Where Does The Carbon Go?

November 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

Signing off with your fortnightly dose of science news.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recently surpassed 400 parts per million, higher than it has been anytime in the past 400,000 years. But only half of the human produced carbon stays in the atmosphere. This has scientists wondering how the other half is absorbed on land and sea, and what this will mean for climate change in the future. Because they don’t really understand the absorption process over land and oceans they don’t know whether oversaturation can occur. If oversaturation is possible, it would potentially force a higher percentage of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Turns out NASA is working on more than just sending a manned mission to Mars. In July 2014 NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2), a satellite which measures carbon dioxide levels from the top of the Earth’s atmosphere to the surface. It is the first satellite designed to do so. This provides scientists with near global data on how CO2 behaves in the atmosphere, with 100,000 new measurements each day. While the new data is helpful in showing how carbon dioxide behaves near the surface of the planet, it does not provide concrete information about how CO2 is absorbed on land or water. In order to better understand the process, NASA will use a combination of satellite data, field experiments, and computer models.

The effect on land and water is important to determine because of concern that the ability to absorb carbon will change as temperatures rise. On land, trees and various other vegetation take in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, some of which gets left behind in the soil once they die. But various factors such as droughts, fires, and deforestation may drastically change the amount of carbon that vegetation can store. Some forests are already releasing more carbon than they are storing.

In the ocean, some carbon dioxide is absorbed directly while some is taken in by phytoplankton. Changes in phytoplankton behavior the past few years are also cause for concern. If not eaten by zooplankton, phytoplankton normally sink to the bottom of the ocean along with all the carbon they have absorbed upon death. Scientists worry that changes in ocean chemistry might alter this process and trigger a release of carbon that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Last week NASA launched a ship and airborne study in the North Atlantic to study these changes.

As our world grapples with a growing climate change problem, it becomes increasingly important to understand the processes that affect how it will play out. Otherwise, we may end up facing an unstoppable algae bloom such as the one in Gregory Benford’s Timescape. Climate science fiction touches on an issue very much relevant to today’s world. Hopefully, unlike some of the technology predictions, none of the frightening climate scenarios will ever become a part of our reality.

Confused Vulcan


Tiny Aliens

October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

Water. Over 60% of our bodies consist of it. Without it, we can barely survive for a week. And under certain conditions, that number decreases drastically.

In space, water is potential. Water signifies the possibility of life. Even if it does not necessarily support life on its own, it gives us hope that we may be able to venture out to some distant place and survive there. So the prospect of water in space is exciting. No wonder we spend so much time looking for it.

Cassini-Huygens, a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in 1997. It made its way to Saturn, arriving there and establishing orbit in 2004. In 2005 it made its first flyby of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn. The images captured intrigued scientists. Enceladus shot up to one of the solar system bodies of greatest interest. What scientists saw, or they thought they saw (there was a lot of background noise) were icy plumes coming up from the southern pole of the moon. The question was: is it water?

Subsequent flybys yielded information that allowed scientists to announce strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014. In September 2015 new gravity data turned this regional sea into a global ocean. Scientists believe that Enceladus’s wobble as it orbits Saturn can only be accounted for by the presence of a such a body of water.

Just two days ago, Cassini made a historic flyby, just 30 miles off the south pole of Enceladus. It’s the probe’s deepest dive into the icy plume. Besides taking some great photographs, the probe collected a droplet of water. That drop is now being analyzed, with scientists interested in finding indication of molecular hydrogen. Such a find would confirm a geothermal energy source on the moon’s surface. The amount of molecular hydrogen detected will reveal the scope of geothermal activity.

So what now? Well, the the collected information will take months to process. A final flyby will occur on December 19th, during which Cassini will measure the amount of heat radiating from the moon’s interior.

While Cassini does not have the capability to detect life, the amount of geothermal activity will provide insights into how habitable the oceans really are. Enceladus may be one of the most likely candidates to host microbial life in the solar system. It would be something akin to certain types of microbial life present on Earth. These life forms feed off of chemical reactions between rocks, as well as radioactive decay.

The life we might find on Enceladus may not be intelligent, but, ladies and gentlemen, this could be first contact.

Confused Vulcan

The Martian: A Love Letter To Science

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

On the first day of class, when we were discussing if any of us had any experience with science fiction before, I naïvely said that I had read a ‘science fiction’ novel, Never Let Me Go, over the summer. The moment I said it, Professor Clayton let out an audible (and disapproving) gasp, and said that Never Let Me Go isn’t science fiction at all. Making a fundamental error like that on the first day of class will definitely not end up on my top 10 moments of the semester (yikes), but it provided me with the opportunity to introspect a little, and investigate what science fiction truly means.

There are so many different definitions and sub-genres of science fiction, but the true hard science fiction, prized by the veritable science fiction nerds/geeks (what’s the correct terminology again?) places an emphasis of the plausible scientific premise of the story. Hard core sci-fi leaves very little room for character development, and as one of the bloggers mentioned, it’s hard to even remember the names of characters in these stories because the fictitious extrapolations of science take center stage instead. In classic science fiction stories (think Nightfall, The Nine Billion Names of God), whose contributions to the science fiction genre have been validated by numerous Hugos and Nebulas, I find that human characters exist only to get the story going. We need scientists or ordinary people to discover something or react to an event, but all that’s just fluff, and not really pivotal to the story. The protagonist of a hard science fiction story isn’t a dashing Kirk or even the genius Spock (I do bring them up on every post, don’t I?), but the scientific concept and its ramifications on society.

Of course, there are many other sub genres of science fiction that do not follow this formula, and do make an effort to move beyond an excessive focus on the scientific premise. Gregory Benford’s Timescape, while giving us various concrete scientific explanations (some of which went way over my head…tachyons, collapsing wave functions and other esoteric scientific concepts), does delve into human relationships and sentimentality. Ok, now I’m going off on a tangent. What I really want to talk about is The Martian.

(Yes, I know it’s been a long time since we’ve discussed the film, but I’ve been patiently waiting since fall break to post this!)

Before I took this class, I treated sci-fi movies as other movies, just with aliens and starships. I wasn’t looking for scientific accuracy, and the last thing I had on my mind was to make a distinction between hard and soft science fiction. I was more concerned about how ‘cool’ the movie was, not about its treatment of science fiction tropes and conventions. But when I went to see The Martian, I had clear expectations of myself as an active and aware consumer of science fiction, and I came up with a few, (and hopefully Roger Ebert-worthy) questions such as:

  • Is this movie hard or soft science fiction?
  • How far does it stray from classic science fiction works, especially in terms of the focus on the scientific premise and character development?
  • Who’s the hero- Hollywood heartthrob, Matt Damon, or science?
  • Is the science fiction/speculative fiction plausible?

And boy, was I surprised. As the film’s screenwriter, Drew Goddard said, “it is a love letter to science”.

A little bit of background first. The makers of this film actually partnered with NASA to maintain the scientific accuracy of the film as much as possible. Granted, The Martian is not the first film to rely on scientific experts, but actually being directly involved with an organization that is mentioned in nearly every frame of the film leads to fascinating results. Yes, you can argue that Andy Weir made it easier for Ridley Scott because the author was insistent on the scientific realism of his work, a philosophy reflected in the book, but presenting The Martian visually adds a challenging dimension to preserving scientific accuracy. To accomplish this mission, a perfectionist Scott reached out to James Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences division, and over the course of several months, a team of NASA scientists provided valuable input to the film’s crew about key technologies such as ascent vehicles, rovers, and habitats. Inching closer to actual science than science fiction, The Martian depicts real technologies NASA employs, such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators, ion propulsion, the famous rover, water recovery, oxygen generation, plant farms, and habitats.

The Martian is a science fiction film, but it’s set in a familiar time and space. The film seems so realistic that some poor souls actually thought that The Martian was a true story, and that humans had been to Mars. If you wonder why NASA went through all this trouble to help a commercial Hollywood venture, it’s because they want to make the film’s fiction a reality. Dr Charles Elachi, Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that the film presents “a fairly reasonable representation of what is to come.” It is not far-fetched to think of NASA following Adam Smith’s philosophy of self-interest. The Martian makes NASA’s missions look cool, and much more important, compelling (refer to the BuzzFeed article), and if a sci-fi film can generate curiosity and interest in an organization threatened with dwindling budgets, what’s the harm?

Take this Ridley Scott interview for example:

Interviewer: Do you hope a film like this can make the nation more excited about the process of space travel?

 Scott: Of course. I was in Washington the night before last at National Geographic, where we shared the evening with NASA. There were lots of astronauts there and the whole senior staff of NASA were there. They both did very good presentations prior to the screening justifying why they do this and why it’s important to do this. It’s certainly a good story. If I had the spare cash I’d invest in it.

However, The Martian is not just a science lesson or preview of things to come: it is a big budget Hollywood film. Although Scott endeavors to and succeeds in maintaining the scientific accuracy of the film subject to creative licenses, he doesn’t bore his audience, and instead gives us a gripping tale of human perseverance, and adventure in an unfamiliar land. Yes, science does take center stage, but if Scott hadn’t shown Watney’s vulnerable moments and a natural sense of despondency, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the film as much. Maybe I’m a sticker for emotional stories, but by bringing in a human dimension to the science fiction narrative, and by adroitly developing Watney’s character, Scott triumphs in elevating The Martian from a simple sci-fi flick to one of the most engaging films I have seen in recent times. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on Weir’s narrative, but Scott challenges the tropes of the hard science fiction genre by conflating scientific accuracy with character development, especially in the most pivotal moments of the film. The power of Watney’s personality in engaging the audience cannot be overstated. We sympathize with him, explore Mars with him, and above all, root for him. He’s not a mad scientist, but just a human being trying to survive in a hostile environment.

Watney’s humor and wit, qualities I find lacking in even the best science fiction works I have read so far, make me like him so much more. Neil deGrasse Tyson and I seem to agree on many issues, including our favorite line of the movie, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

Coming back to my original questions:

  • Is this movie hard or soft science fiction?

Ans: It’s hard science fiction, but with its emphasis on Watney’s character development, it has elements of soft science fiction as well.

  • How far does it stray from classic science fiction works, especially in terms of the focus on the scientific premise and character development?

Ans: Not very far in terms of emphasis on science, but because Watney is such a memorable character, it violates hard science fiction tropes in that regard.

  • Who’s the hero- Hollywood heartthrob, Matt Damon, or science?

Both, and that’s commendable.

  • Is the science fiction/speculative fiction plausible?

More than plausible! NASA is working on making manned-missions to Mars a reality. Read this:


-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur

What If Our Spaceships Can Make It, But Our People Can’t?

October 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

Matt Damon. Need I say more? Some say that love is moving past physical attraction and toward a gradual love of the person’s personality and quirks. I sat in my movie seat smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed, and really worrying for him when his potatoes froze. The Martian might as well be a love story up there with The Notebook and Titanic. I wouldn’t mind living on Mars if it were with him.

Ahem. Anyways. Once I overcame my beating heart, my brain finally got enough blood to do some actual thinking and processing. I heard prior to seeing the film that producers collaborated with NASA to make the film more realistic, and with that in mind, I spent the movie scrupulously analyzing and critiquing every little detail. Was Mars’ atmosphere really thin enough for Mr. Damon to cover the nose of his ship with a tarp and blast off the planet? Could the soil on Mars, when enhanced with a few human contributions, really support plant growth? Could Mars have such violent storms if it has a thin atmosphere?

And then it hit me. Say all of the scientific plot points were plausible and accurate with sufficient scientific developments. Say everything I doubted, questioned, and critiqued was suddenly true without a scientific doubt. Would Matt Damon’s character have the psychological health and mental endurance to thrive through such an ordeal?

Researchers with Georgetown University, among other research facilities, have investigated that concern and found that a combination of alienation from relationships on Earth, cultural differences, language barriers, differences in personal values, restriction to small facilities on the space crafts, and other physiologically influential variables can lead to the gradual physiological deterioration of those onboard. And in a series of studies conducted by both government and independent space exploration organizations, researchers often found negative consequences of long-term space travel, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies, decreased group cohesion, sleep disorders, irritability, and changes in appetite.

So what does all of this mean for Mars and the future of long-term space exploration? It means that human development may not keep up with scientific development. I say “may” because, for all I know, there could be incredible advances in psychology and medicine that overcome the negative consequences of extended space exploration. But from where we stand right now, Matt Damon probably wouldn’t be so positive and clear minded being stranded on Mars.

And for our relationship’s sake, I really hope science can figure a way around human psychology. I can’t spend my life with a negative and depressed person, so I guess time will tell if we make it or not. I mean that both in marrying Matt Damon and society making it to Mars without killing each other.

– S. Jamison

More Than Just a Year in Space

September 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

When confronting the problems of long-distance space travel we have the usual culprits: the impossibility of travel at light-speed, the minuscule breadth of human lifetimes (generation ships, anyone?). Science fiction already has all the solutions. Science doesn’t. But some topics even science fiction doesn’t seem to explore very often. What if humans simply deteriorate? What if our bodies are too fragile to withstand the unique environmental conditions of space? Late March this year NASA launched a mission to determine just that.

Most NASA missions on the International Space Station (ISS) last only 4 to 6 months. Scott Kelly, a NASA astronaut, and Mikhail Kornienko, a Russian cosmonaut, are spending an entire year up in orbit. Yes, an astronaut and a cosmonaut are the same thing. I know you were wondering.

The goal of the One Year Mission is to see how human bodies would be affected if they were to endure a future mission to Mars (and beyond?). Due to the unfortunate lack of ships with hyperdrive, such a mission would last 500 days or longer. Scientists are investigating medical, psychological, and biomedical challenges that may arise. Muscle atrophy, vision impairment, and bone loss are among subjects of concern. The below video provides a short summary regarding the necessity of a good physical regiment while in space. Essentially, in a zero-gravity environment the human body is in a resting position, which is what induces some of the negative effects, such as bone loss.

Another awesome aspect of the experiment is what is known as the ‘Twin Study’. Scott Kelly has an identical twin brother, Mark, who is remaining on Earth. Interesting fact: Mark Kelly is actually a retired NASA astronaut. The two brothers will be the subject of several comparative genetic studies, trying to determine subtle changes that may occur as a result of zero-gravity. This is a joint effort between NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and has 10 different areas of interest. Among the topics being researched are things such as differential effects on telomeres, DNA and RNA methylation, and sequencing of the microbiome in their gastrointestinal tracts. These were chosen from among 40 research applications.

But the two astronauts aren’t just loitering in space for a year. They are conducting nearly 400 different experiments! The majority of these will serve to advance not only deep-space travel, but also technology on Earth. For instance, Veggie, a plant growth facility, helps provide astronauts with nutritious food, but may also improve farming practices down on the planet. Studies on the effects of delayed communication, especially in the event of emergency, may also refine procedure for Earth-based teams in remote locales. The Amine Swingbed, a piece of engineering designed to remove carbon dioxide and moisture, will provide astronauts with breathable air while taking up less space than earlier systems. On Earth, a potential use is the removal of harmful gases.

It will be exciting to see the results of the mission once it is complete. Undoubtedly it will help with NASA’s plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars by the 2030s. And after that, who knows where we’ll go?

To learn more about the mission and its progress, check out this link:


-Confused Vulcan

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