Astronauts hoping to take part in a crewed mission to Mars might want to pack some additional rad tablets! Long before NASA announced their proposal for a “Journey to Mars“, which envisions putting boots on the Red Planet by the 2030s, mission planners have been aware that one of the greatest risks for such a mission has to do with the threat posed by cosmic and solar radiation.
But according to a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this threat is even worse than previously thought. Using a predictive model, this study indicates that astronauts that are the surface of Mars for extended periods of time could experience cell damage from cosmic rays, and that this damage will extend to other healthy cells – effectively doubling the risk of cancer!
Galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) are one of the greatest hazards posed by space exploration. These particles, which originate from beyond our Solar System, are basically atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their surrounding electrons, thanks to their high-speed journey through space. In the cases of iron and titanium atoms, these have been known to cause heavy damage to cells because of their very high rates of ionization.
Here on Earth, we are protected from these rays and other sources of radiation thanks to our protective magnetosphere. But with missions that would take astronauts well beyond Earth, they become a much greater threat. And given the long-term nature of a mission to Mars, mitigation procedures and shielding are being investigated quite thoroughly. As Cucinotta explained in a UNLV press statement:
“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable. Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”
Previous studies have indicated that the effects of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays include cancer, central nervous system effects, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes. However, until now, the damage these rays cause was thought to be confined to those cells that they actually traverse – which was based on models that deal with the targeted effects of radiation.
For the sake of their study, Dr. Cucinotta and Dr. Eliedonna Cacao (a Chemical Engineer at UNLV) consulted the mouse Harderian gland tumor experiment. This is the only extensive data-set to date that deals with the non-targeted effects (NTEs) of radiation for a variety of particles. Using this model, they tracked the effects of chronic exposure to GCRs, and determined that the risks would be twice as high as those predicted by targeted effects models.
“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” Cucinotta explained. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”
Naturally, any indication that there could be an elevated risk calls for additional research. As Cucinotta and Cacao indicated in their study, “The scarcity of data with animal models for tissues that dominate human radiation cancer risk, including lung, colon, breast, liver, and stomach, suggest that studies of NTEs in other tissues are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere.”
These studies will of course need to happen before any long-term space missions are mounted beyond Earth’s magnetosphere. In addition, the findings also raise undeniable ethical issues, such as whether or not these risks could (or should) be waived by space agencies and astronauts. If in fact we cannot mitigate or protect against the hazards associated with long-term missions, is it even right to ask or allow astronauts to take part in them?
In the meantime, NASA may want to have another look at the mission components for the Journey to Mars, and maybe contemplate adding an additional layer or two of lead shielding. Better to be prepared for the worst, right?
Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.
What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.
Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?
The trick to the Sun’s ability to generate power through nuclear fusion, of course, comes from its enormous mass. The Sun contains 1.989 x 10^30 kilograms of mostly hydrogen and helium, and this mass pushes inward, creating a core heated to 15 million degrees C, with 150 times the density of water.
It’s at this core that the Sun does its work, mashing atoms of hydrogen into helium. This process of fusion is an exothermic reaction, which means that every time a new atom of helium is created, photons in the form of gamma radiation are also released.
The only thing the Sun uses this energy for is light pressure, to counteract the gravity pulling everything inward. Its photons slowly make their way up through the Sun and then they’re released into space. So wasteful.
How can we replicate this on Earth?
Now gathering together a Sun’s mass of hydrogen here on Earth is one option, but it’s really impractical. Where would we put all that hydrogen. The better solution will be to use our technology to simulate the conditions at the core of the Sun.
If we can make a fusion reactor where the temperatures and pressures are high enough for atoms of hydrogen to merge into helium, we can harness those sweet sweet photons of gamma radiation.
The main technology developed to do this is called a tokamak reactor; it’s a based on a Russian acronym for: “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”, and the first prototypes were created in the 1960s. There are many different reactors in development, but the method is essentially the same.
A vacuum chamber is filled with hydrogen fuel. Then an enormous amount of electricity is run through the chamber, heating up the hydrogen into a plasma state. They might also use lasers and other methods to get the plasma up to 150 to 300 million degrees Celsius (10 to 20 times hotter than the Sun’s core).
Superconducting magnets surround the fusion chamber, containing the plasma and keeping it away from the chamber walls, which would melt otherwise.
Once the temperatures and pressures are high enough, atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium just like in the Sun. This releases photons which heat up the plasma, keeping the reaction going without any addition energy input.
Excess heat reaches the chamber walls, and can be extracted to do work.
The challenge has always been that heating up the chamber and constraining the plasma uses up more energy than gets produced in the reactor. We can make fusion work, we just haven’t been able to extract surplus energy from the system… yet.
Compared to other forms of energy production, fusion should be clean and safe. The fuel source is water, and the byproduct is helium (which the world is actually starting to run out of). If there’s a problem with the reactor, it would cool down and the fusion reaction would stop.
The high energy photons released in the fusion reaction will be a problem, however. They’ll stream into the surrounding fusion reactor and make the whole thing radioactive. The fusion chamber will be deadly for about 50 years, but its rapid half-life will make it as radioactive as coal ash after 500 years.
Now you know what fusion power is and how it works, what’s the current state, and how long until fusion plants give us unlimited cheap safe power, if ever?
Fusion experiments are measured by the amount of energy they produce compared to the amount of energy you put into them. For example, if a fusion plant required 100MW of electrical energy to produce 10 MW of output, it would have an energy ratio of 0.1. You want at least a ratio of 1. That means energy in equals energy out, and so far, no experiment has ever reached that ratio. But we’re close.
The Chinese are building the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST. In 2016, engineers reported that they had run the facility for 102 seconds, achieving temperatures of 50 million C. If true, this is an enormous advancement, and puts China ahead in the race to create stable fusion. That said, this hasn’t been independently verified, and they only published a single scientific paper on the milestone.
Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany recently announced that their Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator (I love that name), heated hydrogen gas to 80 million C for only a quarter of a second. Hot but short. A stellarator works differently than a tokamak. It uses twisted rings and external magnets to confine the plasma, so it’s good to know we have more options.
The biggest, most elaborate fusion experiment going on in the world right now is in Europe, at the French research center of Cadarache. It’s called ITER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, and it hopes to cross that magic ratio.
ITER is enormous, measuring 30 meters across and high. And its fusion chamber is so large that it should be able to create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The energy released by the fusing hydrogen keeps the fuel hot enough to keep reacting. There will still be energy required to run the electric magnets that contain the plasma, but not to keep the plasma hot.
And if all goes well, ITER will have a ratio of 10. In other words, for every 10 MW of energy pumped in, it’ll generate 100 MW of usable power.
ITER is still under construction, and as of June 2015, the total construction costs had reached $14 billion. The facility is expected to be complete by 2021, and the first fusion tests will begin in 2025.
So, if ITER works as planned, we are now about 8 years away from positive energy output from fusion. Of course, ITER will just be an experiment, not an actual powerplant, so if it even works, an actual fusion-based energy grid will be decades after that.
At this point, I’d say we’re about a decade away from someone demonstrating that a self-sustaining fusion reaction that generates more power than it consumes is feasible. And then probably another 2 decades away from them supplying electricity to the power grid. By that point, our smug Sun will need to find a new job.
Ever since the ESO announced the discovery of an extra-solar planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, scientists have been trying to determine what the conditions are like on this world. This has been especially important given the fact that while Proxima b orbits within the habitable zone of its sun, red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are known to be somewhat inhospitable.
And while some research has cast doubt on the possibility that Proxima b could indeed support life, a new research study offers a more positive picture. The research comes from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS) in Seattle, Washington, where astrobiologist Dimitra Atri has conducted simulations that show that Proxima b could indeed be habitable, assuming certain prerequisites were met.
Dr. Atri is a computational physicist whose work with the BMSIS includes the impacts of antiparticles and radiation on biological systems. For the sake of his study – “Modelling stellar proton event-induced particle radiation dose on close-in exoplanets“, which appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters – he conducted simulations to measure the impact stellar flares from its sun would have on Proxima b.
To put this perspective, it is important to note how the Kepler mission has found a plethora of planets orbiting red dwarf stars in recent years, many of which are believed to be “Earth-like” and close enough to their suns to have liquid water on their surfaces. However, red dwarfs have a number of issues that do not bode well for habitability, which include their variable nature and the fact they are cooler and fainter than other classes of stars.
This means that any planet close enough to orbit within a red dwarf’s habitable zone would be subject to powerful solar flares – aka. Stellar Proton Events (SPEs) – and would likely be tidally-locked with the star. In other words, only one side would be getting the light and heat necessary to support life, but it would be exposed to a lot of solar protons, which would interact with its atmosphere to create harmful radiation.
As such, the astronomical community is interested in what kinds of conditions are there for planets like Proxima b so they might know if life has (or had) a shot at evolving there. For the sake of his study, Dr. Atri conducted a series of probability (aka. Monte Carlo) simulations that took into account three factors – the type and size of stellar flares, various thicknesses of the planet’s atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.
As Dr. Atri explained to Universe Today via email, the results were encouraging – as far as the implications for extra-terrestrial life are concerned:
“I used Monte Carlo simulations to study the radiation dose on the surface of the planet for different types of atmospheres and magnetic field configurations. The results are optimistic. If the planet has both a good magnetic field and a sizable atmosphere, the effects of stellar flares are insignificant even if the star is in an active phase.”
In other words, Atri found that the existence of a strong magnetic field, which would also ensure that the planet has a viable atmosphere, would lead to survivable conditions. While the planet would still experience a spike in radiation whenever a superflare took place, life could survive on a planet like Proxima b in the long run. On the other hand, a weak atmosphere or magnetic field would foretell doom.
“If the planet does not have a significant magnetic field, chances of having any atmosphere and moderate temperatures are negligible,” he said. “The planet would be bombarded with extinction level superflares. Although in case of Proxima b, the star is in a stable condition and does not have violent flaring activity any more – past activity in its history would make the planet a hostile place for a biosphere to originate/evolve.”
History is the key word here, since red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri have incredible longevity (as noted, up to 10 trillion years). According to some research, this makes red dwarf stars good candidates for finding habitable exoplanets, since it takes billions of years for complex life to evolve. But in order for life to be able to achieve complexity, planets need to maintain their atmospheres over these long periods of time.
Naturally, Atri admits that his study cannot definitively answer whether our closest exoplanet-neighbor is habitable, and that the debate on this is likely to continue for some time. “It is premature to think that Proxima b is habitable or otherwise,” he says. “We need more data about its atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.”
In the future, missions like the James Webb Space Telescope should tell us more about this system, its planet, and the kinds of conditions that are prevalent there. By aiming its extremely precise suite of instruments at this neighboring star, it is sure to detect transits of the planet around this faint sun. One can only hope that it finds evidence of a dense atmosphere, which will hint at the presence of a magnetic field and life-supporting conditions.
Hope is another key word here. Not only would a habitable Proxima b be good news for those of us hoping to find life beyond Earth, it would also be good news as far as the existence of life throughout the Universe is concerned. Red dwarf stars make up 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies. Knowing that even a fraction of these could support life greatly increases the odds of finding intelligence out there!
“NASA did it again!” pronounced an elated Scott Bolton, investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, to loud cheers and applause from the overflow crowd of mission scientists and media gathered at the post orbit media briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
After a nearly five year journey covering 1.7-billion-miles (2.8-billion-kilometers) across our solar system, NASA’s basketball court-sized Juno orbiter achieved orbit around Jupiter, the ‘King of the Planets’ late Monday night, July 4, in a gift to all Americans on our 240th Independence Day and a gift to science to elucidate our origins.
“We are in orbit and now the fun begins, the science,” said Bolton at the briefing. “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done! That’s my claim. I am so happy … and proud of this team.”
And the science is all about peering far beneath the well known banded cloud tops for the first time to investigate Jupiter’s deep interior with a suite of nine instruments, and discover the mysteries of its genesis and evolution and the implications for how we came to be.
“The deep interior of Jupiter is nearly unknown. That’s what we are trying to learn about. The origin of us.”
Solar powered Juno successfully entered a polar elliptical orbit around Jupiter after completing a must-do 35-minute-long firing of the main engine known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion or JOI.
The spacecraft approached Jupiter over its north pole, affording an unprecedented perspective on the Jovian system – “which looks like a mini solar system” – as it flew through the giant planets intense radiation belts in ‘autopilot’ mode.
“The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day,” Bolton gushes.
Engineers tracking the telemetry received confirmation that the JOI burn was completed as planned at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4.
Juno is only the second probe from Earth to orbit Jupiter and the first solar powered probe to the outer planets. The gas giant is two and a half times more massive than all of the other planets combined.
“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement.
“And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.”
The do-or-die burn of Juno’s 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine started at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), which had the effect of decreasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around Jupiter. There were no second chances.
All of the science instruments were turned off on June 30 to keep the focus on the nail-biting insertion maneuver and preserve battery power, said Bolton.
“So tonight through tones Juno sang to us. And it was a song of perfection. After a 1.7 billion mile journey we hit tour burn targets within one second,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL, gleefully reported at the briefing.
“That’s how good our team is! And that’s how well our Juno spacecraft performed tonight.”
To accomplish the burn, the spacecraft first had to adjust it’s attitude to point the engine in the required direction to slow the spacecraft and then simultaneously also had the effect that the life giving solar panels were pointing away from the sun. It the only time during the entire mission at Jupiter that the solar panels were in darkness and not producing energy.
The spacecraft’s rotation rate was also spun up from 2 to 5 revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilize it during JOI. Juno is spin stabilized to maintain pointing.
After the burn was complete, Juno was spun down and adjusted to point to the sun before it ran out of battery power.
We have to get the blood flowing through Juno’s veins, Bolton emphasized.
It is equipped with 18,698 individual solar cells over 60 square meters of surface on the solar arrays to provide energy. Juno is spinning like a windmill through space with its 3 giant solar arrays. It is about 540 million miles (869 million kilometers) from Earth.
Signals traveling at the speed of light take 48 minutes to reach Earth, said Nybakken.
So the main engine burn, which was fully automated, was already over for some 13 minutes before the first indications of the outcome reach Earth via a series of Doppler signals and tones.
“Tonight, 540 million miles away, Juno performed a precisely choreographed dance at blazing speeds with the largest, most intense planet in our solar system,” said Guy Beutelschies, director of Interplanetary Missions at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
“Since launch, Juno has operated exceptionally well, and the flawless orbit insertion is a testament to everyone working on Juno and their focus on getting this amazing spacecraft to its destination. NASA now has a science laboratory orbiting Jupiter.”
“The spacecraft is now pointed back at the sun and the antenna back at Earth. The spacecraft performed well and did everything it needed to do,” he reported at the briefing.
“We are looking forward to getting all that science data to Scott and the team.”
“Juno is also the farthest mission to rely on solar power. And although they provide only 1/25th the power at Earth, they still provide over 500 watts of power at Jupiter,” said Nybakken.
Initially the spacecraft enters a long, looping polar orbit lasting about 53 days. That highly elliptical orbit will be trimmed to 14 days for the regular science orbits.
The orbits are designed to minimize contact with Jupiter’s extremely intense radiation belts. The nine science instruments are shielded inside a ½ thick vault built of Titanium to protect them from the utterly deadly radiation of some 20,000,000 rads.
During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 14 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.
But the length and number of the science orbits has changed since the mission was launched almost 5 years ago in 2011.
Originally Juno was planned to last about one year with an orbital profile involving 33 orbits of 11 days each.
I asked the team to explain the details of how and why the change from 11 to 14 days orbits and increasing the total number of orbits to 37 from 33, especially in light of the extremely harsh radiation hazards?
“The original plan of 33 orbits of 11 days was an example but there were other periods that would work,” Bolton told Universe Today.
“What we really cared about was dropping down over the poles and capturing each longitude, and laying a map or net around Jupiter.”
“Also, during the Earth flyby we went into safe mode. And as we looked at that it was a hiccup by the spacecraft but it actually behaved as it should have.”
“So we said well if that happened at Jupiter we would like to be able to recover and not lose an orbit. So we started to look at the timeline of how long it took to recover, and did we want to add a couple of days to the orbit for conservatism – to ensure the science mission.”
“So it made sense to add 3 days. It didn’t change the science and it made the probability of success even greater. So that was the basis of the change.”
“We also evaluated the radiation. And it wasn’t much different. Juno is designed to take data at a very low risk. The radiation slowly accumulates at the start. As you get to the later part of the mission, it gets a faster and faster accumulation.”
“So we still retained that conservatism as well and the overall radiation dose was pretty much the same,” Bolton explained.
“The radiation we accumulate is not just the more time you spend the more radiation,” Steve Levin, Juno Project Scientist at JPL, told Universe Today.
“Each time we come in close to the planet we get a dose of radiation. Then the spacecraft is out far from Jupiter and is relatively free from that radiation until we come in close again.”
“So just changing from 11 to 14 day orbits does not mean we get more radiation because you are there longer.”
“It’s really the number of times we come in close to Jupiter that determines how much radiation we are getting.”
Juno is the fastest spacecraft ever to arrive at Jupiter and was moving at over 165,000 mph relative to Earth and 130,000 mph relative to Jupiter at the moment of JOI.
Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter.
“With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras. The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars,” according to a NASA description.
The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.
The Juno spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver.
The last NASA spacecraft to orbit Jupiter was Galileo in 1995. It explored the Jovian system until 2003.
Bolton also released new views of Jupiter taken by JunoCam – the on board public outreach camera that snapped a final gorgeous view of the Jovian system showing Jupiter and its four largest moons, dancing around the largest planet in our solar system.
The newly released color image was taken on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter – just before the probe went into autopilot mode.
It shows a dramatic view of the clouds bands of Jupiter, dominating a spectacular scene that includes the giant planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Scott Bolton and NASA also released this spectacular new time-lapse JunoCam movie at today’s briefing showing Juno’s approach to Jupiter and the Galilean Moons.
Watch and be mesmerized -“for humanity, our first real glimpse of celestial harmonic motion” says Bolton.
Video caption: NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a unique time-lapse movie of the Galilean satellites in motion about Jupiter. The movie begins on June 12th with Juno 10 million miles from Jupiter, and ends on June 29th, 3 million miles distant. The innermost moon is volcanic Io; next in line is the ice-crusted ocean world Europa, followed by massive Ganymede, and finally, heavily cratered Callisto. Galileo observed these moons change position with respect to Jupiter over the course of a few nights. From this observation he realized that the moons were orbiting mighty Jupiter, a truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of our place in the cosmos. Earth was not the center of the Universe. For the first time in history, we look upon these moons as they orbit Jupiter and share in Galileo’s revelation. This is the motion of nature’s harmony. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Along the 5 year journey to Jupiter, Juno made a return trip to Earth on Oct. 9, 2013 for a flyby gravity assist speed boost that enabled the trek to the Jovian system.
During the Earth flyby (EFB), the science team observed Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments including, JunoCam, since the slingshot also served as an important dress rehearsal and key test of the spacecraft’s instruments, systems and flight operations teams.
The JunoCam images will be made publicly available to see and process.
During the Earth flyby, Junocam snapped some striking images of Earth as it sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean and came within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of the surface.
For example a dazzling portrait of our Home Planet high over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean gives a hint of what’s to come from Jupiter’s cloud tops. See our colorized Junocam mosaic of land, sea and swirling clouds, created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?
Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.
As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.
Just how dangerous are the terrifying dust storms that swarm Mars?
Brave explorers trek across the red dunes of Mars when a dangerous dust storm blows in. In moments, our astronauts are blasted by gale force winds and driving sand, reducing visibility to zero. The brave heroes stumble desperately through the driving onslaught, searching in vain for shelter from the catastrophic conditions. One is blown into a ravine, or right to the edge of the cliff, requiring a dramatic rescue and likely a terrible terrible sacrifice and important parting words showing the true mettle of our heroes.
“Tell my Asuka… printed body pillow… I loved her…”
Will they make it? Why the heck would anyone land on that dusty irradiated death trap? Actually, a better question might be “Why do writers lean so hard on this trope?”. I’m looking at you Andy Weir.
Martian dust storms don’t just come from the fevered imagination of the same sci-fi writer who gave us a lush Venusian jungle, Saturnalian lava flats and Moon floor cheese. These dust storms are all too real and they drive at serious windspeeds.
NASA’s Viking landers clocked them at 100 km/h during dust storm season. Which is a thing on Mars. The landers sheltered enough from the big storms that they probably didn’t experience the greatest winds they’re capable of.
Scientists have seen evidence that sand is shifted around on the surface of Mars, and the regolith requires high wind speeds to pick it up and shove it around. Dust devils spin up across the surface, and rotate at hurricane speeds.
When the wind is above 65 km/h, it’s fast enough to pick up dust particles and carry them into the atmosphere encasing the planet in a huge, swirling, shroud. Freaked out yet? Is this dangerous? It sure sounds dangerous.
Apologies to all the fearmongering sci-fi writers, but actually, it’s not that dangerous. Here’s why.
First off, you’re not on Mars. It’s a book. Second, it’s a totally different experience on Earth. Here when you feel the wind blasting you in the face, or watch it dismantle a house during a tornado, it’s the momentum of the air particles hammering into it.
That momentum comes from air particle density and their velocity. Sadly, the density of the atmosphere on Mars is a delicate 1% of what we’re used to. It’s got the velocity, but it just doesn’t have the density.
It’s the difference between getting hit by a garden hose and a firehose with the same nozzle speed. One would gets you soaked, the other can push you down the street and give you bruises.
To feel a slight breeze on Mars similar to Earth, you multiply the wind speed by 10. So, if the wind was going about 15 km/h here, you’d need to be hit by winds going about 150 km/h there to have the same experience.
It’s not impossible for winds to go that fast on Mars, but that’s still not enough wind to fly a kite. To get it off the ground your mission buddy holds the kite, and you run around in the dumb Martian sand like a try-hard ass.
It would fly for a second and then crash down. You’d wonder why you even brought a kite to Mars in the first place because it’s NEVER windy enough.
Boo hoo. Your Mars kite doesn’t work. Good news! You’re on Mars!
Bad news. It was a one way trip. Good news! A wizard has made you immortal!
Bad news. The wizard has brought to life the entire fictional cast of the Twilight series and they’re also there and immortal. Have fun brooding with your new dorky friends, FOR ETERNITY.
What I’m saying is you could stand on the red planet restaurant patio and laugh at anything the weather system could throw at you. That is unless, you’re solar powered.
Mars gets regular dust storms. From time to time, they can get truly global. In 2001, a storm picked up enough dust to shroud the entire planet in a red haze. Temperatures went up as dust helped trap heat in the atmosphere. This storm lasted for 3 months before temperatures cooled, and the dust settled back down again.
During a storm in 2007, dust blocked 99% of the light reaching the solar panels of the Opportunity rover. This severely decreased the energy it had to power its instruments, and most importantly, the heaters. Ultimately, it was possible that the cold could kill the rover, if the dust hadn’t subsided quickly enough.
If you happen to see a movie or read a book about an astronaut on Mars dealing with a dangerous dust storm, don’t worry. They’ll be fine, the wind won’t shred them to pieces. Instead, focus on unbreathably thin atmosphere, the bone chilling cold, or the constant deadly radiation.
That and where’s their food come from again? Well, now you know dust storms aren’t a big issue. Want to travel to Mars? Tell us in the comments below.
If you haven’t checked it out yet, go read “The Martian”. Jay and I loved the pants off it and we can’t wait to see the film version.
Our Sun regularly pelts the Earth with all kinds of radiation and charged particles. Just how bad can these solar storms get?
In today’s episode, we’re going to remind you how looking outside of the snow globe can inspire your next existential crisis.
You guys remember the Sun right? Look how happy that little fella is. The Sun is our friend! Life started because of the Sun! Oooh, look, the Sun has a baby face! It’s a beautiful, ball of warmth and goodness, lighting up our skies and bringing happiness into our hearts.
It’s a round yellow circle in crayon. Very stable and firmly edged. Occasionally drawn with a orange lion’s mane for coronal effects. Nothing to be afraid, right?
Wake up sheeple. It’s time to pull back the curtain of the marketing world, big crayon fridge art and the children’s television conspiracy of our brightly glowing neighborhood monstrosity. That thing is more dangerous than you can ever imagine.
You know the Sun is a nuclear reaction right next door. Like it’s right there. RIGHT THERE! It’s a mass of incandescent gas, with a boiling bubbling surface of super-heated hydrogen. It’s filled with a deep yellow rage, expressed every few days by lashing out millions of kilometers into space with fiery death tendrils and blasts of super radiation.
The magnetic field lines on the Sun snap and reconnect, releasing a massive amount of radiation and creating solar flares. Solar plasma constrained in the magnetic loop is instantly released, smashed together and potentially generating x-ray radiation.
“Big deal. I get x-rayed all the time.” you might think. We the mighty humans have mastered the X-ray spectrum! Not so fast puny mortal. Just a single x-ray class flare can blast out more juice than 100 billion nuclear explosions.
Then it’s just a quick 8 minute trip to your house, where the radiation hits us with no warning. Solar flares can lead to coronal mass ejections, and they can happen other times too, where huge bubbles of gas are ejected from the Sun and blasted into space. This cosmic goo can take a few hours to get to us, and are also excellent set-ups for nocturnal emission and dutch oven jokes.
Astronomers measure the impact of a solar storm on the Earth using a parameter called DST, or “disturbance storm time”. We measure the amount that the Earth’s protective magnetosphere flexes during a solar storm event. The bigger the negative number, the worse it is.
If we can see an aurora, a geomagnetic storms in the high altitudes, it measures about -50 nanoteslas. The worst storm in the modern era, the one that overloaded our power grid in 1989, measured about -600 nanoteslas.
The most potent solar storm we have on record was so powerful that people saw the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba. Telegraph lines sparked with electricity and telegraph towers caught on fire. This was in 1859 and was clearly named by Syfy’s steampunk division. This was known as the Carrington Event, and estimated in the -800 to -1750 nanotesla range.
So, how powerful do these things need to be to cook out our meat parts? The good news is contrary to my earlier fear mongering, the most powerful flare our Sun can generate is harmless to life on Earth.
Don’t let your guard down, the Sun is still horribly dangerous. It’ll bake us alive faster than you can say “Hansel und Gretel”. Assuming you can drag that phrase out over a billion years. As far as flares go, and so long as we stay right here, we’ll be fine. We might even see a nice aurora in the sky.
For those of you who use technology on a regular basis, you might not be so lucky. Powerful solar storms can overload power grids and fry satellites. If the Carrington Event happened now, we’d have a lot of power go out, and a small orbital scrapyard of dead satellites.
Astronauts outside the Earth, perhaps bouncing around on the Moon, or traveling to Mars would be in a universe of trouble without a good method of shielding.
The solar flares that the Sun can produce is minuscule compared to other stars out there. In 2014, NASA’s Swift satellite witnessed a flare that generated more than 10,000 times more energy than the most powerful solar flare ever seen.
For a brief moment, the surface of the red dwarf star DG Canum Venaticorum lit up hotter than 200 million degrees Celsius. That’s 12 times hotter than the center of the Sun. A blast that powerful would have scoured all life from the face of the Earth. Except the future colony of tardigrade descendants. Remember, the water bears are always watching.
Young red dwarf stars are renowned for these powerful flares, and this is one of the reasons astronomers think they’re not great candidates for life. It would be hard to survive blast after blast of radiation from these unruly stars. Alternately, planets around these stars are could be living terrariums inspired by the Gamma World RPG.
Breathe easy and don’t worry. Perhaps the Sun is our friend, and it truly does have our best interests at heart.
It’s not a big fan of our technology, though, and it’s ready to battle alongside us when the robot revolution begins. Oh, also, wear sunscreen, as the Sun’s brand of love isn’t all that different from Doctor Manhattan.
Have you ever seen an aurora display? Tell us a cool story in the comments below.
Nothing lasts forever, not even black holes. According to Stephen Hawking, black holes will evaporate over vast periods of time. But how, exactly, does this happen?
The actor Stephen Hawking is best known for his cameo appearances in Futurama and Star Trek, you might surprised to learn that he’s also a theoretical astrophysicist. Is there anything that guy can’t do?
One of the most fascinating theories he came up with is that black holes, the Universe’s swiffer, can actually evaporate over vast periods of time.
Quantum theory suggests there are virtual particles popping in and out of existence all the time. When this happens, a particle and its antiparticle appear, and then they recombine and disappear again.
When this takes place near an event horizon, strange things can happen. Instead of the two particles existing for a moment and then annihilating each other, one particle can fall into the black hole, and the other particle can fly off into space. Over vast periods of time, the theory says that this trickle of escaping particles causes the black hole to evaporate.
Wait, if these virtual particles are falling into the black hole, shouldn’t that make it grow more massive? How does that cause it to evaporate? If I add pebbles to a rock pile, doesn’t my rock pile just get bigger?
It comes down to perspective. From an outside observer watching the black hole’s event horizon, it appears as if there’s a glow of radiation coming from the black hole. If that was all that was happening, it would violate the law of thermodynamics, as energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Since the black hole is now emitting energy, it needs to have given up a little bit of its mass to provide it.
Let’s try another way to think about this. A black hole has a temperature. The more massive it is, the lower its temperature, although it’s still not zero.
From now and until far off into the future, the temperature of the largest black holes will be colder than the background temperature of the Universe itself. Light from the cosmic microwave background radiation will fall in, increasing its mass.
Now, fast forward to when the background temperature of the Universe drops below even the coolest black holes. Then they’ll slowly radiate heat away, which must come from the black hole converting its mass into energy.
The rate that this happens depends on the mass. For stellar mass black holes, it might take 10^67 years to evaporate completely.
For the big daddy supermassive ones at the cores of galaxies, you’re looking at 10^100. That’s a one, followed by 100 zero years. That’s huge number, but just like any gigantic and finite number, it’s still less than infinity. So over an incomprehensible amount of time, even the longest living objects in the Universe – our mighty black holes – will fade away into energy.
One last thing, the Large Hadron Collider might be capable of generating microscopic black holes, which would last for a fraction of a second and disappear in a burst of Hawking radiation. If they find them, then Hawking might want to the acting on hold and focus on physics.
Nothing is eternal, not even black holes. Over the longest time frames we’re pretty sure they’ll evaporate away into nothing. The only way to find out is to sit back and watch, well maybe it’s not the only way.
Does the idea of these celestial nightmares evaporating fill you with existential sadness? Feel free to share your thoughts with others in the comments below.
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