Category Archives: Geology

Gliese 581g (Hámnù, Pedak, Gaustan, or Estivama)

I finished a big new map! You can purchase a print here.

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The world known to humankind as Zarmina (catalog identifier Gliese 581g) is a habitable planet orbiting a red dwarf star. It is tidally locked to its dim sun, such that one face of the planet always points toward the sun. The most striking consequence of this orbit geometry is that the habitable region of the planet is a disk-shaped area roughly the size of an earthly continent. The center of this zone always sees a sun at high noon, while toward the edge of the disk, the sun sinks gradually away from zenith. Outside this region, Zarmina is encased in ice. As the sun does not define east and west, the cardinal direction convention on Zarmina refers to the planet’s orbit, instead: prograde (in the direction of the orbit), retrograde, normal (up from the orbit), and antinormal.

Zarmina does not exhibit evidence of plate tectonics. Surface features express several processes: large-scale rift graben form from tidal stresses, shield volcanoes build over mantle hotspots, impact craters and basins dot the planet, and erosion slowly whittles down the more ancient features.

The world hosts life with biodiversity similar to the Earth. One dominant intelligent species has settled across the landmass, with cultures reaching technological development levels roughly equivalent to 1300-1600 CE on Earth. There are three regions with large populations, indicated on the map in normal-retrograde (NR), antinormal-prograde (AP), and normal-prograde (NP) callouts. In the four major language families of Zarmina, the natives call their world Hámnù, Pedak, Gaustan, or Estivama.

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The NR region hosts two major linguistic and cultural families. The first is an empire ruled from the city of Hòmp Sīnkà (Port Sinka). Explorers and artisans populate this empire; though the political extent of the empire only reaches as far as Níngtòhús (Greencliff), speakers of the imperial language can be found all along the coast in the prograde direction as well as in coastal settlements on the other side of Fíkùm Pòst (The Normal-Direction Sea). The antinormal borders of the empire are more ragged and contentious, however – the imperial urge to spread its vision of culture and knowledge brings it into direct conflict with the city-states in that area. The people of Kivod Sev Adoso (Mountain Gate Town) dominate the substantial resources of Sev Skem (Mountain Channel) and have repelled several campaigns launched from Hútpòkā (Chasmtop). Hòmp Sīnkà rapidly loses its stomach for these campaigns, and so Kivod Sev Adoso holds back imperial expansion. A more fluid and contentious collision of cultures occurs in Pasken Gimet (Pasken Forest). Scattered settlements under the command of local chiefs raid imperial populations farming antinormal of Ngùsì Āmā (Wide River) while imperial reprisals prevent the Pasken peoples from incorporating large towns. The disparate kindgoms of Ogjapud (Grayrock), Katofa Petang (Retrograde City), and Fetva Zand (Calm Peninsula) maintain their own set of animosities and alliances.

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The plains of the AP region offer little shelter from the winds that blow in off the ocean. As the land rises, larger and larger plants cover the land until one encounters lush prairies between dendritic river networks. Roaming clans live on the prairie “kidan.” A few large settlements dot the kidan, most notably Jung a Uid Nakaun (the City of Two Rivers). The kida clans take pride in not pinning themselves to a particular place – many of their dwellings are portable, and they happily move their crops to new locations on the fertile plains when they tire of the old. The culture is leery of townfolk. The Ushtin clan is a splinter from the kida clans, and is more attached to their resource-rich homeland on the shore of Gaiju a Shai (Lake of Wind). On the other end of the cultural spectrum, the dramatically different Togui a Awaish (Chasm of the Forest) hosts a sect worshipping the sun god Dautwai. This sect possesses the settlements of Santiso (roughly, Above-the-Green) and Uigonja (named for the uigon trees), as well as a major urban center in Jung Togunau. From the isthmus of the Nakau Dautwai, dramatic views of the Audos a No (Mountain of the Sun) have inspired monuments throughout the city. The natural defenses of Togui a Awaish shield the people within from raiding kida clansmen.

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Lush lands and geographic barriers squeezed into a comparatively smaller area give rise to the warring city-states of the NP region. Though they share a common linguistic root, each of the population centers here represent separate nations. The largest are Evinbok and Neka Estag, both named for their original monarchs. Evinbok holds a position of strategic strength, with access to productive outlying farmland in Pantma Zhusti (the Upper Plains), while timber and easily quarried rock are in the ancient impact basin of Gesta Kazi (Broken Bowl). Kagzai (roughly, Blue-ton) and Ka Topi (Lower Town) are notable for practicing a form of representative democracy. Ka Shata Besi (High Cliff Town) is the center of a prosperous small nation of traders, who build ships from the timber of Tifa ko Pantma Shti (Forest of the Red Plain) and sail through Vimna Shti (Red Pass) as far antinormal as Sot Ushtin.

This map is hand-drawn with Pigma Micron pens of various types, then colored in Derwent watercolor pencils. I finish the map by painting over the pencils to blend and soften the watercolors together. The last step is photographing the piece with a 60 mm macro lens. The entire thing is 17″ wide and 14″ tall.

Enjoy, everybody!

On the World Zarmina

2014 update! You can now buy prints of this map!

…Preliminary report on image data from the LongShot-2 mission…

The planet Gliese 581galso known as Zarmina – is a circular world.

It is not circular in the literal sense shown on ancient maps of the Earth, before we understood Earth to be a sphere. Rather, Gliese 581g spins at the same rate as it orbits its star, so its sun is always in the same place in its sky. Heat from the red dwarf, distributed by the circulation of the atmosphere, keeps a circular region under the star warm enough to melt ice into liquid water.  Thus, the habitable regions fall entirely within a disc under the constant light of the red star. Outside this region, water freezes – and the further one goes out onto the ice, the more inhospitable it gets. Travel to the far side of the planet is about as difficult as traveling from the Earth to the Moon – and so, to the inhabitants of Zarmina, their world might as well be a circle ringed in ice.1

This artist’s concept, based on image mapping from our recent interstellar probes, depicts the habitable region of Zarmina:

Zarmina, from above the substellar point
Zarmina, from above the substellar point.

For discussion of Zarmina, some reference points and directions are necessary. The circular boundary of the map is the ice line: beyond this point, water is certain to freeze. The center of the circle thus defined is the substellar point. When standing here, the red dwarf Gliese 581 is directly overhead. This image shows Zarmina oriented with is orbital plane horizontal. The planet has a south magnetic pole pointing roughly towards the top of the page, and so the “top” and “bottom” of this map become the cardinal directions north and south. East and west take on their usual definitions.

Gliese 581g is approximately three and a half times the mass of Earth. It is tidally locked to its star, meaning that one side always faces its Sun just as one side of the Moon always faces the Earth. Gravitational tides from the star also have the effect of pulling the rocky surface of the planet into an oblong shape, like a rugby ball. Since our probes reached the Gliese 581 system,2 we determined that the planet has a tiny orbital eccentricity (from perturbations by the other planets in the system) which causes a periodic shift in the gravity force on the planet: slightly east to slightly west, and back again, every Zarminan day (about 37 Earth days). The combination of the periodic variation in stellar tide and the fact that the ocean is more mobile than rock makes dry land much more common in the center of the disc than near the edge, as we see in the map.3

This variation in tidal force results in one of Zarmina’s most striking surface feature types. Continue reading On the World Zarmina

Shifts in the Bedrock

I was standing in my office, trying to deconstruct some spacecraft sensor processing algorithms on my whiteboard. I had pages of code printouts in one hand and a marker in the other. As I turned back to my computer to consult some of the documents I had up on screen, I heard a rumble from overhead, as if someone had wheeled a heavy cart along the ceiling over my office. Simultaneously, the wall creaked – and the floor shifted under my feet.

In the cube grid outside my office, everybody popped up and looked around. We walked towards the hallway, as if it was a fire drill or something, before halfway through the evacuation process we kind of milled around and ascertained that, yes, everyone else felt that, too. Our next collective move was to the internet (the USGS maintains pretty spiffy live monitors on their web site). I’m sure the entire population of California was laughing at us, but the East Coast doesn’t get earthquakes.

I’d never felt an earthquake before, and this was definitely unmistakable. The psychological effects lingered a bit longer: every now and then for the next ten minutes, I felt like I couldn’t quite trust my inner ears.

I stayed at work late; when I left the parking lot was mostly empty. As I looked out over the expanse of flat asphalt, I thought that there’s nothing to remind us that the physical processes that drove our planet to the shape and form and state it is in now are still active than when the ground moves under our feet. I walked to my car, thinking about how a planet is a dynamic system and how much I take it for granted that the ground is going to stay still so I can drive home. And I wondered what it would be like if that little quake happened again. It was one of those moments when I couldn’t escape feeling how much bigger the world is than I am. It gave me pause for a minute; it was a small moment when I held a larger perspective of the world.

Of course: one of the truly wonderful things about the way this universe works is that, small as we are, human beings can learn to understand it. But even though I know about earthquakes, and know the mechanisms that cause and sustain them, feeling even a little one is a wholly different experience.

The Map

I have come into the possession of a most extraordinary object, which I procured rather fortuitously before the auction of goods from an insolvent boutique on the East Boulevard. I do not know how long it lay, disused and uncared-for, in a dusty drawer at that establishment, or when the boutique acquired it. The artifact in question is a curious map of the southern continent. I have scrutinized the place names and cross-referenced the markers corresponding to cities and towns with the atlases and charts in the City Library, and I have determined that this map dates from approximately 530 A.E. It covers the area from the North Barovin Mountains in its upper-left extremity, to historic Vorsvenbal in the south and all of South Brenin, Kalatchal, and part of Olahira to the east.

The dòm Gurand Map

The famous dòm Gurand Map of our southern continent does not only provide interesting historical and societal context, but contains some surprisingly accurate geographic information. One can examine the map for geological purposes, for evidence of historical wind patterns, and for characteristics of the climate of the year 530. Drainage areas of rivers are readily apparent, for instance, and the cartographer has captured some of the different qualities in the mountain ranges. Continue reading The Map

The Dark Planets

An article appeared today on about the detection of “free-floating planets.” These planets may have formed around a central star, like the planets in our Solar System did, but due to some gravitational interaction during their star system’s formation the planets escaped their stars. These Jovian planets, which may outnumber stars in our galaxy, are now doomed to endlessly wander the cosmos under perpetual starry night skies.

Naturally, this notion tripped my sci-fi circuits.


This artist's conception illustrates a Jupiter-like planet alone in the dark of space, floating freely without a parent star. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We live in an age in which new planetary systems are being discovered at an incredible rate. We are getting closer and closer to the ability to detect other Earth-like worlds around other stars. In fact, just a few days ago a study found that certain climate models of Gliese 581d (that would be potential-planet Zarmina‘s until-now-slightly-less-sexy sister) may support a liquid water cycle.

So what would it take for one of these free-flying, starless planets to be habitable?

The immediate answer that may come to you, the average person, is, “Joe, you are crazy.” But wait a moment!

All life requires is an energy input and certain chemicals, right? Well, all sorts of chemicals exist in gas planets. And there are plenty of possible energy inputs from the gas dynamics going on in their atmospheres – not to mention magnetic fields and other esoteric stuff like that that Earth life generally doesn’t incorporate into its metabolism.

But forget gas-giant balloon-life. Suppose we constrain our notion of habitability to the usual anthropocentric meaning: liquid water on a rocky surface.

In order for a rocky planet to have liquid surface water, it needs two things: heat and pressure. (Pressure so that the water doesn’t just sublimate or boil off into space, and heat so that it doesn’t freeze.) The “pressure” part we can take care of by giving our rocky world an atmosphere. However, we need a heat source – not only to keep the water from freezing, but to keep the atmosphere itself from freezing onto the planet, too. How do we get this heat source? Radioactive heating from the planet interior isn’t going to warm the surface to 273 K. Stars are all going to be too far from these planets to do any good. Emission nebulae are way too cold and rarified, even if the planet is right in the middle of them. The planet is going to pretty efficiently radiate away any heat inputs before that energy goes into heating ice to make water. (I suppose we could stick the planet right in the way of a black hole’s polar jet or some other source of hard radiation for our energy source – but then we’re back to getting really alien alien life. Fun to think about! And what happens to those alien civilizations that thrive on a dark planet bathed in X rays when their planet finishes traversing the zone of hard radiation?!)

I’m pretty convinced that liquid surface water is not going to appear on any free-flying rocky planets. Unless…

Suppose, when a Jovian planet got ejected from its birth star system, it carried its moon system away with it. Maybe some heat can come off of that gas giant and hit the moon! It’s not going to be reflected light, though, because there’s no star to provide bright enough light. No, the energy will have to come from the Jovian itself. This condition means that we’ll have to look at something like brown dwarfs: astronomical bodies that are just slightly too small to ignite under their internal pressure and turn into the hydrogen fusion furnaces that are stars. But they do have some fusion going on in their dense cores.

Take Teide 1, the first brown dwarf to have its existence confirmed. It has a surface temperature of around 2500 K, a luminosity of about 0.001 Lsun, and a radius around 0.1 Rsun. Suppose that a rocky (Earth-density) satellite orbits Teide 1 at its Roche limit, the closest orbital radius it can have without tides tearing the moon apart into a pretty but uninhabitable ring. (By a quick calculation, I get about 337,000 km for Teide 1 – coincidentally close to the Earth-Moon distance.) At that distance, the moon would receive around 1 million watts per square meter from the Jovian. If that’s the input power, the Stefan-Boltzmann law gives the output radiation of the planet in equilibrium. With a couple assumptions about albedo (Earthlike) and assuming that the moon receives incoming radiation over its cross-sectional area but radiates out over its entire surface (and that it’s the size of Earth’s Moon), my quick hand scratchings give a surface temperature near 50 K. Hmm…no liquid surface water there.

But there’s another possible heat input to a moon around a gas giant: the tides of the Jovian world.

Consider Jupiter: it has four big moons, and Jupiter raises such huge tides on these moons that the rocky mini-worlds actually flex, generating heat from friction. On Europa, this tidal heating in its central rocky part is sufficient to melt the inner bit of its water-ice coating into an ocean. Heck, scientists combing Galileo probe data just determined that tidal heating is sufficient to keep pretty much all of Io’s interior molten. That world is made of lava, with a thin crusty shell. And it’s all because the moon orbits a gas giant in a resonance with some other moons. the interaction between their orbits keeps the tidal energy coming.

So let’s give our moon some companions and an orbital resonance. Solar radiation is negligible compared to tidal heating even for Jupiter, so we know that that could give our moon liquid water…at least under the surface, like Europa.

But add an atmosphere, and you get an insulating blanket around the moon’s surface. More internal heat stays trapped on the moon’s surface instead of radiating away into space. I haven’t done the calculations, but if tidal heating can liquify rock on Io I bet it could be enough to melt Europa’s ice layer all the way through for slightly different orbital parameters. And with an atmosphere, the moon gets pressure to keep that liquid water from boiling. Like Titan. Put Titan where Io is…and what do you get? I’m not sure, but it would be really interesting. And it wouldn’t require the Sun.

Cool, huh? It certainly hasn’t been confirmed, and I don’t have a detailed model, of course, but I think the theoretical grounds exist for these free-flying dark planets to have liquid-water surfaces. Imagine vacationing on a beach next to a steaming ocean that is basically a global-scale hot spring, where it’s perpetual night and every couple (Earth) days you see the shadowy form of the gas giant loom overhead, visible more because of the stars it blocks out than from any external light source, except for the occasional immense spark of lightning through its clouds…

World-Building and the Real Universe

(Pardon me for the hiatus. Had to fly to Houston to do some flight testing at NASA.)

I spent a pretty good weekend doing some world-building. Since discovering the maps in the first pages of The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, and the like, I have really enjoyed sketching out maps of imaginary worlds and outlining details of the cultures and histories that play out over those maps. My maps started as knockoffs of Tolkien’s (with the bad guys sequestered in a nice, rectangular wall of mountains around some barren lands) or parallel-universe versions of the terrain around my house. Since then, though, I’ve started to inject a lot more realism into the worlds I create. Want to know where the tectonic plates and prevailing winds are on my map of Oghura? I could show you!

The Barovin Mountains are this world's ancient Himalayas. The desert is in the rain shadow of the Red Mountains - though it wasn't always, which explains some of the Oghuran-Kalatchali history!
Map of Oghura

Beyond the maps, some of my imagined cultures have fully fleshed-out languages, religions, and customs. Slowly, slowly, I’ve been compiling reference documentation on the Oghuran desert and people, the fantastical Cathedral Galaxy, and the future-universe of the Four Colonies. This weekend I was spending my time in the Cathedral Galaxy, putting together a master list of the major galactic regions and polities, along with distinguishing characteristics. Now I know a bit more about why the Imperium of the Triumvirate is split in three, how the far-from-galactic-center Traders’ Rim came to be populated by merchants and entrepreneurs, and the tumultuous history of conflict between Amseile and Shobah. I’ve also got the beginning of a couple more stories – one concerning an Imperium gladiator’s bid for freedom and another describing the Waygehn people, who evolved to sentience near the death of their star and outlived the event, leaving them homeless in the galaxy. That’s one of the most fun things about deciding to build a universe purely for short stories: I get to invent worlds, and then immediately show them off with snippets of detail!

Though the Cathedral Galaxy has some distinctly space-fantasy elements, I decided early on that it would be a universe based on hard science – though not necessarily our hard science. My short story “Conference” illustrates the point, as it shows that there are technical concepts built upon technical concepts – but at the level that Arthur C. Clarke would have described as “indistinguishable from magic.” I have no idea how the Channel Network could be set up, and building planet-size structures is clearly fantastical. (And none of you know yet what’s in The Cathedral!) But I made sure that the story was relevant to us Earthdwellers, and I lean strongly on plausible concepts to describe things like astronomical bodies or planetary orbits.

Great Galactic Map, showing major markers and the Channel Network

For example, take Heliast, the resort world on which much of “Conference” takes place. Here’s the description that conference-goers got of the world:

The tour guide explains how Heliast is an ancient world with a single moon nearly half its own size, and how that has dominated the history of the planet and made it ideal for resort paradises. A billion or so years ago, the planet spun many times under one orbit of the moon, and the energy input of ocean tides among all the planet’s archipelagoes – Heliast is over eighty percent water – gave rise to life. But nowadays, the moon orbits in tidal lockstep with one Heliast day, the prime factor contributing to the perpetual calm of its seas. The small radius of Heliast’s solar orbit leaves the planet with a reasonable day length, while the dimness of its sun places it in the liquid-water zone. Without tides, with a massive moon helping to protect the planet from asteroid impacts, and with barely any eccentricity in its orbit to create seasons, there have been few selective pressures on Heliast’s life forms. Life on the planet thus failed to diversify much, and after millions of years of evolution with few external stressors, there are now only a few ecological niches on the world. Three or four avian species, eight or ten surface-level swimmers, two or three land animals, and about six land plants are all most tourists have the chance to interact with. The rest of the planet is geological beauty for visitors to enjoy.

So, the planet’s “month” equals its “day,” but there are still many days per year and there is much liquid water on the surface. The dynamics shaped the world’s evolution. That was fun to think of! But, more and more, I am completely amazed by the strange worlds that actually exist in our own universe. Many Earth- and space-based observatories keep returning data on new exoplanet candidates, and in the last few years, the galaxy seems a lot more planet-populous than it has in the past.

This past Monday, I went to a fascinating astronomy seminar on the potential climates of Gliese 581g given by Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert from the University of Chicago. (He’s preparing these climate models for an arXiv preprint.) Besides tying the Gleise 581 system with 55 Cancri for most number of known exoplanets around the same star (5), this planet is interesting because it falls right smack in the middle of the traditional “habitable zone,” the range of orbital radii necessary for planet surface temperatures that could support liquid surface water. Now, of course, the discovery of Gliese 581g has to be confirmed to become official – and there’s some doubt about that! – but it’s at least got scientists thinking about these dwarf-star systems in interesting ways. Continue reading World-Building and the Real Universe

NASA went where I’ve gone!

This year’s NASA Desert RATS exercise is taking place near Flagstaff, AZ. Here’s the view from inside one of the rovers after a traverse:

RATS is a program in which NASA engineers, scientists, and astronauts take prototype equipment into remote locations on Earth and practice the procedures and operations that they would use if they were actually on another planet. It’s an opportunity for the engineers to see what their creations are capable of, scientists to see how much work astronauts can get done and teach them basic skills like field geology, and the astronauts to get some experience using the equipment so they can provide feedback.

Not only is RATS showing off the best capabilities of the most successful part of the Constellation Program – the Lunar Electric Rover Concept, or LERC – but they have gone to an especially cool site, a well-preserved but little-known cinder cone volcano known as SP Mountain! As that video played, I kept thinking to myself: “that looks familiar…” Here’s my view of SP and the lava flow coming out of the base of the mountain:

SP Cone
SP flow

When I was there, with a class of planetary geology grad students led by Cornell Mars scientist Jim Bell, I couldn’t help but picture the rugged a’a terrain of SP flow with astronauts picking their way along. What a tremendous place to practice exploration operations!

Grad students exploring the flow

The Ice Fracture Explorer

Europa, the second Galilean moon of Jupiter, has been my favorite planetary body for a long time. The reason I like Europa so much is that it’s a world whose orbital dynamics with Jupiter, its orbital resonances with the other Galilean moons, and its own rigid-body dynamics have a strong hand in creating its surface features – and giving it the potential to harbor life. It’s one of perhaps two or three extraterrestrial places in the Solar System where we might hope to find life. Europa is also easier to get to than Enceladus or Titan. As such, I think it ought to be one of the highest-priority exploration targets for robotic space probes. (Human exploration would be nice, too, but if you think radiation exposure on the way to Mars is hard, you don’t even want to consider putting people in the Jovian system!)

Thanks to magnetometer measurements and images from the Galileo mission, it’s pretty much established at this point that Europa has an icy outer shell over a global liquid ocean, with a rocky core on the inside.* The only question is how thick that ice shell is – I’ve read estimates ranging from 10 meters to 100 kilometers, with a pretty high confidence of ones to tens of kilometers. The ice shell gives rise to a number of interesting surface features. A particularly cool sort of feature, found with global extent across Europa, is the double ridge.

A prominent double-ridge feature on Europa, most likely a crack in the icy shell

Planetary scientists have a number of models for how these double ridges form, and they generally seem to agree that the ridges mark the locations of cracks in the ice crust. One especially well-established model suggests that these cracks occur when Jupiter raises tides in Europa’s ocean – just like how the Moon raises tides in terrestrial oceans, but much stronger, because Jupiter is frakking huge compared to Earth’s moon. Europa’s ice crust bulges out over the ocean’s tidal swell and then cracks under the incredible stress. (I like to take a moment to think about the mindbogglingness of that statement: the whole moon’s surface cracks. I’ve stood on a frozen pond when a crack pings through the foot or so of ice on top of the water – Just imagine standing on Europa when this happens!) Once a crack forms, the tides don’t go away. As Europa rotates, about once every three and a half Earth days, the tides periodically lever these cracks apart and squeeze them back together again. In this model, every time the cracks gape open the subsurface ocean gets exposed to space. The surface water boils and rapidly crusts over with ice, and when the cracks get smushed closed, all this ice gets crushed up and forced to the top and bottom of the crack, forming the ridges. The ridges appear in pairs because the crack opens up again after that. These double-ridge features are mounds of crushed ice flanking passages into Europa’s ocean!

Dr. Richard Greenberg is a planetary scientist who thinks that these cracks in the ice shell might be potential sites for life to take hold. Unlike the rest of the subsurface ocean, they get exposed to sunlight, which means that photosynthesis could take place. The periodic in-and-out forcing of the crack would also drive strong currents, which is another energy source Europan life could use. (Those aren’t the only energy sources: other possibilities include thermal gradients in the water, volcanic vents on the ocean floor, or even induction as Europa travels through the Jovian magnetic field.) Of course, that life would also have to adapt to the crack opening and closing once every 3 1/2 Earth days!

Europa's possible ice-fissure biosphere (from New Scientist; click for full article)

We do at least know, from the Galileo mission, that these cracks often have accompanying veneers of organic (e.g. carbon-based) molecules and salts splashed onto the ice surface. This is why the cracks appear as brown stripes in large-scale context images. The crack/veneer combination suggests that there are organic molecules and salts in the Europan ocean, and that those compounds get pumped to the surface through these cracks.

So, let’s take stock: Europa is the only extraterrestrial world with a global liquid water ocean, there is a definite possibility for life in that ocean, and these double-ridged cracks are a possible gateway into the alien biosphere.

Well, then, let’s go diving! Read on for my concept system architecture for an ambitious Europan ocean-exploring mission, which I call the Ice Fracture Explorer.

Continue reading The Ice Fracture Explorer

Planetary Geology: A Detective Game

…full of unsolved yet soluble mysteries!

Mysterious craters on Mars

I’m shamelessly bouncing all you readers over to the Bad Astronomy blog for this post, which is a great outline of the detective process that is planetary geology. It’s also a great illustration of how much context matters and how leaping to conclusions is…bad. AND it’s a good demonstration that, when there are several hypotheses in consideration, elements of each could be synthesized into the proper conclusion.

All things for us to keep in mind, in science and in everyday life!

(Also, way cool pictures that are reminders of TOTALLY AWESOME events in the past!)

Smoky Mountains Report

I spent the week of the Fourth of July with my girlfriend’s family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have driven through the southeastern United States twice, but never had a chance to get out of the car and look around much, so I was very happy to add a new area of the country to the places I’ve visited and go take a look at my 7th National Park. (Everglades, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, and Petrified Forest were the previous six.) We landed in Nashville Airport, made a valiant attempt to dodge all the country music, picked up our rental car, and then drove though the countryside for four hours before coming in to Gatlinburg, driving up a mountain, and arriving at her family’s swanky rental cabin. (I shall skip over describing the übercheesiness that is Gatlinburg itself.) An impressive view greeted us out the back porch…


They don’t call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing. It was pretty hazy most of the time I was there, so we got a lot of views of faded ridgelines marching off into the distance, covered by lush deciduous forests. Of course, as this was a family event, we spent most of our time in that cabin and generally had a great time. But my girlfriend and I managed to make two highly successful jaunts into Smoky Mountains NP.

The first was a bike around the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road. This loop starts at a visitor center an hour’s drive into the park and circumnavigates a flat expanse of farmland in the middle of the mountains. Even the drive in was fun – it reminded me quite a bit of the drive from my home to Williams on Rt. 2, on the part around the Mohawk Trail. Makes sense – the Berkshires and Appalachians formed in similar orogenies, though the scales were far different. Anyway, a farming community has existed in Cades Cove since the first settlers made it that far west and persists today. The loop road winds along what were – to an Ithaca biker – gentle hills and afforded us a lot of panoramic views as well as some brief visits to historic buildings. (The Park Service calls the Loop Road a “moderately difficult” bike. That was definitely on account of the condition of the rental bikes, and that they tell you not to use the front derailleur – I think the one on my girlfriend’s bike was actually disabled. Fortunately, I had my multitool….)

View from the Cades Cove Loop Road

There were quite a few panoramic views from the road. Cars and cyclists share the road, and despite the many pullouts, traffic was slow as the people in cars paused to take photos. I was happy to be a bit more mobile and flexible!

Cades Cove panorama

At the far end of the loop was another visitor center built near the old farming community’s mill – which looked very picturesque among all the trees! I had a fun time playing with the CDHK high-dynamic-range script on my little Canon point-and-shoot to get a picture of the half-shaded, half-sunlit mill building:

Cades Cove mill

Inside the mill, they sell corn meal ground at the site. Of course, we weren’t going to hump any of that out the remaining 5 miles on our clunker rental bikes! After pausing awhile for lunch – which gave us an opportunity to improve my blood sugar, the water level in our bottles, and the worst of the derailleur problems on our bikes – we set off again. I was most interested in the scenery of Cades Cove, as after seeing one or two of the historic old houses, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. However, there were still interesting historical tidbits to be had. Here’s a pretty cool grave we found in the cemetery around the Primitive Baptist Church:

Murdered by Rebs!

Our bike tour finished with a close encounter. On the way back, all the cars on the road suddenly jammed up, with occasional people pointing out of rolled-down windows. I cast a look off to one side and spotted a BEAR. I skidded to a stop, and it turned out to be a mother black bear with two cubs, rooting around in the shrubbery. They had warned us about bears at the visitor center, but I took those warning in the same way I take any warning about animals in parks – yeah, yeah, okay, if I see a bear I’ll be sure to keep that stuff in mind! Little did I know that they give these warning in the Smoky Mountains because you will probably run into bears. I took some grainy movies before they got too close for us to do anything but get back on the bikes and get going. We had no windows to roll up!

After the Cades Cove bike, we collapsed at the lodge. The next day, though, we were feeling intrepid enough to be looking at hikes in the park, and based on the description alone we picked out Chimney Tops trail. This was a big win.

Chimney Tops is a 2-mile trail to the summit of a mountain right next to LeConte Peak, the highest point in the park. The last mile of the two gets steeper and steeper, ending with a bare-rock climb. I, my girlfriend, and her cousin were very excited as we set off.

One of the first things to strike my about this hike was how lush everything was. I’m used to forests that consist large of trees and ground cover, like those in New England. Whenever I see a different forest ecosystem things seem a little funny to me. So far, the weirdest to me has been the ponderosa pine forest around the Grand Canyon, which consists of huge ponderosas and nothing else. Well, Smoky Mountains National Park is at the other extreme: solid green growing things from ground level up to the canopy.

Chimney Tops Trail

(Other great examples here and here.) We even managed to spot a Jordan’s Red-Cheeked Salamander in all that foliage – a salamander species found only in this National Park! Shortly thereafter, we almost had another encounter with a black bear, as we saw some fellow hikers hoof it down the trail to us and tell us that they were doubling back a bit to avoid a bear that had burst out of the undergrowth right in front of them. We didn’t see the bear – only some wet footprints a few minutes later.

Chimney Tops Trail reminded me a little bit of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park – though the climates, geology, and trails had plenty of differences, of course – in that it ends with hikers climbing out onto a spur of rock that sticks out into a valley. So, as the hike got steeper and steeper, eventually it turned into this!

Scaling the summit

Pausing at a convenient stopping point partway up those rocks, I turned to one side and snapped the following panorama, a preview of what we saw at the very top.

Panorama near the top

Finally, after a bit of exciting scrabbling, we got to wedge ourselves into some crevices at the top and have a good look around. Scenic! (Click to panoramify.)

Chimney Tops summit panorama

Have I mentioned that I love my little Canon SD1000, which fits in my pocket, has a nice panorama mode, and lets me take HDR photos with CHDK? In fact, the HDR tricks I’ve been playing with were wonderful up on Chimney Tops, because they let me combine exposures to get some good shots of the progressively faded mountain ridges staggering off into the distance over the near hills. One such example:

HDR of mountain ridges

And another, capturing the tip of the mountain spur forming the Chimney Tops:

HDR mountain rock spur

Under the shade of the trees it had been nice and cool, but as we came out onto the bare rocks it warmed up. As we snacked, sitting on the mountain, the sun was flirting with the edges of some clouds. Coupled with the haze and humidity, this meant that we got a pretty nice optics show of sunbeams blazing down on the distant mountains. I tried to capture some of that with my camera, too, but found it about as difficult as the one time I was in a position to photograph the aurora borealis. Still, I got a few nice images!

Smoky Mountain sunbeams

I even figured out how to postprocess the living heck out of one panorama to bring out the sunbeams without totally destroying the rest of the image. I quite like the result, below! You’ll want to click on this one.

Smoky Mountains sunbeams

Maybe next time, I’ll have to try and time that hike for sunset or sunrise!

After a good deal of gawking, it was time to head back. Of course, climbing up the rocks and climbing down the rocks are two different problems, and we were a bit slower picking our way down the steep surfaces. This is the best picture I got that gives a real sense of going down. Notice all the deformation in the tilted stratigraphy, with girlfriend and her cousin for scale. (The runner-up is this photo.)

Going down!

I’ve gotta say that the Smoky Mountains were definitely worth a visit, and I’d happily recommend Chimney Tops as a good morning or afternoon hike. I like hiking, and I like our National Parks, so I was happy for the chance to get to see another in an area of the country I haven’t been to.That’s one of the things I like best about the United States: we’ve got so much stuff within our borders, but everyone uses the same money, understands English, and follows the same road signs. And sometimes we even feel like protecting what we have, so we can go into these spectacular places!

Gatlinburg ridges at sunrise

See all my pictures on Picasa – I had fun tweaking them all on the plane back to Ithaca!