Ice volcanoes (and other mysteries) on Pluto!

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Does Pluto Have Ice Volcanoes?

That’s what some scientists believe. And it might have a heart, too

For The Daily Beast:

At the 47th Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Washington, DC, researchers with the New Horizons mission presented the latest findings from the July flyby of Pluto.

The main theme: We know so much more than we once did, but we are a long way from understanding exactly what makes Pluto tick.

The first surprise? Something that shouldn’t be there at all.

Maybe, researchers posited, Pluto has volcanoes of ice.

It’s one possible explanation for what was possibly the biggest surprise from July: the discovery that Pluto is still an active world. Earth has a thick atmosphere with lots of weather, a hot interior, and oceans. Pluto has none of those things.

But processes under the surface seem to keep things just warm enough inside to pump material up, in the form of volcanoes—not of magma, but of nitrogen, methane, and other volatile materials.

We see ice volcanoes on other worlds, but those are moons orbiting giant planets, where their interiors are churned up by the strong gravity and other processes. What is keeping Pluto warm enough to erupt is something we don’t yet understand. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Be very very quiet, we’re hunting gravitational waves

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Gravitational waves and where to find them

Advanced LIGO has just begun its search for gravitational waves

For Symmetry Magazine:

For thousands of years, astronomy was the province of visible light, that narrow band of colors the human eye can see.

In the 20th century, astronomers pushed into other kinds of light, from radio waves to infrared light to gamma rays. Researchers built neutrino detectors and cosmic ray observatories to study the universe using particles instead. Most recently, another branch of lightless astronomy has been making strides: gravitational wave astronomy.

It’s easy to make gravitational waves: Just flap your arms. Earth’s orbit produces more powerful gravitational waves, but even these are too small to have a measurable effect. This is a good thing: Gravitational waves carry energy, and losing too much energy would cause Earth to spiral into the sun. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]


Meet the glueball, the missing Standard Model particle

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Glueballs are the missing frontier of the Standard Model

There should be particles made entirely of gluons, but we don’t know how to find them

For Ars Technica:

The discovery of the Higgs boson was rightfully heralded as a triumph of particle physics, one that brought completion to the Standard Model, the collection of theories that describes particles and their interactions. Lost in the excitement, however, was the fact that we’re still missing a piece from the Standard Model—another type of particle that doesn’t resemble any other we’ve yet seen.

The particle is a glueball, but its goofy name doesn’t express how interesting it is. Glueballs are unique in that they don’t contain any matter at all: they have no quarks or electrons or neutrinos. Instead, they are made entirely of gluons, which are the particles that bind quarks together inside protons, neutrons, and related objects.

Particle physicists are sure they exist, but everything else about them is complicated, to say the least. Like so many other exotic particles (including the Higgs), glueballs are very unstable, decaying quickly into other, less massive particles. We don’t have any ideas about their masses, however, which is obviously kind of important to know if you want to find them. We also don’t know exactly how they decay, making it hard to know exactly how we’ll identify them in experiments. [Read the rest at Ars Technica….]

Can we recognize life if we see it on other worlds?

Back in June, I traveled to a remote lake in British Columbia to visit a NASA research site. That trip resulted in a long article I wrote for Mosaic, which roamed over a wide range of topics: what a Canadian lake has to do with life on Mars, the difficulty of identifying life on other worlds (such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus), and whether the particular chemistry of life as we know it is the only possibility. You know, simple topics with easy science.

As exotic environments go, Pavilion Lake in British Columbia is rather ordinary. Certainly it’s remote – the closest major city is Vancouver, a long drive away over the mountains. The closest towns are light dustings of houses over the dry slopes, and the road winds for dozens of kilometres of empty desert country between them. The lake itself lies along a paved highway, and from the road it doesn’t look different to any other modestly sized mountain lake in western North America.

But below the surface, the bottom of Pavilion Lake is dotted with something resembling coral reefs: domes and cones and weird shapes much like artichokes. These are not corals, though, which are colonies of tiny animals: they are rock formations called microbialites, made by and coated in cyanobacteria. Sometimes misleadingly referred to as ‘blue-green algae’, these bacteria probably even made the rocks they live on, absorbing nutrients from the water and leaving stone behind. Like plants, they live on sunlight, and they thrive in shallow waters down the steep underwater slope to the point where sunlight fades to gloom.

They are the reason for NASA’s interest, and my visit. The people I’ve come here to see have even bigger things in mind. They want to know what the rare formations in Pavilion Lake might tell us about the origins of life on Earth, life on other worlds and, indeed, what life is, exactly. [Read the rest at Mosaic….]

Thanks to Darlene Lim, Donnie Reid, camp chef Shane Smitna (who let me join the research crew for meals), Tyler Mackey, Frances Rivera-Hernandez, Allyson Brady, Dale Anderson, Zena Cardman, David Lynn, and John Chaput. (Apologies to Dale and Zena for not having the space to include some quotes from you. Even with 3000 words to work with, I couldn’t fit half of what I needed into the story!)

Special thanks and appreciation to the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation, on whose land Pavilion Lake sits.

A tribute to a great African-American planetary scientist

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Meet Claudia Alexander, NASA Badass Who Never Got Her Due

In a field dominated by white men, Claudia Alexander was a pioneer

For The Daily Beast:

Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko is a tiny world of ice and rock, just 5 kilometers long. The comet is shaped vaguely like a rubber duck, with steep cliffs and other prominent features that stand much taller in relation to the size of the world. One of remarkable features is a twin set of sharp “horns” on the head of the rubber duck, known now as C. Alexander Gate.

Claudia Alexander served as project scientist for the Rosetta mission, which is orbiting Comet 67P. Until her death in July, she helped lead the United States side of the project, coordinating the various scientific and engineering aspects of the mission. Last week, her colleagues named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor and memory, with her European Space Agency counterpart Matt Taylor making the announcement.

Alexander is the first, and so far only, African-American woman to achieve such a prestigious position on a space mission, and she did it twice: once for the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter and again for the Rosetta probe to Comet 67P. In fact, she was also the youngest ever appointed when she was picked at age 40 to be the final project scientist for the Galileo mission in 2000. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]

What’s the deal with Google’s quantum computer?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Google and NASA Team Up on Quantum Computer

The next generation of computers is a few years off, but it’s pretty damn cool

For The Daily Beast:

It’s like no computer you’ve ever seen, nor are you likely to ever own. It promises speed and the ability to tackle problems ordinary computers can’t handle.

The machine is the D-Wave 2X, and the only working model outside the company is in the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. A joint project between Google, NASA, and the Universities Space Research Association, the lab will test-drive the 2X on some sticky problems in high-powered computing.

The 2X is a type of quantum computer, which means it uses devices that exploit quantum physics to replace transistors and other components of ordinary computers. The quantum nature of the inner workings in theory should make the computer solve problems much faster than anything else available, making it useful for a wide range of applications. While there are no fully quantum computers out yet, the 2X is the closest yet—assuming it works as advertised. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Traces of salty water on Mars … and more mysteries!

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

[Credit: Randall Munroe]

Water Found on Mars Could Be First Signs of Martian Life

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found traces of water that comes and goes on Mars—aka flowing water

For The Daily Beast:

We seem to discover water on Mars about once a year. Well, that’s not quite true: we’ve known Mars has water for quite a while. However, there are a lot of mysteries still to solve about how that water behaves and where it’s located. In particular, we’d like to know if water sometimes flows on the surface of the planet, which would tell us a lot about the cycles both above and below ground. And of course water is essential for life as we know it—finding flowing water, even transient flows, would make Mars seem a little more Earth-like.

The problem is that any liquid water evaporates quickly in the bone-dry Martian desert, and other processes can leave traces that mimic dried-up flows. When so little water is involved in the first place, it leaves us looking for the Martian equivalent of water spots on a long-dry drinking glass. And those spots are chemical traces—salt and other minerals once dissolved in the water—which must be identified by robotic spacecraft from orbit.

Today, scientists using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have identified some of those traces: a little bit of water comes and goes on Mars’ surface. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]