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Mars Shaking and Puffing
CHAPTER 105 From Mars to Manhattan
As one can hardly not be aware with all the publicity, this month marks the 50th anniversary of "... one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Since that epic step onto the surface of our moon, our space travelers (human and nonhuman) and our telescopes have opened the universe to us. We have discovered thousands of planets outside our own solar system, some of which conceivably might harbor some form of life. We have not ruled out the possibility of life on Mars or on moons of other planets in our own solar system. We have "seen" a black hole and "heard" or "felt" the waves in spacetime resulting from collisions of heavenly bodies that took place millions or billions of years ago, confirming some things Einstein predicted a century ago.
Of course the quest to find life on Mars has been a dream of space enthusiasts for many years but now the beginnings of more or less serious efforts are being talked about and may be under way. I was watching my favorite TV program, Sunday Morning on CBS, a couple weeks ago, when one guest was Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, whose business is launching cargo, satellites and, soon, people into space for its customers: governments, communications companies, and NASA., Elon Musk is her boss and he apparently hopes to live on Mars someday. We all know he dreams big when he dreams. "You want a backup planet; you want a backup strategy, maybe a couple of backup strategies. The moon could be one, Mars could be one," said Gwynne Shotwell on the program, "I think we'll get to Mars. I think we'll do it within the next decade for sure." If they managed to get someone to Mars and back alive, I would consider it mankind's greatest achievement, ever. If in ten years, if in ten years, it's truly a miracle!
If someone does ever get to Mars, it will have to be someone who has the stamina and courage of astronaut Scott Kelly, who was interviewed by Jim Daley for a very brief piece in the July issue of Scientific American. You will know that Scott Kelly recently completed 340 days on the International Space Station in a unique experiment in which his physical and mental characteristics were compared with those of his identical twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark Kelly back here on Earth at the same time. Asked about the most difficult physical challenges he faced, Scott said initially it was the "headward fluid shift". In the microgravity environment, blood and bodily fluids tend to collect in the head. Kelly said that, although he got used to the problem there was always a feeling of pressure.
I was surprised by another problem that bothered Kelly while in orbit - a larger than normal concentration of carbon dioxide. For some reason, in the space station the normal operating levels of carbon dioxide range from a low of about ten times up to a high of thirty times that on Earth. The high levels of CO2 burned Kelly's eyes and he said he could tell the level of the gas without checking the measurements of the instruments on the space station.
After returning to Earth, one of the initial effects seems to be the reverse of the fluid going to the head effect. Blood and fluid wants to pool in the legs, an effect that lasted for weeks on return from space. When he would stand up, his legs would swell up "like water balloons." Kelly has now completed missions of 7, 13,154 and 340 days in space and he says that the longer you're out there the more "symptomatic" you are when you return. He can't imagine anyone returning to Earth after being out in space for many years. Two areas he says will need tended to before any truly long term space mission are artificial gravity and the radiation problem. I worry about more prosaic problems like feeding the astronauts. Uber?
Meanwhile, let's turn to what's going on Mars these days. Some time ago I mentioned that NASA had placed its InSight lander on Mars and that the main objective of this mission was to find out something about the internal structure of Mars by detecting Marsquakes. It turns out that in April a very faint disturbance was picked up by the lander's seismometer and indications are that this was indeed a Marsquake. If you go to the NASA web site you can listen to the wind blowing on Mars and the much fainter quake. While the signal is so faint that nothing can be deduced about the internal structure of Mars, at least we can be pretty sure that Mars is seismically active. I don't know if what you hear on the site is the same sound of the wind you would hear if you were on Mars but whatever it is, I'm impressed.
As with most big scientific ventures these days, this InSight project has involved a multinational team. Various instruments and components on InSight were supplied by scientific agencies or universities in France, the UK, Germany, Poland, Spain and Switzerland. As I've often speculated, wouldn't it be great if the world's politicians could work together in such harmony. Dealing with climate change cries out for such a worldwide effort.
It turns out that Mars is not only shaking a wee bit, it's also puffing. The Curiosity rover recently detected a plume of methane in the 21 parts per billion range, the largest burst of methane detected to date on Mars. Over the years, a seasonal variation in the level of methane has been recorded, with transient bursts of the gas. The level of methane is now back to the more normal background level of about a part per billion. While Curiosity is sniffing the atmosphere at the surface of Mars the European Space Agency's Trace Gas Orbiter has failed so far to detect any methane up in orbit. Of course, the interest in these methane bursts is spurred by the possibility that they could be due to some form of life. Much less exciting, but probably more likely, is that the methane comes from a chemical reaction such as one involving water and rock of some kind.
Turning to something more down to earth, the July/August 2019 issue of Discover magazine has a bunch of articles with the general title Everything Worth Knowing about a specific topic. Topics include such things as the Moon, Monkeys, Absolute Zero, Pulsars, Hurricanes, the Periodic Table, etc. A host of interesting subjects are covered but, surprisingly to me, I was most intrigued by the subject of boiling water, more specifically, Steam Power. It turns out that no matter what the fuel - coal, gas, oil or uranium - it's used to simply boil water, making steam at a high pressure to drive turbine blades to generate electricity. In a Discover article by Tim Folger on the subject, he calls New York The Steam City. Not only does steam drive the generation of electrical power but an extensive network of over a hundred miles of piping carries steam throughout Manhattan for heating, cooling and other purposes.
I was surprised to learn that one power plant in Manhattan's East Village supplies half the city's steam and that this plant has nine boilers, four of which are huge - 10 stories tall! At peak use Con Edison has five power plants boiling over a million gallons of water an hour! The article notes that without the steam power Manhattan's would be a city with its buildings sprouting smokestacks remindful of London back in the early days of the Industrial revolution. Having gone to the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1946-1950 period, I can visualize quite clearly what London must have been like, with days when it would be dark at noon and not due to clouds or fog. I was there in 1948 when nearby Donora had a terrible smog that killed some 20 people and thousands were taken ill. The Donora event made national headlines and helped spur the clean air movement. Back to New York, the power system suffered a severe blow of a different kind some years ago when Superstorm Sandy visited our region and flooding resulted in making it necessary to elevate some of those huge boilers anticipating future hurricanes and elevated sea levels. On a personal level, as of couple of weeks ago, the Bortrum household now has a power generator installed that should ensure we too have power if another Sandy passes through.
Next column around August 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum