A Mole’s Tale

Chilly days are always good for a family trip to the science museum. Sis is interested in the newly unearthed dinosaur bones, but Teena streaks for the Space Sciences gallery. “Look, Uncle Sy, it’s a Mars rover. No, wait — it doesn’t have wheels — it’s a lander!”

Artist’s depiction of InSight — credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

A nearby museum docent catches that. “Good observing, young lady. You’re right, it’s NASA’s Insight lander. It touched down on Mars last Thanksgiving Day. While you were having turkey and dressing, we were having a party over here.”

“Is this the real one? How’d you get it back?”

“No, it’s just a model, but it’s full-size, 19½ feet across. We’re never going to get the real one back — those little bitty landing rockets you see around the electronics compartment are too small to get it off the planet.”

“Tronics compartment? You mean the pretty gold box underneath the flat part? Why’d they make it gold?”

“That gold is just the outside layer of a dozen layers of Mylar insulation. It helped to keep the computers in there cool during the super-hot minutes when the lander was coming down through Mars atmosphere. The insulation also keeps the electronics warm during the cold martian night. A thin gold coating on the outermost layer reflects the bad part of sunlight that would crumble the Mylar.”

“Computers like Mommie’s laptop? I don’t see any screens.”

“They don’t need any. No-one’s on Mars to look at them. The instructions all come in from Earth by radio.”

Sis is getting into it. “Look, Sweetie, the platform in the middle’s about the same size as our kitchen table.”

“Yeah, but it’s got butterfly wings. A flying kitchen table, whee!”

“Those wings are solar panels. They turn sunlight into the electricity Insight needs to run things and keep warm. They make enough power for three households here on Earth.”

“What’s the cake box about?”

Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure

“Cake box?”

“Yeah, down there on the floor.”

“Ah. That’s for … have you ever experienced an earthquake?”

“Yes! Suddenly all the dishes in the cupboard went BANG! It was weird but then everything was fine.”

“I’m glad. OK, an earthquake is when vibrations travel through the Earth. Vibrations can happen on Mars, too, but they’re called…”

“Marsquakes! Ha, that’s funny!”

“Mm-hm. Well, that ‘cake box’ is something called a seismometer. It’s an extremely sensitive microphone that listens for even the faintest vibrations. When scientists were testing the real seismometer in Boulder, Colorado it recorded a steady pulse … pulse … pulse … that they finally traced back to ocean waves striking the coast of California, 1200 miles away. Insight took it to Mars and now it’s listening for marsquakes. It’s already heard a couple dozen. They’ve given the scientists lots of new information about Mars’ crust and insides.”

“Like an X-ray?”

“Just like that. We’ll be able to tell if the planet’s middle is molten–“

“Hot lava! Hot lava!”

“Maybe. Earth has a lot of underground lava, but we think that Mars has cooled off and possibly doesn’t have any. That other device on the ground is supposed to help find out.”

HP3 — Heat Flow and
Physical Properties Package

“It looks like The Little Engine That Could.”

“It does, a little, but this one maybe can’t. We’re still waiting to see. That chimney-looking part held The Mole, a big hollow spike with something like a thermometer at its pointy tip. Inside The Mole there’s a hammer arrangement. The idea was that the hammer would bang The Mole 15 feet into the ground so we could take the planet’s temperature.”

“Did the banging work?”

“It started to, but The Mole got stuck only a foot down. The engineers have been working and working, trying different ways to get it down where we want it but so far it’s still stuck.”

“Aww, poor Mole.”

TWINS – Temperature
and Wind for InSight

“Yes. But there’s another neat instrument up on the platform. Here, I’ll shine my laser pointer at it. See the grey thingy?”


“That’s a weather station for temperature and wind. You can check its readings on the internet. Here, my phone’s browser’s already set to mars.nasa.gov/insight/weather. Can you read the high and low temperatures?”

“Way below zero! Wow, Mars is chilly! I’d need a nice, warm spacesuit there.”

“For sure.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Still of The Night

Lenore raises her hand. “Maybe it’s my Chemistry background, but to me that protosolar disk model for the early Solar System looks like a distillation process. You heat up a mixture in the pot and then run the resulting vapors through a multi-stage condenser. Different components of the mixture collect at different points in the condenser depending on the local temperature or maybe something about the condenser’s surface. I got some fun correlations from data I dug up related to that idea.”

“Interesting perspective, Lenore You’re got the floor.”

“Thanks, Professor. Like Newt said, hydrogen and helium atoms are so light that even a low-energy photon or solar wind particle can give them a healthy kick away from the Sun and they wind up orbiting where the gas planets grew up. But there was more sorting than that. Check out this chart.”

“What’re the bubbles?”

“Each bubble represents one planet. I’ve scaled the bubble to show what fraction of the planet is its nickel-iron core. Mercury, for instance, is two-thirds core; the other third is its silicate crust and that’s why its overall density is up there between iron and silicates. Then you go through Venus and Earth, all apparently in the zone where gravity’s inward pull on heavy dust particles is balanced by the solar wind’s intense outward push. From the chart I’d say that outbound metallic and rocky materials are mostly gone by the asteroid belt. Big Jupiter grabs most of the the hydrogen and helium; its little brothers get the leavings. Mars looks like it’s right on the edge of the depletion zone — the numbers suggest that its core, if it has one, is only 12% of its mass.”

Jeremy’s ears prick up. “If it has one?”

“Yeah, the sources I checked couldn’t say for sure whether or not it does. That’s part of why we sent the Insight lander up there. Its seismic data should help decide the matter. With such a small iron content the planet could conceivably have cooled like silicate raisin bread. It might have isolated pockets of iron here and there instead of gathered in at the center.”

“Weird. So the giant planets are all — wait, what’s Saturn doing with a density below water’s?”

“You noticed that. Theoretically, if you could put Saturn on a really big pool of water in a gravity field it’d float.”

Meanwhile, astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes has been inspecting the chart. “Uranus and Neptune don’t fit the pattern, Lenore. If it’s just a matter of ‘hydrogen flees farthest,’ then those two ought to be as light as Saturn, maybe lighter.”

“Yeah, that bothered me, too. Uranus and Neptune are giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, but they’re not ‘gas giants,’ they’re ‘ice giants.’ All four of them seem to have a junky nickel-iron-silicate core, maybe 1-to-10 times Earth’s mass, but aside from that the gas giants are mainly elemental hydrogen and helium whereas Uranus and Neptune are mostly compounds of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon with hydrogen.”

“How’d all those light atoms get so far out beyond the big guys?”

“Not a clue. Can you help, Professor?”

Cathleen draws ellipses on Al’s whiteboard. “Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t — the jury’s still out. We’re used to our nice neat modern Solar System where almost everything follows nearly circular orbits. It took a while to evolve there starting from the chaotic protosolar disk. Many of the early planetesimals probably had narrow elliptical orbits if they had an orbit at all, considering how often they collided with each other. Astromechanics modelers have burned years of computer time trying to account for what we know of the planets, asteroids, comets and the Kuiper and Oort formations we’ve barely begun to learn about. Some popular ‘Jumping Jupiter‘ models show Jupiter and Saturn migrating in towards the Sun and out again, playing hob with Uranus, Neptune and maybe a third ice giant before that one was ejected from the system altogether. It’s entirely possible that the ice giants grew up Sunward of the hydrogen-rich gas giants. We just don’t know.”

“That’s a challenge.”

“Yes, and my challenge question remains — why isn’t Earth’s atmosphere some average of the Mars and Venus ones?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Lemon, Vanilla, Cinnamon

Al claims that lemon’s a Summertime flavor, which is why his coffee shop’s Scone Flavor of the Month in July is lemon even though it doesn’t go well with his coffee. “Give me one of those lemon scones, Al, and an iced tea. It’s a little warm out there this morning.”

“Sure thing, Sy. Say, what’s the latest science-y thing up in the sky?”

“Oh, there’s a bunch, Al. The Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft collected another sample from asteroid Ryugu. NASA’s gravity-sniffer GRAIL lunar orbiter found evidence for a huge hunk of metallic material five times larger than the Big Island of Hawai’i buried deep under the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin. The Insight Mars lander’s seismometer heard its first Marsquake —“

“Quit yanking my chain, Sy. Anything about Jupiter?”

“Gotcha, Al. I know Jupiter’s your favorite planet. As it happens I do have some Jupiter news for you.”

“The Juno orbiter’s still working, I hope.”

“Sure, sure, far as I know. It’s about to make its 13th close flyby of Jupiter, and NASA administrators have green-lighted the mission to continue until July 2021. Lots of data for the researchers to work on for years. Here’s a clue — what’re the top three things that everyone knows about Jupiter?”

“It’s the biggest planet, of course, and it’s got those stripes and the Great Red Spot. Has the planet gotten smaller somehow?”

“No, but the stripes and the Red Spot are acting weird. Had you heard about that?”

“No, just that the Spot’s huge and red and been there for 400 years.”

“Mmm, we’re not sure about the 400 years. But yes, it’s huge.”

“Four times wider than Earth, right?”

“Hasn’t been that big for a long time. Back in the 1870s telescope technology gave the astronomers that ‘four Earths wide‘ estimate. But the Spot’s shrunk in the last 150 years.”

“A whole lot?”

“Last measurement I saw, it’s just barely over one Earth wide. Seems to have gotten a bit taller, though, and maybe deeper.”

“Taller and deeper? Huh, that’s a new one. I always thought of the Spot as just this big oval ring on Jupiter’s surface.”

“Everyone has that bogus idea of Jupiter as a big smooth sphere with stripes and ovals and swirls painted on it. Don’t forget, we’re looking down at cloud tops, like those satellite pictures we get looking down at a storm system on Earth. From space, one of our hurricanes looks like a spirally disk centered on a dark spot. That dark spot isn’t in the clouds, it’s actually the top of the ocean, miles below the clouds. If you were a Martian working with photos from a telescope on Phobos, you’d be hard-put to figure that out. You need 3-D perspective to get planets right.”

Jupiter image courtesy ESA/Hubble

“Those stripes and stuff aren’t Jupiter’s surface?”

“As far as we can tell, Jupiter doesn’t have a surface. The hydrogen-helium atmosphere just gets denser and denser until it acts like a liquid. There’s a lot of pressure down there. Juno recently gave us evidence for a core that’s a fuzzy mix of stony material and maybe-metallic maybe-solid hydrogen but if that mush is real it’s only 3% of the planet’s mass. Whatever, it’s thousands of miles below what we see. Jupiter’s anything but smooth.”

“Lumps and bumps like this bubbly scone, huh?”

“More organized than that, more like corduroy or a coiled garden hose. The white stripes are hundreds of miles higher-up than the brown stripes so north-to-south it’s like a series of extreme mountain ranges and valleys. The Great Red Spot reaches up maybe 500 miles further.”

“Does that have to do with what they’re made of?”

“It has everything to do with that, we think. You know Earth’s atmosphere has layers, right?”

“Yeah, the stratosphere’s on top, then you got the weather layer where the clouds are.”

“Close enough. Jupiter has all that and more. Thanks to the Galileo probe we know that Jupiter’s ‘weather layer’ has a topmost blue-white cloud layer of ammonia ice particles, a middle red-to-brown layer containing compounds of ammonia and sulfur, and a bottommost white-ish layer of water clouds. The colors we see depend on which layer is exposed where.”

“But why’re they stripey?”

~~ Rich Olcott