Why So Big?

“How come so big, kid?”

“Beg pardon, Mr Feder?”

“Mars has the biggest volcanoes and all, like that canyon you can’t even see across.  Earth’s bigger than Mars, right?  How come we don’t have stuff like that?”

“Maybe we do but we’ve not found it yet.  Earth’s land area is only 4% greater than the surface area of Mars.  Our ocean floor and what’s beneath the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are like a whole second planet twice as big as the land we’ve explored so far.  Some people refer to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as a 10000-mile-long volcano.  No-one knows for sure what-all else is down there.  Even on land we’ve probably had enormous landforms like Alba Mons but on the geologic timescale they don’t last long here.”

“So like I said, how come?”

“Because of what we have that Mars doesn’t.  Massive forces of erosion — wind, water, Goldilocks temperatures — that grind down landforms something fierce.”

Watney_s route 420
Mark Watney’s travel route in The Martian.
Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
under Creative Commons license

“Wait, Mars has winds.  What about those dust storms, and that windstorm that damn near destroyed Watney’s spaceship?”

“Um, Watney’s a fictional character.  The dust storms do exist, though —  one of them created a blackout that may have killed the Opportunity rover’s solar power.  But Martian dust grains are about the size of smoke particles.  Doesn’t take much of a wind to get those grains into the air and keep them there even in Martian atmosphere that’s only 1% as thick as Earth’s.  A 120-mph wind on Earth would blow you over, but one on Mars would just give you a gentle push.  Martian winds can barely roll a sand grain along the ground.  They definitely can’t sandblast a volcano like Earth winds can.  Which, by the way is why planetologists panned that storm scene in your The Martian movie.  Couldn’t happen.  The film production team admitted that.  The rest of the science was pretty good, though.”

“OK then, water.  You talking like dripping water can wear a hole in a rock?”

“More like water in quantity — glaciers carving off mountaintops and rivers digging canyons and ocean waves smashing shorelines to sandy powder.  Dripping water works, too — water’s corrosive enough even at low temperatures that it can dissolve most kinds of rock if you give it enough time.  But Mars has no glaciers or rivers or oceans.  Probably no dripping water, either”

“You were kidding about Goldilocks, right?  Talk about fictional characters!”

“Not in this case.  To planetologists, ‘Goldilocks’ is a technical term.  You know, ‘not too cold, not too warm…”

“‘Just right,’ yeah, yeah.  But just right for what?  What’s Mars got that’s Goldilocks-ish?”

“Sorry, it’s Earth that has the Goldilocks magic, not Mars, and what’s just right is that we’re in the right temperature range for water to exist in gas and liquid and solid forms.  Mars’ surface is way too cold for liquid water.”

“Wait, I read that they’d found liquid water there.”

“Not on the surface.  The radar experiment aboard European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft found an indication of liquid water, but it’s a kilometer below the surface.  Twenty kilometers wide, maybe a meter thick — more of a pond than the ‘lake’ the media were talking about.”

“Why should it make a difference that Earth’s Goldilocks-ish?  I mean, we’re comfortable but we’re not rocks.  What’s that got to do with the volcanoes?”

“Recycling, Mr Feder, recycling.  On Mars, if enough gaseous water molecules could get together to make rain, which they can’t, they’d freeze to the ground and stay there for a long, long time.  On Earth, though, most rain stays liquid and you get ground water or run-off which eventually evaporates and rains down again.  The same molecules get many, many chances to grind down a mountain.”

“But Earth water can freeze, too.”

“Remember we’re Goldilocks-ish.  Liquid water soaks into a cracked rock where it freezes, expands to pry off a chip or two, and thaws to freeze again.  Water’s freeze-thaw cycle can do a lot of damage if it gets to repeat often enough.”

“So Mars has big stuff because…”

“The planet’s too cold to wear it away.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Raindrops landing in a red-brown puddle
Adapted image from Clipart-library.com

The Big Splash? Maybe.

You’ve not seen half of it, Mr Feder.  Mars has the Solar System’s tallest volcano, most massive volcano, biggest planetary meteor strike, deepest and longest  canyon…”

“Wait, kid, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon.  Thing is … BIG!  What’d they say?  A mile deep, 18 miles wide, 250 miles long.  No way Mars can beat that.”

“Valles Marineris is 4½ miles deep, 120 miles wide and 2500 miles long.  The Grand Canyon meanders, packing its length into only 150 miles of bee-line distance.  Marineris stretches straight as a string.  No river carved that formation, but the planetologists can’t agree on what did.”

Labeled Mars map 2 420
Mars map from NASA/JPL/GSFC

“They got evidence, don’t they?”

“Not enough.  Different facts point in different directions and no overall theory has won yet.  Most of it has to do with the landforms.  Start with the Tharsis Bulge, big as a continent and rising kilometers above Mars’ average altitude.  Near the Bulge’s highest point, except for the volcanoes, is a fractured-looking region called Noctis Labyrinthus.  Starting just west of  the Labyrinth a whole range of wrinkly highlands and mountains arcs around south and then east to point towards the eastern end of Marineris.  Marineris completes the arc by meeting the Labyrinth to its west.  Everything inside that arc is higher than everything else around it.  Except for the volcanoes, of course.”

“Looks like something came up from underneath to push all that stuff up.”

“Mm-hm, but we don’t know what, or what drove it, or even how fast everything happened.  There are theories all over the place”

“Like what?”

“Well, maybe it’s upwellng from a magma hotspot, like the one under the Pacific that’s been creating Hawaiian Islands one at a time for the past 80 million years.  Some people think the upwelling mostly lifted the existing crust like expanding gas bubbles push up the crust of baking bread.  Other people think that the upwelling’s magma broke through the crust to form enormous lava flows that covered up whatever had been there before.”

“You said ‘maybe.'”

“Yeah.  Another group of theories sees a connection between Tharsis and Hellas Basin, which is almost exactly on the other side of the planet.  Hellas is the rock-record of a mega-sized meteorite strike, the third largest confirmed one in the Solar System.  Before you ask, the other two are on the Moon.  Like I said, it’s a group of theories.  The gentlest one, if you can call it that, is that energy from the impact rippled all around the planet to focus on the point opposite the impact.  That would have disrupted the local equilibrium between crustal weight and magma’s upward pressure.  An imbalance like that would encourage uplift, crustal cracking and, ultimately, Valles Marineris.”

“Doesn’t sound very gentle.”

“It wouldn’t have been but it might even have been nastier.  Another possibility is that the meteorite may not have stopped at the crust.  It could have hit hard enough, and maybe with enough spin, to drill who knows how far through the fluid-ish body of the planet, raising the Bulge just by momentum and internal slosh.  Worst case, some of Tharsis’ rock might even have come from the intruder.”

Realistic Orange-red Liquid Splash Vector
Adapted from an image by Vecteezy

“Wow, that would have been a sight to see!”

“Yeah, from a distance.  Any spacecraft flying a Mars orbit would be in jeopardy from rock splatter.  We’ve found meteors on Earth that we know originated on Mars because they have bubbles holding trapped gas that matches the isotope signature of Martian atmosphere.  A collision as violent as the one I just described could certainly have driven rocky material past escape velocity and on its way to us.  Oh, by the way and speaking of sights — you’d be disappointed if you actually visited Valles Marineris.”

“How could anything that ginormous be a disappointment?”

“You could look down into it but you probably couldn’t see the far side.  Mars is smaller than Earth and its surface curves downward more rapidly.  Suppose you stood on one side of the valley’s floor where it’s 4 miles deep.  The opposite wall, maybe 100 miles away, would be beyond your 92-mile horizon limit for an object that tall.”

“Aw, phooey!”

~~ Rich Olcott

Holes in The Ground — Big Ones

Al’s stacking chairs on tables, trying to close his coffee shop, but Mr Richard Feder (of Fort Lee, NJ) doesn’t let up on Jim.  “What’s all this about Gale Crater or Mount Sharp that Curiosity‘s running around?  Is it a crater or a mountain?  How about it’s a volcano?  How do you even tell the difference?”

That’s a lot of questions but Jim’s got game.  “Gale is an impact crater, about three and a half billion years old.  The impacting meteorite must have hit hard, because Mount Sharp’s in the middle of Gale.”

Mud drop
Adapted from a photo
by Davide Restivo, Aarau, Switzerland
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
“How’s that follow?”

“Have you ever watched a rain drop hit a puddle?  It forces the puddle water downward and then the water springs back up again to form a peak.  The same general process  happens when a meteorite hits a rocky surface except the solid peak doesn’t flatten out like water does.  We know that’s the way many meteor craters on the Moon and here on Earth were formed.  We’re pretty sure it’s what happened at Gale — the core of Mount Sharp (formal astronomers call it Aeolis Mons) is probably that kind of peak.”

“Only the core?  What about the rest of it?”

“That’s what Curiosity has been digging into.”  <I have to smile — Jim’s not one to do puns on purpose.>  “The rover’s found evidence that the core’s wrapped up in lots of sedimentary clays, sulfates, hematites and other water-derived minerals of a sort that wouldn’t be there unless Gale had once been a lake like Oregon’s Crater Lake.  That in turn says that Mars once had liquid water on its surface.  That’s why everyone got so excited when those results came in.”

“Oregon’s Crater Lake was from a meteorite?”

“Oops, bad example.  No, that one’s a water-filled volcanic caldera.”

“How do you know?  Any chance its volcano will blow?”

“The best evidence, of course, is the mineralogy.  Volcanoes are made of igneous rocks — lava, tefra and everything in between.  Impact craters are made of whatever was there when the meteorite hit, although the heat and the pressure spike transform a lot of it into some metamorphic form.”

“But you can’t check for that on Mars or the Moon.”

“Mostly not, you’re right, so we have to depend on other clues.  Most volcanoes, for instance, are above the local landscape; most impact structures are below-level.  There are other subtler tests, like the pattern and distance that ejecta were thrown away from the event.  In general we can be 95-plus percent sure whether we’re looking at a volcano or an impact crater.  And no, it won’t any time soon.”

“What won’t do what?”

“You asked whether Crater Lake’s volcano will erupt.  Mount Mazama blew up 7700 years ago and it’s essentially been dormant ever since.”

“There’s some weasel-wording back there — most volcanoes do this, most impacts do that.  What about the exceptions?”

“Those generally have to do with size.  The really enormous features are often hard to even recognize, much less classify.  On Mars, for instance the Northern Lowlands region is significantly smoother than most of the rest of the planet.  Some people think that’s because it’s a huge lava flow that obliterated older impact structures.  Other people think the Lowlands is old sea bottom, smooth because meteorites would have splashed water instead of raising rocky craters.”

Labeled Mars map 420
Mars map from NASA/JPL/GSFC

“I’ll bet ocean.”

“There’s more.  You’ve heard about Olympus Mons on Mars being the Solar System’s biggest volcano, but that’s really only by height.  Alba Mons lies northeast of Olympus and is far huger by volume — 600 million cubic miles of rock but it’s only 4 miles high.  Average slope is half a degree — you’d never notice the upward grade if you walked it.  Astronomers thought Alba was just a humungous plain until they got detailed height data from satellite measurements.”

“The other one’s more than 4 miles high?”

“Oh, yeah.  Olympus Mons rises about 13.5 miles from the base of its surrounding cliffs.  That’s more than the jump from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest.”

“Things on Mars are big, alright.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Why Is Mars Red But Earth Is Blue?

The grad students’ Crazy Theory Contest event at Al’s coffee shop is breaking up.  Amanda’s flaunting the Ceremonial Broom she won with her ‘Spock and the horseshoe crabs‘ theory.  Suddenly a voice from behind me outroars the uproar.  “Hey, Mars guy, I got questions.”

Jim looks up and I look around.  Sure enough, it’s Mr Richard Feder.  I start with the introductions but he barrels right along.  “People call Mars the Red Planet, but I seen NASA pictures and it’s brown, right?  All different kinds of brown, with splotches.  There’s even one picture with every color in the rainbow.  What’s with that and what color is Mars really?”

Jim’s a newly-fledged grad student so I step in to give him a chance to think.  “That rainbow picture, Mr Feder, did it have a circular purple spot about a third of the way up from the bottom and was it mostly blue along the top?”

“Yeah, sounds about right.”

“That’s a NASA topographic map, color-coded for relative elevations, purple for low areas to red high-up.  The blue area is the Northern Lowlands surrounding the North Pole, and that purple spot is Hellas Basin, a huge meteor crater billions of years old.  It’s about 5 miles deep which is why they did it in purple.  The map colors have nothing to do with the color of the planet.”

“About your question, Mr …. Feder is it?”

“Yeah, kid, Richard Feder, Fort Lee, New Jersey.”

“Good to meet you, sir.  The answer to your question is, ‘It depends.’  Are you looking down from space or looking around on the surface?  And where are you looking?  Come to think of it, when are you looking?”

“All I’m asking is, is it red or not?  Why make it so complicated?”

“Because it is complicated.  A few months ago Mars had a huge dust storm that covered the whole planet.  At the surface it was far darker than a cloudy moonless night on Earth.  From space it was a uniform butterscotch color, no markings at all.”

“OK, say there’s no dust in the air.”

“Take away all the floating dust and it almost wouldn’t be Mars any more.  The atmosphere’s only 1% of Earth’s and most of that is CO2 — clear and colorless.”

“So what would we see looking down at the surface?”

“Uh … you’re from New Jersey, right?  What color is New Jersey’s surface?”

<a little defensively> “We got a lot of trees and farms, once you get away from all the buildings along the coast and the Interstates, so it’s green.”

“Mars doesn’t have trees, farms, buildings or roads.  What color is New Jersey underneath all that?”

“The farmland soil’s black of course, and the Palisades cliffs near me are, too.  Down-state to the south we got sand-colored sand on the beaches and clay-colored clay.”

“Mars has clay, the Curiosity rover confirmed that, and it’s got basalt like your cliffs, but it has no soil.”

“Huh? How could it not have soil?  That’s just ground-up rocks, right, and Mars has rocks.”

“Soil’s way more then that, Mr Feder.  If all you have is ground-up rocks, it’s regolith.  The difference is the organic material that soil has and regolith doesn’t — rotted vegetable matter, old roots, fungus, microorganisms.  All that makes the soil black and helps it hold moisture and generally be hospitable to growing things.  So far as we know, Mars has none of that.  We’ve found igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks just like on Earth; we’ve found clays, hematites and gypsum that had to have been formed in a watery environment.  But so far no limestone — no fossilized shelly material like that would indicate life.”

“What you’re saying is that Mars colors look like Earth colors except no plants.  So why do astronomers call Earth a ‘pale blue marble’ but Mars is ‘the red planet’?”

“Earth looks pale blue from space.  The blue is the dominant color reflected from the 70% of Earth’s surface that’s ocean-covered.  It’s pale because of white light reflected from our clouds of water vapor.  Mars lacks both.  What Mars does have is finely-divided iron oxide dust, always afloat above the surface.”

“Mars looks red ’cause it’s atmosphere is rusty?”

“Yessir.”Earth and Mars

~~ Rich Olcott

Atoms are solar systems? Um, no…

Suddenly there’s a hubbub of girlish voices to one side of the crowd.  “Go on, Jeremy, get up there.”  “Yeah, Jeremy, your theory’s no crazier than theirs.”  “Do it, Jeremy.”

Sure enough, the kid’s here with some of his groupies.  Don’t know how he does it.  He’s a lot younger than the grad students who generally present at these contests, but he’s got guts and he grabs the mic.

“OK, here’s my Crazy Theory.  The Solar System has eight planets going around the Sun, and an oxygen atom has eight electrons going around the nucleus.  Maybe we’re living in an oxygen atom in some humongous Universe, and maybe there are people living on the electrons in our oxygen atoms or whatever.  Maybe the Galaxy is like some huge molecule.  Think about living on an electron in a uranium atom with 91 other planets in the same solar system and what happens when the nucleus fissions.  Would that be like a nova?”

There’s a hush because no-one knows where to start, then Cathleen’s voice comes from the back of the room.  Of course she’s here — some of the Crazy Theory contest ring-leaders are her Astronomy students.  “Congratulations, Jeremy, you’ve joined the Honorable Legion of Planetary Atom Theorists.  Is there anyone in the room who hasn’t played with the idea at some time?”

No-one raises a hand except a couple of Jeremy’s groupies.

“See, Jeremy, you’re in good company.  But there are a few problems with the idea.  I’ll start off with some astronomical issues and then the physicists can throw in some more.  First, stars going nova collapse, they don’t fission.  Second, compared to the outermost planet in the Solar System, how far is it from the Sun to the nearest star?”

A different groupie raises her hand and a calculator.  “Neptune’s about 4 light-hours from the Sun and Alpha Centauri’s a little over 4 light-years, so that would be … the 4’s cancel, 24 hours times 365 … about 8760 times further away than Neptune.”

“Nicely done.  That’s a typical star-to-star distance within the disk and away from the central bulge.  Now, how far apart are the atoms in a molecule?”

“Aren’t they pretty much touching?  That’s a lot closer than 8760 times the distance.”

“Yes, indeed, Jeremy.  Anyone else with an objection?  Ah, Maria.  Go ahead.”

“Yes, ma’am.  All electrons have exactly the same properties, ¿yes? but different planets, they have different properties.  Jupiter is much, much heavier than Earth or Mercury.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Jim speaks up.  “Different force laws.  Solar systems are held together by gravity but at this level atoms are held together by electromagnetic forces.”

“Carry that a step further, Jim.  What does that say about the geometry?”

“Gravity’s always attractive.  The planets are attracted to the Sun but they’re also attracted to each other.  That’ll tend to pull them all into the same plane and you’ll get a flat disk, mostly.  In an atom, though, the electrons or at least the charge centers repel each other — four starting at the corners of a square would push two out of the plane to form a tetrahedron, and so forth.  That’s leaving aside electron spin.  Anyhow, the electronic charge will be three-dimensional around the nucleus, not planar.  Do you want me to go into what a magnetic field would do?”

“No, I think the point’s been made.  Would someone from the Physics side care to chime in?”

“Synchrotron radiation.”

“Good one.  And you are …?”

“Newt Barnes.  I’m one of Dr Hanneken’s students.”

“Care to explain?”

“Sure.  Assume a hydrogen atom is a little solar system with one electron in orbit around the nucleus.  Any time a charge moves it radiates waves into the electromagnetic field.  The waves carry forces that can compel other charged objects to move.  The distance an object moves, times the force exerted, equals the amount of energy expended by the wave.  Therefore the wave must carry energy and that energy must have come from the electron’s motion.  After a while the electron runs out of kinetic energy and falls into the nucleus.  That doesn’t actually happen, so the atom’s not a solar system.”

Jeremy gets general applause when he waves submission, then the crowd’s chant resumes…

.——<“Amanda! Amanda! Amanda!”>Bohr and Bohr atom

~~ Rich Olcott

Helios versus Mars, Planetary Version

Al waves me over the moment I step through the door of his coffee shop.  “Sy, ya gotta squeeze into the back room.  The grad students are holding another Crazy Theory contest and they’re having a blast.  I don’t know enough science to keep up with ’em but you’d love it.  Here’s your coffee.”

“Thanks, Al.  I’ll see what’s going on.”

The Crazy Theory contest is a hallowed Al’s Coffee Shop tradition — a “seminar” where grad students present their weirdest ideas in competition.  Another tradition (Al is strong on this one) is that the night’s winner has to sweep up the thrown spitballs and crumpled paper napkins at the end of the presentations.  I weave my way in just as the girl at the mic finishes her pitch with, “… and that’s why Spock and horseshoe crabs both have green blood!”

Some in the crowd start chanting “Amanda!  Amanda!  Amanda!”  She’s already reaching for the Ceremonial Broom when Jim steps up to the mic and waves for quiet.  “Wanna hear how the Sun oxidized Mars and poisoned it for us?”

Helios and Mars
Helios and Mars
Mars image adopted from photo by Mark Cartwright
Creative Commons license

Voice from the crowd — <“The Sun did what?”>

“You remember titration from school chem lab?”

.——<“Yeah, you put acid in a beaker and you drip in a base until the solution starts to turn red.”>

“What color is Mars?”


“Well, there you are.”

.——<“Horse-hockey!  What’s that got to do with the Sun or what you said about poison?”>

“Look at what our rovers and orbiters found on Mars — atmosphere only 1% of Earth’s but even that’s mostly CO2, no liquid water at the surface, rust-dust everywhere, soil’s loaded with perchlorate salts.  My Crazy Theory can explain all of that.”

.——<“Awright, let’s hear it!”>

“Titration’s all about counting out chemical species.  Your acid-base indicator pinked when you’d neutralized your sample’s H+ ions by adding exactly the right number of OH ions to turn them all into H2O, right?  So think about Mars back in the day when it had liquid water on the ground and water vapor in the atmosphere.  Along comes solar radiation, especially the hard ultra-violet that blows apart stratospheric H2O molecules.  ZOT!  Suddenly you’ve got two free hydrogen atoms and an oxygen floating around.  Then what happens?”

It’s a tough crowd.  <“We’re dying to hear!  Get on with it!”>

“The hydrogens tie up as an H2 molecule.  The escape velocity on Mars is well below the speed of H2 molecules at any temperature above 40K, so those guys abandon Mars for the freedom of Space.  Which leaves the oxygen atom behind, hungry for electrons and ready to oxidize anything it can get close to.”

They’re starting to come along.  <“Wouldn’t the oxygen form O2 and fly away too?”>

“Nowhere near as quickly.  An O2 molecule is 16 times heavier than an H2 molecule.  At a given temperature it moves 1/4 as fast and mostly stays on-planet where it can chew up the landscape.”

.——<“How could an atom do that?”>

“It’s a chain process.  First step for the O is to react with something else in the atmosphere — make an oxidizing molecule like ozone or hydrogen peroxide.  That diffuses down to ground level where it can eat rocks.”

.——<“Wait, ‘eat rocks’!!?!  How does that happen?”>

“Look, most rocks are basically lattices of double-negative oxide ions with positive metal ions tucked in between to balance the charge.  Surface oxide ions can’t be oxidized by an ozone molecule, but they can transmit electron demand down to the metal ions immediately underneath.  An iron2+ ion gets oxidized to iron3+, one big step towards rust-dust.  The charge change disrupts the existing oxide lattice pattern and that piece of the rock erodes a little.”

.——<“What about the poison?”>

“Back when Mars had oceans, they had to have lots of chloride ions floating around to be left behind when the ocean dried up.  Ozone converts chloride to perchlorate, ClO4, which is also a pretty good oxidizer.  Worse, it’s the right size and charge to sneak into your thyroid gland and mess it up.  Poison for sure.  Chemically, solar radiation raised the oxidation state of the whole planet.”

One lonely voice — “Nice try, Jim” — but then the chant returns…

.——<“Amanda!  Amanda!  Amanda!”>

~~ Rich Olcott

A Recourse to Pastry

There’s something wrong about the displays laid out on Al’s pastry counter — no symmetry.  One covered platter holds eight pinwheels in a ring about a central one, but the other platter’s central pinwheel has only a five-pinwheel ring around it.  I yell over to him.  “What’s with the pastries, Al?  You usually balance things up.”

“Ya noticed, hey, Sy?  It’s a tribute to the Juno spacecraft.  She went into orbit around Jupiter on the 5th of July 2016 so I’m celebrating her anniversary.”

“Well, that’s nice, but what do pinwheels have to do with the spacecraft?”

“Haven’t you seen the polar pictures she sent back?  Got a new poster behind the cash register.  Ain’t they gorgeous?”Jupiter both poles“They’re certainly eye-catching, but I thought Jupiter’s all baby-blue and salmon-colored.”

Astronomer Cathleen’s behind me in line.  “It is, Sy, but only in photographs using visible sunlight.  These are infrared images, right, Al?”

“Yeah, from … lemme look at the caption … Juno‘s JIRAM instrument.”

“Right, the infrared mapper.  It sees heat-generated light that comes from inside Jupiter.  It’s the same principle as using blackbody radiation to take a star’s temperature, but here we’re looking at a planet.  Jupiter’s way colder than a star so the wavelengths are longer, but on the other hand it’s close-up so we don’t have to reckon with relativistic wavelength stretching.  At any rate, infrared wavelengths are too long for our eyes to see but they penetrate clouds of particulate matter like interstellar dust or the frigid clouds of Jupiter.”

Jupiter south pole 1
NASA mosaic view of Jupiter’s south pole by visible light

“So this red hell isn’t what the poles actually look like?”

“No, Al,  the visible light colors are in the tops of clouds and they’re all blues and white.  These infrared images show us temperature variation within the clouds.  Come to think of it, that Hell’s frozen over — if I recall correctly, the temperature range in those clouds runs from about –10°C to –80°C.  In Fahrenheit that’d be from near zero to crazy cold.”

“Those aren’t just photographs in Al’s poster?”

“Oh, no, Sy, there’s a lot of computer processing in between Juno‘s wavelength numbers and what the public sees.  The first step is to recode all the infrared wavelengths to visible colors.  In that north pole image I’d say that they coded red-to-black as warm down to white as cool.  The south pole image looks like warmest is yellow-to-white, coolest is red.”

“How’d you figure that?”

“The programs fake the apparent heights.  The warmest areas are where we can see most deeply into the atmosphere, which would be at the center or edge of a vortex.  The cooler areas would be upper-level material.  The techs use that logic to generate the perspective projection that we interpret as a 3-D view.”

Vinnie’s behind us in line and getting impatient.  “I suppose there’s Science in those pretty pictures?”

“Tons of it, and a few mysteries.  JIRAM by itself is telling the researchers a lot about where and how much water and other small molecules reside in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  But Juno has eight other sensors.  Scientists expect to harvest important information from each of them.  Correlations between the data streams will give us exponentially more.”

He’s still antsy.  “Such as?”

“Like how Jupiter’s off-axis magnetic field is related to its lumpy gravitational field.  When we figure that out we’ll know a lot more about how Jupiter works, and that’ll help us understand Saturn and gas-giant exoplanets.”GRS core

Al breaks in.  “What about the mysteries, Cathleen?”

“Those storms, for instance.  They look like Earth-style hurricanes, driven by upwelling warm air.  They even go in the right direction.  But why are they crammed together so and how can they stay stable like that?  Adjacent gears have to rotate in opposite directions, but these guys all go in the same direction.  I can’t imagine what the winds between them must be like.”

“And how come there’s eight in the north pole ring but only five at the other pole?”

“Who knows, Vinnie?  The only guess I have is that Jupiter’s so big that one end doesn’t know what the other end’s doing.”

“Someone’s gonna have to do better than that.”

“Give ’em time.”

~~ Rich Olcott

On Gravity, Charge And Geese

A beautiful April day, far too nice to be inside working.  I’m on a brisk walk toward the lake when I hear puffing behind me.  “Hey, Moire, I got questions!”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.  Ask away while we hike over to watch the geese.”

“Sure, but slow down , will ya?  I been reading this guy’s blog and he says some things I wanna check on.”

I know better but I ask anyhow.  “Like what?”

“Like maybe the planets have different electrical charges  so if we sent an astronaut they’d get killed by a ginormous lightning flash.”

“That’s unlikely for so many reasons, Mr Feder.  First, it’d be almost impossible for the Solar System to get built that way.  Next, it couldn’t stay that way if it had been.  Third, we know it’s not that way now.”

“One at a time.”

“OK.  We’re pretty sure that the Solar System started as a kink in a whirling cloud of galactic dust.  Gravity spanning the kink pulled that cloud into a swirling disk, then the swirls condensed to form planets.  Suppose dust particles in one of those swirls, for whatever reason, all had the same unbalanced electrical charge.”

“Right, and they came together because of gravity like you say.”

I pull Old Reliable from its holster.  “Think about just two particles, attracted to each other by gravity but repelled by their static charge.  Let’s see which force would win.  Typical interstellar dust particles run about 100 nanometers across.  We’re thinking planets so our particles are silicate.  Old Reliable says they’d weigh about 2×1018 kg each, so the force of gravity pulling them together would be …  oh, wait, that’d depend on how far apart they are.  But so would the electrostatic force, so let’s keep going.  How much charge do you want to put on each particle?”

“The minimum, one electron’s worth.”

“Loading the dice for gravity, aren’t you?  Only one extra electron per, umm, 22 million silicon atoms.    OK, one electron it is …  Take a look at Old Reliable’s calculation.gravity vs electrostatic calculation Those two electrons push their dust grains apart almost a quintillion times more strongly than gravity pulls them together.  And the distance makes no difference — close together or far apart, push wins.  You can’t use gravity to build a planet from charged particles.”

“Wait, Moire, couldn’t something else push those guys together — magnetic fields, say, or a shock wave?”

“Sure, which is why I said almost impossible.  Now for the second reason the astronaut won’t get lightning-shocked — the solar wind.  It’s been with us since the Sun lit up and it’s loaded with both positive- and negative-charged particles.  Suppose Venus, for instance, had been dealt more than its share of electrons back in the day.  Its net-negative charge would attract the wind’s protons and alpha particles to neutralize the charge imbalance.  By the same physics, a net-positive planet would attract electrons.  After a billion years of that, no problem.”

“All right, what’s the third reason?”

“Simple.  We’ve already sent out orbiters to all the planets.  Descent vehicles have made physical contact with many of them.  No lightning flashes, no fried electronics.  Blows my mind that our Cassini mission to Saturn did seven years of science there after a six-year flight, and everything worked perfectly with no side-trips to the shop.  Our astronauts can skip worrying about high-voltage landings.”

“Hey, I just noticed something.  Those F formulas look the same.”  He picks up a stick and starts scribbling on the dirt in front of us.  “You could add them up like F=(Gm1m2+k0q1q2)/r2.  See how the two pieces can trade off if you take away some mass but add back some charge?  How do we know we’ve got the mass-mass pull right and not mixed in with some charge-charge push?”

Geese and ducks“Good question.  If protons were more positive than electrons, electrostatic repulsion would always be proportional to mass.  We couldn’t separate that force from gravity.  Physicists have separately measured electron and proton charge.  They’re equal (except for sign) to 10 decimal places.  Unfortunately, we’d need another 25 digits of accuracy before we could test your hypothesis.”

“Aw, look, the geese got babies.”

“The small ones are ducks, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Far out, man

Egg in the UniverseThe thing about Al’s coffee shop is that there’s generally a good discussion going on, usually about current doings in physics or astronomy.  This time it’s in the physicist’s corner but they’re not writing equations on the whiteboard Al put up over there to save on paper napkins.  I step over there and grab an empty chair.

“Hi folks, what’s the fuss about?”

“Hi, Mr Moire, we’re arguing about where the outer edge of the Solar System is.  I said it’s Pluto’s orbit, like we heard in high school — 325 lightminutes from the Sun.”

The looker beside him pipes up.  “Jeremy, that’s just so bogus.”  Kid keeps scoring above his level, don’t know how he does it.  “Pluto doesn’t do a circular orbit, it’s a narrow ellipse so average distance doesn’t count.  Ten percent of the time Pluto’s actually closer to the Sun than Neptune is, and that’s only 250 lightminutes out.”

Then the looker on his other side chimes in.  Doing good, kid.  “How about the Kuiper Belt?  A hundred thousand objects orbiting the Sun out to maybe twice Neptune’s distance, so it’s 500 lightminutes.”

Third looker, across the table.  You rock, Jeremy.  “Hey, don’t forget the Scattered Disk, where the short-period comets drop in from.  That goes out to 100 astronomical units, which’d be … 830 lightminutes.”

One of Cathleen’s Astronomy grad students can’t help diving in despite he’s only standing nearby, not at the table.  “Nah, the edge is at the heliopause.”

<several voices> “The what?”

“You know about the solar wind, right, all the neutral and charged particles that get blown out of the Sun?  Mass-density-wise it’s a near-vacuum, but it’s not nothing.  Neither is the interstellar medium, maybe a few dozen hydrogen and helium atoms per cubic meter but that adds up and they’re not drifting on the same vector the Sun’s using.  The heliopause is the boundary where the two flows collide.  Particles in the solar wind are hot, relatively speaking, compared to the interstellar medium.  Back in 2012, our outbound spacecraft Voyager 1 detected a sharp drop in temperature at 121 astronomical units.  You guys are talking lightminutes so that’d be <thumb-pokes his smartphone> how about that? almost exactly 1000 lightminutes out.  So there’s your edge.”

Now Al’s into it.  “Hold on, how about the Oort Cloud?”

“Mmm, good point.  Like this girl said <she bristles at being called ‘girl’>, the short-period comets are pretty much in the ecliptic plane and probably come in from the Scattered Disk.  But the long-period comets seem to come in from every direction.  That’s why we think the Cloud’s a spherical shell.  Furthermore, the far points of their orbits generally lie in the range between 20,000 and 50,000 au’s, though that outer number’s pretty iffy.  Call the edge at 40,000 au’s <more thumb-poking> that’d be 332,000 lightminutes, or 3.8 lightdays.”

“Nice job, Jim.”  Cathleen speaks up from behind him.  “But let’s think a minute about why that top number’s iffy.”

“Umm, because it’s dark out there and we’ve yet to actually see any of those objects?”

“True.  At 40,000 au’s the light level is 1/40,000² or 1/1,600,000,000 the sunlight intensity we get on Earth.  But there’s another reason.  Maybe that ‘spherical shell’ isn’t really a sphere.”

I have to ask.  “How could it not be?  The Sun’s gravitational field is spherical.”

“Right, but at these distances the Sun’s field is extremely weak.  The inverse-square law works for gravity the same way it does for light, so the strength of the Sun’s gravitational field out there is also 1/1,600,000,000 of what keeps the Earth on its orbit.  External forces can compete with that.”

“Yeah, I get that, Cathleen, but 3.8 lightdays is … over 400 times closer than the 4½ lightyear distance to the nearest star.  The Sun’s field at the Cloud is stronger than Alpha Centauri’s by at least a factor of 400 squared.”

“Think bigger, Sy.  The galactic core is 26,000 lightyears away, but it’s the center of 700 billion solar masses.  I’ve run the numbers.  At Jim’s Oort-Cloud ‘edge’ the Galaxy’s field is 11% as strong as the Sun’s.  Tidal forces will pull the outer portion of the Cloud into an egg shape pointed to the center of the Milky Way.”

Jeremy’s agog.  “So the edge of the Solar System is 1,000 times further than Pluto?  Wow!”



~~ Rich Olcott

Water, Water Everywhere — How Come?

Lunch time, so I elbow my way past Feder and head for the elevator.  He keeps peppering me with questions.

“Was Einstein ever wrong?”

“Sure. His equations pointed the way to black holes but he thought the Universe couldn’t pack that much mass into that small a space.  It could.  There are other cases.”

We’re on the elevator and I punch 2.  “Where you going?  I ain’t done yet.”

“Down to Eddie’s Pizza.  You’re buying.”

“Awright, long as I get my answers.  Next one — if the force pulling an electron toward a nucleus goes as 1/r², when it gets to where r=0 won’t it get stuck there by the infinite force?”

“No, because at very short distances you can’t use that simple force law.  The electron’s quantum wave properties dominate and the charge is a spread-out blur.”

The elevator stops at 7.  Cathleen and a couple of her Astronomy students get on, but Feder just peppers on.  “So I read that everywhere we look in the Solar System there’s water.  How come?”

I look over at Cathleen.  “This is Mr Richard Feder of Fort Lee, NJ.  He’s got questions.  Care to take this one?  He’s buying the pizza.”

“Well, in that case.  It all starts with alpha particles, Mr Feder.”

The elevator door opens on 2, we march into Eddie’s, order and find a table.  “What’s an alpha particle and what’s that got to do with water?”

Alpha particle
Two protons and two neutrons, assembled as an alpha particle

“An alpha particle’s a fragment of nuclear material that contains two protons and two neutrons.  99.999% of all helium atoms have an alpha particle for a nucleus, but alphas are so stable relative to other possible combinations that when heavy atoms get indigestion they usually burp alpha particles.”

“And the water part?”

“That goes back to where our atoms come from — all our atoms, but in particular our hydrogen and oxygen.  Hydrogen’s the simplest atom, just a proton in its nucleus.  That was virtually the only kind of nucleus right after the Big Bang, and it’s still the most common kind.  The first generation of stars got their energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei to make helium.  Even now, that’s true for stars about the size of the Sun or smaller.  More massive stars support hotter processes that can make heavier elements.  Umm, Maria, do you have your class notes from last Tuesday?”

“Yes, Professor.”

“Please show Mr Feder that chart of the most abundant elements in the Universe.  Do you see any patterns in the second and fourth columns, Mr Feder?”

Element Atomic number Mass % *103 Atomic weight Atom % *103
Hydrogen 1 73,900 1 92,351
Helium 2 24,000 4 7,500
Oxygen 8 1,040 16 81
Carbon 6 460 12 48
Neon 10 134 20 8
Iron 26 109 56 2
Nitrogen 7 96 14 <1
Silicon 14 65 32 <1

“Hmm…  I’m gonna skip hydrogen, OK?  All the rest except nitrogen have an even atomic number, and all of ’em except nitrogen the atomic weight is a multiple of four.”

“Bravo, Mr Feder.  You’ve distinguished between two of the primary reaction paths that larger stars use to generate energy.  The alpha ladder starts with carbon-12 and adds one alpha particle after another to go from oxygen-16 on up to iron-56.  The CNO cycle starts with carbon-12 and builds alphas from hydrogens but a slow step in the cycle creates nitrogen-14.”

“Where’s the carbon-12 come from?”

“That’s the third process, triple alpha.  If three alphas with enough kinetic energy meet up within a ridiculously short time interval, you get a carbon-12.  That mostly happens only while a star’s going nova, simultaneously collapsing its interior and spraying most of its hydrogen, helium, carbon and whatever out into space where it can be picked up by neighboring stars.”

“Where’s the water?”

“Part of the whatever is oxygen-16 atoms.  What would a lonely oxygen atom do, floating around out there?  Look at Maria’s table.  Odds are the first couple of atoms it runs across will be hydrogens to link up with.  Presto!  H2O, water in astronomical quantities.  The carbon atoms can make methane, CH4; the nitrogens can make ammonia, NH3; and then photons from Momma star or somewhere can help drive chemical reactions  between those molecules.”

“You’re saying that the water astronomers find on the planets and moons and comets comes from alpha particles inside stars?”

“We’re star dust, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott