TEDx Adelaide 2015

Something a little different, but I just wanted to share my thoughts from the TEDx conference in Adelaide today. A lot of talks today, so hold onto your hats as this will be a whirlwind summary!

TEDx Adelaide
TEDx Adelaide 2015

Associate Professor David Paton asks “Can we stop our birds disappearing?”. Current nature reserves around Adelaide by area are 10%. We need to increase this to 30% to maintain some of our at risk bird species. Such an increase would be an intergenerational commitment, but one we need and one that isn’t being talked about. Offsetting carbon emissions by planting trees is ok, but why not go one step further and ensure they are suitable habitats for endangered species? We can offset our ecological footprint for $1 per person per day.

Mel Greig, who you may remember as being involved in a radio prank with a very unfortunate ending, gave a presentation. I have to admit that I always had a very negative perception of her, and thought that her actions were ill-conceived at best. After the talk, and hearing her reaction to hearing about the tragic death, and the number of death threats she received, I realised such a response is simply not warranted. She was under police protection for several months, and the police station received bullets with her name on them. Eventually someone even threatened her mother’s life – a totally innocent bystander. A sound bite played made the good point that no one could have predicted the outcome. Thousands of similar pranks are performed each year around the world without incident. Mel is now focussing her energy on raising awareness about internet trolling/bullying and has started a social movement called Troll Free Day.

During the lunch break we were asked to create a Lego model about one of the talks we found most inspiring, and I did one about Mel Greig’s talk. I’ll let you interpret my artistic masterpiece. We’ll just call it abstract.

Lego
Lego model and three key words that represent my thoughts on Mel Greig’s talk.

Dr Elizabeth Grant gave a talk titled ‘Build beautiful prisons’. She described a prison where prisoners are welcomed, treated like humans, given meaningful jobs within the prison, expected to perform their own housework and cook their own food, live in ‘share houses’ with several other inmates and spend at least part of each day learning something, whether it’s reading or doing a university course online. The desired outcome? Giving people the skills to fit in with and be contributing members of society after their sentence. Isn’t rehabilitation one of the key reasons for the criminal justice system? Elizabeth argues that prisoners get their punishment from being removed from society, and don’t need to get it from being mistreated in a prison. A prison like this has already opened in Western Australia with some success.

A good idea that I’ve never seen in a conference before was ‘mingle bingo’, pictured below. Simply ask people if they satisfy one of the categories throughout the day, and if they do, tick it off!

Mingle bingo
Mingle bingo! Didn’t get to tick them all off, but I did meet a lot of interesting people.

Many other great talks were given that I don’t have time to discuss, including Peter Drew on ‘curing’ racism with art, and Dr James Muecke on his work around curing blindness with Adelaide based charity Sight For All.

Until next time.

How to ‘game’ your PhD

I was talking to a friend about my PhD last week, who expressed mild surprise at the fact that it is estimated to take 8 years to do a PhD part time in Australia. “Surely you can do it quicker than that!” he exclaimed. It’s true that a lot of time in a PhD student’s life is taken up by coffee runs, distractions in the office and admin work. In fact, many PhD students say that in hindsight they really did most of the work for their PhD in the last 3 months. I know from my honours project that it can be fun to work in an office environment with your fellow students, but potentially a huge time sink. In a way, perhaps it’s good that I’m doing most of the work from my home office. I also recently saw THIS blog entry about how to maximise the effectiveness of your PhD program and complete it quickly. This got us thinking about other ways one could quickly publish 3-4 (quality!) papers, write a thesis, then graduate.

First, a summary of the key points from the above blog:

Andrew Critch is critical of lab work, saying that it’s time consuming, and if you want to do a PhD quickly you should do one with minimal lab time. While there isn’t likely to be a lot of lab work for my PhD, some field work is a high possibility. I’m hoping to do a lot of my experiments via simulations (which will be necessary in some parts as I can’t do field work on an asteroid yet!) and rely on computing power to cut down the time spent. Critch also recommends doing a PhD in something like economics or philosophy where having a good idea can accelerate you a lot. It’s maybe a little late for me there, but I am interested in branching out a little into space economics, law and ethics.

Being surrounded by highly productive researchers is a positive, and you can take the opportunity to learn how they get their work done. A lot of researchers have multiple roles on the go, including collaborating in a lot of different projects, so they have a lot of expertise to share. Which brings me to my next point…

Collaborate! At last week’s Off-Earth Mining Forum I met a lot of mining engineers and other researchers who were working on the more engineering side of space mining. After listening to their presentations, I thought of a lot of ways that I as a geophysicist could offer a unique perspective and expertise to move the research forwards. This is a good way to potentially be a co-author and have other researchers co-author your work and help you. One idea I have is to collate information on the types of geophysical and geological characteristics that are required/ideal for developing a block model (used for mine planning) and resource characterisation. Then, using what I know about geophysics, I can look into the best ways to determine these characteristics. The same applies for mining techniques. A wide range of structural models are proposed for asteroids, each with their own implications for the ideal type of mining technique. It would be inconvenient to have to take every mining technique possibly required to an asteroid to plan for every contingency. So I’d like to work with the mining engineers and determine what each structural type would imply for mining, and determine the best ways to characterise the relevant structure for an asteroid.

After seeing some of the conference papers presented last week, I realised I already have the workings of what could turn into some papers. I tend to find that I work well with a deadline, and will usually complete a piece of work around the deadline no matter how long it is. So setting some hard, short term deadlines for yourself may help to motivate you to work harder and produce work. For example, I intend to submit one of the above ideas as a paper abstract for a geophysics conference here in Adelaide next year. This will motivate me to get some quality work done by the conference.

On a related note, a lot of time spent writing work is in agonising over small details. Another piece of advice from the above blog that I have found really useful is to use a co-author (or find a partner who is working on something similar) and shoot drafts back and forth. Send on a draft even if it’s not complete, get some feedback on it and repeat. I find you make progress a lot quicker in this way.

The recommendation for completing a PhD, at least in Australia, is to publish 3-4 papers and then collate them into a thesis. A little simplified, but that’s the gist of it. I had always assumed that, for a science PhD, these papers would have to involve collecting new data, but my supervisor told me last week that isn’t necessarily the case. A review paper, which summarises all of the current knowledge about a particular topic with a specific theme, can count. In fact, a review paper is apparently preferred, as they are cited more often and have higher prestige associated. This is handy, because typically when you start writing a PhD you will do an extended literature review on one narrow area to catch up with the existing research. What better time to summarise a small field than when you have just spent several months reading all there is to know about it. Make sure you take notes and summarise as you go to make writing such a paper possible.

It is a good idea to contact a few journals with your idea for a review paper to see if they would be interested in publishing it or something similar, as many review papers are solicited by a journal ahead of time. Other easy publications might include a meta-analysis, which analyses the data and statistics of a strain of research, similar to a review paper. This allows you to produce good work without having to do a lot of labwork and data collection yourself. Another easy publication, which doesn’t count towards your publication count but is still useful to do as it gets your name out there and is good experience, is to submit a comment about a journal article. This can be as short as a few paragraphs, and as simple as suggesting another line of analysis, or that a particular statistical method is not appropriate for the study.

On a similar note, applying new analyses, statistics and interpretation methods to existing data can allow you to break new ground without having to collect your own data from scratch. As I found out in my honours year, a lot of time is spent in quality checking data and taking precautions.

When I first met my supervisors they told me about one PhD candidate someone had who was also managing a research and development style team for work. They ended up summarising several years of work that the team had done (and the candidate had managed/supervised) and submitted that as their thesis. While technically acceptable, this way of finishing your PhD is certainly frowned upon! But for a part-time PhD, working on similar things in your full-time job, as I am, can be beneficial as you develop useful skills even while not working on your research.

The last thing I can think of is to just work hard. I’m sure most PhD students do, but I know one geoscience PhD student who finished his thesis in two years because he worked all day and into the evenings for most of his program. This may sound unattractive, but just imagine what you could do with those extra 1.5 years of life from completing a PhD program early.

Well I’ll keep you all posted on how this little social experiment actually goes over the next X years while I finish my PhD. If my supervisors are reading this, don’t worry, I promise the quality of work won’t suffer from my trying to ‘game’ my PhD!

Until next time.

Xenon and lunar mining – Off-Earth Mining Forum Day 2

I woke up to the very strange sight of sunlight for perhaps the first time since I got to Sydney. With the Future Mining Conference over, all of the talks today were focussed specifically on space.

The first presentation was a review of lunar resources by researcher Ian Crawford, a summary of his paper published in Progress in Physical Geography. With only one or two exceptions, Ian claims, there are no resources on the Moon that would be worth importing back to Earth. The real market would be to use lunar materials on the lunar surface itself, or to use them in cis-lunar space.

Helium-3, touted by many as the solution to all of our energy woes (and the subject of the sci-fi novel by the name of Limit, which I highly recommend despite its 1000+ page length!), is implanted into the lunar regolith by solar wind. But, it only exists at an average concentration of 4 ppb in the regolith. As such, Ian is very sceptical about the economic feasibility of extracting and returning He-3 to Earth. If you’ll allow me to paraphrase him:

Assuming equal efficiencies, in 1.4 years, the same solar energy falls on 1 metre squared as would be obtained from extracting and processing all the helium-3 contained in the 3 m of high titanium regolith below it.” A rather damning statement.

Some areas of rare Earth elements (REEs) such as uranium and thorium are enriched in some areas, but REEs, despite their name, are not actually that rare, and are certainly not rare or valuable enough to warrant returning to Earth – UNLESS Earth-side supply dropped (e.g. it became too environmentally unfriendly to extract).

A large economy in cis-lunar space (e.g. science, infrastructure, transport, tourism…) may tip the economics over the edge to make lunar exploration and exploitation viable. Note that it takes much less energy to get to Moon escape velocity and down to geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) than it does to get to GEO from Earth’s surface. If Moon infrastructure were sufficiently developed, it could become far more cost efficient to build infrastructure in GEO using Moon resources.

This was followed up by Jim Keravala, Chief Operating Officer of Shackleton Energy, who gave us some idea of the infrastructure that might be built in GEO. Shackleton proposes that solar panels, which are much more efficient at collecting energy in space than on Earth, could be built and used to transmit wireless power back to a receiver on Earth’s surface. The energy is non-ionising and thus not a danger to life. This technology is feasible and demonstrated (for example), and can achieve energy transmission efficiencies of around 54%.

Kyle Acierno of iSpace, who are chasing the Google Lunar XPRIZE, gave a quick summary of their progress. The first prize of $20 million goes to the first non-government group to land a rover on the Moon, have it drive 500 metres and broadcast high definition video feed back to Earth. iSpace has developed a small, lightweight rover weighing just 4 kg (compared to the Curiosity Mars rover weighing in at around 900 kg!) to do just this. It is able to be so light because it is purpose built specifically for the prize goals, and contains no science equipment, and it uses 4 wheels instead of the standard 6 for rovers.

Winning the prize is the first step in a long-term plan to spend a swarm of lightweight, cheap rovers to the lunar surface to explore and demonstrate technology, eventually leading to resource extraction and the selling of scientific data. For information about their team and rover click here.

A schematic of the iSpace rover.
A schematic of the iSpace rover. Apologies for the low res… time for a new camera?

My favourite quote of the day was actually outside a presentation, and consisted of someone loudly exclaiming “No there is NOT more xenon than oxygen in the atmosphere!”

I found out today that the talks were actually live streamed, and you can find some of them here.

I immensely enjoyed the conference – it was a great chance to learn what is happening in the space resource utilisation industry and to meet and collaborate with fellow researchers. For anyone working in this space, or even just interested, I strongly recommend going to the next one in 2017.

Until next time (hopefully before 2017).

Space dust and ethics – Future Mining Conference day 2

Today started at the much more relaxed 8:45 am – not because the conference organisers felt like that was a more appropriate time, but because our Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science decided he couldn’t make it. Or something. I felt doubly snubbed as Pyne is my local MP AND a graduate of my school. C’mon Chris.

There were a lot of great talks today, (and definitely more of a space theme) so I’ll just summarise some of my favourites.

The morning started off with a presentation by Rene Fradet, Deputy Director of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), on the potential for a common journey between exploration/science and mining in space. My supervisor introduced me to Rene over lunch and we were able to broach the possibility of visiting JPL in California (or even spending some time researching there!?) and collaborating with their scientists, some of whom are also working on mapping the interior of asteroids with geophysics.

Dr Seher Ata from UNSW spoke about ‘Resource recovery in space’, or more specifically, how to process and separate materials in space. If we want to to mine and then utilise material in space without having to bring it down to Earth, we’ll need to develop ways to process and separate materials in a microgravity environment. Many terrestrial separation methods such as froth flotation and magnetic separation rely on gravity. For example, using magnets to separate out magnetic material is only worthwhile if everything else is being pulled away by gravity, and bubbles won’t rise in a liquid, which makes froth flotation difficult to impossible. One audience member suggested centripetal force, but as you add more moving parts you increase the chances of something going wrong. I wondered aloud why we couldn’t utilise that lovely vacuum we have around us in space to induce some kind of air flow/movement and use that instead of gravity. Apparently that wasn’t actually too bad an idea, and I was told to look into it. Geez, I’m just a geophysicist! Let me know if you are a metallurgist and have some clue on how to advance this crack pot idea.

Another good talk was by Dr Jeff Coulton from UNSW Business School about an MBA elective he ran on costing resource projects. To make things a little more interesting, he gave the students a choice between three off-Earth mining projects; mining Ceres, mining the Moon or mining a near Earth orbit asteroid (NEO). The students were mostly from an IT or finance background, and so had little technical experience in terms of space science or engineering. They were told to assume the project was technically feasible, and to make assumptions on costs, resource values, demand etc. This simple experiment suggested that mining the boon had an initial capital expenditure of $9 billion (Au) and a net present value (NPV) of around $-450 billion. So you would lose $450 billion. Not very attractive. But – mining Ceres had a capex of around $22 billion and an NPV of around $80 billion, and mining an NEOhad a capex of just $492 million and an NPV of $295 million. Of course, these assume technical feasibility for these projects, which isn’t necessarily true at present, but what they demonstrate is a strong reliance of economics on the choice of discount rate and selling points.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a few talks on space law, but just plain surprised to see a presentation by an academic on space ethics. He opened his presentation with “As a humanities scholar I’m going to do something that annoys non-humanities scholars, and that is to read to you.” And he did just that. But I must say it was an enjoyable talk which got me thinking about a few things I hadn’t considered. For example, Dr Thom van Dooren focussed on the point that the economic, environmental, technical, scientific and cultural concerns related to space cannot be addressed individually, they are all entangled. Despite the low chances of humanity establishing a backup planet elsewhere, the implications for our survival and expansion are profound. One way to look at this is called ‘worlding’ – “What kind of world are we creating and what are the implications for whom?”

For example, mining helium-3 on the Moon might have obvious positive implications for some, but for others, damaging space environments may be seen as intrinsically wrong, and for others still it may be seen to be offending deities. How do we balance these concerns against others? Van Dooren argues that their concerns are not null.

Professor Steven Freeland began his presentation on space law with an amusing story. He was reading an article about space law in the Wall Street Journal. Oh great, he thinks, this will be interesting. Then he sees the title: “If a Martian crashes into your spacecraft, who is liable?” After a theatrical groan, he decides he can make a better summary of space law than the article.

Dr Alice Gorman gave a unique account of the importance of cultural heritage on the Moon and the implications of Moon dust, which, surprisingly, is actually a pretty big problem. Lunar dust is extremely sharp and abrasive due to the lack of erosional processes such as wind and flowing water. The grains can be highly electro-statically charged, and can levitate, especially when the terminator (sharp night/day boundary on the Moon) passes, due to the rapid change in temperature. Some particles are even assumed to reach lunar escape velocity speeds when human activity such as rover are in the vicinity. Imagine one of these dust grains hitting you at escape velocity!

Images of microscopic lunar dust. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.
Images of microscopic lunar dust. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Widespread mining of the lunar surface may even create an upper atmospheric dust layer, which could prevent aforementioned particles at escape velocity from actually leaving the surface. The implications of such a feature forming were left for us to imagine!

Apologies to any presentations that I missed, as they were all excellent talks. Leave a comment below or email me if you’d like to hear more about any of the talks, and I can go into more detail and discuss. A list of conference papers can be found via this link.

Tonight featured a presentation by Brian Muirhead of JPL, who is the manager of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). I’ll do a separate blog post about that as it’s a mission I’m really excited about, but for now I’d just like to share this very amusing and poignant image.

Yep.
Yep.

Maybe the dinosaurs would have survived if they had put more funding into their space program? Let’s not make the same mistake.

The Future Mining Conference finished up today, but the Off-Earth Mining Forum will continue tomorrow, featuring more talks from asteroid mining start ups and space scientists/engineers.

Until then.

Chaos theory and global warming – Future Mining Conference day 1

Double shot coffee in hand, I arrived at the AusIMM Future Mining Conference at 7:45 am to register and sign in. After a welcome from my supervisor Serkan Saydam the conference kicked of with a presentation from Nick Holland, CEO of Gold Fields about what the gold industry is likely to look like in the future. Apparently we are in store for a drop in gold production in 5-7 years due to a hiatus in exploration now which will begin to manifest itself, and we will see more automation, with Rio Tinto’s driverless trucks already saving ~500 work hours each per year.

One interesting presentation was titled ‘Integrating measurement, systems and leadership to build safe, productive cultures’ by Malcolm Roberts. The key messages were reducing variation in production to reduce waste and increase productivity (using the Taguchi loss function), and that safety and productivity need not be mutually exclusive in terms of budget. It’s not safety OR productivity, increased safety DRIVES productivity. Roberts ended with a rather provocative statement (which was only semi-related) that the ‘angry summer’ of 2012/2013 in Australia was only anomalous relative to the previous year, and showed the graph from this site (which I’ve never seen before).

Roberts suggested that all senior mining employees in Australia knew that global warming was fake, yet didn’t have the leadership to speak out about it. One of the audience members challenged this by asking whether the fact that the industry didn’t speak out about it was more due to the fact that it accepted the 97% consensus that anthropogenic global warming was real. Roberts replied by saying that the 97% consensus was false, and when you really look at the data only 0.3% of scientific papers on climate change support AGW. This was news to me. I’ve asked Roberts for comment and will write a follow-up piece on this.

Carlos Tapia Cortez, another PhD student of my supervisor gave a talk on ‘Copper price uncertainties – Chaos theory to manage risks in mining projects’. Put simply, Carlos put forward the hypothesis that copper prices can be forecast using chaos theory, fractals, artificial intelligence and econophysics, just as they have been used in neurosciences, meteorology, aviation and market trading. Overall the proof was a little beyond me, and I can’t say I was completely convinced that it works – but it was a proof of concept study. The next step is to actually simulate future copper prices and test how the analysis compares to reality, and to try it for different commodity prices. One might wonder if, were this analysis to work, would it cease to work almost straight away? If it became that easy to predict copper prices and thus buy low and sell high every time (arbitrage), people would stop selling and buying respectively at these times.

Until tomorrow.


Seeing Malcolm Roberts and Brian Cox in Q & A prompted me to finally finish this piece. In short, Malcolm Roberts claimed global warming was a hoax on national Australian television, and physicist Brian Cox debated him (or rather, showed Roberts some evidence which was rejected).

Shortly after writing this piece, I reached out to Roberts for clarification on his talk, and he gave me permission to reproduce our conversation here.

Michael

Hi Malcolm,

I enjoyed your presentation today at the AusIMM Future Mining Conference. That was certainly a provocative way to end a talk! If you don’t mind I had a few questions in hindsight.
Regarding your plot of temperature vs. time highlighting the ‘angry summer’, where is that sourced from? I haven’t seen that particular graph before.
Regarding the notion that the ‘97% consensus is actually 0.3%’, that seems exceptionally low. Given that I have met a lot of climate scientists and all of them have supported AGW, I’m a little surprised by this. Am I stuck in a bubble? Where are the 99.7%?
Kind regards,
Malcolm
Hi Michael.

Thank you for your email and inquiry.
Here’s a summary of the empirical evidence on climate:
It’s accessed through this page showing my formal complaints on behaviours of staff at the University of Queensland: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/empiricaloh.html
Although not requested, both are pertinent to your questions.
Regarding the 97% being actually 0.3% it’s explained at the bottom of page 4, in Appendix 5, here: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/CSIROh!.html
It’s discussed in my email correspondence with UQ Vice Chancellor here: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/docs/Email20July2015.pdf
John Cook’s behaviour in fabricating the 97% consensus forms part of my formal complaints. Those complaints and my correspondence with the VC cite a scientifically peer-reviewed paper that demolishes Cook’s fabrication. It’s the source of my figures in Appendix 5, above.
Similar fates have befallen other claims of 97% consensus. These have been comprehensively explained elsewhere.
Note that none of Cook’s 0.3% have provided any empirical evidence of human causation of global warming or climate change.
Note further that anyone claiming a consensus is undermining science since the decider of science is empirical data, not voting.
Secondly, the graph of summertime tropospheric temperatures is available at Jo Nova’s site and was sourced in data from the providers of the NASA satellite data, University of Alabama at Huntsville, Alabama: http://joannenova.com.au/2013/03/hottest-summer-record-in-australia-not-even-close-says-uah-satellite-data/
Journalists with limited understanding of science accessed basic data to disprove the Gillard-Flannery Climate Commission’s claim.
I chose that graph because it illustrates the lack of any process change in Australian summertime temperatures. There are many graphs of annual temperatures confirming no change in temperatures.
There are no graphs and no data showing process change in global climate or any climate factors.
I say this, Michael, not to embarrass you. That the majority of people were misled is not their fault. There has been a barrage of misleading and evocative material flung at the public by a small group of people portrayed as authoritative with that material re-presented by a large group of well-meaning though misinformed people. We humans are easily misled, especially when emotions are deliberately involved.
When you visit Appendix 5, enroute perhaps peruse the documentation of extensive corruption of climate science in appendices 3, 5, 6, 6a, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 13a-13g, 14, 15.
Then consider whether or not you’ve ever actually seen specific empirical evidence and logical causal analysis of climate proving that carbon dioxide from human activity causes global warming or global climate change or global climate variability.
There is none. Neither BOM nor CSIRO Chief Executive has ever provided any to MPs as my Freedom of Information requests confirm.
None of the nine most prominent Australian academics fomenting climate alarm has ever provided any in their responses to my requests.
It’s summarised on page 2 of my letter to 19 March 2014 letter to Greg Hunt: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/docs/letters/20140321/GregHunt,March2014.pdf
The ultimate arbiter of science is empirical evidence.
I hope this answers your questions fully and meets your needs.
Regards,
Michael
Hi Malcolm, thanks for your detailed response.

I’m not embarrassed – I don’t believe I told you my personal stance on climate science.

I write a blog covering fields related to my research, and wrote several summaries on the Future Mining Conference. I was asked by several readers to expand upon your presentation, especially the content relevant to climate science. Would you be comfortable if I referred to some of the content of your response? If not, I will make no mention of it.

Regards,
Malcolm

Thank you, Michael.

Please accept my regret for the sloppiness of my wording. I didn’t mean to imply that you specifically should not be embarrassed and I had not meant to imply any assumption regarding your stance.
It was my clumsy attempt to empathise with a possible believer in human causation while simultaneously conveying to a possible sceptic to extend understanding to those who have fallen for climate claims. Please note my use of the word ’their’ in reference to people who may have fallen for climate claims.
Secondly, I try to live life openly and would be delighted for you to use any of my material and any of my response in context. Thank you for the courtesy of asking.
If you cite The Australian’s article, please do so on the basis that I am not using it as scientific proof, and am using it only to show that even two journalists with apparently limited scientific background (if any) were able to easily debunk the government’s ‘experts’ who had implied the 2013 summer was unusually hot when it was not.
Regards,
In summary, while I was deliberately ambiguous in these emails, after examining the evidence myself (having studied climate change at university in my undergraduate degree – see also my analysis of common myths around anthropogenic global warming) I am of no doubt that global warming is significantly more likely than not to be real, to be caused by humans, and to be a big problem. And quite frankly, even if we were only 0.3% sure that this was the case, I would still advocate for doing something about it. After all, there is a chance it lead to the extinction of humanity, which would be very bad indeed. How much risk are we willing to accept when it comes to our literal extinction?
https://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
http://futureoflife.org/environment/

Landing on a comet

The AusIMM Future Mining Conference kicked off tonight with a presentation by Professor Monica Grady about the Rosetta (accompanied by the Philae lander) mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (which I’ve done a post on here). If you don’t know Monica, here she is celebrating Philae’s successful landing on 67P. Unfortunately for her, she hasn’t realised that it promptly bounced off, but more on that later.

Professor Monica Grady demonstrating gravity assists.
Professor Monica Grady demonstrating gravity assists.

“Why go to a comet?” asks Professor Grady at the start of her talk. Comets contain carbon and water, the building blocks of habitable worlds. Quite possibly, a good deal of our carbon and water here on Earth came from comets. The more we understand about comets the more we understand about our own origins.

In 1986 three probes were sent to 1P/Halley – Vega 1, Vega 2 and Giotto. This was the first comet we got up close and personal with, but we didn’t attempt landing. Then in 2006 the Stardust mission visited 81P/Wild 2, but again, no landing. Stardust did, however, collect dust from the comet’s tail and return it to Earth, allowing us our first glimpse at cometary material. However, due to the capture mechanism, carbon was difficult to capture and so we couldn’t analyse it. Finally, after 10 years in space and using gravity assists from Earth and Mars, Rosetta reached 67P.

Due to the nature of space mission design, the on-board instruments need to be finalised several years in advance so they can all be properly integrated together. As a result, the instruments being used now to study 67P were designed in the late 1990’s / early 2000’s, which by today’s standards of technology is ancient!

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from wikipedia.org.

For the purposes of planning Philae’s landing, scientists and engineers assumed that 67P was roughly spherical and had an average comet density. In 2014, we got our first close up picture of 67P. Definitely not spherical. This meant we severely underestimated the gravitational pull of the comet. But that’s ok, the engineers said, that’s why Philae has harpoons to tether to the surface!

10 potential landing sites were selected. Care was taken to pick a spot that wasn’t too sunny (so the equipment wouldn’t fry from the intense heat of the sun), not too dark (so the solar panels could charge), not too steep and not too rocky (so Philae wouldn’t fall over). How did they go? Well, at least the equipment didn’t end up frying.

The below picture is the last image taken of Philae as it left the Rosetta craft. With much excitement and anticipation, the leadership team, 11 principal investigators and the media waited in a conference room for the fateful landing.

The last image taken of Philae as it leaves Rosetta.
The last image taken of Philae as it leaves Rosetta.

They waited 7 hours. Entertainment was provided by promotional videos such as this one (featuring ‘Littlefinger’), which I’m told got a little tired after the third time.

The investigators knew Philae bounced immediately. For a split second, they started to receive results from the comet surface. As soon as celebration erupted from the conference room, the data feed stopped. Not a good sign.

This cartoon from ESA provides a (somewhat simplified) explanation of what happened.

I could go into greater detail about an incredibly detailed presentation, but I need to be up in 7 hours to register. Who starts a conference at 8 am?

Until tomorrow.

The geological mysteries of Ceres

Ceres – a 950 km wide dwarf planet in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. As Dawn approached in early 2015 it detected strange bright spots on the surface in a 90 km wide crater later named the Occator Crater. They were so bright they dominated the pixel they resided in on the camera. Now, many months later, NASA’s Dawn team has still been unable to place their origin, though they are finding similar, but smaller, bright patches and streaks all over the surface. Initially, these were predicted to be the result of highly reflective ice, supported by a haze (possibly sublimated water) visible over the bright spots. The best guess at this point is a highly reflective salt, though a mechanism for how and why this salt is exposed at the surface is yet to be confirmed. Possible explanations include surface impacts removing surface material covering the salt (possible for the Occator Crater, but unlikely for the smaller streaks), or some internal mechanism for the salt rising to the surface, which would suggest a geologically active body. Such small bodies have historically been thought to be long since inactive, but Pluto is only 236 km wider and showed remarkable features that are almost certainly due to recent geological activity.

The Occator Crater - showing differences in elevation and the mysterious bright spots. Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
The Occator Crater – showing differences in elevation and the mysterious bright spots. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

The surface of Ceres appears to be covered with a hydrated rock alteration product, and may have some areas covered with frost. Thermal models also indicate that Ceres is an icy object subject in the past to hydrothermal activity and differentiation which would give it layers similar to Earth’s inner/outer core, mantle and crust, and even suggest the possibility of a liquid subsurface.

Dawn has generated a topographic map of Ceres’ surface in extraordinary detail. Carol Raymond, deputy mission chief from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has noted that the shape of the craters on Ceres are irregular, resembling those on Saturn’s moon Rhea more than those on Vesta, the second largest body in the main belt. A mineral composition map reveals streaks across the surface around the Occator Crater that researchers believe may be relevant.

Topographic map of Ceres showing changes in elevation with a pixel resolution of 400 m. The Occator Crater is located centre right. Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
Topographic map of Ceres showing changes in elevation with a pixel resolution of 400 m. The Occator Crater is located centre right. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Another great unsolved mystery is the origin of the feature known as ‘The Lonely Mountain’, a 6 km high feature with an approximately pyramidal shape. There is no evidence of volcanic activity or plate tectonics on Ceres that might have thrust up such a feature.

The Lonely Mountain. Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
The Lonely Mountain. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

I noticed that the mountain is somewhat reminiscent of the centre of some craters on the Moon, for example the crater Alphonsus, pictured below. The centre feature of Alphonsus is also pyramid shaped, but unfortunately the similarities seem to end there. It only rises 1.5 km from the Lunar surface and is surrounded by ejecta material from the impact which created the crater. As seen in topographic images, The Lonely Mountain does not appear to sit within any consistent surface depression the might suggest an impact. It’s possible that subsequent impacts and events have erased evidence of a crater, but if so they have carefully avoided the mountain in the centre. The small crater adjacent to The Lonely Mountain is of approximately the same size and appears to be too close for coincidence. I’m not saying the material from the crater was directly translated to the mountain by some kind of impact, but there may be a relationship.

The Alphonsus Lunar crater. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.
The Alphonsus Lunar crater. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Dawn will cease operations in mid-late 2016 and remain in orbit as a permanent satellite of Ceres. Let’s hope we will collect enough data from Ceres’ surface to solve these questions and more before then.

Water on Mars

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock you’ve no doubt seen the announcement by NASA today that water has been discovered on Mars (sort of, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After a day of sensational hype created from NASA’s pre-warning of an important press release, this was making headlines from the word go, with everyone speculating on the topic of discussion. The discovery of aliens, mysterious artefacts and water on Mars were all proposed.

Here is one of the images which helped make the discovery. Images of the same part of Mars’ surface at different times shows these streaks appearing between shots, indicating an active landscape. The dark streaks are on the order of 5 metres wide, often narrower, were first discovered over a decade ago, and have been called ‘recurring slope lineae’. There were numerous proposed causes for these, including water, but also avalanches or grains of material rolling down slopes.

Once the CHRISM spectrometer was applied to these streaks, the spectral signature of the features could be analysed, revealing their composition. Hydrated salts were found on every streak, but were strikingly absent from the surrounding surface. Water turns to liquid on Mars’ surface at 0 degrees Celsius, just as it does on Earth, but water with a high concentration of salts will melt at much lower temperatures (try this at home with some table salt!). The flows appear when temperatures rise over -23 degrees Celcius, which is reached during the warm season in parts of Mars.

Researchers are working on determining where this water has come from. Possible theories include porous rocks under the surface and saline aquifers existing in some areas below the surface in areas. Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist, prefers the theory that the salts exist on the surface of Mars, and absorb water from the atmosphere until they reach a point where they have enough liquid to flow downhill, a process known as deliquescence. To me this would indicate that the surface of Mars where these features form would be laden in salts, but as mentioned earlier the spectral imagery does not seem to support this theory.

So why sort of? To be precise, we haven’t directly detected water flowing on Mars, only signs (however promising) that point towards water flow. But we must always be cautious and consider other processes that may create the same results (or even processes we have never encountered before!).

“Does this mean life on Mars?” everyone cries. The presence of liquid water (however transient in this case) is a good sign for the existence of life. Dr Grunsfeld of NASA has stated that “If I were a microbe on Mars, I would probably not live near one of these [sites]”. He suggests that underneath a freshwater glacier, such as those suspected in the north and south, would yield more ideal conditions for life.

In any case, these are certainly exciting times for Mars exploration. Of course, a ground-truthing experiment (physically checking these sites, drilling and collecting samples) would prove this theory right or wrong. Here’s to hoping we can get a geologist to these sites soon! If anyone asks, pick me.

How to make a comet

Hey space lovers! I’ve recently signed up to be a member of The Planetary Society and if you should too if you aren’t already. Not only do you get an excellent t-shirt (see below) and a quarterly issue of The Planetary Report magazine, you are funding space advocacy and adding your name to an important body that will promote space exploration.

Blogception!
Blogception!

Have you ever wondered why comet 67P looks the way it does? It’s a strange shape and looks a little like 2 bodies that have been fused together, but to the researcher’s surprise, the cometary activity appears to originate in the neck. Why? Rapid temperature change in the neck, causing cracks and inducing volatile loss. Check out Emily Lakdawalla’s blog entry for the full spiel!

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from wikipedia.org
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from wikipedia.org.

Humans to Mars – For and against

Today I was reading an article by Frank Stratford, CEO and founder of MarsDrive, about the benefits of going to Mars. I was nodding my head in agreement as I usually do, but after looking at the comments, one by Heinrich Monroe particularly threw me. It’s a long one, so I’ve picked out the key points (in my opinion).

Oh, we’re going to get spinoffs from it? Like “from medical technology to food and water to new materials, safety technologies, and so much more”? … You know, if we spend $100B on just about any massive technological and engineering goal, spinoffs like that… will fall out as well. The question is whether those spinoffs were really worth $100B, and whether we couldn’t have gotten more value on them with smarter investment.” – Heinrich Monroe

When I talk about the value of having space science programs, in addition to the intrinsic value of advancing scientific understanding, I often refer to the unforeseen advances in technology that come as a result. For example, we probably wouldn’t have instant global communications via satellite feed, let alone the host of material science, medical and software advances that have resulted from space programs. But the comments made by Heinrich did make me wonder whether we could have achieved these better with direct, targeted programs.

Image taken from www.reddit.com. Unfortunately I'm unable to credit the original poster.
Image taken from www.reddit.com. Unfortunately I’m unable to credit the original poster.

As Donald Rumsfeld has said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and and unknown unknowns. We don’t even know about some of the discoveries to be made working on space science and their implications to every day life until we make the discovery. However, one could perhaps say the same about a targeted research program. It’s certainly a tricky one to answer, although I will say this.

There is a lot of money being used for things that I disagree with ethically, and that isn’t being used for programs such as advancing medical science. By advocating for more space science funding, I’m not convinced that this would greatly cannibalise funding going towards these other programs. It’s not a choice between one or the other.

Having said that, I would be very interested to see a study that estimates the value of space science research compared to direct research in other fields. This is presumably very difficult, as it’s hard to put a number on the value of science development (would discovering life on Mars have intrinsic value?), but this shouldn’t stop people from trying. I’m sure something like this exists, but given my experience in determining the effectiveness of charities, I wouldn’t be that surprised if it didn’t. One example is the fact that for every dollar invested in NASA, there has been a $7-14 return on investment. If you are aware of any general studies of this nature, feel free to put a link in the comments below.

I may be biased – I am a space science researcher after all!

Here is a link to a neat infographic that summarises the spin-off benefits of NASA technology and funding.