Out Sick

April 9, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Molecular Mondays, a special bi-weekly series here on Planet Pailly about chemistry.  Every other Monday, we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that—

Turns out my muse won’t let me write when I’m sick.  I’ve come down with a really bad cold, or maybe it’s the flu.  I don’t really know, but I should be well enough to write again in time for Sciency Words on Friday.

In the meantime, I’ll do my best to get better, with a little help from this chemical and this chemical and this chemical.

Fish in Space!

March 15, 2018

So the cartoon… I mean, the highly technical diagram in yesterday’s post implied that being in space wouldn’t be much of a thrill for fish. I mean, they swim up, they swim down… they swim in whatever direction they want, right?

But then I found a video showing a side-by-side comparison of the fish tank aboard the International Space Station and an identical fish tank down here on Earth, and it looks like I was very, very wrong. Fish do change their swimming behavior in microgravity. It’s really pretty, actually, watching them spin and twirl about.

Molecular Monday: Venus’s (Formerly) Unknown Absorber

March 12, 2018

Today’s post is part of a bi-weekly series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays, where we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe.

Okay, I know I said March would be Mars Month here on Planet Pailly, but for today’s episode of Molecular Mondays, we really must talk about the latest news from Venus. Our best lead for finding life on Venus has just dried up.

The idea of life on Venus has always been a long shot, but for the last few decades planetary scientists have been puzzled by a mysterious something in the Venusian atmosphere. A something that absorbs large quantities of light in the ultraviolet and near-ultraviolet part of the spectrum. This unknown UV absorbing substance has come to be known as the “unknown absorber.”

In his book Venus Revealed, planetary scientist David Grinspoon hypothesizes that the unknown absorber could perhaps maybe possibly be a “photosynthetic pigment” similar to chlorophyll. If so, that would mean there are little, photosynthetic microorganisms swarming about in Venus’s atmosphere, gobbling up UV radiation and converting it into usable energy. This hypothesis is extremely unlikely—Grinspoon makes that abundantly clear—but we could never rule the idea out entirely.

Except, unfortunately, we can now rule this idea out entirely. The unknown absorber has been identified. It’s not a photosynthetic molecule. It’s not even a particularly complicated molecule. It’s just a simple sulfur/oxygen compound called disulfur dioxide.

The story goes like this: sulfur monoxide (SO), which is fairly common in Venus’s atmosphere, combines with itself to form disulfur dioxide (S2O2). Specifically, it creates two different versions (or isomers) of disulfur dioxide called cis-OSSO (which has its oxygen atoms oriented in the same direction, as pictured above) and trans-OSSO (which has its oxygen atoms oriented in opposite directions). Then when cis- and trans-OSSO absorb ultraviolet light, they break back down into sulfur monoxide, and the cycle begins anew.

So our best hope for finding life on Venus appears to be gone. Oh well. It was a long shot anyway. I still have high hopes for finding life (probably fossilized life) on Mars.

Mars Month!!!

March 1, 2018

I took some time off from my special Mars mission this year because… well, because I felt like blogging about some other stuff for a while. But I always intended to pick this up again where I left off.

The month of March seems like a pretty good time to do it. March is, after all, named in honor of Mars. Mars the god of war, obviously, rather than the planet… but still, March is now officially Mars Month here on Planet Pailly, and that feels right to me.

IWSG: Star Trek Wisdom

December 6, 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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I’ve been debating with myself how much I should reveal for this month’s IWSG. I’ve decided this is a case where less is more.

I had an extremely rough week last week, which was the culmination of a rough month, which was ultimately the culmination of a year that did not go according to plan. The important thing is that I feel like I should have seen all this coming, that I should have done something to protect myself or prepare myself better.

In other words, I feel like what happened was my own fault. That, more than anything else, took a psychological toll on me. That, more than anything else, is the reason why I recently took some time off from blogging and from writing in general, and I actually wasn’t sure for a while if I had it in me to ever pick up the pen again.

But then I ended up watching some old episodes of Star Trek, and Captain Picard said exactly what I needed to hear: […] it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

I’m sharing this today for two reasons. First, because I think there’s a good chance someone else out there might need to hear those words, just like I did. And second, because this is another example of what fiction (even so-called escapist fiction) can do for people.

Yes, Star Trek allowed me to escape for a little while from my real life problems; that in and of itself has some value. But it also helped me see my problems in a new light. That kind of clarity is a valuable gift. We need more of that, which is why I’m leaving my own hesitation and self-doubt behind and getting back to writing. And I hope that, no matter what insecurities the rest of you might be dealing with, you will keep writing too.

Back to Earth

November 27, 2017

Quick programming note: I’m currently dealing with a small personal matter. I’d rather not go into any details about it, but it’s nothing serious. No need to worry.

However this small matter does require me to come back down to Earth for a little while, which means I’ll have to take a brief hiatus from blogging.

I expect things to return to normal by the end of the week, so I should be able to resume my special Mars Mission next Monday. I’ll have some weird rocks to tell you about; trust me, it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. So stay tuned!

Sciency Words: Mars Direct

November 24, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


In November of 1989, NASA published the findings of a 90-day study on the future of the American space program. That report came to be known as the 90-Day Report and established a goal of putting humans on the surface of Mars within thirty years. The methods to achieve this goal were complicated. Very complicated. Stupidly complicated, or so thought aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin.

So in 1991, Zubrin and colleagues published a paper outlining an alternative plan which they called “Mars Direct.” Zubrin further elaborated on the Mars Direct plan in his book The Case for Mars.

Mars Direct means exactly what it says: astronauts would go directly to Mars. This is in contrast to the elaborate and expensive space infrastructure ideas proposed in the 90-Day Report, which involved enormous space stations and moon bases and orbital fuel depots and fleets of giant starships, all of which would have to be built before even one person could set foot on the Red Planet.

I won’t go through all the details of how Mars Direct is supposed to work (there’s a good reason Zubrin had to write a whole book about this); I’ll just cover the basics.

Launches would take place every twenty-six months, coinciding with the regular planetary alignments of Earth and Mars. Specifically, Zubrin advocates for launches during Earth/Mars conjunctions, when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun. That may seem counterintuitive, but because of the math and the delta-v and the orbital mechanics and… you know what, let’s just say it’s because you end up using less fuel.

Once we get this plan started, the launch schedule would go as follows:

  • First Conjunction: A single, unmanned spacecraft heads to Mars. This will be used as the first Earth Return Vehicle (ERV-1) and it will spend the next twenty-six months making fuel for itself.
  • Second Conjunction: A pair of spacecraft head to Mars. One is another Earth Return Vehicle (ERV-2) and the other will carry a habitat module (HAB-1) and four astronauts (Expedition-1).
  • Third Conjunction: Expedition-1 returns to Earth aboard ERV-1, leaving HAB-1 and ERV-2 behind. Meanwhile HAB-2 and ERV-3 launch from Earth, along with the crew for Expedition-2.
  • Fourth Conjunction: Expedition-2 returns to Earth aboard ERV-2. HAB-1 and HAB-2, now connected together, are left behind. So is ERV-3. Meanwhile Expedition-3, HAB-3, and ERV-4 launch from Earth.

The cycle keeps going after that. With each expedition to Mars, the habitat complex grows a little bigger, laying the groundwork for full-scale colonization later on, and because of the way Earth Return Vehicles are staggered, each crew on Mars always has access to two ERVs, which seems like a wise precaution.

One of the key selling points for Mars Direct is that it’s cost-effective, at least in relative terms; it certainly costs a whole lot less than what was proposed in the 90-Day Report. Also, Mars Direct would only use currently available technology, so we could start doing this right now.

But for some reason, at least as far as I can tell, no government agency or private organization (aside from Zubrin’s own advocacy group, the Mars Society) has committed to Mars Direct. Oh yes, lots of people talk about it. Sometimes people borrow bits and pieces of the plan, but no one—not NASA, not Buzz Aldrin, not even Elon Musk—seems willing to adopt it in its entirety. And I’m not sure why.