Space Sunday: of Jupiter, Titan and Mars

 “NASA did it again!” an elated Scott Bolton, Principal Investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter, announced on the night of Monday July 4th / Tuesday July 5th. He was speaking shortly after the Juno space craft, having travelled 2.8 billion kilometres (1.7 billion miles), achieved an initial orbit around the largest planet in the solar system, becoming one of the fastest human made objects ever built.

“We are in orbit and now the fun begins, the science,” he added during the post-insertion press briefing. “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done! That’s my claim. I am so happy … and proud of this team.”

Solar powered Juno successfully entered a polar elliptical orbit around Jupiter after completing a must-do 35-minute-long firing of the main engine known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion or JOI. The vehicle approached Jupiter over the planet’s north pole – an orbit which will afford some unique views of Jupiter and its system of rings and moons in the coming months.

Due to the time delay, some 48 minutes for a one-way signal, Juno completed the insertion burn entirely on autopilot and, for this initial pass through the planet’s radiation belts, with many of its more critical systems powered-down as a precaution and to preserve battery power – the manoeuvre meant Juno had to turn its solar panels away from the Sun, limiting its ability to generate electrical power for all of its systems.

This image was captured by Juno on June 29th, 2016, and was the final picture taken by the vehicle's camera prior to major systems being shut down as a precautionary move while the craft made an it's initial approach over Jupiter's north pole. Visible and labelled are the Galilean moons, which today form just 4 of the 53 named moons orbiting the planet
This image was captured by Juno on June 29th, 2016, and was the final picture taken by the vehicle’s camera prior to major systems being shut down as a precautionary move while the craft made an its initial approach over Jupiter’s north pole. Visible and labelled are the Galilean moons, which today form just 4 of the 53 named moons orbiting the planet

As I reported last week, the do-or-die burn of the Leros-1b engine had to be carried out flawlessly if the spacecraft were to achieve and initial orbit around Jupiter. By the time it started at 20:18 PDT on Monday July 4th (04:18 UT, Tuesday July 5th), Juno had already accelerated to an incredible 250,000 kph (156,000 mph) relative to the planet, as a result of Jupiter’s massive gravity well, and the 35-minute engine burn was designed to reduce this huge speed by just 1,939 kph (1212 mph).

As tiny as this velocity change might sound, it meant the difference between Juno simply whipping around Jupiter to be thrown back out into deep space and being trapped in a 53.5 day orbit are the planet by that same enormous gravity well. In October 2016, a further 22-minute burn of the Leros-1b will reduce this orbital period to just 14 day, allowing the primary science mission to commence.

Scott Bolton (with arms raised) celebrates Juno's orbital insertion burn with members of the mission team (l to r) Goeff Yoder, Diane Brown, Rick Nybakken, Guy Beutelschies, and Steve Levin Credit: AP Photo / Ringo H.W. Chiu
Scott Bolton (with arms raised) celebrates Juno’s orbital insertion burn flanked by members of the mission team (l to r) Goeff Yoder, Diane Brown, Rick Nybakken, Guy Beutelschies, and Steve Levin Credit: AP Photo / Ringo H.W. Chiu

That mission is all about peering far beneath Jupiter’s banded clouds for the first time and investigating the planet’s deep interior with a suite of nine instruments. The hope is that Juno will probe the mysteries of Jupiter’s genesis and evolution, and by extension, how we came to be. Or, as Scott Bolton phrased it, “The deep interior of Jupiter is nearly unknown. That’s what we are trying to learn about. The origin of us.”

Life on Titan Without Water?

Further out in space and orbiting Saturn, is massive Titan, another of the solar system’s enigmas. Examined by the NASA Cassini space vehicle and (briefly) by the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander, Titan is fascinating for a number of reasons, including the fact it is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere rich in minerals and hydrocarbons.

Huygens revealed Titan has a very mixed surface environment, complete with hydrocarbon seas, lakes and tributary networks filled with liquid ethane, methane and dissolved nitrogen. This surface is also very young; while Titan has been around since very early in the solar system’s history – some 4 billion years – the surface environment is estimated to be somewhere between 100 million to 1 billion years old; suggesting geological processes have been and are at work.

Titan's structure (via wikipedia)
Titan’s structure, which includes a subsurface liquid water ocean sealed beneath a mantle of ice just below the moon’s thin trust (via wikipedia)

All of this   – particularly the thick atmosphere (which has a comparable density to that of Earth), the presence of hydrocarbon rich liquids (which also fall as rain) – has caused many astronomers and planetary scientists to speculate that Titan might have all the prebiotic conditions necessary to kick-start life. The only thing which has been seen as potentially mitigating this is the absence of surface water.

However, a team of scientists from Cornell University, New York, led by Dr. Martin Rahm, has proposed that condition on Titan are such that it might support life even without the presence of water.

An image of Titan's surface, as taken by the European Space Agency's Huygens probe as it plunged through the moon's thick, orange-brown atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona
An image of Titan’s surface, as taken by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe as it plunged through the moon’s thick, orange-brown atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona

Specifically, the team has been examining the role that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) might have on Titan. This is an organic chemical, which although poisonous to life today, is seen in some circles as a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids, and thus a basic building block in the development of organic compounds which in turn might give rise to life.

In particular, hydrogen cyanide is the most abundant hydrogen-containing molecule in Titan’s atmosphere – although it is missing from the moon’s surface – and has some unique properties. It can, for example, react with itself or with other molecules to form long chains, or polymers. One such polymer is called polyimine, which is capable of absorbing light of many wavelengths and might therefore as as a catalyst for photochemically driven chemistry, some of which might be prebiotic in nature and which might in turn give rise to more complex organic reactions.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: of Jupiter, Titan and Mars”

A cardboard box, an Empress and growing up on a lake

It’s time to kick-off a week of story-telling in voice, brought to our virtual lives by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s Second Life home at Bradley University, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, July 10th 13:30: Tea Time at Baker Street

Tea-time at Baker Street returns for the summer, featuring a new location – 221B Baker Street at the University of Washington in Second Life, and a return to His Last Bow.

A 1917 anthology of previously published Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the volume originally comprised seven stories published by The Strand Magazine between 1908 and 1917. However, later editions of the book saw an eighth story included, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, originally published in 1892 – and it is this tale which forms the focus of this week’s presentation.

In choosing a few typical cases which illustrate the remarkable mental qualities of my friend, Sherlock Holmes, I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to select those which presented the minimum of sensationalism, while offering a fair field for his talents. It is, however, unfortunately impossible entirely to separate the sensational from the criminal, and a chronicler is left in the dilemma that he must either sacrifice details which are essential to his statement and so give a false impression of the problem, or he must use matter which chance, and not choice, has provided him with. With this short preface I shall turn to my notes of what proved to be a strange, though a peculiarly terrible, chain of events.

So Dr, John Watson opens his re-telling of this grisly case. A case which begins when Miss Susan Cushing of Croydon receives a parcel of two severed human ears, packed in salt. Inspector Lestrade is convinced that the parcel is a prank on the part of three medical students Miss Cushing was forced to evict from her lodgings due to their unruly behaviour. Lestrade points to the parcel as coming from Belfast – the home of one of the former lodgers – as reason for his suspicions.

On examining the parcel, however, Holmes is certain that they are dealing with a far more serious crime, involving tormented minds and extra-marital relationships…

Monday July 11th. Sisi: Empress on Her Own

Caledonia Skytower reads selections from Allison Pataki’s 2016 novel of historical fiction set in the heyday of the Habsburg court in the late 19th Century,

SisiEmpress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary is the Princess Diana of her time. Fondly known as “Sisi”, her life from the outside appears to be a fairy tale of waltzes, glamour, champagne and the privileges of the aristocracy. But the reality is that Sisi is locked in an unfulfilling marriage and confined by the requirements of protocol which chafe at her free spirit. 

Escaping Vienna she withdraws to a place of comfort: her estate outside of Budapest. There she falls in love with Count Andrássy, and wants only for a life of her own. But the realities of royal life force her to return to Vienna, where a world of sorrow, intrigue, envy  – and even danger – await her.

So it is that Sisi is caught in a personal world of conflict, trying on the one hand to keep her family together whilst on the other, wishing to be free of her suffocating marriage. And as she fights to assert herself and her right to sit  on the throne alongside her husband, so to must she face the approaching Great War and the threat it presents to Europe as a whole.

Tuesday July 12th, 19:00: Blueberry Summers: Growing Up at the Lake

Kayden Oconnell reads from Curtiss Anderson’s classic coming of age memoirs.

BlueberryBorn in 1928 in Minneapolis, Curtiss Anderson grew up in an extended family of Norwegian-Americans, among whom the highlight of the year was time spent among the lakes of northern Minnesota.

For young Curtiss, growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, these were especially idyllic years. Time spent in the farmhouse among this extended family presented an opportunity for him to escape the strained and troubled relationship he had with his parents and enjoy the company of others, aunts and uncles, the loving care offered by family friends Leigh and Clara, the companionship of the family dogs – and the chances to experience young love of his own.

Through the tales he relates of these summers, so Anderson also explores the notes and letters he wrote as a boy, carefully produced on a hand-me-down typewriter. Missives and notes which, although he never realised it at the time, were in fact his first forays into what would blossom in his adult life into a distinguished career as a writer, editor and publisher.

Wednesday July 13th 19:00: Ollie’s Odyssey

OllieCaledonia Skytower reads William Joyce’s children’s tale about Oswald (or Ollie, or Oz), a stuffed rabbit and favourite of young Billy. Oz goes everywhere with Billy, until one day, he is accidentally left under a table during a wedding, and is kidnapped by the wicked Zozo.

An unwanted amusement park prize, Zozo hates all toys that are favourites; so much so that he doesn’t just want them lost – he wants them forgotten by everyone – and he has gathered other embittered toys to his cause.

Now Oz must work to not only rescue himself and get back to Billy, he must ensure all the other “lost” toys reach safety.

Thursday, July 14th

19:00: She Sells Sea Shells

With Shandon Loring

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

With Finn Zeddmore.

Please check with the Seanchai Library SL’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule.

The featured charity for July-August is WildAid: seeking to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes by reducing demand through public awareness campaigns and providing comprehensive marine protection.

Additional Links