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06/25/2018

Peggy (retired) and Curiosity (still working)

 CHAPTER 93  Exceptional Space Travelers - Human and Otherwise  

 

If I asked you the question "Who is Peggy Whitson?", I'm betting that you would not know the answer.    Unless, unlike me, you had seen the last episode of the TV program "One Strange Rock" on the National Geographic channel.  As one who is obsessed with anything to do with space, I'm ashamed to say that when I came across an interview with her by Corey Powell on the Discover Web site I had no idea who she was.  (Note: I started this column before Peggy Whitson's retirement generated some coverage in the media.) Whitson is only the woman who has spent more time in space, 665 days on the International Space Station (ISS), than any other American astronaut of any gender.  She also holds the record of 289 days for a woman on a single space flight on the ISS and has ten space walks to her credit.  To be fair, Whitson is surpassed in cumulative time in space by seven Russian/USSR astronauts, most of whom spent time on the space station Mir, which preceded the International Space Station in orbit.  Wikipedia cites Gennady Padaika as holding the cumulative time in space record of 878.48 days.

 After reading the interview with Whitson, I did watch the last episode of "One Strange Rock" and now plan belatedly to watch other episodes in the series.  The program likened Whitson's life to that of the monarch butterfly, which is transformed from an earthbound caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly that flies above the earth great distances from as far away as Canada down to Mexico.  (For more on the monarch butterfly see my column of 1/3/2014, which also refers to Curiosity, which at that time had not discovered any methane on Mars!  See below.)  Whitson grew up in a small farming town in Iowa with a population of less than 40 people and was transformed into an astronaut flying and living in an abode some 250 miles above Earth for almost two years of her life.  For me, the most touching moments of the show were in a segment showing her parents out in a field in Iowa at night watching a "star" float across the sky, the star being the space station with their daughter on board.  I can't imagine the pride those parents must have in their Peggy. 

 In the interview with Whitson on the Discover site, she was asked about the problems facing a mission to Mars, i.e., what are the next big challenges for an extended space mission?  Whitson first pointed out radiation as a major challenge.  Out there on the way to Mars there's no Earth's magnetic field to fend off radiation.  One way to minimize radiation damage to the astronauts is to shorten the time spent in traveling to MARs and Whitson suggests using nuclear propulsion to drive the spacecraft faster to and from Mars.  Once on Mars, radiation would have to be minimized by measures such as the astronauts' habitat being partially or fully underground. 

 A closed loop life support system is crucial for such a long journey.  Specifically, water management is key in that you can't afford to lose much of it.  Right now, Whitson says the efficiency is some 85% when it comes to water conservation but that figure is not high enough for a multiyear trip to Mars and back.  Hopefully, once on Mars there is enough water in some form to supply the needs on Mars and maybe replenish water needed for the journey home.  What about the psychological challenges on a trip to Mars?  While Whitson did not consider psychology to be a show-stopper, she did acknowledge that factors such as just losing sight of Earth outside the spacecraft window would be a challenge until Mars as a destination came into view.  Also, the loss of real time communication would be a psychological problem because of the time delay factor over such long distances.  A possible approach would be to go to some sort of texting format.

 Whitson was asked where she would like to go if adequate life support and propulsion systems were available.  I was happy to see that her reply was that Mars is interesting but Europa would be her choice because of the possibility of life there.  She was glad that NASA is planning to send a probe to that moon, pointing out that probes were sent to our moon and to Mars before attempting any manned missions. 

 Mars itself became a tad more interesting with a couple of recent findings published in Science from two of NASA's missions to that planet.  Back in January this year pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed bluish layers of ice in scarps exposed in cliffs on Mars.  The existence of substantial amounts of water ice underground on Mars has been known for some time.  The exposure of these layers of ice near the surface in mid latitudes offers hope that there will be water sources in regions of Mars warm enough for astronauts to exist and work. 

 In the June 8 issue of Science, two papers report on results obtained from the intrepid Curiosity rover that has been traveling around on the surface of Mars digging up stuff and analyzing it.  Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 with a planned mission life of 2 years but, almost 6 years later, it's still plugging away.  It has also been detecting and analyzing levels of methane on a continuing basis.  One advantage of its extended working life is that the methane levels have been shown to go up and down on a seasonal basis, the levels peaking at the end of the Martian summer.  Here on Earth methane emissions are largely biological in origin, cow farts, for example.  However, there are many other possible sources unrelated to any form of life process.  

 The other paper in the June 8 issue of Science generated headlines in the news media concerning the possibility of life on Mars.  Curiosity was not only sniffing the atmosphere for methane but also was looking at the chemistry of the stuff it was digging up from an ancient lakebed in Gale Crater.  What Curiosity found was that there was a good bit of organic chemistry going on.  Hence the recent headlines citing the finding of chemicals on Mars that could (emphasize could) be involved if there is/was life on that planet.  I won't mention the names of the chemicals, not remembering my organic chemistry sufficiently to make any meaningful comments on any of them.  At 90 years old, I hold out little hope that I will be around to hear of any firm detection of life on any planet or moon in any solar system.  I can only hope that one day Curiosity might scoop up some Martian soil and find a bug of some sort scurrying away.

 I just came back from accompanying my wife and our aide to the beauty shop, where I was reading my copy of the June 1 issue of Science and what should I find but a brief news item about Curiosity's drill.  It seems that Curiosity's drill had not been functional since December of 2016.  Until that time the procedure involved stabilizing the drill against its target before drilling.  Now the Curiosity team has developed a technique that involves ignoring stabilization and just using the robotic arm on which the drill is located to bash the drill into the rock.  In May of this year this approach was used to penetrate 50 millimeters (a couple of inches) into a rock in a clay-rich formation.  Now, of course, I'm wondering if this new approach to drilling is what led to the discovery of those chemicals discussed in the preceding paragraph.

 Finally, just for the record, after discussing my hallucinatory experiences in and out of medical facilities in last month's column (see archives), I thought I would mention additional stuff that's happened since posting that column.  One morning a few days after returning home from rehab, I was sitting at the breakfast table about to eat my cereal, when the world started to go round very powerfully and I ended up with the table on top of me.  I did not pass out but came out of it finding myself still seated with my arms on the table, which obviously had not moved.  The rescue squad came and all my vitals were perfectly normal and I opted not to be taken to the hospital.  A visit to a neurologist resulted in an EEG of my brain that showed nothing abnormal.  However, she agreed with my feeling that perhaps I should not be driving.  Obviously, should I have had that hallucinatory experience while driving, severe injuries or worse to me or others could have been the result.  As for my Charles Bonnet syndrome, or whatever it is, as I'm typing this my monitor screen is filled with a background of red lines forming a complex pattern of geometrical forms.  My neurologist seemed comfortable with my description of the persistent background pattern as Charles Bonnet but my ophthalmologist rejected the Bonnet idea because I'm not blind!  He just called it hallucinations.  Whatever, I've got it, that same red line pattern present at times even at night with eyes closed. 

 Hopefully, the next column will be posted on or about August 1. 

 Allen F. Bortrum



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Dr. Bortrum

06/25/2018

Peggy (retired) and Curiosity (still working)

 CHAPTER 93  Exceptional Space Travelers - Human and Otherwise  

 

If I asked you the question "Who is Peggy Whitson?", I'm betting that you would not know the answer.    Unless, unlike me, you had seen the last episode of the TV program "One Strange Rock" on the National Geographic channel.  As one who is obsessed with anything to do with space, I'm ashamed to say that when I came across an interview with her by Corey Powell on the Discover Web site I had no idea who she was.  (Note: I started this column before Peggy Whitson's retirement generated some coverage in the media.) Whitson is only the woman who has spent more time in space, 665 days on the International Space Station (ISS), than any other American astronaut of any gender.  She also holds the record of 289 days for a woman on a single space flight on the ISS and has ten space walks to her credit.  To be fair, Whitson is surpassed in cumulative time in space by seven Russian/USSR astronauts, most of whom spent time on the space station Mir, which preceded the International Space Station in orbit.  Wikipedia cites Gennady Padaika as holding the cumulative time in space record of 878.48 days.

 After reading the interview with Whitson, I did watch the last episode of "One Strange Rock" and now plan belatedly to watch other episodes in the series.  The program likened Whitson's life to that of the monarch butterfly, which is transformed from an earthbound caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly that flies above the earth great distances from as far away as Canada down to Mexico.  (For more on the monarch butterfly see my column of 1/3/2014, which also refers to Curiosity, which at that time had not discovered any methane on Mars!  See below.)  Whitson grew up in a small farming town in Iowa with a population of less than 40 people and was transformed into an astronaut flying and living in an abode some 250 miles above Earth for almost two years of her life.  For me, the most touching moments of the show were in a segment showing her parents out in a field in Iowa at night watching a "star" float across the sky, the star being the space station with their daughter on board.  I can't imagine the pride those parents must have in their Peggy. 

 In the interview with Whitson on the Discover site, she was asked about the problems facing a mission to Mars, i.e., what are the next big challenges for an extended space mission?  Whitson first pointed out radiation as a major challenge.  Out there on the way to Mars there's no Earth's magnetic field to fend off radiation.  One way to minimize radiation damage to the astronauts is to shorten the time spent in traveling to MARs and Whitson suggests using nuclear propulsion to drive the spacecraft faster to and from Mars.  Once on Mars, radiation would have to be minimized by measures such as the astronauts' habitat being partially or fully underground. 

 A closed loop life support system is crucial for such a long journey.  Specifically, water management is key in that you can't afford to lose much of it.  Right now, Whitson says the efficiency is some 85% when it comes to water conservation but that figure is not high enough for a multiyear trip to Mars and back.  Hopefully, once on Mars there is enough water in some form to supply the needs on Mars and maybe replenish water needed for the journey home.  What about the psychological challenges on a trip to Mars?  While Whitson did not consider psychology to be a show-stopper, she did acknowledge that factors such as just losing sight of Earth outside the spacecraft window would be a challenge until Mars as a destination came into view.  Also, the loss of real time communication would be a psychological problem because of the time delay factor over such long distances.  A possible approach would be to go to some sort of texting format.

 Whitson was asked where she would like to go if adequate life support and propulsion systems were available.  I was happy to see that her reply was that Mars is interesting but Europa would be her choice because of the possibility of life there.  She was glad that NASA is planning to send a probe to that moon, pointing out that probes were sent to our moon and to Mars before attempting any manned missions. 

 Mars itself became a tad more interesting with a couple of recent findings published in Science from two of NASA's missions to that planet.  Back in January this year pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed bluish layers of ice in scarps exposed in cliffs on Mars.  The existence of substantial amounts of water ice underground on Mars has been known for some time.  The exposure of these layers of ice near the surface in mid latitudes offers hope that there will be water sources in regions of Mars warm enough for astronauts to exist and work. 

 In the June 8 issue of Science, two papers report on results obtained from the intrepid Curiosity rover that has been traveling around on the surface of Mars digging up stuff and analyzing it.  Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 with a planned mission life of 2 years but, almost 6 years later, it's still plugging away.  It has also been detecting and analyzing levels of methane on a continuing basis.  One advantage of its extended working life is that the methane levels have been shown to go up and down on a seasonal basis, the levels peaking at the end of the Martian summer.  Here on Earth methane emissions are largely biological in origin, cow farts, for example.  However, there are many other possible sources unrelated to any form of life process.  

 The other paper in the June 8 issue of Science generated headlines in the news media concerning the possibility of life on Mars.  Curiosity was not only sniffing the atmosphere for methane but also was looking at the chemistry of the stuff it was digging up from an ancient lakebed in Gale Crater.  What Curiosity found was that there was a good bit of organic chemistry going on.  Hence the recent headlines citing the finding of chemicals on Mars that could (emphasize could) be involved if there is/was life on that planet.  I won't mention the names of the chemicals, not remembering my organic chemistry sufficiently to make any meaningful comments on any of them.  At 90 years old, I hold out little hope that I will be around to hear of any firm detection of life on any planet or moon in any solar system.  I can only hope that one day Curiosity might scoop up some Martian soil and find a bug of some sort scurrying away.

 I just came back from accompanying my wife and our aide to the beauty shop, where I was reading my copy of the June 1 issue of Science and what should I find but a brief news item about Curiosity's drill.  It seems that Curiosity's drill had not been functional since December of 2016.  Until that time the procedure involved stabilizing the drill against its target before drilling.  Now the Curiosity team has developed a technique that involves ignoring stabilization and just using the robotic arm on which the drill is located to bash the drill into the rock.  In May of this year this approach was used to penetrate 50 millimeters (a couple of inches) into a rock in a clay-rich formation.  Now, of course, I'm wondering if this new approach to drilling is what led to the discovery of those chemicals discussed in the preceding paragraph.

 Finally, just for the record, after discussing my hallucinatory experiences in and out of medical facilities in last month's column (see archives), I thought I would mention additional stuff that's happened since posting that column.  One morning a few days after returning home from rehab, I was sitting at the breakfast table about to eat my cereal, when the world started to go round very powerfully and I ended up with the table on top of me.  I did not pass out but came out of it finding myself still seated with my arms on the table, which obviously had not moved.  The rescue squad came and all my vitals were perfectly normal and I opted not to be taken to the hospital.  A visit to a neurologist resulted in an EEG of my brain that showed nothing abnormal.  However, she agreed with my feeling that perhaps I should not be driving.  Obviously, should I have had that hallucinatory experience while driving, severe injuries or worse to me or others could have been the result.  As for my Charles Bonnet syndrome, or whatever it is, as I'm typing this my monitor screen is filled with a background of red lines forming a complex pattern of geometrical forms.  My neurologist seemed comfortable with my description of the persistent background pattern as Charles Bonnet but my ophthalmologist rejected the Bonnet idea because I'm not blind!  He just called it hallucinations.  Whatever, I've got it, that same red line pattern present at times even at night with eyes closed. 

 Hopefully, the next column will be posted on or about August 1. 

 Allen F. Bortrum