of the trough in the center of the crater are believed to have been caused by liquid water.

Gusev Crater

Mars Gusav Crater

The hairs or filamentary structures present are interesting. I believe I heard someone from NASA suggest these were dust devil trails while totally neglecting to indicate why they only formed over the dark material and did not displace the lighter material in a similar manner. I suppose it could be argued that the darker material absorbed more sunlight and provided more heat for the formation of dust devils. The material has the appearance of something biological in nature even if dust devils distributed it.

Deuteronilus Mensae

Mars Deuteronilus Mensae

I have lightened this image considerably because in it’s original form the dark material was so dark that detail below it was obscured and you couldn’t see the apparent flow and variability in color and saturation. Note how the flow seems to be semi-radial outward from the center rather than linear as one might expect if this were simply wind blown dark material. This resembles more an organism arising at one spot and them propagating outward.

Noctis Labyrinthus

Mars Noctis Labyrinthus

The colors here suggest multiple colonies of different organisms with quite different pigments. The patterns of rocks to the lower right look like something in a flood plain where mud has washed up around them. The thickest deposits of pigmented material appears to center around a crack in the crust. Perhaps there are nutrients or organisms that were brought up from depths at this location. It’s impossible to eliminate some interesting non-biological chemistry here but it sure reminds me of some of the colorful bacterial colonies around Yellowstone hot springs. Those bacteria are thermophiles that are adapted to hot water but the patterns seem very similar.

Hebes Chasma

Mars Hebes Chasma

Hebes Chasma is extremely interesting anyway you want to look at it. There is no inflow or outflow, no surrounding debris field. Where did this chunk of crust go? The feature in the center also is raised. The presence of the central plateau is unique to this structure. This is about 8000 meters deep.

I believe there is a combination of mineral and biological processes responsible for the pigmentation in this structure. You can see some pigments follow geological structure very cleanly, but others appear to be a more diffuse substance overlying multiple structures.

The 8000 meter depth would allow for higher pressures which in turn would allow for water to remain liquid. The reflection off of the walls would tend to amplify heat and the dark pigments would also tend to capture more of the suns energy resulting in warmer temperatures conducive to liquid water.

Juventae Chasma

Mars Juventae Chasma

This looks more like a terraced Chinese rice field than something you would expect to find on Mars. The terraced walls suggests erosion of sedimentary rock, but for sedimentary rock to form on that scale would require huge amounts of water over a long period of time. Or maybe it’s an alien strip-mine.

What actually caught my interest is the green area near the bottom of the image. It bears a strong resemblance to the algae growth.

Crater Ice

Mars Crater Ice

And I’ll close with this image cropped from a frozen lake in a Martian crater. This is cropped from a much larger image to show a feature at the north end of the frozen lake where it appears to me to be partially thawed, and where it appears dark blue green colonies of something are growing at the borders. There also appears to be some lighter greenish colonies of something on or below the ice.

That’s my case for life on the surface of Mars.

The Evolution

I was thinking about a little tiny piece of the universe today of which I have a particular degree of familiarity because I worked for the local telephone company for 17 years between 1978 and 1995, and my mother worked for the telephone company in 1947. She worked as an operator when they had cord-boards to connect customers to their destination telephone numbers.

Manual operator connections of telephone calls were replaced with automated mechanical technology, first panel and step-by-step switches, where dial pulses directly moved selectors and there was really no intelligence built in to the hardware.

Later #1 and #5 cross-bar switches where the functions were more divided and abstracted and there was some degree of intelligence built-in but it was a wired intelligence that couldn’t be changed except by physically re-wiring the switch.

Later then program controlled mechanical switches, like the AT&T / Western Electric #101 ESS, 2BESS, #1 and #1AESS, and GTE / Automatic Electric’s #2 and 2B ESS. These operated on the basis of stored programs that could be reprogrammed changing the functionality of the hardware that the computer controlled.

Then computer controlled digital switching hardware, #4ESS, #5ESS, DMS100/200s, etc. These replaced mechanical switching hardware with digital electronic switching hardware controlled by computers. The digital hardware was more reliable, versatile, smaller, much more efficient in terms of energy usage, but what it could do was still constrained by the physical hardware design.

Now we are seeing soft switches in which rather than controlling switching hardware, computers are emulating it. Since the hardware doesn’t physically exist, besides programmable I/O interfaces, it is emulated by computers running software that behaves like physical hardware, the flexibility of this generation of switch is enormous since virtually every aspect of the emulated hardware is programmable. Soft switches are extremely cheap and energy efficient since the only real hardware is the computer doing the emulation and I/O hardware interfaces, everything else is software.

So what we’ve seen in the evolution of telephone switching is an evolution from biological entities, humans, with their human intelligence controlling their physical body to complete physical circuit connections to make calls, to the replacement of that body with a machine, physical hardware, overtime artificial intelligence was added to the machine and hardware replaced by that intelligence emulating what used to be physically implemented in hardware.

I’m really writing about this not to draw specific attention to telephone company switching technology but rather to provide an example of what I think is a general trend.

Humans invent something, a way to communicate for example, a telephone. They first implement it with minimal hardware and relay to a large degree upon human intelligence and physical labor for the functionality of what we have invented.

Then over time we replace the labor with mechanical labor; and then we eventually replace the intelligence with artificial intelligence; and then we replace a good portion of the machine and labor with intelligence.

I think there is a general trend where pure thought, intent, ‘The Word”, was the prime mover of the universe, to where it moves through a physical energy intensive phase, and then back eventually to where it is once again driven by information and intent, “The Word” all over again.

While the example I just provided was relating to telephone technology, I can see it in so many other areas, for example, travel, at first by foot, and then we learn to harness the power of domesticated animals, and then various natural forces, the wind, and then we build machines that fly; all of this is very energy intensive; but then we develop the Internet and we virtualize much of what used to be done physically.

Music has art of various forms have take a similar path; and although much of it is created physically, it is displayed, sold, and enjoyed to a large degree virtually, with nothing more than information being moved.

It seems that where we might go on a spiritual plane; we are also trying to get to on a physical plane, but eventually that seems to be a situation in which everything is connected, information, thought, non-local, instant, there seems to be some kind of a circle to the evolution of everything rather than being a linear path.

As physics explores the subquantum realm and hyperdimensions and multiple parallel universes, maybe an infinity of universes, a multiverse, it seems clear these trends that affect every aspect of our reality are going to continue. I feel like we are just on the verge of entering that reality that was portrayed in one episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, in which The Traveler took the Enterprise into a place so distant and different than thoughts created reality; I’ve experienced elements of this myself though some might dismiss it as mere psychosis, but I really feel like we’re making a consensus entry into that reality and the potential seems unlimited.

CERN Caused China Quake, Chile Volcano?

All over the Internet one can find articles suggesting that a spray of anti-quarks from CERN caused the Chile volcano and the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in China.

To be sure CERN is a powerful collider and as man-made devices go is capable of concentrating an extreme amount of energy into a very small space and time. Even so, the amount of energy that CERN, or that anything man-made represents is so tiny compared to a volcanic or large seismic event that short of magic there is essentially no possibility that this is the case. Great earthquakes and volcanoes existed before we built any particle colliders.

A week prior to the explosion of Mt. St. Helens, I went with some friends to a location on Spirit Lake to photograph the mountain shooting off steam. We were around 15 miles or so from the mountain. The area was lush with vegetation and wild life.

A week later the mountain blew up and as it happened a news helicopter flew over the exact spot that we had parked. I recognized it only by the geography, the very highway we had taken was broken up, not a living thing was left, only a lifeless gray moonscape, and this fifteen miles from the volcano.

People really need to see something like that in order to really understand the scale of energy involved in natural events. It is a scale that is off the extreme end of what is familiar to humans.

The largest underground thermonuclear test at Amchitka produced a 7.0 magnitude quake, the recent Earthquake in China was a magnitude 7.8, nearly ten times as powerful. Hopefully this provides some indication of the relative scale of human verses natural energies.

I can’t rule out new formerly unknown physics, however, for an large Earthquake to occur where two plates are colliding, the same process that formed the Himalayas, or an existing, known to be active volcano on the Pacific ring of fire, to erupt, is not unexpected or strange.

There are to be sure some “strange” things happening on this planet recently, but these two events require no unnatural explanations, they are well within what is normal for the geophysical processes of the regions involved.

Arthur C. Clarke Passed

Arthur C. Clark has passed away yesterday at age ninety of breathing trouble. I feel a sense of loss much like I did when Isaac Asimov died in 1992, and that seems like just yesterday.

Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov are two people who, through their writings, instilled a sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe that has stayed with me through the decades. There were only a handful of people who affected my view of the world more; and the others were people I knew personally.

I hope that some day we can stop fighting over power, wealth, and limited resources and realize the potential that I believe Arthur saw in the human race and I still believe exists. However, to realize such a future, it takes thinkers and visionaries and I don’t know how we are going to be able to teach our children to think and feel and be open to the possibilities the universe has for us when we have television, politicians, and fifteen second sound bytes to contend with.

The Expanding Solar System

When I was in high school we knew about nine planets in our solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto.

Since that time it was discovered that Pluto had a moon, Charon, about half the size of Pluto (1170km verses Pluto 2270km) and really could be considered a double planet system. Two more moons of Pluto were discovered in Hubble images, but they are tiny, between 60-200km in diameter.

Ceres which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, discovered in 1801, was considered to be an asteroid, but with a diameter of 950km, a spherical form, and differentiated core and mantle, it really shares characteristics that normally would be attributed to a planet.

Vesta, about 538km in diameter, also orbits between Mars and Jupiter, and has a basaltic surface indicating that it once had lava flows and a molten core. It has many features resembling our moon and the terrestrial planets.

Then there is Eris, originally 2003 UB313, slightly larger than Pluto at about 2500km in diameter, and on an orbit that is more elliptical. At it’s closest approach (280 years from now), it’s orbit takes it just inside of Pluto’s orbit, but presently it is about 2.6 times further out. The spectrum of light reflected off of Eris is nearly identical to that of Pluto, suggesting a surface largely made up of frozen methane, but Eris is more reflective. Eris has a moon, Dysnomia, estimated to be about 150km in diameter. I preferred Xena and Gabrielle myself, but the IAU had to ruin that.

Quaoar is about 1250km in diameter and has a similar orbit but with an inclination almost opposite that of Plutos relative to the orbits of the major planets. Part of Quaoar’s orbit brings it inside the orbit of Pluto and part of the time it is outside of Pluto’s orbit. The orbit of Pluto is in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune, but this is not the case with Quaoar. While Pluto and Eris have relatively high albedos (reflectivity) of .68 and .86 respectively, Quaoar is very dark with an albedo of only .1 suggesting less surface ice.

Orcas has a diameter of about 1600km, and has an orbit almost identical to Pluto. Like Pluto, it has a 3:2 resonance with Neptunes orbit, and nearly the same degree of eccentricity as Pluto. The diameter of Orcas isn’t known precisely yet because it’s albedo has not been precisely determined.

Varuna, orbiting at a distance of approximately 43 AU, is believed to have a diameter of around 900km. It is not very reflective with an albedo of only .07 indicating very little surface frost.

Ixion has an orbit very similar to Plutos, but where Plutos perihelion (the point in it’s orbit closest the sun) is above the ecliptic, Ixion’s is below. Like Pluto and Orcus, Ixion is in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune. It’s diameter is estimated at 800km, and albedo at .15. It has a reddish color.

2003 EL61 is undoubtedly one of the strangest objects out there, it is cigar or egg shaped even though it’s length is nearly 2000km, it has not collapsed to a spherical state like other similarly sized and even much smaller bodies have. 2003 EL61 also has two moons, one approximately 300km in diameter and one approximately 150km in diameter.

In addition to the large asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, there are numerous objects between the orbits of the gas giants, most of them have diameters of 200km or less, and then many objects out in the vicinity of Pluto in the Kuiper belt, the major ones noted above, there is now believed to be hundreds, thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands of minor planets in the Oort cloud, a spherical region of space extending about a light year from the Sun. Based on statistical analysis it is believed that there may be as many as a dozen frozen Earth sized objects in this region and perhaps even some gas giants. There is some speculation that there may even be a brown dwarf solar companion out in this vast region.

I find the whole situation very fascinating. We, humanity, if Bush doesn’t go and invade Iran and start WW III, are very close to harnessing hydrogen fusion. With such an abundant source of energy at our disposal, we might be able to thaw some of these distant worlds and make them livable.

Prior to knowing these worlds existed, I had dreams of traveling to minor planets in our solar system that were in the process of being terraformed. In my dreams they were at a state where there was an atmosphere that was breathable but not ideal, where the temperature was survivable but less than ideal, and where it was possible to grow food crops but other than cultivated vegetation the land was largely barren.

Now with the 7th (and last before a commercial level power reactor for naval propulsion) Bussard polywell reactor is built and in the processes of being tested, with the discovery of all of these minor planets, this no longer seems like an impossibility.

The density of these minor planets often lies between that of ice and dirt suggesting a mixture of the two. I wonder how long it would take to defrost these small planets sufficiently to grow something. There is a hint that some of these may already contain liquid interior oceans due to tidal forces or the decay of radioactive elements.

If there are tens of thousands of these objects and they extend a quarter of the way to the nearest star, then there is a lot of real estate available to advanced civilizations. There is some evidence that advanced civilizations may have arisen on Earth in the past and I can’t help but wonder if some of these distant minor planets might already be colonized by our ancestors.

Ionosphere, Magnetosphere, Earth

I have had an interest in radio all of my life and things which affect the propagation of radio signals. One of the most significant things that affects the propagation of many radio frequencies is a portion of the Earth’s atmosphere known as the ionosphere which is an area high enough up that shorter wavelength ultraviolet and even shorter wavelength radiation strips electrons from atoms and the atmosphere is tenuous enough that they don’t immediately recombine.

I find it fascinating in ways that go beyond it’s effect on radio propagation. I’ve always had a fascination with the plasma state of matter. I had a particular fondness for arcs and sparks and things you could do with high voltage since my early teens that has not abated, though time to pursue that interest is hard to come by.

Plasma, doesn’t act the same way a normal gas does, the way charged particles interact with magnetic field lines produces an array of behaviors that at times seem organic. Anyone who has observed an auroral display will have some understanding of this. Even though I live at a latitude that is far enough south that strong auroral displays are relatively rare (just north of Seattle), I’ve seen them maybe half a dozen times here and every time I’ve seen them they’ve been different.

One display I saw consisted of a single narrow stream of light that went from the northwest to the southeast. It appeared white in color, it was a narrow concentrated beam that looked like a giant neon, or more properly argon, light across the sky, except that it wriggled about and was full of kinks and bends instead of being straight. It lasted about ten minutes then diffused and faded. I have seen many pictures of auroras, but never saw one like that.

Another one that I saw looked as if you had taken a point light source, shined it off of ocean waves, and projected it onto a giant screen in the sky, the waves moving like ocean waves in real time.

I’ve also seen the more typical displays, the green sheets, patches of red, but seeing it in real time, seeing the motion, gives it a whole different character than looking at a static photograph.

I’ve had the sense that something has been changing for a long time. I get this both from my experience with a hobby of radio and TV DX’ing, and from the aurora. I’ve lived in this area all of my 49 years, but almost all of those auroral displays I’ve seen on the last five years.

This last solar cycle was the most intense on record. That in part accounted for the frequency and intensity of displays recently. The solar cycle is something that historically does change from cycle to cycle. There are periods in history where there have been very few or no visible sunspots, and there have been periods of high solar activity. This last cycle was the most active on record; but at the same time there are other factors.

Cosmic rays also have been on the rise; nobody seems to know why but the average cosmic ray flux has been on the increase in recent years. This two is something that varies and all the factors are not well understood.

One additional factor; the Earth’s magnetic field has been weakening. My understanding is that it has weakened by approximate 50% over the past hundred years. The Earth experiences periodic reversal of the magnetic poles (this is not the same as a physical pole shift, nor has it been associated with mass extinctions or high rates of mutation in the past). We may be headed into a magnetic pole shift; it’s really impossible to say until it happens because sometimes in the past the field has weakened, and then strengthened without reversing.

So we’ve got all these things happening, what does it mean to us? Recently, a study found that there is a correlation between cosmic rays reaching the Earth’s surface and cancer rates; the cancer rates are increased by increased cosmic radiation but there is a 25 year lag between the higher cosmic rays and higher cancer rates. So one thing it means to us is that as more cosmic rays bombard the Earth and more reach the Earth’ surface, 25 years later we’ll see increased cancer.

A greater danger is that to our satellites upon which we are dependent. There is a minor pole in the southern Pacific, that is a magnetic pole that is opposite in polarity to the main south pole, known as the southern Pacific anomaly. At times recently, this has become almost as strong as the main south pole. The Earth’s magnetic field tends to sweep up cosmic rays and particles from the Sun and direct them to enter the atmosphere at altitudes above the Arctic Circle.

On average, the latitude at which cosmic rays enter the atmosphere has decreased by seven degrees over the last 100 years. All of the above factors probably play some role.

I believe the following changes will occur as these changes continue:

We will experience more disruptions in long distance AC power transmission lines. A fix for this that would simultaneously upgrade transmission capacity making it possible to use higher mix of renewables would be to convert lines longer than 300km or so to DC transmission. Only long lines are subject to induction of low frequency currents that destroy transformers. Only the longer lines have significant AC power loses. And DC transmission becomes more economical than AC transmission on lines longer than 300km, so it makes sense to convert only these longer lines.

We will see a high failure rate of our satellites when they appear outside of the regions presently protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere. Already we are seeing this with satellites that go over the Southern Pacific anomaly. There are a number of steps we could take to partially mitigate this effect. We can rely more on terrestrial fiber optics and terrestrial wireless for communications. We can take steps to harden our satellites against radiation. This can include the use of special integrated circuits that have higher radiation tolerances, shielding, and equipping the satellite with it’s own magnetosphere in the form of strong superconductive magnets that deflect high energy charged particles. We can use more redundancy. One area that I feel will be particularly troublesome is the loss of global positioning satellites which we have become so dependent upon for navigation during a time when we also will not be able to depend upon a simple compass.

We will see weather anomalies caused by changes in high level cloud cover and by heating of the upper atmosphere. Cosmic rays entering the atmosphere leave an ionized trial in their wake that serve as a nucleus for condensation encouraging cloud formation. Cosmic rays can also significantly heat and expand the atmosphere. These effects will alter our weather in some ways that are hard to predict.

Radio propagation will be further impacted. We will see increased absorption at lower radio frequencies limiting the range of medium wave signals, increasing atmospheric noise at these frequencies, but higher shortwave frequencies will become usable and we will see the maximum usable frequency rise into the VHF bands more frequently. The highest I have ever seen the MUF rise to was around 200 Mhz, but I expect that we will see new record high MUF’s with noticeable defraction perhaps extending all the way into the visible light portion of the spectrum.

I believe we should be preparing for these changes by fortifying our energy supplies with renewables that we can utilize without causing further problems, so that we have the ability to adapt to changes that come our way.