Friday, June 28, 2019

NASA reaches for Titan in daring mission

This is the most excited I've been about a NASA robotic explorer since the Mars Sample Return was canceled (which has happened about three times). The space agency will send a probe to Saturn's moon Titan, but they're not just going to fly by it or orbit it.  They're going to land with a quadcopter to fly to many locations and analyze the moon and its atmosphere with a mass spectrometer. 
This isn't humanity's first visit to the huge, rocky,cold (-179 C) moon. In 2005, the European Space Agency-built Huygens probe separated from NASA's Cassini probe and landed on Titan.  Now we're going back. NASA selected ,as the next mission in its New Frontiers "medium-cost" series, Dragonfly. Arriving in 2034, Dragonfly will make dozens of flights over the moon's land areas and the hydrocarbon "seas" of methane and ethane, looking for signs of subsurface liquid water reservoirs  and - if we are very, very lucky - signs of life. 
Said NASA Associate  Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen, "Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission, It's remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn's largest moon, ...Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself."  The Principal Investigator will be Elizabeth Turtle of the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL.)
Flyers have been proposed for several planetary missions, including several to Mars, but Titan has special appeal, not only for its composition, but for a nitrogen-based atmosphere (like our own)  four times denser than Earth's and thus able to support flight much easier than the very thin atmosphere of Mars.
This is a daring, ambitious, risky mission.  It's the kind of thing NASA was created for.  

An artist's depiction of the Dragonfly spacecraft on the surface of Titan.
Artist's concept of Dragonfly

Surface of Titan through atmospheric haze, from the Huygens probe

Good luck to NASA and the Dragonfly proposers at Johns Hopkins APL.  On to Titan!

Monday, June 24, 2019

A Majestic Documentary: Apollo 11

Last night I caught the new documentary Apollo 11 on CNN.  Wow.
Restored from sources including 11,000 hours of audio recordings and a huge cache of 70mm film that went overlooked for decades, it brought the event back vividly to those of us who were around for it - and for those who know it as a term in a history book. 
(One of my kids had a high school "history" textbook that mentioned only "an expensive race to the moon" without the words Apollo, Armstrong, or Aldrin: someone should be able to sue textbook writers for stupidity.  )
The found footage and the things that stitch it together (black and white newsreel type film, astronaut comments, the voice of Walter Cronkite) make a whole that is even more than the sum of its considerable parts.  Many bits stand out as especially meaningful: The size of the Saturn V and its crawler. The suiting-up process, and how everyone was "all business" on the launch morning. The beautiful summer day with countless people gathered to watch. (Note: if you've only seen the launch in the film First Man, director Damien Chazelle thought an overcast launch was more dramatic. He was wrong.) 
Finally, this film gives the viewer at least a small sense of how complex an endeavor this was, and how many thousand things had to go right - and almost all of them did. 
The launch and the Cape looked the way I remembered (I was 9), but more vivid. The footage did not, I regret to say, note a tiny white Piper Cherokee ten miles or so away, from which vantage point my brother, and my dad, who had his private license and worked at Piper Aircraft down the coast in Vero Beach, watched. (Thank you, Dad.)
There are a few nitpicks, although none are material, so I'm not even going to touch on them here. The defining event of a generation is beautifully rendered and should not be overlooked. This was a time when the whole country, indeed most of the world, pulled for three men and the thousands of men and women behind them. 

This is what heroes look like: ordinary men of flesh and blood, with extraordinary skills and courage.  (NASA) 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Giant squid captured on video

Actually, the title says it all.  A young (3-meter) Architeuthis, the monster squid of legend, was caught for the first time on video on our side of the Pacific, thanks to enterprising sciences who rigged LED lights into a jellyfish-like circle and lowered it deep into the dark domain...

Article and image from NOAA
NOAA-Funded Expedition Captures Rare Footage of Giant Squid in the Gulf of Mexico

A Whale of a Hybrid

In my 2006 book Shadows of Existence, I wrote:

".. the skull from a whale killed in Greenland in 1986 or 1987 appears to be evidence of a hybrid between the two known monodonts, the beluga and the narwhal. The skull was spotted in 1990 by Mads P. Heide-Jorgensen of the Greenland Fisheries Research Institute.  It was sitting on the roof of a tool shed in the settlement of Kitsissuarsuit. The skull belonged to a hunter named Jens Larsen.  Larsen had who killed three identical whales, one of which produced the mystery skull.   He recalled that the animals seemed very strange to him.  They were a uniform gray color, showing neither the distinctive white of a beluga nor the mottled back of a narwhal.  Their tails looked like a narwhal's, with their distinctive fan-shaped flukes and convex trailing edges.  Their broad pectoral flippers, though,  resembled a beluga’s.  While these cetaceans had no horns, analysis of the skull indicated two teeth showed growth patterns resembling the spirals of a narwhal tusk.  These teeth may have protruded outside the mouth."
Now we know more - a lot more.  New techniques for imaging the skull and reconstructing the head, plus DNA evidence, have led to a complete picture of this enigmatic cetacean.  
UPDATE: Scientist and artist Markus Buhler has kindly given permission to add his reconstruction of the "narluga."   Below is the link to his post explaining how he did it.
Image may contain: sky and water

Narluga by Markus Buhler. Used by permission. No reuse unless cleared by the artist. 

The parents: Narwhal and Beluga. 
Illustration of Narwhal
Beluga whale illustration

The skull, as the New York Times' JoAnna Klein wrote, ""belonged to an adult, first generation son of a narwhal mother and beluga father. " As to those teeth: Dr. Eline Lorenzen said, “It’s like if you took 50-percent beluga and 50-percent narwhal and shoved their teeth in a blender, that’s what would come out.” 

So welcome the "narluga."

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Don't Miss the chance to see this Apollo 11 documentary

Passed along by NASA historian Mike Ciancone


Rare free opportunity to view the incredible new Apollo 11 documentary that was released earlier this year .. will be on CNN this coming Sunday, June 23, at 8pm CT / 9PM ET

Crafted from a newly-discovered trove of 70mm footage, and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings, the CNN Film “Apollo 11” takes viewers straight to the heart of NASA’s most celebrated mission – the one that first put men on the Moon and forever made Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin household names. Immersed in the perspectives of the astronauts, the team in Mission Control, and the millions of spectators on the ground, we vividly experience those momentous days and hours in 1969 when humankind took a giant leap into the future. Premieres 6/23 at 9P/ET on CNN.

Re-live this most astounding achievement and accomplishment in human history … from 50 years ago

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Revisting Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Yep, he's still king.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters is here. As a lover of zoology and giant monster films, I had to weigh in.  Zoology and giant monsters, of course, don't really mix: Godzilla's first step would break his legs, topple him, and leave a giant puddle of dying green gunk on the ground.  But everyone agrees to believe: if you can't, you're at the wrong movie. 

My initial list of likes:
Amazing monster effects and action. Seriously amazing.  Think about how hard it is to make a giant three-headed dragon look like it's actually there, not as a video-game creature but with the seeming weight and movement of a real animal. (Three different motion-capture performers played the heads.)  
There were some good performances (Kyle Chandler, Ken Wantanabe). There were Easter eggs for cryptozoologists and some good one-liners. 
My initial dislikes: Unremittingly dark, thematically and visually, with none of the fun such movies should have, lots of errors about the military operations, and Vera Farmiga (a talented actress giving a bad performance in a hideously written role). 
Not rated: Logistics, physics, plot - you don't expect them to make any sense in a monster movie. (Although they REALLY pushed it with planes including short-ranged fighters flying fast and easily all over the planet.)
Special dislike: Naming a base Castle Bravo (after the nuclear test that poisoned Japanese fishermen and gave the original Godzilla its serious theme) is in stunningly bad taste, especially in an American film. I know that in these movies Castle Bravo was really an attempt to kill Godzilla, but that doesn't make it any better. 

Thinking back on it a day later, I found a few other things worth mentioning:
1. The best shot might have been Ghidorah frozen in ice: it offered a real sense of awe as the humans/cameras looked up at the monster.
2. Ken Wantanabe's last scene with Godzilla (the idea for which might have been swiped from The Abyss) was touching in a way you don't expect in a monster film. 
3. It's not clear why the two extra monsters that showed up near the end were fighting each other. 
4. The filmmakers seemed to throw in extra PG-13 cursing just because they could: Jesus is named more often in this film than he is in the Book of John. 
5. There's a clever homage to the Japanese version of Mothra and its two priestesses that I didn't even catch until I read a review. 

So, a mixed bag, but some fun to be had.  Grade B-.  Let's hope Godzilla v Kong next year keeps the great animation and adds a bit of humor - and daylight.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

World Oceans Day

OK, I'm a day late posting this, but the oceans need our help as much today as they did yesterday.  We're not doing enough. We're not doing enough to stop pollution or overfishing or climate change or acidification (reduction in the ocean's pH due to absorption of carbon dioxide from the air), which scares me even more than temperature changes: many marine animals have evolved to live only within a narrow range of pH values. 
This is where our lives began, and it 's where our species' existence will end  if we don't act faster. So make sure your seafood is sustainable, cut your plastic use, support marine protected areas and marine research... the list is endless, but start somewhere.  

"Ten percent of the big fish still remain. There are still some blue whales. There are still some krill in Antarctica. There are a few oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape, a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet. There's still time, but not a lot, to turn things around." - Dr. Sylvia Earle 

Ocean Acidification Illustration

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Thanks to Denver Pop Culture Con

Yes, it's a ComiCon, and Pluto is a planet, and I'm right, but there seems to be some legal stuff. I had a good time visiting the Denver PCC Friday. They have a great series of NASA panels on space topics, but I regret I missed them all in my short visit this year.  I didn't find any new Enemy Ace comic books, except one for $132, and my wife would have shot me down in flames.  Doesn't matter: it's always a great time, just seeing people and talking to them and watching the other humans. My Wizard Harry Dresden outfit got some photograph requests.  I wasn't on any panels this year, but I absolutely need to look for more opportunities and plan for more time next year. Thanks, volunteers, staff, and all!