Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A fascinating book: Dreams of Other Worlds

Dreams of Other Worlds (Amazon link)

Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration


By Chris Impey and Holly Henry

Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2012    


This book is a thoroughly researched chronicle of ten robotic missions, with an overview of the entire field of non-piloted exploration.  If it meanders a bit, it succeeds at the most important task: showing readers just how remarkable our robotic missions are. Impey is a professor of astronomy, Henry a professor of English, and the combination of their expertise works very well.) 

The Introduction sets the stage with the theorists, from the Greek Anaxagoras to Copernicus to the modern day.  For a long time, people have had the notion there were other worlds to explore, but that was science fiction until 1957, when it suddenly appeared practical to send machines (and eventually people) sailing away from Earth.

The authors do, however, do a good job of featuring all types of missions: planetary observer, rover, deep space, and astronomical.  They present two Martian missions (Viking and Mars Exploration Rovers) first, followed by the probes Voyager and Cassini, the comet-sampling Stardust, and SOHO, a mission to study our home star.  They break away from voyages to specific destinations to cover Hipparcos, the Spitzer telescope, Chandra, the Hubble, and the Big Bang explorer WMAP.    It’s odd there are no Soviet/Russian missions included, and Venus is left off the destination list. There are two European Space Agency missions: Hipparcos, a 1989 mission dedicated to astrometry (distances, locations, and movements of the stars) and Planck, along with the joint Cassini-Huygens mission.

All the chapters on individual missions are good, and the authors seem to know all about them.  Who knew 1,500 papers were published so far on the Cassini results?  One aside here contains an error: the authors say NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” initiative “launched 150 payloads at an average cost of $100 million per mission, with a failure rate of less than 10 percent.” There were were 16, of which 10 accomplished their missions: even if they are counting individual experiments vs. whole spacecraft, the numbers are much too high.  

The explanations of spacecraft design, function, and results are succinct and well-done: clearly the authors understand the technical side and have the ability to condense it in terms understandable to the interested public. 

There’s a tendency in this book to stray from the main narratives in each chapter to explore topics as varied as extremophiles and the history of X-rays.  I enjoy this kind of digression as long as there’s a connection: not all readers may agree. 

Finally, the authors look ahead. They describe the hoped-for advances from the James Webb Space Telescope and future Mars probes, although only NASA missions are addressed for some reason.  

There’s a good color plate selection of 24 images and some well-selected images in the text.  The references will make even the most detail-minded reader happy, and the index is good as well.

This is, in short, a very valuable book, well written and well documented. The selection of missions can be debated, but not the quality of the coverage of those that did make it in.  This is a must-have for anyone interested in the robotic exploration of space, both closeup and from astronomical distances.  It will be valuable for a long time to come.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A new mammal (of course, it's also cute)

No one has seen a Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat (Cuscomys oblativa) alive.  It was known only from Incan-era skulls and was considered extinct.  This was true, at least, until just a few years ago... and only in 2014 have scientists confirmed the critter is among us
Yes, we still find mammals.  And it is really cute. I'm not showing it here, because the photo is copyrighted as far as I can tell, but check out the link, and you'll agree.

Close encounter with a comet

This time, I'll just let the picture tell the story.  This is  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen from 29 kilometers by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft.   Awesome.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book review: Fathoming the Ocean

Helen M. Rozwadowski. Belknap (Harvard University Press), 2005.

276pp. hardcover, 304 in paperback
Foreword by Sylvia Earle
We all know modern tools are allowing us to get a better view of the deep seas than we’ve ever had, but how did that kind of exploration get started? How did humans first get interested in the word below the first few sunlit meters of the sea, and how did we start probing that world?  Rozwadowski, in the first book I’ve read devoted to the early ocean surveyors, shows us how the Age of Sail fostered the age of deep-sea exploration. As commerce, whaling, fishing, and travel grew in economic importance and matured from coastal to trans-oceanic pursuits, naturalists, professional and amateur, grew more interested in the depths. These men (and women) tried a number of modifications of fishing nets and trawls for this work, then added purpose-built, often very ingenious tools like water samplers and recording thermometers.  In England and the United States, especially, wealthy and then middle-class amateurs took up the new interest in sampling and describing ocean fauna, followed increasingly by government-sponsored professionals, which led to episodes like the fortunate inclusion of Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle, not to mention the epic 1872-76 voyage of the HMS Challenger, which is often called the beginning of the modern age of ocean exploration. In this superbly documented and referenced book, the author includes the views of governments, ordinary sailors, and the Western public along with those of scientists.  This is an essential book for the understanding of deep-sea exploration, both historical and modern.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

There's Adventure in Rockets

That's the title of a children's book that got me interested in rocketry a long time back (as Ishmael says, "never mind how long ago exactly" ), but there sure was adventure this past week.  SpaceX and Boeing got contracts to launch Americans to the ISS, Atlas V had another success, SpaceX is gearing up for the next launch, Nanoracks' innovative Cubesat deployment system started spitting out satellites from the International Space Station when it felt like it (probably drawing a collective "Yikes!" from NASA safety engineers) and a new player, Blue Origin, jumped in via an alliance with Boeing.  Also, United Launch Alliance announced it would have Blue Origin building it a new engine to replace the Russian RD-180: interesting, a "RD-180-degree turn" from years of insisting the supply was OK and they'd only build a new engine if taxpayers funded it.

I was sorry Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spaceplane didn't get NASA Commercial Crew funding. The Dragon and the Boeing CST-100 (seriously, Boeing, you can come up with a better name than that!) look like worth spaceships, but we are facing another 30 years of using capsules... workable, but less exciting and flexible.  And Congress is going to ask some hard questions about how Boeing and SpaceX are doing identical tasks, but Boeing is being paid $4.2B and SpaceX $2.6B, a question Administrator Bolden has not addressed in his blog and other NASA people have flatly refused to discuss. The Administrator also said, "From day one, the Obama Administration has made it clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space." That doesn't make it clear why substantive action took six years into the Administration, but, hey, at least they got here.

This week will take a while to digest. But it's been an exciting one!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

One Arctic mystery solved?

Over the long and perilous history of Arctic exploration, there have been many tragedies and many disappearances. For example, the great Roald Amundsen vanished on a rescue mission in 1928, and only a float and a fuel tank from his flying boat ever drifted back. He was just the latest: many more sailors and explorers, going back two centuries, died or vanished, mostly while looking for the Northwest Passage. 
One of the great mysteries is that of the Franklin Expedition. Two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, under command of Sir John Franklin, set sail in 1845. Information from the Inuit people confirmed they were locked in Arctic ice, and the crew perished, but where were the ships? Did they sink? Were they locked forever in ice?
Now one of the two ships - Parks Canada does not know which - has been clearly imaged by sidescan sonar on the bottom of the Canadian Arctic Ocean. The location is being kept secret, but the images are mesmerizing. So strong is the hold of Arctic explorers on the Canadian imagination that the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, made the announcement in person.
It will be fascinating to watch this archeological story unfold.

WAY Under the Sea

A great bit from collegehumor.com in which Sebastian the Crab leaves his shallow-water reef and sings (nervously) about the denizens of the very deep sea. Their megamouth has kind of a whale shark look to it, but it's all pretty good.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

One-off specimens: where's that salamander?

The most frustrating cases in zoology / cryptozoology are those where a single specimen exists, but its provenance cannot be proved, and no one can find another.  One such case is a cloak of kiwi feathers from New Zealand in which the feathers are too big for ordinary kiwis: was there, in Maori times, a giant variant?  Another such case, where the specimen is not preserved but unquestionably existed, is the Case of the Wayward Salamander. 
The largest living amphibian is the Asiatic giant salamander Andrias davidianus. Found in China, with a slightly smaller relative in Japan, it may be over 1.5 meters long.  The largest known in North America is the hellbender of the Ozarks and Appalachians, which grows to over 60cm. 

America's largest known salamander, the hellbender (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1951, an article by Stanford University herpetologist George Myers appeared in the scientific journal Copeia.  Myers reported he had examined a giant salamander caught in a catfish net in California's Sacramento River.  The amphibian looked like an Asian giant salamander to him (he called it a member of the genus Megalobatracus: Andrias has superseded the older name).  However, it was dark brown with yellow spots, "quite at variance" with the standard gray or brown of Asian types, and "suggested the possibility of a unique California variation."  The specimen (if fully grown) was of modest size for this genus, only 76 cm long.  Unfortunately, the fisherman only allowed the specimen to be examined, not kept for further study.  What became of the salamander, then living in a bathtub in its owner's apartment, is unknown.
A point here is that the coloration isn’t, in fact, outside the range of Andrias. A Google Images search turns up a brown one with yellow spots, or at least splotches.

Getting back to California, giant salamanders have long been rumored from the Trinity Alps. A deer-hunting attorney claimed he’d seen five such animals in the New River, ranging up to almost three meters long. Biologist Thomas Rodgers, who investigated this story, allowed it was possible that a relict population of giant salamanders still lived in California. 
Rodgers also looked at the Sacramento River specimen.  The local press related a rather too cute story that this salamander was an escapee named "Benny," from a shipment of exotic pets from "somewhere in China."  With the question thus properly muddled, Rodgers led an expedition into the Trinity Alps in 1961 to search for the alleged amphibians.  Rodgers' group found only well-known native salamanders under 30cm, and he came away doubting any giant salamanders existed.
Other reports have trickled in since then, but no one has produced another giant salamander.  We are left with the usual problems of one-specimen cases.  Was the animal an exotic escapee? A last relic of a lost race?  A chance specimen of a surviving population?  I hate writing "we may never know," but, well... 

See: Myers, George S.  1951.  "Asiatic Giant Salamander Caught in the Sacramento River and an Exotic Skink Near San Francisco," Copeia, No. 2: Rodgers, Thomas L.  1962.  "Report of Giant Salamanders in California," Copeia, No. 3.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Requiem for the Passenger pigeon - a sad centennial

Some years back ("never mind exactly how long ago," as Ishmael says), I had a chance to look in on Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in her eternal home at the Smithsonian. All I can say is that she looked lonely, as well she should have.  I still have a Kodak Instamatic snapshot, but it's hard to tell it's even a bird, so I won't inflict it on you here.
Her species went through the biggest massacre of wildlife in all history, ending exactly 100 years ago today with Martha's demise in the Cincinnati Zoo. The pigeon once lived in unaccountable numbers: John James Audubon reported a flock took three days to pass overhead. A hundred nests were once counted in a single tree.  Centuries of Native American and early European hunting made no dent in this multitude, but shotguns, nets, and other tricks of the 19th century did.  Mass hunting for sport, meat, and feathers, combined with the destruction of forested habitat, somehow reduced billions of birds to one.
There is not much doubt the pigeon was extinct, although; for the record, a Professor Philip Hadley reported glimpsing a passenger pigeon in 1929 in northern Michigan. There was a trickle of sightings all the way up at least until 1965.  There is not, however, any real hope, and ornithologists consider Martha's demise definitive. (A poignant footnote: the last confirmed Carolina parakeet, Incas, died in the same zoo three and a half years later.)
So we know to the day, almost to the minute, what happened to the most abundant bird ever to live.
Farewell, Martha. We're sorry. May we all learn your lesson.

Martha, as displayed in 1956