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Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Martian ocean, and Galactus's atom smasher....

Mars's Great Northern Ocean:

Above: An artists impression of the ancient Martian shoreline, seen from the aeroplane that you wouldn't have had to fly around ancient Mars in, because you wouldn't be born for billions of years. Courtesy of the Telegraph.
So, by now you might well have heard that astronomers using the European Southern Observatory have discovered evidence that Mars once had an ocean, billions of years ago, which bolsters the chances life having arisen there.

You'd expect a guy writing a blog called 'Ancient Solar System'  to devote pages and pages to that, but I'm not going to go to town on it, for two reasons: Firstly the rest of the astronomy world has done that for me. Secondly, the great northern ocean on Mars isn't a new idea. There've been hints for a long time that there was once an ocean there, like, well, the hugely suspicious depression surrounded by shoreline-like features.

Above: A relief map of Mars. Blue is lower, red is higher. Notice something anout the north and how abruptly the height changes? Yeah. Courtesy of ESA
It's been named the Oceanus Borealis, and the picture we've built up about it (if it really existed, because it's still just a well supported theory) is that it was probably ice covered for much of the year. As the climate on Mars shifted it seems to have become more and more acidic, probably due to pollution from the massive Martian volcanoes. Eventually the solar wind managed to blast most of the water away into space, leaving about 13% frozen into the Martian soil.Aside from improving the case for Oceanus Borealis, the most significant thing about this discovery is probably that it was made using telescopes, based here on Earth - it's often overlooked, how much good exploration can be done by using resources on the ground cleverly! If you'd like to know a bit more about Oceanus Borealis, then here, here, here, and here are a few good links to start with.

Instead of Mars I'm going to the other end of the spectrum in the search for life - not very small microbial life in the Martian ocean, but the chance of finding very big, very powerful, space faring civilisations - as slim as the chance of that might actually be, it's never been ruled out.

Let me explain: If, like me, you spend your free time looking through obscure scientific papers[1] you'll know that sometimes you come across an insane gem. An idea, or a plan for an experiment, that would make Ernst Blofeld drop his cat.

Above: The cat is clearly the brains of the operation
Usually these are found either in cosmology journals (the science of very very big things) or particle physics (the science or incredibly tiny things). Yesterday I found a paper with an idea that encompassed both, bought aliens into the mix, and contains the phrase "cosmic levels of radioactive waste". Ladies and gentlemen, I would be betraying my training as a scientist if I didn't tell you about this.

Galactus's atom smasher:

You have probably heard of the Large Hadron Collider? It's an experiment seventeen miles across, that is designed to push the laws of physics as close to breaking point as humanly possible - here's a video of Brian Cox explaining how -  he's good at that stuff:

Above: A quick run down on how the LHC works. Brian Cox makes it look simple. It's a wee bit more complex than that. Well, either it's more complex than that, or someone at CERN has figured out a way to make a lot of money. Courtesy of CERN. 

The basic idea is easy to get: Have you ever seen someone rub a balloon on their hair, and seen the electric field pick their hair up? A particle accelerator (like the LHC) works on the same principle, except the electric field is immensely stronger and the piece of hair is a tiny, tiny proton. The protons get pulled up to speeds so close to the speed of light that the weirdness of general relativity comes into play - things like time slowing down, particles getting more massive, and distance going all screwy are observable. The helpless protons are smashed, at this terrible speed, into things - another proton going the other way, a static heavy atomic nucleus, and on one occasion (so rumour at my old university has it) their staff cafeteria.

Above: The rumour goes that a faulty steering magnet diverted a fraction of the proton beam into the cafeteria building, which was discovered when a technician walked in there without turning his Geiger counter off and the thing made a noise like an enraged goat. It's just a rumour. If it were true it wouldn't be an accident, it'd be a mad scientist going : "I know what we need in here: Radiation!"  
The result is a micro-scale, ultra-ultra-ultra high speed, traffic accident -  and by looking at the wreckage with some of the most precise and sensitive equipment ever built, we can build up an idea of what these particles are made of, how they work, and what rules govern them. These fundamental discoveries lead to new theories, which eventually lead to new technologies, which give us things like MRI scanners, better communications, and faster computers.
The more detail you want to get, and the harder you push the laws of physics, the more speed you need. To get to the fundamental measurements of reality, the 'Planck distance' 'Planck time' and 'Planck energy', would need an accelerator of insane, gargantuan proportions.

Above: It'd need to be big, in the comic book 'evil demigod' sense of the word.... Ok, I was just looking for an excuse to bring this picture of Galactus into the mix. Courtesy of
This week a physicist called Brian Lacki, who works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton[3] has laid out a plan of how you'd build the ultimate atom smasher. And, even though mankind couldn't build one yet, he has a rather mind blowing point to his idea.

I'll give you a few highlights:
  • The power plant would, if it converted matter straight into energy, consume something like 100 times the weight of the Sun in fuel for every proton it accelerated.
  • The electric fields would be so crammed with energy they would spontaneously create new matter from seemingly empty space. Because of this only so much energy could be crammed into them, so...
  • a minimum the accelerator would be thousands of times bigger than the distance from the Earth to the Sun - bigger than our entire solar system.
  • Even with the electric fields that spread out, the energy density of the device would be so high it would be right on the edge of collapsing in on itself and becoming a black hole.
  • In fact, controlled black holes might be used in the design.
  • Magnetars, neutron stars so highly magnetised they polarise space itself and make atoms become tube shaped, would also be used in the construction.
  • Not to mention that the detectors used to measure the wreckage of these terrible Planck-energy protons hittng each other would get very, very, radioactive, real quick - the amounts of radioactive waste produced as burnt out, irradiated, particle detectors are described as 'cosmic' by the author, and we can leave it at that.
Now, as you might guess, we are not anywhere close to building such a monster. It would take centuries for our fastest spacecraft to travel from one side of the damn thing to the other. So is this just a case of a brilliant, bored, scientist crunching the numbers for a pointless design that could never be built?


Lacki turns his whole (already bonkers) idea on its head, and brings in space aliens: We wouldn't be able to build one of these for millenia, if ever. It's engineering on a cosmic scale. But the universe is vast, billions of years old, and we know that a habitable planet like Earth can produce trillions of species for billions of years. So, the odds suggest, it's possible there are other civilisations out there much older than us, but with the same basic need to advance their science and technology - perhaps with their own versions of the LHC.

Above: This is a visualisation of what happens in the bit of the LHC where things smash into each other at nearly lightspeed.  I don't understand it either.
They might have built one of Lacki's Galactus sized accelerators - as mad as that sounds. If they do exist then they probably would need machines at least a little like ours to advance their understanding of the universe. And, if they have built one like Lacki envisions, we might just be able to track it.

Above: What Brian Lacki has planned makes the LHC  look puny. Puny I tell you!!! Courtesy of CERN
How? Even Lacki's monster accelerator would be lost against the background of the universe to normal telescopes. But a Galactus sized accelerator would put out a specific and recognisable signature of neutrinos. Normally neutrinos are ultra lightweight particles that pass through normal matter like ghosts, but these neutrinos would have an immense momentum, and they would produce recognisable effects on things they hit[4]: On hitting the Moon they would produce a radio wave pulse that could be detected by radio telescopes, and hitting the Earth's ocean they would produce a distinct 10 kHz shockwave that sonar could pick up. Those are probably Lacki's most do-able methods of looking for his cosmic monster, and to be fair to him these are big, but not impossible, projects that SETI might genuinely want to try one day. Others include seeding the mostly unexplored Kuiper belt with detectors, or the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Above: An active galaxy blazes with power, as a black hole near its core consumes tars and gas. Would we be able to tell one of these apart from Lacki's monster accelerator? Courtesy of Cornell university
If evidence of particles from space with these incredible energies were detected it wouldn't be instant evidence for demi god aliens, but it would be evidence that there were some incredibly powerful forces out there we hadn't expected. And, who knows? It might just be first contact of the most humbling kind imaginable.

Elsewhere in the Universe:

Hyper-hyper velocity star:
If intelligent creatures might, one day, built engines of terrible power then mother nature is already doing so: This week a star was found travelling through space at 1200 km a second - that's 40 times faster than our fastest spaceship, and getting on for the kinds of speeds a starship would need. A whole star doing that sort of speed is unthinkable - it got this way, it seems, when it was caught in the blast of a supernova.

NASA plans crewed commercial-space demo missions:
The 'newspace' companies like SpaceX have been working for a chance to show they can sent people, as well as cargo, to a destination in space for a while now. NASA is now planning to put slots into the launch schedule for the ISS that will give them their chance.

Dawn pulls into orbit around Ceres:
The Dawn mission becomes the first craft to orbit two worlds - first the asteroid Vesta now the dwarf planet Ceres.

Elsewhere on the internet:

Why we should return to Venus
Unravelling the magnetism of Uranus and Neptune
Mapping an asteroid with radar
Neutrinos, what we still don't know.
SETI - how the search continues
Hubble sees in UV
Organisation to promote better space travel launched

[1]I'm not expecting there to be a lot of you[2]
[2] I'm so alone.
[3] When an 'Institute of Advanced Studies' has an address of 'Einstein drive' you don't ask 'advanced study of what?' You don't want to offend someone and come home to find a black hole has swallowed your house.
[4] Most of the energy would be dispersed by the scattering subatomic debris. Otherwise the recognisable effect would be things exploding for no obvious reason.

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