Across the Universe: Song of Praise
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2016 When Pope Francis issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Sì, the Italian publishing house Elledici took the moment to reissue a book written in the 1960s by the Italian scientist Enrico Medi: Canitco di Frate Sole, a meditation on the Franciscan poem that gave Pope Francis his title. At that time, they asked me as the “Pope’s astronomer” to write an introduction for the book. On first anniversary of the Pope’s encyclical, in 2016, I was invited to Medi’s home town of Senigalia, on the Adriatic coast, to celebrate the publication of this book. I’d never heard of Medi; but I discovered that he was the spokesperson of his generation in Italy on faith and science. Reading his words, even with my poor Italian, I can see why. For example, in one chapter Medi begins with our scientific understanding of water as a marvelous molecule, but he arrives at finding in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Spotting Ceres
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2015 Ceres was the first body found in the region between Mars and Jupiter now called the Asteroid Belt. In the late 1700s Titius and Bode had noted a pattern in planet positions that suggested there should be a planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter; on New Year’s Day of 1801, Father Giuseppi Piazzi found Ceres from his observatory in Sicily. They expected a planet, so that’s what they called Ceres – though William Herschel, who had just discovered the gas giant Uranus, sniffed that such a tiny dot of light was neither planet nor star (Latin, “aster”) but a mere “asteroid.” Only fifty years later, when a number of other such small bodies had been found, did Ceres and the other asteroids get “demoted” to the status of “minor planet.” (And later work showed that the Titius-Bode pattern which predicted a planet at Ceres’ position was actually just … Continue reading

Curiosity Rover Examines Possible Mud Cracks Preserved in Martian Rock
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I saw this image and immediately thought: dried mud; then I saw where the image came from: the Curiosity Rover on Mars! Reports of water having once flowed in Mars’ ancient past, currently flowing seasonally, and as sub-surface ices have been numerous over the past few years. On Earth, “where there’s water, there’s life;” and water has been found everywhere in the solar system. The Mars 2020 rover will have scientific instruments used to search for signs of past life on the red planet. From JPL Press Release 2017-009: Scientists used NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in recent weeks to examine slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Curiosity science team member Nathan Stein. He is a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, who led the investigation of a site called “Old Soaker,” on lower Mount Sharp, Mars. If this interpretation holds up, these would be … Continue reading

Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2009 “Where’s the kaboom?” asked my friend, imitating the whiny voice of the cartoon character Marvin the Martian. “There was supposed to be a Moon-shattering kaboom!” We were watching live television coverage of NASA’s LCROSS lunar orbiter impacting into a dark crater on the Moon. The idea was that water ice might be hidden in the shadows of craters like this one, set in a region of the Moon’s south pole where sunshine never reaches. Water vapor from all the comets that have hit the Moon over the last four billion years might be trapped and frozen there. By slamming a rocket into those shadows, a giant plume of rock and ice would be lifted out of the shadows and into the view of the nearby spacecraft, and telescopes on Earth. Or so proclaimed the hyperactive NASA press office. In fact, at the impact, only a faint infrared blip was visible in the spacecraft images. … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
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This column first ran in The Tablet in August, 2008 A friend has a home on the western shore of Lake Huron, with a glorious view of the lake from her living room window. She tells how once she showed the sunrise over the lake through that window to her visiting four year old grandson. The boy took in the colorful display with rapt amazement. The next morning, she heard a shout from the living room. “Come quick, grandma!” cried the little boy. “It’s doing it again!” The [2008] discovery by the Phoenix spacecraft of ice in the Martian soil had all the inevitability of the sun rising yet again. But the scientists who found it were just as thrilled as that four year old boy. For thirty [now going on 40!] years we’ve known there must have been water on Mars. The spacecraft that orbited the planet in the 1970s sent back images of dried up river beds. (But were … Continue reading

Water Flows on Present Day Mars
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I must say, the announcement by NASA that there is flowing water on the planet Mars didn’t really come as much of a surprise… more like “finally!” But it is a very exciting finding. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary society once commented about her hesitation to write yet another story about “more evidence for water on ancient Mars.” When the Curiosity rover started doing science operations, more and more evidence of water having one flowed on the surface of Mars kept being discovered. And then, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of streaks on the side of several slopes and crater walls. These streaks disappeared after a time, and then reappeared – seasonally. In the press release below, a Mars scientist mentions that the BIG advantage to having a probe in orbit around other solar system bodies is that you can observe changes over time. i.e.: Cassini, LandSat, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Dawn etc… I could not agree more. I … Continue reading

Water, Water Everywhere
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As NASA missions explore our solar system and search for new worlds, they are finding water in surprising places. Water is but one piece of our search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth, yet it links many seemingly unrelated worlds in surprising ways. “NASA science activities have provided a wave of amazing findings related to water in recent years that inspire us to continue investigating our origins and the fascinating possibilities for other worlds, and life, in the universe,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for the agency. “In our lifetime, we may very well finally answer whether we are alone in the solar system and beyond.” The chemical elements in water, hydrogen and oxygen, are some of the most abundant elements in the universe. Astronomers see the signature of water in giant molecular clouds between the stars, in disks of material that represent newborn planetary systems, and in the atmospheres of giant planets orbiting other stars. There are several … Continue reading