The last in this recent series on me examining my navel!
Dear Mr. Cosmos,
Clearly, I have no idea how many letters you receive from us funny inhabitants on Planet Earth. Can’t imagine you get floods of them but then neither can I imagine that this is the first one you have ever received.
Why can I not imagine this is to be your first? Simply, because us funny folk on this incredible planet of yours have been around for quite a while. I mean that over in that country we folk call Israel there has been found evidence of “control of fire by humans nearly 790,000 years ago.”
Just realised that me saying “quite a while” and writing of “790,000 years ago” will be utterly meaningless, in terms of scale, to how you describe your past. Just as it is utterly meaningless for me to contemplate that in cosmological terms the ‘Big Bang”, generally recognised as the start of your Universe, was, give or take, some 13.8 billion years ago.
I wish I could really get an idea of what a million years feels like, let alone a billion years. Ah well!
Let me stay with this notion of stuff being meaningless.
My dear, long-time friend Dan Gomez sent me a link to an item that had been published on the Science Alert website. It was about how the NASA Hubble space telescope had recently embarked on a new mission. Or in the words of that article:
Hubble Just Revealed Thousands of Hidden Galaxies in This Jaw-Dropping Photo
By Michelle Starr, September 13th, 2018
Hubble has embarked on a new observation mission: to study the farthest reaches of the Universe, using some of the most massive objects in the Universe – galaxy clusters.
And this newly released picture shows how.
At the centre is Abell 370, a cluster of a few hundred galaxies located around 4 billion light-years from Earth. And arrayed around it, never seen before, are thousands of galaxies, out even farther in the depths of space.
The reason we can see them now is because of Abell 370. All those hundreds of galaxies, clustered so close together, and the associated dark matter, create an immense field of gravity.
When the light behind that field passes through it, the gravitational force is so strong that it bends the path of the light. This creates a magnifying effect called gravitational lensing, allowing us to see objects we usually can’t.
Abell 370 is the first of these clusters.
Here is one of those photographs,
And an explanation of what we are looking at:
In the image, you can see the galaxies in Abell 370. The brightest yellowish white ones are huge, containing hundreds of billions of stars. The bluer ones are smaller, spiral galaxies, like the Milky Way, with younger populations of stars. And the dimmer, yellower galaxies are older, with ageing star populations.
The galaxies behind Abell 370 appear as smeared lines of light. The most spectacular, to the lower left of the centre, is nicknamed the Dragon (possibly for its resemblance to a Chinese dragon), with its head to the left. It’s made up of five images of the same spiral galaxy, magnified and stretched by the gravitational lens.
Mr. Cosmos, you know a little earlier I was remarking about how it is impossible to comprehend the age of the Universe. Well, dear Sir, it’s just as impossible to comprehend your distances.
Take Abell 370 out there some 4 billion light years from Planet Earth! I really wanted to have a go at understanding that distance.
First, I looked up the distance in miles that is represented by one light-year. Answer: one light year is a tad under six trillion miles.
Just one, let alone some 4 billion of them!
Next, I looked up the distance of our very familiar Big Dipper constellation. You must have heard of it? This one!
Turns out that even this very familiar sight in our night sky ranges from 78 to 123 light years away. Average that as 100 light years and, bingo, you are looking at this familiar cluster of stars that is 590 trillion miles away!
So, dear Mr. Cosmos, that puts your Abell 370 constellation about a distance that is 10 million times more distant than our Big Dipper!
I wrote above that “I really wanted to understand that distance.” In reference to how far that Abell 370 constellation truly was. My conclusion is that I will never, ever understand that distance.
Anyone able to help?
Tomorrow, Mr. Cosmos, the closing page two of my letter to you.
The idea of writing a letter to the moon is not a new one and it came to me when listening to an item yesterday morning, Pacific Time, broadcast by the BBC on Radio 4. The item was the news that Elon Musk has announced that:
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has unveiled the first private passenger it plans to fly around the Moon.
Japanese billionaire and online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa, 42, announced: “I choose to go to the Moon.”
The mission is planned for 2023, and would be the first lunar journey by humans since 1972.
On September 18, 1977, as it headed toward the outer solar system, Voyager 1 looked back and acquired a stunning image of our Earth and moon.
You will surely remember that first image taken of the Planet Earth and your good self in the same frame.
Now here we are some 41 years later and, my, how things have changed.
But something, dear Mr. Moon, has never changed for you. That is the sight of our most beautiful planet. Plus, I would go so far as to venture that what makes our planet such a beautiful sight, one that has captivated us humans when we have gone into space and looked back at home, is the magic of our atmosphere.
It is akin to the thinness of the skin of an onion.
In fact, Mr. Moon, that layer that we earthlings call the troposphere, the layer closest to Earth’s surface varies from just 4 miles to 12 miles (7 to 20 km) thick. It contains half of our planet’s atmosphere!
Everything that sustains the life of air-breathing creatures, human and otherwise, depends on the health of this narrow layer of atmosphere above our heads. Now the thickness of that layer varies depending on the season and the temperature of the air. But let’s use an average thickness of 8 miles (say, 13 km) because I want to explore in my letter to you some comparisons.
You will also have seen from your lofty vantage point the growth of both CO2 levels in the planet’s atmosphere and the average land-ocean temperature. Forgive me quoting something at you, but:
OBSERVABLE CHANGES IN THE EARTH
SINCE THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
While politicians have been busy debating the merits of climate science, the physical symptoms of climate change have become increasingly apparent: since the industrial revolution, sea level has grown by 0.9 inches, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen to unprecedented levels, average global temperatures have increased by about 1.0 degree Celsius and, to top it off, the global population has jumped by nearly 600 percent; 15 of the 16 hottest years on record occurred in the 21st century, and 2016 is likely to be the warmest year ever recorded.
Now the Industrial Revolution was all but over back in 1840 and the last 178 years have seen an explosion in the way we use energy, in all its forms. Plus we have to accept that back then the global population was around 1 billion persons. It is now over 7 billion.
Between 1900 and 2000, the increase in world population was three times greater than during the entire previous history of humanity—an increase from 1.5 to 6.1 billion in just 100 years.
So on to my comparisons.
The radius of our beautiful planet is about 3,959 miles (6,371 km). The average thickness of the troposphere is 8 miles (13 km).
Thus the ratio of thickness of our liveable atmosphere to the radius of the planet is 8 divided by 3,959. That is a figure of 0.002! Our atmosphere is 1/1000th of the size of the radius of our planet.
Hang on that figure for a moment.
In the last 178 years humanity has transformed our consumption of energy and especially carbon-based fuels. H. sapiens has been around for 315,000 years.
Thus the ratio of these present ‘modern’ times (the last 178 years) to the arrival of us back then (315,000 years ago) is 178 divided by 315,000. That is a (rounded) figure of 0.0006. Our modern times are just 1/10,000th of the time that so-called modern man has been on this planet.
So, dear Mr. Moon, you must despair that in so short a number of years, proportionally ten times smaller than the ratio of the troposphere to the radius of our planet, we funny creatures have done so much damage to what we all depend on to stay alive – clean air!
Or maybe, my dear companion of the night sky, because you are celebrating your 4.1 billionth year of existence, what we humans are doing is all a bit of a yawn.
This old Brit living in Oregon.
My dear friends (and I’m now speaking to you dear reader, not the moon!) when you reflect on the fragility of our atmosphere, well the layer we depend on for life, you realise without doubt that each and every one of us must make this pledge.
“I promise to do everything possible to reduce my own personal CO2 output and to ensure that both to my near friends and my political representatives I make it clear that we must turn back – and turn back now!”
Or, as George Monbiot writes in closing a recent essay (that I am republishing tomorrow): “Defending the planet means changing the world.”
Welcome to August, a month defined by loud cicadas, pool parties, humidity and children fretting about an impending return to school. When it comes to celestial happenings, however, there is no larger star this month that our own moon. From a partial lunar eclipse to the first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in almost a century, the moon will be the cause of most eyeballs drifting towards the heavens over the next several weeks.
Below is a small sampling of some of the night and day celestial events to look forward to this month. Wishing you all clear skies!
The rise of the full Sturgeon Moon (Aug. 7)
August’s full moon, nicknamed the Sturgeon Moon, will rise for the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on the evening of Aug. 7 at 8:05 p.m.
The Sturgeon Moon gets its name from the species of fish native to both Europe and the Americas that is easily caught this time of year. Other nicknames include the Corn Moon, Fruit Moon and Grain Moon. In countries experiencing winter, such as New Zealand, native Māori called this full moon “Here-turi-kōkā” or “the scorching effect of fire is seen on the knees of man.” This reference is to warm fires that glow during the Southern Hemisphere’s coldest month.
Partial lunar eclipse (Aug. 7 & 8)
As a kind of consolation prize for missing out on this month’s total solar eclipse over North America, those living on the continents of Africa, Asia and Australia will bear witness to a partial lunar eclipse. Spectators in Europe will catch the tail end of the eclipse as the moon rises around 7:10 p.m. on Aug. 7.
This phenomenon occurs between two to four times a year when the moon passes through a portion of the Earth’s shadow. Because the shadow cast is more than 5,700 miles wide, lunar eclipses last much longer than solar eclipses. In some instances, totality can occur for as long as 1 hour and 40 minutes. As a reference, maximum totality for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse will top out a mere 2 minutes and 42 seconds. The longest, at over 7 minutes, won’t take place until the year 2186.
This month’s partial lunar eclipse is the last of the year. Next year, total lunar eclipses will take place in January and July.
Perseid meteor shower (Aug. 12)
Regarded as one of the best celestial light shows of the year, the Perseid meteor shower occurs from July 17 to Aug. 24 and peaks on the evening of Aug. 12.
The shower, sometimes creating as many as 60 to 200 shooting stars per hour, is produced as Earth passes through debris left over from the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle. This 16-mile-wide periodic comet, which completes an orbit around the sun every 133 years, has been described as “the single most dangerous object known to humanity.” This is because every instance of its return to the inner solar system brings it ever closer to the Earth-moon system. Though astronomers believe the comet bears no threat for at least the next 2,000 years, future impacts cannot be ruled out.
If the comet were to hit Earth, scientists believe Swift-Tuttle would be at least 27 times more powerful than the asteroid or comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. For now, you can take in the beauty of the debris from this harbinger of doom by looking north towards the constellation Perseus. Because the moon will be three-quarters full, you’ll need to search out a nice dark sky to escape any light pollution from urban environments.
Total solar eclipses occur when the new moon moves between the Earth and the sun and casts its shadow on the planet. This shadow is comprised of two concentric cones –– the larger penumbra, which from Earth only shows the sun partially blocked, and the much smaller umbra, which blocks the sun completely. It is within this latter cone that totality will occur, giving spectators on the ground what’s considered by many to be a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
The Great American Eclipse will actually first start out in the Pacific (at this point, it will actually, unbelievably rise while completely eclipsed!), making landfall on the Oregon community of Lincoln Beach at 10:16:01 a.m. (PDT). From there, the moon’s shadow will continue to race across the U.S. The point of greatest eclipse, where the axis of the moon’s shadow passes nearest to the center of Earth, will take place in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and last 2 minutes and 40.1 seconds. In celebration of the event, the town has temporarily renamed itself “Eclipseville,” and expects anywhere from 55,000 to 150,000 tourists to visit in advance of Aug. 21.
The next total solar eclipse over the U.S. will take place on April 8, 2024.
New moon (Aug. 21)
Fresh after wowing the U.S. during the day with its solar theatrics, August’s new moon will give way to dark skies for the next several nights. This is the perfect opportunity to grab a blanket and head outside into the still-warm summer evenings to enjoy the heavens in all their glory. With some remnants of the Perseids still visible, it will also offer a chance to catch some of the faintest shooting stars.
Look for Earth’s shadow (All year)
Ever wonder what causes the beautiful bands of color in the eastern sky at sunset or the western sky at sunrise? The dark blue band stretching 180 degrees along the horizon is actually the Earth’s shadow emanating some 870,000 miles into space. The golden-red portion, nicknamed the “Belt of Venus,” is Earth’s upper-atmosphere illuminated by the setting or rising sun.
Now that you know about this phenomenon, choose a night or morning sometime to try and pick it out. You’ll need a western or eastern horizon that’s fairly unobstructed to get a clear view of our planet’s huge curved shadow.
Looking ahead to September
As fall beckons, the biggest event next month will be the dramatic death dive of the Cassini spacecraft into Saturn. Taking place on Sept. 15, Cassini will make discoveries about Saturn right up until its fiery conclusion, with unprecedented photos and data captured and transmitted during its final moments.
It is going to be quite a month!
Oh, and for those of you that want to know the timings of the eclipse over North America there is a useful reference site here, from which I republish the following table.
Eclipse Start & End: Local Time for US States
The eclipse will begin over the Pacific Ocean at 15:46 UTC, which corresponds to 8:46 am Pacific Time. It will reach the coast of Oregon at Lincoln City, just west of Salem, at 9:04 am local time. The eclipse will reach its maximum point here at 10:17 am.
From here, the Moon’s central shadow will move inland. The following table shows when the Moon will begin to move in front of the Sun and the moment it completely covers the Sun, as seen from some locations along the central path of the eclipse. All times are local.
I wish I understood where my fascination with the night sky came from. Not that I am anything other than an amateur gazer (of the night sky, I should hasten to add!). I have never taken the trouble to gain any real knowledge.
Yet, some of the most serene moments of my life have been when I have been alone at sea under a night sky.
OK, that’s enough wallowing for anyone!
The last week has been an important one for those that take an interest in the planets in our solar system, or to be specific, take an interest in Jupiter.
Today – April 8, 2017 – the planet Jupiter is closest to Earth for this year.
Yet yesterday was Jupiter’s opposition, when Earth flew between Jupiter and the sun, placing Jupiter opposite the sun in our sky. You’d think Jupiter was closest to Earth for 2017 yesterday as well … and yet it wasn’t. It’s closest to Earth for 2017 today, April 8, coming to within 414 million miles (666 million km).
During the month of April, Jupiter will be in opposition, meaning the planet is at its closest point to Earth. Thanks to the sun, it’s during this window that astronomers can enjoy a particularly close-up photo session that can help reveal how the planet’s atmosphere has changed over time by comparing it with previous such photos of the gas giant.
This photo of Jupiter was taken on April 3 by the Hubble Space Telescope when the enormous planet was 670 million kilometers (or about 416 million miles) from Earth. The photo shows the Great Red Spot, but it also shows something new: a weather feature called the Great Cold Spot, which is almost as large as its more well-known cousin.
“The Great Cold Spot is much more volatile than the slowly changing Great Red Spot, changing dramatically in shape and size over only a few days and weeks, but it has reappeared for as long as we have data to search for it, for over 15 years,” Tom Stallard, a planetary astronomer at the University of Leicester in the U.K. and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
The cold spot is nearly 15,000 miles by about 7,500 miles in size, and it’s dubbed the “cold” spot because it’s 200 degrees Kelvin (about 400 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than the surrounding atmosphere.
The article included this stunning image of Jupiter.
Jaymi went on to write:
Here’s what some of the other details in the image mean:
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds as arranged into bands of different latitudes. These bands are produced by air flowing in different directions at various latitudes. Lighter coloured areas, called zones, are high-pressure where the atmosphere rises. Darker low-pressure regions where air falls are called belts. Constantly stormy weather occurs where these opposing east-to-west and west-to-east flows interact. The planet’s trademark, the Great Red Spot, is a long-lived storm roughly the diameter of Earth. Much smaller storms appear as white or brown-coloured ovals. Such storms can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries.
The Great Red Spot is an anticyclonic storm that is so large that Earth would fit inside it. That stormy spot — which is actually shrinking, though astronomers don’t know why — gives us a great perspective for understanding just how huge Jupiter is compared to our own blue dot in the solar system.
It’s been 27 years since the Hubble Space Telescope went into orbit, and the geriatric observatory is still going strong. When the telescope recently trained its sights on the solar system’s largest planet, the results were spectacular—proof that for the stellar spectator, age is but a number.
The image above is the latest picture of Jupiter. The snapshot was taken by Hubble on April 3 with the help of the telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, a high-res instrument that lets the telescope observe using different wavelengths. It combines light on the visible, ultraviolet, and infrared spectrum to create an image of a massive planet in constant atmospheric flux.
In a press release, the European Space Agency, which co-runs Hubble with NASA, said that Hubble was able to take advantage of the planet’s current opposition with Earth to take the close-up. At the moment, Jupiter is lined up perfectly with the sun, and Earth is lined up with both the sun and Jupiter. Think of it as a truly heavenly photographic opportunity—a chance to look at the planet head-on. Better yet, Jupiter’s position relative to the sun means that it’s brighter than at any other time of year, which lets telescopes trained on the gigantic planet see even more detail than usual.
AsThe Washington Post’s Amy B. Wang notes, there were no new discoveries in the picture per se, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to look at. As ESA explains, scientists will compare the photo to previous views of the planet to hopefully learn more about the atmosphere. And for the rest of us, there’s a strangely soothing view of Jupiter’s layered cloud bands and impressive vortices.
The gas giant is thought to have sucked up most of the space debris left over after the sun formed, grabbing dust and gas with gravity. Scientists think it has two times as much debris as all of the other bodies in the solar system combined—and all of that material swirls through cloud layers in its quickly-rotating atmosphere.
Since Jupiter doesn’t exactly have a surface, it has nothing to slow the spots and vortices that appear in its atmosphere. The most famous, the Great Red Spot, is thought to have been swirling around for more than 150 years, and even though it’s unclear which gases give it that red hue, it’s the planet’s most recognizable feature. As NASA writes, the cloudiness of Jupiter’s atmosphere makes it hard to understand what might be contributing to it. But that doesn’t decrease its allure.
Want to delve even further into the mesmerizing bands of a huge planet’s atmosphere? A high-res version of the snapshot is available online. And if you prefer seeing things live, it’s a great time to check out Jupiter through in the night sky. You can find Jupiter in the east right after the sun goes down—a massive mystery that’s brighter than any star.
Namely, that the universe came into existence some 13.82 billion years ago. The power of natural evolution that came with that event eventually brought along homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago. 200,000 is 0.0000145 of 13.82 billion.
Or to put it another way, we humans have only been a part of this universe for 1/10th of 1% of the life of said universe! (Oh, and dogs came along 100,000 years ago!)
A video on YouTube raises some fundamental questions about our changing climate.
Let me say straight away that my belief in Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is based on instinct, and not on me understanding the science, simply because I am not a scientist; far from it! As I share on this blog:
Paul Handover is a child of the post-war era in Great Britain having been born in London a few months before the end of WWII. After a rather shaky attempt at being educated, including 2 years studying for a Diploma in Electrical Engineering, Paul’s first job was as a commercial apprentice at the British Aircraft Corporation. He then joined the sales desk of British Visqueen, a polythene film and products manufacturer located in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and part of ICI Plastics Division. In 1968, he travelled out to Sydney, Australia and became part of the sales team at ICIANZ’s Inorganic Chemicals Division.
I am a fundamentally a retired salesman/entrepreneur with a very out-of-date knowledge of electrical engineering and radio communications (G3PUK), and now struggling to be an author. 😉
Plus, my generally sceptical view of how countries are governed, my awareness of a terrible lack of integrity in politicians, plays to those instincts of mine that humanity is, indeed, responsible primarily for our changing climate. And there is no shortage of supporting evidence!
A very quick web search found this NASA site that included the following graph and text (in part):
The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.
Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.
Click here for a partial list of these public statements and related resources.
However, a dear and close friend of nearly 40 years, Dan Gomez, is sceptical and simply says to me: “Paul, follow the money!” Dan is a very widely-read person and a great thinker.
Plus, among our wonderful neighbours there is a couple, Dordie and Bill, that we get on with extremely well. Bill is a sceptic of AGW and recently sent me the link to the following video.
Please watch it. If you have evidence that all or many of the facts on this video are incorrect then I would love to hear from you.
For this is way too important for the truth not to be widely promoted.
Asteroid 2015 TB145 will pass by Planet Earth – just!
Back in my old country, Halloween is not celebrated in the same style that it is here in America. The Brits tend to favour the evening of November 5th and Guy Fawkes Night. That evening, Bonfire Night, sees fireworks parties in many places.
However, if one starts to think of the dimensions and distances of outer space then our planet is just being spared the firework show to beat all other shows.
I’m referring to Asteroid TB145, a huge asteroid, that will pass Earth at 310,000 miles (498,896 km) or 1.3 times the Earth-moon distance.
UPDATE OCTOBER 30, 2015. A newly found asteroid of notable size – known as asteroid 2015 TB145 – will safely pass Earth on October 31, 2015, according to clocks in North America. It should be visible moving in front of the stars, with the help of a telescope, tonight (October 30). It is the biggest known asteroid that will come this close to Earth until 2027. The asteroid – found as recently as October 10 – will fly past Earth at a safe distance, or about 1.3 times the moon’s distance. Closest approach to Earth will be October 31 at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 UTC). Translate to your time zone here.
Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, said:
The trajectory of 2015 TB145 is well understood. At the point of closest approach, it will be no closer than about 300,000 miles – 480,000 kilometers or 1.3 lunar distances. Even though that is relatively close by celestial standards, it is expected to be fairly faint, so night-sky Earth observers would need at least a small telescope to view it.
So how big is this asteroid?
Scientists are continuing to estimate the size at 1,300 feet (400 meters) wide.
If the size is correct, the new found asteroid is 28 times bigger in diameter than the Chelyabinsk meteor that penetrated the atmosphere over Russia in February, 2013. An incoming asteroid’s potential to do damage on Earth depends on various factors, including its size, its angle of entry, and the point on Earth over which it enters the atmosphere. The shock wave from the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor broke windows and did other damage to some 7,200 buildings in six Russian cities. Some 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment, mainly from broken glass from windows.
For those of you that want to catch a glimpse of TB145, then:
Asteroid position at 3:50 a.m. ET (0750 UTC) Point a Go To computerized telescope to HIP 24197 or SAO 94377) a naked-eye star with a magnitude of 5 in Orion. At 3:50 a.m. ET on October 31 (Saturday morning), the space rock passes close to this star. The asteroid will appear as a slowly moving ‘star’ passing very close to this star. By this time the asteroid should appear to move faster because it will be closer to Earth than earlier on the night of October 30. This illustration shows a half degree field of view (about the size of a full moon). A pair of double stars visible in this area should confirm you are pointing at the correct direction. Alternatively, you can point your telescope to these coordinates: RA 05h 11m 41.6s / DEC +16º 02′ 44.5″. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
Full details and answers to most of your questions may be found here.
All I can say is I hope the number crunchers have got their sums right!
If not, then it’s goodnight from her and goodnight from me.
It was nice knowing you all!
P.S. If you think this is all a bit far-fetched, then this video sent to me by Dan Gomez will bring you down to earth.
The last two posts have offered two aspects of our bountiful Nature. First we had Earth Day and the celebration of our trees. Then yesterday we had the celebration of the birth of five Canada Geese goslings.
So it seemed appropriate to continue the theme for another day.
Earlier this month there was an article over on MNN that I saved for later use simply because the message it offered was counter-intuitive. Here’s how that article opened:
Deforestation vs. nature: The winner might surprise you
Large-scale tree-planting projects, abandoned farmland help balance out rain forest destruction.
By: Michael Graham Richard
Wed, Apr 08, 2015 at 10:11 AM
The researchers found that despite ongoing deforestation in the rain forests of South America and Southeast Asia — a huge problem, regardless of what happens elsewhere — other regions outside the tropics, such as Africa and Australia, have been improving enough to offset the losses. Some of the more unexpected sources of this extra biomass are farmland abandoned after the fall of communism where forests have spontaneously regrown in the former Soviet republics, as well as in areas of China where large-scale tree planting projects took place.
What really caught my eye was another photo from NASA that showed the biomass stored in trees in the USA.
But as the article reminded readers:
We’re only talking about biomass quantities being offset, though; the loss of rain forests also mean the loss of many species of animals and plants, as well as unique habitats that can’t be replaced by other regions elsewhere, such as the savannah of Africa or the Australian Outback. So while this is good news, we can’t declare victory over deforestation just yet!
Nonetheless, I am sure that I am not the only one to welcome this reminder of the power of Nature. Or in the closing words of that MNN article:
In the period between 2003-2012, the total amount of vegetation above the ground has increased by about 4 billion tonnes of carbon. Any way you slice in, 4 billion tonnes is significant!
This is particularly important because around 25 percent of the CO2 that we release into the atmosphere by burning formerly buried hydrocarbons is absorbed by plants, so having more of them can help slow down (but not stop) climate change, and there’s a limit to plants’ rate of absorption. Still, it’s nice to get good news for a change …
While it may be a long way yet from them being tonnes of carbon, let me close with three pictures of ‘increasing tree biomass‘ right here on Hugo Road in Merlin, Oregon.
Nature really does have all the answers to man’s long-term survival.
I subscribe to EarthSky and the link to this image and background information was in yesterday’s daily summary. The mind-blowing facts are that the Eagle Nebula is found in the constellation Serpens and is 6,500 light-years away from our dear planet. To put that into context, that is 38,210 trillion miles from us. The star cluster associated with the nebula is about 5.5 million years old.
EarthSky has the very interesting text of the NASA Press Release regarding this new, high-resolution image.
For me, I just want to let that image wash over me. Not least because it reminds me that I am a very lucky person to be living at a time when one can lose oneself in such sights.
Here’s the image again, this time without the explanation.
The second, and last, episode of the BBC Clouds Lab programme offers an intriguing message.
On Monday, I published a post under the title of The clouds above us. The second episode demonstrated that even in atmospheric conditions of near vacuum, intense cold and very low humidity, conditions that would kill a human in seconds, there was microscopic bacteriological material to be found.
Exploring the troposphere
The troposphere is a turbulent layer of air that begins at the Earth’s surface and ranges from 23,000-65,000 feet above sea level, depending on the latitude, season and the time of day. Its name originates from the Greek word tropos, meaning change. It’s now known that bacteria actually exists in clouds and scientists believe that it plays a significant part in the creation of rain but little is known about life higher up. Microbiologist Dr Chris Van Tulleken has discovered that living bacteria can exist well above 10,000ft in a hostile environment with low pressure, increased UV radiation, freezing temperatures, high winds and no oxygen or water.
What I took away from watching the programme was that the minimum conditions necessary for living bacteria were far more harsh than one might expect. In other words, finding living bacteria in other solar systems might not be such a science-fiction idea.
With that in mind, I’m republishing an essay that Patrice Ayme wrote in 2013. I’m grateful for his permission to so do.
40 Billion Earths? Yes & No.
Up to twenty years ago, a reasonable opinion among scientists was that there might be just one solar system. Ours. Scientists like to project gravitas; having little green men all over didn’t look serious.
However, studying delicately the lights of stars, how they vary, how they doppler-shift, more than 1,000 planets have been found. Solar systems seem ubiquitous. Astronomers reported in 2013 that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable Earth-size planets in the galaxy. However, consider this:
Yes, that’s the center of a galaxy, and it has experienced a galactic size explosion from its central black hole.
One out of every five sun-like stars in our galaxy has a planet the size of Earth circling it in the Goldilocks zone, it seems — not too hot, not too cold — with surface temperatures compatible with liquid water. Yet, we have a monster black hole at the center of our giant galaxy, just like the one exploding above.
We are talking here about explosions potentially stronger than the strongest supernova by many orders of magnitude (depending upon the size of what’s falling into Sagittarius. By the way, a cloud is just heading that way).
Such galactic drama has a potential impact on the presence of advanced life. The richer the galaxy gets in various feature the situation looks, the harder it looks to compute the probability of advanced life.
The profusion of habitable planets is all the more remarkable, as the primitive methods used so far require the planet to pass between us and its star.
(The research, started on the ground in Europe, expanded with dedicated satellites, the French Corot and NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.). Sun-like stars are “yellow dwarves”. They live ten billion years.
From that, confusing “habitable” and “inhabitated”, the New York Times deduced: “The known odds of something — or someone — living far, far away from Earth improved beyond astronomers’ boldest dreams on Monday. “
However, it’s not that simple.
Primitive bacterial life is probably frequent. However advanced life (animals) is probably very rare, as many are the potential catastrophes. And one needs billions of years to go from primitive life to animals.
After life forms making oxygen on Earth appeared, the atmosphere went from reducing (full of strong greenhouse methane) to oxidizing (full of oxygen). As methane mostly disappeared, so did the greenhouse. Earth froze, all the way down to the equator:
Yet volcanoes kept on belching CO2 through the ice. That CO2 built up above the ice, caused a strong greenhouse, and the ice melted. Life had survived. Mighty volcanism has saved the Earth, just in time.
That “snowball Earth” catastrophe repeated a few times before the Earth oxygen based system became stable. Catastrophe had been engaged, several times, but the disappearance of oxygen creating life forms had been avoided, just barely.
Many are the other catastrophes we have become aware of, that could wipe out advanced life: proximal supernovas or gamma ray explosions.
Cataclysmic eruption of the central galactic black hole happen frequently. The lobes from the last one are still visible, perpendicularly high off the galactic plane. The radiation is still making the Magellanic Stream simmer, 200,000 light years away. Such explosions have got to have sterilized a good part of the galaxy.
In 2014 when part of the huge gas cloud known as G2 falls into Sagittarius A*, we will learn better how inhospitable the central galaxy is for advanced life.
Many of the star systems revealed out there have surprising feature: heavy planets (“super Jupiters“) grazing their own stars. It’s unlikely those giants were formed where they are. They probably swept their entire systems, destroying all the rocky planets in their giant way. We don’t understand these cataclysmic dynamics, but they seem frequent.
Solar energy received on Earth fluctuated and changed a lot, maybe from one (long ago) to four (now). But, as it turned out just so that Earthly life could survive. Also the inner nuclear reactor with its convective magma and tectonic plates was able to keep the carbon dioxide up in the air, just so.
The Goldilocks zones astronomers presently consider seem to be all too large to allow life to evolve over billions of years. They have to be much narrower and not just with red dwarves (the most frequent and long living stars).
One of our Goldilocks, Mars, started well, but lost its CO2 and became too cold. The other Goldilocks, Venus, suffered the opposite major technical malfunction: a runaway CO2 greenhouse.
Mars’ axis of rotation tilts on the solar system’s plane enormously: by 60 degrees, over millions of years. So Mars experiences considerable climatic variations over the eons, as it goes through slow super winters and super summers (it’s imaginable that, as the poles melt, Mars is much more habitable during super summers; thus life underground, hibernating is also imaginable there).
Earth’s Moon prevents this sort of crazy hyper seasons. While, differently from Venus, Earth rotates at reasonable clip, homogenizing the temperatures. Venus takes 243 days to rotate.
It is startling that, of the four inner and only rocky planets, just one, Earth has a rotation compatible with the long term evolution of advanced life.
Earth has also two striking characteristics: it has a very large moon that store much of the angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system. Without Moon, the Earth would rotate on itself once every 8 hours (after 5 billion years of braking by Solar tides).
The Moon used to hover at least ten times closer than now, when earth’s days were at most 6 hours long.
The tidal force is the difference between gravitational attraction in two closely separated places, so it’s the differential of said attraction (which is proportional to 1/dd; d being the distance). Hence the tidal force is inversely proportional to the cube of the distance.
Thus on early Earth tides a kilometer high were common, washing back and forth every three hours. a hyper super tsunami every three hours, going deep inside the continents. Not exactly conditions you expect all over the universe.
Hence biological material fabricated on the continental margins in shallow pools would get mixed with the oceans readily. That would guarantee accelerated launch of life (and indeed we know life started on Earth very fast).
The theory of formation of the Moon is wobbly (recent detailed computations of the simplest impact theory do not work). All we know for sure, thanks to the Moon rocks from Apollo, is that the Moon is made of Earth mantle materials.
Somehow the two planets split in two. (Fission. Get it? It maybe a hint.)
Another thing we know for sure is that Earth has, at its core, a giant nuclear fission reactor, keeping Earth’s core hotter than the surface of the sun. An unimaginable liquid ocean of liquid iron deep down inside below our feet undergoes iron weather. Hell itself, the old fashion way, pales in comparison.
Could the Moon and the giant nuclear reactor have the same origin? This is my provocative question of the day. The Moon, our life giver, could well have formed from giant nuclear explosions, of another of our life givers, what became the nuke at the core. I can already hear herds of ecologists yelp in the distance. I present the facts, you pseudo-ecologists don’t decide upon them. It’s clear that nuclear fission is not in Drake equation: if nothing else, it’s too politically incorrect.
All the preceding makes this clear:
Many are the inhabitable planets, yet few will be inhabitated by serious denizens.
This means that the cosmos is all for our taking. The only question is how to get there. The closest stars in the Proxima, Beta and Alpha Centauri system are not attainable, for a human crew, with existing technology.
However, if we mastered clean colossal energy production, of the order of the entire present energy production of humanity, we could get a colony there (only presently imaginable technology would be fusion).
Giordano Bruno, professor, astronomer, and priest suggested that there were many other inhabitated systems around the stars. That insult against Islam meant Christianity was punished the hard way: the Vatican, the famous terrorist organization of god crazies, put a device in Giordano’s mouth that pierced his palate, and having made sure that way that he could not tell the truth, the terrorists then burned him alive. After seven years of torture.
The horror of truth was unbearable to theo-plutocrats.
Now we face something even worse: everywhere out there is very primitive life. It is likely gracing 40 billion worlds. But, if one has to duplicate the succession of miracles and improbabilities that made Earth, to earn advanced life, it may be just here that civilization ever rose to contemplate them.
Congratulations to India for launching yesterday a mission to Mars ostensibly to find out if there is life there (by finding CH4; while life is presently unlikely, Mars has much to teach, including whether it started there). That’s the spirit!
The spirit is to have minds go where even imagination itself did not go before.
If we sit back, and look at the universe we have now, from Dark Matter, to Dark Energy, to Sagittarius, to the nuclear reactor below, to billions of Earths, to a strange Higgs, to Non Aristotelian logic, we see a wealth, an opulence of possibilities inconceivable twenty years ago.
Progress is not just about doing better what was done yesterday. It’s also about previously inconceivable blossoms of entirely new mental universes.