Old Scars on Mars

Mars is a cold, dry place, but it may not always have been. Recent studies increasingly indicate that the planet once had a thicker, denser atmosphere that was able to lock in far more warmth, and therefore facilitate and support the flow of liquid water on the surface.

While this is no longer the case, planetary researchers have seen clear signs of past water activity across the Martian surface. New images from ESA’s Mars Express orbiter show one such region: a branching system of trenches and valleys in the southern highlands of Mars.

The southern highlands are some of the oldest and most heavily cratered parts of the planet, with many signs of ancient water. The topography of this region suggests that water flowed downhill from the north to the south, carving out valleys up to 1.2 miles (2 km) across and 656 feet (200 m) deep as it did so.

It is thought that climate change took place on Mars 3.7 to 3.8 billion years ago, when environmental conditions changed from a somewhat neutral, potentially life-sustaining and humid environment to a much drier, colder environment that is hostile to life.

One of the reasons why Mars lost its atmosphere was the loss of its magnetic field, which was active during its first 500 million years.

As the magnetic field grew weaker the solar wind was able to gradually split the molecules in the atmosphere. The resultant ions were then lost to space. As a result, and also due to declining volcanism, the atmosphere became thinner. Below a certain atmospheric pressure, water can no longer remain liquid on the surface of a planet, it can only remain as ice or gas.

Mars is also only about half the mass of Earth, so its gravitational force is barely sufficient to bind atmospheric molecules to it and the lack of precipitation on Mars collapsed the water cycle.

While it is unclear where all of this water came from originally (precipitation, groundwater, melting glaciers) all of this required a far warmer and more watery past for Mars.

Hot New Pic From Juno

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting Jupiter, took a dramatic image of the gas giant earlier this month.

The color-enhanced image comes from Kevin M. Gill, a NASA software engineer who moonlights as one of the Juno’s amateur image processors, shows a large circular storm trailed by clouds swirling in a jet stream in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere.

An image of Jupiter captured by the Juno spacecraft on Feb. 12. NASA software engineer Kevin M. Gill enhanced the colors

Juno has been in a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter since 2016. The spacecraft captured the image on Feb 12, during its 18th close pass of the planet. Juno was just 8,000 miles above Jupiter’s cloud tops at the time.

First launched in 2011, Juno took five years traveling to Jupiter from Earth. The mission seeks to map Jupiter’s interior and determine how much water is inside the planet, among other goals. Scientists hope that by studying Jupiter, they will have a better understanding of how the planets formed.

NASA makes raw images from Juno available to the public online. The agency encourages amateur astrophotographers to download and enhance the images before uploading them back to Juno’s website. Dozens of space enthusiasts have participated, some by simply cropping the images and others by performing advanced color reconstruction or highlighting a particular atmospheric feature of the planet.

NASA plans to end Juno’s mission in July 2021, at which point the spacecraft will self-destruct in the most metal way by hurling itself into Jupiter.

Cave of Horrors

In what seems like the opening scene of a horror movie, British cavers discovered hundreds of centuries-old protective marks and ritualistic drawings apparently designed to capture, trap and/or repel evil forces in an ancient cave system about 150 miles north of London.

The drawings date to the medieval and early modern periods and were found before but dismissed as graffiti from more recent eras.

Members of Subterranea Britannica noticed that the etchings were actually apotropaic (protective) marks scrawled all over wells, ceilings and around holes and crevices, the cave’s operator said in a news release.

Also, caves have “operators” apparently.

The etchings include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes believed to be spells for capturing or trapping evil spirits. There are also ‘VV’ marks that are believed to represent Mary, “Virgin of Virgins,” as well as ‘PM’, for “Pace Maria.”

But it’s not clear what, specifically, the markings were trying to stymie.

The caves have a history of being occupied by Neanderthals as far back as 50,000 years ago, followed then by Homo sapiens. The site is known for the art on its walls dating to some 12,000 years ago, including images of bison, reindeer, birds, as well as more abstract symbols.

The cave may now also be home to another kind of art altogether.

Don’t Call Him a Denier!

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that William Happer, a retired Princeton physics professor with no expertise in climatology, will lead a panel called the Presidential Committee on Climate Security.

Happer, unsurprisingly, is a climate change denier with a history of “controversial” comments. He has claimed rising carbon dioxide levels not only aren’t harmful, but also are actually beneficial (they are not). Happer even compared carbon dioxide to Jews in Nazi Germany.

Sorry, what?

“The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler,” Happer said on Squawk Box on CNBC in 2014. He added: “Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.”

What is he, CO2’s PR agent?

Happer, who is on Donald Trump’s National Security Council for some reason, has a history of dropping Nazi references.

Shocking.

In a 2017 interview with ProPublica, Happer said the word “denier,” which is applied to people such as himself who, wait for it, deny the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, was “carefully chosen to make me look like a Nazi sympathizer.” Um, no. It was chosen to make him look like someone who denies the scientific consensus on a subject he has no expertise in.

In 2009, he called climate science a “cult” and said that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (not really the issue). Then he dropped another Nazi comparison to those who accept that the overwhelming majority of scientists in relevant fields think climate change is a thing and we should be concerned about it:

“This is George Orwell. This is ‘The Germans are the master race. The Jews are the scum of the earth,’” he said. “It’s that kind of propaganda.”

In an another interview with The Best Schools, he managed to name-check the Salem witch trials, the French revolution, the Soviet purge, and the Nazis in defense of climate change deniers such as himself.

Methinks the lady doth protest too much. It’s almost like Happer is super defensive about his obviously ludicrous public position on climate change and feels like he has to go to 11 to demonize those who correctly criticize him for it. Where have we seen that before?

Happer’s new panel will determine whether climate change is a national security threat, the Post reported.

I wonder what conclusion they’ll come to?

The Pentagon has already issued a major report detailing that climate change is a significant national security threat.

R.I.P. Opportunity 2004-2019

On Wednesday, NASA that the Mars land rover Opportunity has died after 15 years. The six-wheeled vehicle’s death is being attributed to a severe dust storm.

From the AP:

“Flight controllers tried numerous times to make contact, and sent one final series of recovery commands Tuesday night, along with one last wake-up song, Billie Holiday’s ‘I’ll Be Seeing You,’ in a somber exercise that brought tears to team members’ eyes. There was no response from space, only silence.

Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science missions, broke the news to the Opportunity team at what amounted to a wake at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, announcing the demise of ‘our beloved Opportunity.’

Given the silence from space, ‘it is therefore that I’m standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete,’ Zurbruchen told a packed auditorium. ‘It’s an emotional time.’”

Opportunity was one of two rovers that landed on the Mars in 2004. The other rover, Spirit, didn’t last as long as Opportunity. Communications with Spirit were lost after it was caught in a sand trap. Nonetheless, both vehicles exceeded NASA’s expectations.

When Opportunity and Spirit landed on Mars in 2004, the mission was only meant to last 90 days. But the vehicles, which were sent to different parts of the planet, proved to be surprisingly durable. Communication with Opportunity was finally lost in June 2018, and as rugged as the vehicle was, it was no match for the severe dust storm it encountered.

Opportunity explored an area of Mars called Perseverance Valley when it encountered the dust storm, which was so harsh that it darkened the sky for months and prevented sunlight from reaching Opportunity’s solar panels.

Opportunity was the fifth of eight NASA space vehicles that have successfully landed on Mars. Two of them are still working: Curiosity (which landed in 2012) and InSight (which landed recently).