Molecular Monday: Boron Isn’t Boring

October 2, 2017

Welcome back to another edition of Molecular Mondays, a special biweekly series here on Planet Pailly combining two of my least favorite things: chemistry and Mondays.

At some point long, long ago, I read a book about the periodic table of the elements. Chapter five was about boron, and what I remember learning was that boron is kind of useless. Certain boron-containing compounds are used in cleaning detergents, and while boron is not particularly toxic to humans, it’s deadly to insects, so it makes a good insecticide.

And that was basically it. Nothing more to know. Time to move on to chapter six: carbon.

So when the news came out that the Curiosity rover had detected boron on the surface of Mars, my initial reaction was “who cares?” But then I read more, and I soon realized that I’d been grossly under-informed about the fifth element from the periodic table.

First off, finding boron on Mars posed a real challenge. The Curiosity rover used an instrument called ChemCam, which basically zaps rock samples with a laser and performs a spectroscopic analysis on the resulting rock vapor.

According to this paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, scientists were looking for two spectral lines, both in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, which are characteristic of boron: 249.75 nm and 249.84 nm. Annoyingly, iron also produces a spectral line at 249.96 nm, so ChemCam can only confirm boron’s presence in samples that have low iron content, which are hard to come by on Mars. Iron oxide is basically everywhere.

But despite this difficulty, boron was detected. Why should I or anyone else care? Because it was detected in veins of sedimentary rock, meaning that at some point long ago when Mars still had lakes and rivers and oceans of liquid water, boron must have been mixed into that water (likely in the form of borate, a compound of boron and oxygen).

Again, why should anyone care? Because some of the fragile molecules necessary for life decompose in open water, but borate can help stabilize those molecules, allowing them to combine to form RNA. Boron itself is not incorporated into our modern DNA, but its presence here on Earth may have helped life get started—and if boron was present on Mars, mixed into ancient Martian waters, it could have helped life get started there too.

Could have. We still don’t know for sure, but as I’ve hinted previously I am planning a little trip to Mars aboard my imaginary spaceship. Stay tuned. I’ll be sure to let you know if I find anything.


What Am I Researching?

August 9, 2017

I have a fun special project in the works for this blog. I don’t want to say too much yet, but some of my research materials arrived last week and I’m getting pretty excited about it.

As you can see, I have some reading to do. Add to that a few other books which were already in my possession…

Also, I picked up something special at the grocery store.

So can you guess where I’m planning to take my imaginary spaceship next?


NASA’s Next Flagship Mission

July 19, 2017

Let’s imagine you’re NASA. You have two big flagship-class missions coming up: one to search for life on Mars (launcing in 2020) and another to search for life on Europa (launching in 2022). These flagship missions are big, expensive projects, so Congress only lets you do one or two per decade.

After 2022, the next flagship mission probably won’t launch until the late 2020’s or early 2030’s, but still… now is the time for you to start thinking about it. So after Mars and Europa, where do you want to go next? Here are a few ideas currently floating around:

  • Orbiting Enceladus: If you want to keep looking for life in the Solar System, Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) is a good pick. It’s got an ocean of liquid water beneath it surface, and thanks to the geysers in the southern hemisphere, Enceladus is rather conveniently spraying samples into space for your orbiter to collect.
  • Splash Down on Titan: If there’s life on Titan (another moon of Saturn), it’ll be very different from life we’re familiar with here on Earth. But the organic chemicals are there in abundance, and it would be interesting to splash down in one of Titan’s lakes of liquid methane. If we built a submersible probe, we could even go see if anything’s swimming around in the methane-y depths.
  • Another Mars Rover: Yes, we have multiple orbiters and rovers exploring Mars already, but some of that equipment is getting pretty old and will need to be replaced soon. If we’re serious about sending humans to Mars, it’s important to keep the current Mars program going so we know what we’re getting ourselves into.
  • Landing on Venus: Given the high temperature and pressure on Venus, this is a mission that won’t last long—a few days tops—but Venus is surprisingly similar to Earth in many ways. Comparing and contrasting the two planets taught us how important Earth’s ozone layer is and just what can happen if a global greenhouse effect get’s out of control. Who knows what else Venus might teach us about our home?
  • Orbiting Uranus: This was high on NASA’s list of priorities at the beginning of the 2010’s, and it’s expected to rank highly again in the 2020’s. We know next to nothing about Uranus or Neptune, the ice giants of our Solar System. Given how many ice giants we’ve discovered orbiting other stars, it would be nice if we could learn more about the ones in our backyard.
  • Orbiting Neptune: Uranus is significantly closer to Earth than Neptune, but there’s an upcoming planetary alignment in the 2030’s that could make Neptune a less expensive, more fuel-efficient choice. As an added bonus, we’d also get to visit Triton, a Pluto-like object that Neptune sort of kidnapped and made into a moon.

If it were up to me, I know which one of these missions I’d pick. But today we’re imagining that you are NASA. Realistically Congress will only agree to pay for one or two of these planetary science missions in the coming decade. So what would be your first and second choices?


The Insecure Mars Rover’s Support Group

July 5, 2017

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement. Click here to find out more about IWSG and to see a list of participating blogs.

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Okay, today’s post is about writing. I promise. Just bear with me.

Late last month, the Opportunity rover straightened its wheels and resumed driving. You may be thinking, “Who cares? That doesn’t sound like a big deal.” But for regular Mars rover fans, this made headlines.

Mars rovers have their moments of glory: discovering new kinds of salt, observing evidence of liquid water, or detecting the faint whiffs of organic chemicals. One day a Mars rover may even uncover signs of past or present Martian life.

But between those moments of discovery comes the day to day (or rather sol to sol) drudgery of Mars roving. Moving a few inches forward. Turning your wheels. Communicating your status back to Earth then waiting 8 to 48 minutes for the go ahead from mission control to move a few inches more. Every small rock or patch of gravel can become a serious obstacle, and climbing a small hill can take months or even years.

The payoff comes eventually in the form of amazing discoveries, but only after long, tedious months of maneuvering cautiously and methodically across the craggy Martian wasteland.

Now I promised this post would in fact be about writing, and it is. A few weeks ago, I somehow got myself stuck in some gravel, so to speak. The kind of small, annoying problem that could bring my entire mission to a grinding halt. It’s only in the last few days that I’ve managed to straighten my wheels, and now I’m ready to resume driving… eh, I mean writing.


Life on Mars: The Hunt for Martian Dinosaurs

December 28, 2016

Can Mars support life? Is there anything living on Mars right now? It sometimes seems like Mars is desperately trying to convince us that the answer to both questions is yes.

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If you’re hunting for alien life in the Solar System, there are four places you should pay attention to: Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Now a thought recently occurred to me—a thought that I’m sure has occurred to other people before: in an astrobiological sense, these four worlds sort of represent the past, present, and future.

  • Mars: a place where alien life might have existed and thrived in the past.
  • Europa and Enceladus: places where life may exist and thrive in the present.
  • Titan: a place where life might start to evolve and thrive sometime in the future (assuming it hasn’t started already).

Regarding Mars, there was clearly a time when rivers, lakes, and oceans of liquid water covered the Martian surface. There’s growing evidence that at least some of the organic chemicals necessary for life were also present. Therefore it’s easy to imagine a time millions or perhaps billions of years ago when Mars had a biosphere as rich and robust as prehistoric Earth’s.

Obviously that robust biosphere is gone now. Even when we hear about the possibility that life still exists on present-day Mars, it’s generally assumed that this life would be only a remnant of what came before. The microbial survivors of whatever wiped out the Martian dinosaurs, so to speak.

Someday (hopefully soon), humans will travel to Mars. When we get there, we may find that all the Martians are long dead. That might seem a bit depressing, but actually I’m kind of excited by the idea that the fossilized remains of Martian dinosaurs might be there, waiting for us to come dig them up.


Time: Mission to Mars, A Book Review

October 31, 2016

A few years back, I picked up a special edition of Time Magazine that was all about Albert Einstein. It had a lot of new-to-me biographical information, and it did a surprisingly good job explaining Einstein’s physics. So when I saw Time’s “Mission to Mars: Our Journey Continues” on the magazine rack, I bought it.

oc31-time-magazine-mission-to-mars

Quick Review

It was just okay.

Longer Review

It’s worth taking stock of the fact that there is so much Mars-related stuff going on, but I think the writers were trying to cram too much into a magazine (booklet?) that’s less than 100 pages.

They touched on the search for Martian life, the Curiosity rover, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, Scott Kelly’s Year in Space, the competition between SpaceX and Blue Origin, President Obama’s space policy, production of The Martian staring Matt Damon… they touched on all of this stuff, but they didn’t go into detail about any of it.

Any one of those topics could have filled a whole magazine by itself (in fact, Time did do a special edition on the Year in Space mission). If they had narrowed their focus just a little, I think they could have produced a much more interesting and informative publication.

Recommendation

If you don’t know much about Mars and the current state of space exploration, and you want to be better informed, this isn’t a bad place to start. For people like myself who are already huge space enthusiasts, the forward by Buzz Aldrin is worth a look. Otherwise, I’d say give this one a pass.


All These Worlds Are Yours: A Book Review

October 11, 2016

In his book All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life, author Jon Willis gives you $4 billion. How many authors do that? Okay, it’s imaginary money, and you’re only allowed to spend it on astrobiological research. But still… $4 billion, just for reading a book!

If you’re new to the subject of astrobiology, All These Worlds is an excellent introduction. It covers all the astrobiological hotspots of the Solar System and beyond, and unlike most books on this subject, it doesn’t gloss over the issue of money.

There are so many exciting possibilities, so many opportunities to try to find alien life. But realistically, you can only afford one or maybe two missions on your $4 billion budget. So you’ll have to pick and choose. You’ll have to make some educated guesses about where to look.

Do you want to gamble everything on Mars, or would you rather spend your money on Titan or Europa? Or do you want to build a space telescope and go hunting for exoplanets? Or donate all your money to SETI? Willis lays out the pros and cons of all your best options.

My only complaint about this book is that Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) didn’t get its own chapter. Instead, there’s a chapter on Europa and Enceladus, which was really a chapter about Europa with a few pages on Enceladus at the end.

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I agree, Enceladus. On the other hand, Enceladus is sort of like Europa’s mini-me. So while I disagree with the decision to lump the two together, I do understand it.

In summary, I’d highly recommend this book to anyone interested in space exploration, and especially to those who are new or relatively knew to the subject of astrobiology. Minimal prior scientific knowledge is required, although some basic familiarity with the planets of the Solar System would help.

P.S.: How would you spend your $4 billion? I’d spend mine on a mission to Europa, paying special attention to the weird reddish-brown material found in Europa’s lineae and maculae.